Russia’s eastern offensive commenced on April 18, 2022. It has made very little headway. In over two weeks, Russia has been able to expand its area of control only marginally. It has carried out many air/missile/rocket strikes across the length and breadth of the country to degrade / destroy Ukraine’s military capability and other infrastructure which it considers crucial to its campaign. Despite the incessant strikes, the Ukrainian forces are fighting it out with gusto. Kramatorsk which is critical to the offensive is still holding out. Overall the offensive seems to have stalled. From here on outright Russian victory or defeat of Ukrainian forces seems inconceivable. What is predictable is that Ukraine has been destroyed and broken. The ramifications for the future are looming large.
In February 1943, Von Manstein executed the famous ‘Back Hand’ plan. He drew in the Russian counter offensive into the Dnieper Bend in South Ukraine. He then hit the Soviets in the North on the ‘Back Hand’ to capture Kharkov. He wanted to proceed on with the offensive towards Belgorad and Kursk. However the Rasputitsa or the mud thaw which sets in with the snow melt prevented him to do so. The countryside had become impassable. The Kursk offensive got delayed. Eventually when the Germans could resume their offensive in July, the Russians had regrouped and could inflict a massive defeat at Kursk which changed the course of the second world war. All this is well known in Russian folklore. Yet, Russia chose to carry out this offensive into Ukraine when Rasputitsa set in!
Their inability to overcome Kiev and Kharkiv or their snail like progress in their Eastern offensive is primarily due to the inability to deploy their combat power to generate manoeuvre. Russian combat power has been lying unutilised and stuck on the muddy roads unable to fan out into the country side to outflank enemy defences. This fatal flaw in military planning could have only occurred due to a lack of a major politico military connect. The decision to prosecute the war during the most inopportune season could also be due to faulty intelligence and gross underestimation of the adversary and his capability. On the other hand the political military connect in Ukraine has been working well to stymie Russian efforts at steam roiling them. This politico military differential has changed the course of war and has extended it into a long drawn affair. A new global visage has just started unfolding in front of us.
A major factor which has emerged is that nations with a strong politico military connect will be able to navigate through conflicts and difficult times in a balanced manner. This has been evident though ages from the times when Rome was burning even as Nero was fiddling. In recent times the utter disconnect between the US military and its politicians saw its inglorious retreat from Afghanistan. The politico military disconnect is once again apparent in Russia which is struggling to close out the war in Ukraine. In fact it is this fundamental factor which is reshaping the world in a manner never imagined. There is major lesson in this for India as it seeks its rightful share in international affairs.
It was always known that the Russo Ukrainian war was being fought at two levels. One between Russian and Ukrainian Forces directly on Ukrainian soil. The other larger conflict is between Russia and the USA/EU/NATO combine for geopolitical dominance. When the US Defence Secretary stated in Poland “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine”, it indicated a shift in the US goal posts in this war. It went beyond supporting Ukraine to fend off Russia. The announcement of enhanced military aid to Ukraine reinforces this shift. This is no more a war to be fought through Ukraine as a proxy. This is the start of a long drawn hybrid war being waged between USA and Russia in battle field Ukraine. Hereafter the hybrid war is the primary one in which the Russo Ukraine conflict will get subsumed. The overall US aim is clear. Weaken Russia to the extent that a. it can no more threaten EU, b. it can no more be an effective ally of China c. continued consolidation and alignment of Europe with USA. This aim supports the larger aim of containment of China and re-establishment of US supremacy.
The recent focus and increase on QUAD activities is a clear indication of the US re-pivot to China. This re-focus is coming at a time when USA is recovering rapidly from the ravages of the Virus and China has just started getting debilitated by it. Whatever is happening in Ukraine has also seeded self-doubt in China that annexation of Taiwan is more difficult than previously imagined. It has also created awareness and realisation in Taiwan that China can be kept at bay (literally). As days go by and as the hybrid war in Ukraine takes definite shape, it will start affecting the Chinese even more. As it is, one sees a decrease in levels of Chinese aggressive bluster. Ukraine will force a massive rethink on China’s fancy ideas to win wars without fighting. More importantly, there is a shift in global thinking as a new world order seems to be emerging. What will be the contours of this new order? That is the more interesting proposition.
