Lessons of the Ukraine war

This is a war among brothers; Ukrainians are closer to Russians than people of many of the other ethnicities in Russia. Being “Russian” started in Ukraine with Kiev as the capital of the first Russian state in history in the ninth century. In a 2021 article “On the historical unity of Russian and Ukrainians”, Putin wrote of the importance of Ukrainian leaders in the development of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev was born in Russia close to its border with Ukraine and he grew up in Ukraine. His affinity with Ukraine contributed to his transfer of the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. Brezhnev, who ruled from 1964 to 1982,also was born and brought up in Ukraine. Gorbachev’s mother was Ukrainian. Wars among brothers are always more vicious, the worst example being the Mahabharata war full of fratricidal intrigues and subterfuges.

This war has been called WWW I, the First War of the Wired World. Virtually every region of the world has become involved in this war in some way or the other, militarily, economically or emotionally. Every major power and every power bloc is involved. Yet, it is a war in which the two belligerents have been left alone to slug it out with weapons and economic assistance provided by others, who have refrained from sending boots on the ground. It is a war in which one party has brutally attacked the other, which is merely defending itself without attacking the aggressor’s territory. It is an undeclared war in which the latest weapons including hypersonic missiles and thermobaric bombs have been used by Russia. It is a war in which the citizens of one country are pitched against the dictator of another. The citizens are helped in this unequal contest by foreigners who have travelled long distances to fight with Ukrainians while Russia is taking the help of Islamic fundamentalists from Chechnya and Syria, who are Sunnis and Shias respectively and who otherwise fight against each other in various theatres of war in the Islamic world.

This is a war in which the big bully Russia is sought to be cut to size by the West through economic sanctions. The Russian Oligarchs, who have robbed their own country since the Soviet Union collapsed, have had their money, mansions and yachts taken away and their visas invalidated by many countries. For the first time in the history of SWIFT, the inter-bank information exchange system, many Russian banks have been cut-off from it. The brand new Nord Stream II pipeline, built to supply gas from Russia to Germany, has been shut off before it could be inaugurated. Present day Russia is a reduced image of the USSR, much smaller if we count the Soviet-supporting Warsaw Pact countries also. In 1957, when the Soviet space programme was the envy of the Americans, its economy was the second largest in the world, after the US. Now, with an economy only slightly larger than half of India’s, the same as that of the state of Ohio in the US or of Italy in Europe, Putin seems to have grossly miscalculated. He counted the importance of Russian gas and oil for Europe but perhaps ignored the huge dependence of Russia on the world economy.

Putin’s Initial years were glorious for Russia as it bounced back from the disaster of the USSR implosion, marking a GDP boom of ten times the 1990 level, helped partly by the boom in commodity prices. Then, as he displayed hegemonic ambitions, there was a downward slide, precipitated by the sanctions following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. He lost credibility with a crackdown on opponents including poisonings in foreign lands. Late last year, he began surrounding Ukraine with a mammoth force while declaring that he has no intention of invading. As the western intelligence agencies had correctly judged, he did invade in February this year, attacking residential blocks with missiles and artillery, uttering one falsehood after the other. The Ukrainians, military, civilians and foreign volunteers, tiny by comparison with Russian forces, fought unconventionally in this asymmetric contest and seem to have prevailed for the time being. Sometime the in future, Ukrainian cities shall be rebuilt, the Russian economy will recover but the image of Russia as a superpower and its military as the juggernaut have been dented beyond repair.

There are many lessons in this extraordinary war. The size of a military matters only if supported by corresponding logistics. Russia failed miserably on that account with machines without fuel and soldiers without food falling in the hands of the Ukrainians. Secondly, the morale of a fighting force and the morality of the cause for which they are fighting are inseparable. If a soldier has the slightest belief that his mission is evil, he loses themotivation for dying for the cause. Military leadership always pays great attention to indoctrinating the troops that theirs is a just war and the enemy is the violator of morality. Russia failed to tell the young soldiers not only the “why” of the war to which they were being sent but even the “where” part of it. Russian soldiers were seeking directions from the local Ukrainians who were busy re-painting the road signs to mislead the invaders. Putin miscalculated the strength of Russian partisans in Ukraine who were supposed to mark targets in luminescent paint facilitating destruction byRussia. The Ukrainianscottoned on to the game early and formed squads to obliterate the marks as well as the partisans. As it is, when it is a war among brothers, even the partisans have relatives on both sides.

Another “strength” on which Putin seemed to have relied is his stock with hackers and the denizens of the Dark Net. A few successful strikes in the US, particularly the one on the oil pipeline software, had convinced him that his hackers would bring the West to its knees quickly. Hackers are criminals and they are loyal only to their proceeds from the crime. What Putin missed out was that many of the “Russian” hackers were actually Ukrainians and they hit Russia with all that they had, sending Putin scrambling for truce on that front. As for the Dark Net, news appeared on April 6 that the infamous Hydra was hosted in Germany and was uncovered. The hosting company sued for peace in return for escaping criminal charges and closed the site. A dictator trying to win a war with help from criminals is compromising not only his future but that of the nation he claims to lead. China should take heed as it pushes chemicals for being sold as mind-bending drugs like fentanyl.

Yet, for China there are many more lessons in this war. A country whose GDP is disproportionately dependent on the export of manufactures would be hurt by economic sanctions even more seriously than Russia which is a primary exporter. The democratic world has banded together as never before against the Russian invasion. Will the response be different if China invades Taiwan? The latter democracy has become fully embedded in the alignments that are supporting Ukraine and acting against the aggressor with Russia now having included Taiwan in the long list of countries “unfriendly to Russia”. Simply put, it means that many more countries are now friendly to Taiwan than were at the beginning of this war. One hopes that Xi Jinping is reading the tea leaves correctly and the world shall be spared another fratricidal war among the Chinese brothers living on the opposite shores of the Taiwan Strait.

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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