The way the Russian forces are advancing in a halting fashion on the capital city of Kyiv and on Kharkiv — taking casualties and not always reacting harshly, suggests that this is not a war of the kind the Russian military is geared to fight. There is no semblance here to the victorious campaigns of Joseph Stalin’s Red Army against the German Wehrmacht in the Second World War or the sort of operations the Soviet military and its Warsaw Pact complement were prepared to unleash across the Fulda Gap during the Cold War.
This ruthless mode of warfare emphasizes a rolling barrage of ceaseless and devastating long-range artillery fire in tandem with the equally relentless air-to-ground strikes by combat aircraft of the “frontal aviation” forces which, combined arms effort is meant, quite literally, to flatten the earth, and clear the path for the onrushing columns of armour and mechanized infantry. So, what explains the stumbling, bumbling, progress by Putin’s army in Ukraine?
Russia on Ukrainian soil
It is clear the Kremlin did not bargain for the inspiring leadership of the young Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, or for the resistance put up by the Kalashnikov-armed nationalists prosecuting holding actions alongside a competent military. These include strikes on Russian tanks and armoured personnel carriers by the TB-2 Bayraktar-armed drones purchased from Turkey, anti-tank guided munitions, sniper fire, and, at close quarters, expert attacks with Molotov Cocktails — the endless bottles of half-filled beer provided by a local brewery. Putin’s plans for intimidating Zelensky and Co. into submission has plainly failed.
But an agreement that retains for an Ukraine, minus the eastern “autonomous republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas region habited by Russian-speaking people, its freedom in return for not joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) may still be the compromise solution all parties will eventually agree to. Russia, moreover, is unlikely to restore to Ukraine parts of the Black Sea coast it captures, except on the condition that the naval infrastructure built on it, inclusive of the naval bases at Sevastopol and Odessa which, according to the 1997 partition agreement, is shared by the Russian and Ukrainian navies, is never allowed to be accessed by the United States and NATO navies. After all, Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was supposed to address precisely Russia’s vulnerability from the Black Sea approaches.
These geostrategic aims aside, there is no apparent premium for the Kremlin to so embitter Ukraine and its people as to make permanent enemies of them. This is reflected in the relatively small size of the deployed Russian force — just 175,00 troops strong — which is inadequate to forcibly take over Ukraine (for perspective, the Indian Army has some 650,000 soldiers in place to keep the Srinagar Valley “quiet”). And in the extremely wary and careful movement, for instance, by the Russian armoured component from Crimea to capture the city of Kherson intact, and then to permit the local government there to fly the Ukrainian flag from government buildings.
Such military behaviour was undoubtedly part of Putin’s plan for “restrained action”, symbolised by the precision attack on the “training” hub of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear complex, rather than on the nuclear reactors, and the immediate dousing of the resulting fire. The Zaporizhzhia power plant supplies 20-25 per cent of the electricity consumed in Ukraine, and a hit on it was to send a message to Zelensky to not tarry at the negotiating table.
The other reason for Moscow ordering peaceful capture of nuclear power stations may be to take control of stocks of spent uranium fuel to pre-empt a future Ukrainian government from using them to make nuclear bombs. In any case, the moderation in Russian military operations is to minimize the offence given to native Ukrainians and to wait out/wear out the armed nationalist elements among them, rather than go in for wholesale slaughter of the population and destruction of cities. In this context, the Ukrainian resistance, while brave, is ultimately hopeless and is potentially useful only as a bargaining card for the Zelensky regime to play in the ongoing negotiations with Russia in Belarus.
A tactical dilemma
The Russian forces in Ukraine, have, from the beginning, faced a tactical dilemma that’s not unlike what the Indian Army units, perhaps, faced when advancing on the “princely kingdom” of Hyderabad with the intent to amalgamate it into the Indian Union. The Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, was determined on having a sovereign country right in the middle of peninsular India. His representative, the British barrister Walter Monckton, spent over a year negotiating with the home ministry under the no-nonsense Vallabhbhai Patel. ‘Operation Polo’ was launched on 13 September 1948, only after it became obvious to the Indian government that the Nizam was buying time and using the “standstill agreement” to equip his forces with weapons ferried from Karachi in old Dakota aircraft piloted by foreign mercenaries, with a view to resisting the unification. By 17 September it was all over.
Consider the situation confronting Major General JN Chaudhuri — the commander of the Indian force tasked with taking Hyderabad but with minimum fuss. Advancing mainly along the Vijayawada and Solapur-Secunderabad axes, the Commanding Officers of the lead elements from Poona Horse and 2/5 Gurkhas from the Vijayawada side with the 19th Field Battery and two squadrons of the Hawker Tempest fighter planes, ex-Pune, in support, and of the 9 Para, 3rd Cavalry, 13th Cavalry, 3/2 Punjab and 2/1 Gurkhas on the Solapur line, must have been terrified of getting into firefights with the Nizam’s forces, especially in the built-up urban areas as that would have resulted in unacceptably high civilian casualties. This is borne out by the tactics employed of not using strike aircraft or even mortars and engaging the Nizam’s soldiery, as much as possible, on the outskirts of towns and in the countryside. Fortunately, for the Indian Army, the commander of Osman Ali’s forces, General El Edroos, an Arab, had under him the Razakar rabble, not a professional army.
Imagine an alternative scenario and assume, for argument’s sake, that the Nizam’s 66,000-strong army — 55 per cent Muslim, was backed by the majority Hindu population in his quest for an independent Hyderabad. Now consider how much more difficult and delicate the Indian Army’s job would have been. Hyderabad would, of course, have been absorbed one way or the other into India. But the Indian military actions, in that case, would have had to have been that much more cautious, with each step tenuously taken for fear, say, of a rifle company of the Gurkhas taking the khukri to a terrified bunch of civilians caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, or of wayward artillery shells taking out cultural symbols and historical monuments — a Char Minar here, numerous palaces of the Nizam there, or even the Hyderabadi infrastructure the people couldn’t do without — the railways, the power station, communications systems, road transport, post, telegraph, etc.
Seen in this light, one gets an inkling of just how unmanageable the situation can get for an army working under such constraints, and understand the impossible circumstances of the Russian land forces in Ukraine. And why they are moving and fighting so gingerly in the worst kind of mission that a conventional military can be asked to undertake.
For Russia, Ukraine is a site for an onerous ‘police action’; it is not a battlefield where anything goes.
Bharat Karnad is a Distinguished Fellow, United Service Institution of India and Emeritus Professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research. He also writes the ‘Security Wise’ blog at www.bharatkarnad.com. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)