The new world will be dotted by USA, the aggressive superpower in relative economic decline but continuing to be diplomatically and militarily strong. We will also see China as a self-centred isolated power without allies. It will remain economically strong while aspiring for military greatness but will be reluctant to provide global leadership. Ageing but economically strong powers like France, Germany, Japan and UK as well as other European nations will jostle for space to stay relevant as they are being forced to reluctantly re-militarise. Russia, the self-sufficient power will remain caught between a rock and a hard place unless it has a major change of heart. One way or the other it will remain relevant due to its vast size and resources. One expects to see the rise of many countries with potential like India, South Korea, Brazil, and Indonesia. However most significantly, India despite its multifaceted drawbacks , has the best credentials to rise to be a power of global consequence due to many positive factors. An adjunct issue which is emerging is that many nations are throwing away the residual effect of being colonised for over three centuries. Their restitution to their original pre-colonial status is unfolding steadily as global power is shifting East. One sees strong nationalistic streaks coming out of many countries which are reverting to their traditional cultural values. Such countries are proving to be far more resilient than thought before.
The pandemic had brought about a surge in nations striving for greater self-sufficiency in areas considered critical to each. The Ukrainian conflict is forcing nations into forming power blocks or making them choose a side. The time period of impact of these two factors has now stretched to nearly two and a half years. In this time, national mindsets have changed and brought in a sense that each nation has to look after itself and its core interests. It has cast a serious shadow on the concept of globalisation. If the past few decades saw the growth of weaponised economy being the pillar of global geopolitics, the future seems to point towards rebirth of military power as a prime instrument of state power. The emergence of energy and resources as instruments of power competing with hitherto established tools of power is the new phenomenon. The capability of a self-sufficient Russia to shake the global order despite not having an outsized GDP has thrown up a lot of questions on traditional balance of power concepts. Overall geopolitics could hereafter trump economics. Economic interdependency could at best be a stabilising influence in geopolitics.
As the Russo Ukrainian war rages on, the concept of short intensive wars is also under severe stress. While the short intensive war might be the mutual imperative between nuclear adversaries, the converse has proven to be true of conflicts when non-nuclear nations are involved. The myriad wars and conflicts of the middle east are testimony to this fact. Resultantly, long drawn out wars are back in vogue with situation specific caveats. It is also clear that wars between nuclear nations will invariably be fought through a proxy. If Ukraine is the proxy for an extended war between Russia and USA, and Kashmir has been the proxy for Pakistan’s extended war against India, Taiwan seems to be the apparent proxy for the military facet of the oncoming Sino-US conflict.
The old adage is that truth is the first causality of war. The new adage is that narratives based on alternate reality enable scripting victories or defeats in wars. In this regard, media has emerged as a prime tool of war to control and to swamp the environment with an information deluge and build a perception to support the narrative. The narratives formed during the onset or the course of a conflict also shape the history as it is intended to appear. The narratives formed not only define the victor and the vanquished but also formulate the good and evil sides of a conflict. Invariably, the evil side is the one which is portrayed as having violated the ‘Rules Based Order’ which does not exist in the first place. Invariably the rules based order is a convenient fiction which is formulated, adhered to or violated as per the demands of the situation and convenience of the violator.
As the Ukrainian war has progressed, there has been increased talk and threat of the conflict going nuclear. This has set off a reaction in Japan and South Korea which are now debating nuclearisation. Additionally, South Korea has expressed intent to join the QUAD to ward off the Chinese threat. Japan has started to take steps to deal with the Russian threat which it perceives to be increasingly significant. The shape of the Russo-Chinese alignment in future, will militarise the West Pacific even further. The area intersecting Russia, China, North Korea, South Korea and Japan with the US presence in Guam as also an Australia arming rapidly itself with nuclear submarines is very clearly the future global flash point.
As this war continues, the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine is losing relevance and the larger hybrid war and the outcomes are gaining centre stage. The focus is getting back to the Indo-Pacific. In this evolving kaleidoscope, one has to see where India perceives itself to be and how does it fit in there. India needs to revamp its politico military understanding which has been its traditional weak link and its ability to harness its underutilised information capability which are immediate requirements. India has also to decide which other tools it needs to sharpen as it restitutes to its civilisational mode to emerge as a power of consequence in the evolving geopolitical landscape. It should not miss the bus again.
-The writer was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda