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Lessons from Ukraine conflict

The lesson is that nations much invest in developing military capabilities based on threats. The Russian invasion has also proved that nations will not capitulate, despite large scale destruction. This would have been noted by China, which has been threatening to reclaim Taiwan.

HARSHA KAKAR | Kolkata |


Was Ukraine let down? Should Ukraine have retained its nuclear weapons? Are failures of global bodies the future? Will sanctions terminate the war? Will Russia remain bogged down in Ukraine? These are questions being discussed across the globe. The war, termed as a ‘special military operation’ by Russia is now into its seventh week.

Ukraine has yet to capitulate, helped by arms supplies and mercenaries from the west. The Russian use of accurate long-range vectors has led to unprecedented destruction of military infrastructure and Ukrainian cities. Ukraine, which surrendered its nuclear weapons belonging to the erstwhile USSR in 1995 on promises of a nuclear umbrella, has been dumped and is fighting alone.

The fact that Russia will not use nuclear weapons was known but had Ukraine continued to possess them, escalation of war and extent of damage could have been reduced as nuclear weapons remain an omnipotent threat. It is a similar story as of Libya, whose leader Muammar Gaddafi surrendered his nuclear designs, obtained illegally from Pakistan, only to be overthrown after Nato airstrikes and the alliance’s support to the Arab Spring. Link this with Pakistan. Its possession of nuclear weapons has compelled India to reconsider its offensive strategies.

The lesson is that a promised nuclear umbrella is no protection against conventional offensives. North Korea will never be invaded or threatened mainly because of its nuclear power. The day Iran tests a nuclear device, Israel would hesitate to attack. No wonder the Saudis and Turks are seeking nuclear weapons. The best guarantee to sovereignty remains nuclear weapons. The UN, UNSC and its multiple agencies have failed the world almost every time. This will always happen whenever one of its permanent members decides to break global norms and that is a regular feature.

It happened when Nato bombed Yugoslavia and Libya as also attacked Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein. It will happen again when China attacks Taiwan or captures disputed islands in the South and East China Seas. Despite the UNGA every year demanding that the US end its economic blockade of Cuba, it refuses, and no one can push it to change. There is no global organisation which can rein in powerful nations and demand peace and talks. In reality, the UNSC remains another defunct discussion table whose value is daily receding.

The world has ended divided between pro and anti Russia lobbies alongside neutrals, on whom both sides place pressure. Nations may vote against Russia in global bodies but refuse to impose sanctions on it. War and destruction of Ukraine will continue till Russia desires. This sends the message that the US and the West are losing global support. It has been nearly seven long weeks and yet Ukraine is unwilling to accept Russian terms.

With Western support it faces no shortages of weapons and equipment. However, since it cannot carry the war onto Russian territory, it is only delaying the inevitable. Russia would never attempt to take over the country and be drawn into a long-drawn insurgency. Its current operational philosophy appears to be to destroy civil and military infrastructure, pushing Ukraine back economically. Systematic destruction of non-nuclear states will be the future of conflicts.

It was witnessed in Iraq, Syria, Libya and now in Ukraine. The emerging global philosophy is that sanctions are the best means to end conflicts. Sanctions have been maintained for ages on North Korea and Iran but have never deterred these nations from pursuing their goals. Nor have they resulted in regime change. Further, sanctions are imposed in such a manner that they do not damage economies of nations applying them. Hence, oil and gas are not under sanctions.

The US, to suit its own requirements, has ‘insulated’ Russian mineral fertilizers from sanctions. However, sanctions could damage the Russian economy in the long term. Further, as proved by Iran and North Korea, it is only the low-income population that suffers, not those taking decisions. China, which controls the global supply chain with an export-oriented economy, would be assessing the impact of sanctions carefully. After all, at some stage, it may invade Taiwan. Chinese trade surpluses and its integration into the global economy could make sanctions a doubleedged sword.

Boycotting Chinese goods could send prices of commodities soaring as also impact shares of manufacturing giants with production facilities in China, hurting political fortunes of western democratic leaders. Covid, which stalled the global supply chain from China was a sample of the power China possesses on the world economy.

Restricting Chinese access to the dollar could threaten the existence of the dollar as the global currency. Many small nations from whom China imports or are part of its belt road initiative would never adhere to sanctions and shift to the renminbi. However, the Chinese economy would still be impacted. For the Chinese communist leadership, an economic meltdown could spell doom. Another major fallout is that nations should be prepared to fight alone. Support, unless a country is a member of a security alliance, will be limited. Provision of armament support may only delay the inevitable.

The lesson is that nations much invest in developing military capabilities based on threats. The Russian invasion has also proved that nations will not capitulate, despite large scale destruction. This would have been noted by China, which has been threatening to reclaim Taiwan. China’s plans to capture Taiwan could go awry, despite possessing strong military power. The public of Ukraine has displayed a will to fend of the Russian army, which like China, has a large conscript element. These lack morale and a will to fight. India witnessed it in Galwan.

Nations need to consider their conscript versus regular numbers. The recent Indian decision to recruit soldiers for three years needs to be seen in this light. Finally, Grey Zone warfare will be predominant. The intention will be to subdue the opponent using strategies below levels of conflict. Only once this fails would military power be employed.

Ukraine won hearts by its information campaign, though on many occasions its projections were fake. Words from Shakespeare’s Macbeth hold true, ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair.’ Russia has been projected as the brutal attacker taking civilian lives.

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)