Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Last Update : 11:32 PM IST

  Opinion   Columnists  23 Feb 2023  Syed Ata Hasnain | 1 yr of Ukraine war: No victor, no vanquished…

Syed Ata Hasnain | 1 yr of Ukraine war: No victor, no vanquished…

Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is also associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
Published : Feb 24, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Feb 24, 2023, 12:00 am IST

Options are being discussed but except for a determination to continue the war, not much appears emerging.

Ukrainian soldiers rest near their position in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine. (Photo: AP)
 Ukrainian soldiers rest near their position in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine. (Photo: AP)

The war in Ukraine began unexpectedly on February 24, 2022, and took most of the world by surprise. Many analysts felt it would be a walkover for Russia, which was already deeply embedded in one of the very successful proxy hybrid war campaigns, in eastern Ukraine: the Donbas area. It had completely taken over Crimea in 2014. The primary cause of the Russian action was the purported crossing of the Russian “red line”, which was the prospective inclusion of Ukraine as part of Nato in the eastward march of the Europe-US alliance to cement the victory in the Cold War. The build-up for Ukraine’s Nato entry had already begun well before 2014, almost as a culmination of the long process of assimilation of the earlier pro-Moscow elements in the East European theatre. 

On the first anniversary of the initiation of the war, there is much to review. Yet, this essay only generically comments on the factors which are affecting the likely outcome, on war stamina and the prospects of an early end. It will take a couple of more analyses to talk of the meatier aspects within these factors. If you are following the ongoing Munich Security Conference, then you need to know the Russia-Ukraine war from different angles. Obviously, options are being discussed but except for a determination to continue the war, not much appears emerging.

US President Joe Biden’s surprise dash to Kyiv is symbolic and intended to convey the intent to continue the war. That demonstrated intent will also be used as a bargaining leverage if any proposals start fructifying.

Let us start by stating that it was a fundamental mistake that Nato made, of going over the top in the efforts to contain Russia, whose weakness through 1991-2014 did not allow it to push back sufficiently. That a push back would happen at some stage was inevitable, especially with a personality like Vladimir Putin at the helm. However, Mr Putin’s perception that he would battle only Ukraine to stop Nato was naïve. Nato had invested too much in its strategy to prevent a resurgence of Russia and would obviously fight tooth and nail to enable Ukraine to defeat or weaken Russia and prevent it achieving its aim. The clinching factor in this entire drama, the first war after the Covid-19 pandemic, which affected the entire world, was Russia’s double fear. The first of these was that it would lose control over the Black Sea ports which were its only recourse to the warm waters of the crucial waterways around the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea. That gave it the second fear; that without this, Russia’s ability to be a strategic influencer would be highly compromised, relegating its comprehensive national power.

The early part of the war demonstrated that the Russian forces were just not up to it in terms of doctrine, strategy, training, logistics, technology or leadership. Their reliance on tank forces reflected poor reading of the development of warfare in that part of the world. It was much later that the Russian Air Force came into play and the employment of drones, missiles and artillery was felt necessary. This is the same army which once believed in massed artillery barrages; such that one such operation changed the course of the Ussuri river and caused severe damage on China’s PLA in 1969. Russian generals expected a rapid folding of the Ukrainian forces and did not pay sufficient attention to logistics for an extended engagement. Russian infantry lacked penetration capability and could rarely go beyond the firm bases established around cities and townships. The Ukrainians, fired by their nationalism, a young charismatic leadership and with the backing of Nato’s information and network-centric warfare sowed seeds of doubt about Russian capability, focusing a great deal on the demographic problems of Russia.

Economic sanctions against Russia, especially restrictions on its energy trade, were supposed to bring it to its knees. Similarly, Russia believed that Europe without sufficient energy to heat up homes in winter would be amenable to compromising on war aims. Both are living examples of the disinformation prevailing. The Russian economy seems to be buoyed by the justifiable Chinese and Indian energy purchases under different payment systems. Europe also appears to have got some deals in energy, albeit at a huge increase in prices. The lesson from this is that conventional methods of conflict restraint are not working and therefore the war remains in dynamic mode, with an advantage to the side which takes up a fresh initiative.

A military counteroffensive (actually a riposte) was launched by Ukraine as an initiative, on August 29, 2022 to expel Russian forces occupying the southern regions of Kherson and Mykolaiv oblasts. Russian inability to counter these led to perceptions of a quick Ukrainian victory, leading to ammunition, missiles and logistics being flown from countries closely linked with Nato. Pakistan was one of them. However, a strong Russian counter over the last three months has led to an apparent advantage to the Russians, who are now employing drones, missiles and artillery much more freely. The Ukrainian side is short in air resources, tanks, ammunition and much more. Nato’s indecisiveness on resupply of military resources to Ukraine is probably being read by Russia as an opportunity to press home the advantage, although there is no confirmation on what is the resource position in Russia.

All this only encourages the perception of a war with no victor and no vanquished. Neither side can be convinced that a military resolution may not be possible. It is internal pressure on the leadership which may trigger something more positive. The Munich Security Conference has given no positive indicators so far. Nato has warned China against providing military resources to Russia. There is talk of an US-Israel like equation in post-war Europe, to provide a security guarantee to Ukraine so that there is no threat from Russia. However, the threat from Palestine or Iran, which the US neutralises under this equation, is not a compatible comparison with the threats from Russia to Ukraine; the Crimea and Donbass hybrid wars of the last nine years have proven that.

On the first anniversary, it looks like a war without end. India’s role as a neutral which has resorted to the purchase of Russian energy and yet had its Prime Minister render pragmatic advice to Russia to stop the war as none will benefit from it, is bringing a level of focus to it. Under the circumstances, there seem very few who could have the bandwidth, gravitas and stature to mediate a halt to operations and bring about a consultative process. India is one of the few countries which can.

Tags: crimea, ukraine, cold war, munich security conference