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Russia-Ukraine War: Lessons For India in 'Atmanirbharta'

The biggest takeaway for us is that when the chips are down, you have to be prepared to fight your battles alone.

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A fortnight into the war, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has agreed not to press for admission into NATO as it is extracting a terrible cost from its people. He has also agreed to discuss the future of the Donbas region. The two main objectives for which Russia launched the war have been addressed. It is time that a ceasefire is pressed for by all the stakeholders, without holding back to prove a point or gain some seen or unseen advantage.

Away from the objectives of the war, the agendas of those participating by extending material or moral support, the hidden agendas of interested stakeholders (and the stakes are really quite high, even to the extent of changing the world order), let us analyse the operational aspects of war. The military dimension does have some perplexing aspects that should be uncovered with the passage of time.

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Operational Friction or Logistics? Or Both?

Why was the mighty Russian army not able to achieve their objectives swiftly against a qualitatively and quantitatively inferior Ukrainian Army? A major reason is their expectation that Russian-speaking people in Ukraine would rise up in revolt. That did not happen, pretty much like it did not happen in Operation Gibraltar launched by Pakistan in 1965, when they expected Kashmiris to rise in revolt against India and were disappointed. But is that all?

The mighty Russian army, in the initial days, could not advance fast enough. Was it due to operational friction or logistics, or both? The level of training and the combat experience of the invading army seemed questionable. The 41st Army Group is conducting these operations in 40-odd Battalion groups totalling over 1,20,000 troops, which is a wise decision, given the urban battleground, but they seemed to have spread themselves rather thin. Three major fronts were opened up and more than 15 cities have been addressed or invested. The three major fronts are Kyiv in the North, Kharkiv in the East and the coastal region towns of Mariupol, Melitopol, Mykolaiv and Odessa in the Black Sea region in the South. An amphibious attack seems to have been planned for Odessa.

They might have done well to apply the main thrust at Kyiv since the capital city seems to be their identified centre of gravity, rightly so, just like Dacca was identified as ours in the 1971 Indo-Pak war.

This main push could be complemented by subsidiary thrusts to tie down the Ukrainian army in Kharkiv and towns in the Luhansk region, Mariupol and Kherson. This would tie down the defender at multiple locations and deny them opportunities to switch forces.

Alternatively, Russia could have focused on the Black Sea in the South and taken Odessa, deny Ukraine access to the sea and possibly create a corridor to link up with Crimea.

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Why Didn't Russia Employ its Air Force?

Russia did not employ its Air Force in any significant manner, perhaps not to cause widespread destruction on a country it hopes to govern by proxy. In the Kargil conflict, we, too, restricted the employment of our Air Force by not allowing them to cross the LoC, and we realised the importance of airpower in war-winning effort.

The over-60-km-long convoy stuck on the highway to Kyiv for days points towards a number of possible reasons for the holdup, including the absence of threat from Ukrainian airstrikes.

Another major factor is the morale, or 'josh', in which, to my mind, both the armies have a wide gap. The Ukrainians dug down to defend their country with a steely resolve, whereas Russian soldiers had come in initially as a peacekeeping force, disseminating their plans only on a need-to-know basis.

If Russians manage to install a friendly regime, the Ukrainians are likely to continue the resistance. Fighting an insurgency is a long-drawn battle, as examples of Vietnam and Afghanistan have taught us. Urban combat or fighting in built-up areas is a great equaliser. A determined defender can effectively hold up a larger force for long durations as it requires clearing the town house by house, street by street. Kyiv is divided into two parts by River Dnieper, making urban fighting even more difficult.

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Why India's Nuanced Position Is in National Interest

India took a nuanced position and tread a judicious path as far as criticising the Russian invasion is concerned, but it stopped short of supporting sanctions against Russia. It was in our national interest to take this position rather than rush headlong into the American camp. Our strategic relations with them are in the Indo-Pacific and not in Europe.

India has two unresolved borders with nuclear countries and a history of wars and conflicts with them.

The biggest takeaway for us is that when the chips are down, you have to be prepared to fight your battles alone. The US may be a strategic ally and Russia a trusted partner, but no one will fight our battles with China if we are pushed to it.

We can expect some material support and more condemnation in global fora, Russia might return the favour by abstaining to vote at the UN, but little else. They will also be busy rebuilding their economy after this war and consequent sanctions.

Future wars will be also fought by indigenous weapons and equipment. We have to, therefore, make ourselves self-reliant. Atmanirbharta (self-reliance) in defence requirements is the need of the hour. Several initiatives in the recent past, such as reserving 68 per cent of the capital budget for the domestic sector and allocating 25 per cent of the R&D budget for private players, in addition to the corporatisation of the ordnance factories and other incentives to the private sector, are steps in the right direction. We must persevere.

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Developing Information Warfare

Another dimension was the component of information war, in which Ukraine has had better success, primarily because of help from the West and major social media platforms restricting Russia from exploiting their platforms. This brings home an important lesson for us. Not only do we need to improve our information warfare capabilities and break down the silos, but there is also a need to enhance reliance on indigenous systems and India-based servers and routers.

An important lesson is the successful use of technology in employing drones, loitering ammunition, stinger man-portable missiles, and more. We need to invest more in high technology. Apportioning 25 per cent of the R&D budget for private players and academia is the right thing to do, very much like the DARPA model of the US.

But the mother of all lessons is that there is nothing more important than national interest. India displayed her positive credentials with both Russia and Ukraine while conducting a determined operation to evacuate its citizens from the war-torn country. India must continue to exercise strategic autonomy. We must also make ourselves self-reliant and progressive. An 'Atmanirbhar Bharat', as envisioned by Prime Minister Modi, is the only answer if we are to attain our rightful place in the emerging world order.

(Lt General Satish Dua is a former Corps Commander in Kashmir, who retired as Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. Views expressed are personal. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Russia   Ukraine   Russia-Ukraine Crisis 

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