Daily Russian poundings over the past 9 months has witnessed large-scale loss of lives and public infrastructure in Ukraine. Russia has also suffered setbacks. Its strength has been dented by unexpectedly high military casualties besides impact of Western sanctions. The whole of Europe battles serious economic crises alongside energy shortages. The entire developing world is anticipating an impending food and energy catastrophe. India and Asia worry alteration in geopolitical equilibrium, paving way for unrestrained Chinese hegemony in the region, that is certain to threaten their security. United States runs the risk of being replaced as the most preeminent power in Asia and Europe by the China. The gains for China, as of now are more potential than real. Hence, the world is in middle of a war that has not yet escalated to its optimal potential but has produced more losers than any clear winner.
This is a different war and efforts to draw parallels from history is more likely to hinder our understanding and ability to face the same.
LOOKING AT FUTURE FROM THE PRISM OF PAST
On October 26, I was in a live TV discussion on Russia-Ukraine War at platform of an eminent Hindi channel. My fellow panelists included a well-known and articulate retired Ambassador, a retired General of Indian Army and a retired Historian, with specialisation on Eastern Europe and Russia. They had nearly two decades more experience of the world than me and naturally I have always been deferential to such elders and their wisdom. However, intellectual integrity has at times forced me to take contrarian position and defend the same but with an open mind.
In course of this particular discussion, the retired Ambassador questioned my understanding of diplomacy and warfare, over my following observations:
1. President Putin's strategy was failing as Russia was forced to make far too many tactical retreats and recalibrate its strategy a bit too often, despite enjoying huge military superiority over Ukraine;
2. With shift in momentum, the Russian troops could struggle to hold on to some of their territorial gains;
3. A good strategy of war must get a quick and decisive victory at minimal costs and negligible collateral damages;
4. More the war prolonged, the Russian dream of Kievan-Rus reunification shall become distant, if not unachievable; and
5. A victory in a prolonged war, involving heavy human and material costs, feels more like a loss;
I had held on to my position on that televised discussion even in face of insistence by my three elderly co-panelists that Russia was winning the war. They cited the duration of the first and second world wars to contend that wars have their own momentum. They dismissed my idea of short, swift and decisive war as imaginary.
Sadly, they forgot that the world has evolved far too much since the second world-war era. We are living in a far more integrated and technology driven world, which has potential for more devastating consequences in a much shorter time. Even in that war, the aggressor or the principal initiator of the war - Germany - had paid heavily for its grave miscalculations. Despite its huge military and economic strength on eve of the two mega wars, Germany faced a debacle that pushed it back on most parameters of national and societal power by centuries, even though it inflicted massive collateral damage in others as well.
Here the war was initiated by President Putin. He has been careful to avoid attacking NATO countries. His adventure is not comparable to Nazi Germany. But Russian failure to win the war in a short time as well as its military and economic setbacks have dented its image of invincibility in the region. However, this was not the first time that this particular Ambassador had verbally attacked me. I recall in a discussion he had been very aggressive towards another retired Ambassador who was a few years younger to him. During a TV discussion on Sri Lanka in 2020, he had repudiated my assessment that Rajapaksa brothers would not be able to resist Chinese pressure and the resultant consequences for the island nation could be too bad. The YouTube video of that discussion is still available on the web and what transpired in Sri Lanka since then is very well known.
I find the problem with our traditional experts lays in their over reliance on history to assess the present or look at future.
During this discussion, as well as discussion on this subject on other platforms, I have maintained that Russian setbacks since September 2022 indicated that it shall struggle to hold on to some of its territorial gains. Even though Ukraine is in no position to defeat Russia or deter sustained onslaught by Russian artillery, missiles and Air Force, Russia appears incapable of securing an outright military victory in foreseeable future. The entire Kievan Rus region has suffered irreparably.
Chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff has been quoted by media in early November that nearly 200,000 soldiers have perished in this war. Ukraine and Russia have faced similar number of military casualties. We may dispute accuracy of these figures but cannot deny massive military casualties impacting both sides. Ukrainian President Zelensky himself had conceded in June this year that Ukrainian was suffering daily military casualties to the extent of 700-800. Simultaneously, there are indications of unexpectedly high military casualties even on the Russian side. Moscow's official data about military casualties stood at 5937 by early September as per a BBC report. However, large-scale military recruitments and images of large number of women searching their dead sons, husbands and brothers have been visible on social media.
Simultaneously, by mid-November 2022, Western sources have estimated Ukrainian civilian casualties around 40,000. The war is also believed to have generated 15 to 30 million refugees as per credible media channels in the West. Official UN records indicate that 7.8 million refugees have moved into different parts of Europe. They are mostly from Ukraine but a small component among them are Russians. There are no credible figures available on total loss of Ukrainian public infrastructure. The assessments have varied anywhere between US $ 300 to 800 billion. Ukrainian economy has shrunk by 39%. Rebuilding is going to cost too heavily. However, no one knows as yet when the war shall end. On the other hand, Western sanctions have failed to entirely cripple Russia. But it would be too naive to deny economic and human impact of the war on Russia.
In recent months, Ukrainians have struck Russian positions with exceptional lethality, destroying their tanks, aircrafts and even sea vessels, with help of Western satellite imagery, surveillance and latest precision strike weapons. These have exposed relative obsolescence of military firepower of Russia, notwithstanding their strengths in areas like rocketry, missile technology, including rocket and jet-propelled hypersonic missiles, fighter aircraft, including advanced strategic bombers among others. But in many areas, they have lagged behind both the West and China, especially in advanced electronics and precision strike weapons.
Over the last few weeks, scenes of mass jubilation, especially following Russian withdrawal from Kherson, and warm welcome extended to advancing Ukrainian troops by local people, including ethnic Russians, have conveyed a clear message. The so-called nationalist support base of President Purin appears under threat for the first time. Some of his staunch loyalists on social media have been openly critical of the Russian war strategy, especially its abject withdrawal. The possibility of use of tactical nuclear weapons remains a reality even now. But the image of invincibility of Russian artillery and airpower in Ukraine stands thoroughly exposed. At this point of time, Ukraine appears incapable of pushing the Russians beyond the East bank of Dniper or Dnipro River. Stalemate is likely to continue in many areas. But absence of a decisive victory for Russia itself is being hailed as Ukrainian victory.
Meanwhile, despite inability of both Russia and Ukraine to conclude the war, a trust-driven peace talk is nowhere on the horizon. Ukrainian President probably thinks that he has wrested momentum and, hence, has put impractical conditions for talks. These include restoration of all areas captured by Russia as well as ouster of President Putin from Russian Presidency. Russia, under President Putin, is unlikely to concede defeat or accept losses.
Simultaneously, the net outcome of war shall decisively tilt the balance of entire global geopolitical equilibrium in favour of China. It shall increase Russian dependence on China and provide the latter with unfettered access to vast land and natural resources of its mauled and depleted northern neighbour. I doubt the resultant outcome shall suit the strategic objectives of the West, especially the United States and its allies.
(To be continued)