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100 Days of Russo-Ukrainian Conflict: Redefining the Nature of Limited Wars


President Vladimir Putin shocked global authorities when, on 24 February 2022, Russian forces launched an all-out offensive against Ukraine, calling it a ‘Special Military Operation’. With the overwhelming superiority of the Russian army, it is predicted that the war will end in the next few days, with the crushing defeat of the Ukrainian army.

However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy proved the strategists wrong by denying Putin a quick victory and engaging in a protracted war. The way this conflict plays out challenges many traditional assumptions, reveals emerging trends that will shape the future of war, and poses a rethink to redefine the nature of war. ‘limited conventional wars’.

Anatomy of limited wars

Historically, wars were all about achieving political goals, using force to force the other side to make concessions. According to Carl Von Clausewitz, “Each age has its own particular form of war.”

In 20order century, there was common frustration with protracted wars. After the second world war, ‘limited war’ was seen as an alternative to global war. The Cold War period saw a limited number of wars in Asia. Such conflicts are characterized by precise military-political goals, limited in time and space, and intensely fought with lethal conventional weapons systems.

During the Cold War, the Korean War was the first limited war that took place in three years (1950-53), followed by the Vietnam War, which lasted nearly a decade. The rest of the wars, either in West Asia or the Indian subcontinent, were short-lived – no more than a few weeks. Although limited in scope, these wars ended with decisive results. The Korean War saw the emergence of China as a military power.

The Vietnam War ended with a Communist victory, with the Americans suffering a humiliating defeat. Arab-Israeli conflict has seen a limited number of wars, with far-reaching geopolitical consequences. Even the Bangladesh War of 1971, which lasted only two weeks, changed the structure of South Asia, with India being recognized as a major power in the region.

READ | Why India can’t afford to separate from Russia for defense needs

After the Cold War, when the ‘balance of interests’ dominated the ‘balance of power’ dynamics, limited wars along with subconventional conflicts came to prominence. The Gulf wars were limited in scope but hybrid in nature. According to David Halberstam, today’s conflicts are carefully considered, “war in times of peace”. The conflict spectrum is characterized by a ‘high – low’ combination i.e. ‘trade up – trade down’.

Success in conventional operations largely depends on firepower, maneuverability, and force projection. The US Marine Corps Doctrine offers ‘three-block war’; in which the military can simultaneously engage in conventional combat operations, peacekeeping and humanitarian relief, in a single theater.

In an age of information warfare marked by a cyber-centricity, battlefields have become non-linear, multidimensional, and integrated; Precision weapon systems and ‘effect-based operations’ are standard. Due to the complexity of the battlefield environment, the defined lines between the strategic, operational and tactical domains remain blurred.

Ukraine War: Outstanding Aspects

The political-military purpose of the Russian invasion was to achieve security for its western borders. It includes the neutralization of Ukraine (resistance of joining NATO), the demilitarization and denuclearization of the State, with regard to regime change. The goal also includes the liberation of the people of the eastern regions of Ukraine including Donbas, Luhansk and Donetsk. In terms of operations, it involved flooding through Ukraine completely and capturing the major cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol.

With absolute superiority in mechanized forces and complete air superiority, Russia launched a multi-pronged attack in the form of lightning. The main forces were from the north and east, focusing on Kyiv; subsidiary from the south, Mariupol is the main target. The initial offensive took place quickly on a wide front, covering vast territory over hundreds of kilometers. As the Russian forces met practically no opposition, it appeared that the Ukrainian army had surrendered.

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However, Ukraine’s strategy is to fight from fortified areas. Using towns and villages as bases, small teams armed with mobile anti-tank weapons such as Javelin missiles (of US-NATO origin), exploiting the terrain and poor tactics of their opponents proved dire. Along with armed drones, the Bayraktar TB-2 (Turkey) and the compact Switchblade (USA) proved extremely dangerous. Even the Stingers ‘Surface-to-Air Missile’ fighter (of American origin) has downed many Russian helicopters and low-flying fighters in the air.

Due to stiff resistance by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, it was clear that the Russian offensive had stalled, with large columns of armor lining the roads. The Russians received heavy losses due to violation of the basic concepts of combined weapons operation and neglect of the shaping of the battlefield. Tanks operating without infantry, air defense and artillery support are very vulnerable to attack by small Ukrainian teams.

Even Russia’s “Air Defense Force” suffered heavy losses because it failed to secure an airspace in the operating area. Severe losses and high casualties among five people, including high-ranking commanders, severely reduced the morale of the Russian army.

Even logistics became a major constraint as Russian forces were spread out, clustered around major cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv for a long time without safe maintenance axes. The early spring thaw that led to ‘Rasputitsa’ severely limited Russian operations, while adding to logistical troubles. Due to the lack of progress, the Russians were forced to withdraw from Kyiv and focus on operations in the eastern Ukraine region.

Redefining the nature of limited warfare

The Russo-Ukrainian War was the largest armed conflict in post-World War II Europe. The first classic limited war in the 21sst century, it has many pitfalls that tend to redefine the nature of ‘limited wars’. The outstanding aspects that need to be considered deserve to be numbered below:-

  • Using force as a tool to achieve political goals remains a preferred option, especially when there is asymmetry in the power equation among opponents. In assessing the probability of an opponent using force, caution should be exercised in making judgments based on likelihood, not intention. Case in point: the strategic community completely misunderstood what Putin meant while well aware of Russia’s military might.
  • Assuming that limited warfare follows an escalation pattern, then again, Russian forces would change their course overnight from the training ground to the battlefield. The doctrinal framework of ‘limited wars’ envisages specific goals and ‘calibrated applications’ of force in a limited geographical space. However, the Russian attack is of the form of total war on the whole, with the overarching goals outlined above. After a month of war, Putin was forced to readjust the war goal of “liberating Donbas”.
  • As the Ukraine war enters its fourth month, the concept of truncated timelines as the basic feature of the limit is being revisited, calling on nations to build capacity to resist wars. prolonged translation. To achieve this, it is really appropriate to visualize the end state, which must be realistic. Overpowered by the illusion of total victory, Putin does not stop working.
  • Proactive strategies and superior weapon systems may offer an advantage in the early stages of operations, but do not guarantee success. Coordinated combined weapons operations using the ‘Combat Management System’ are a must for networking multi-weapon platforms. The Russian forces were superior to the Ukrainian army, due to a better combination of man and machine; a decisive factor in victory in battle.
  • The sheer intensity of combat in a high-tech environment requires agile logistics personnel. For an extended campaign, logistical support needs to be flexible, resilient and durable, to keep pace with operations.
  • While nuclear weapons are seen as tools of deterrence, Putin has chosen to eliminate them, not ruling out their use in the event Russia faces an existential threat. An autocratic leader cannot lose and can go to any extent to ensure victory must be taken into account.
  • Subconventional warfare involving militias and irregularities in eastern Ukraine along with conventional warfare creates a hybrid character for the conflict and is seen as the new normal.
  • Superpowers and allies play a key role in influencing the course and outcome of limited wars. However, it has acquired new dimensions in the form of real-time intelligence delivery, information warfare organization, continuous delivery of weapons systems, and training. The limitation of global bodies such as the United Nations in playing an effective role is demonstrated once again.
  • Whatever the outcome of this conflict may be, Europe’s geopolitical architecture is set for a change with broader global implications.

When looking back

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a tectonic event, with far-reaching consequences. As the country’s military falls short of its intended goals, Russia’s stature as a global player will inevitably decline. This would imply a rebalancing of the global order, which in turn would lead to a reconfiguration of existing bilateral as well as multilateral structures, covering both the security and economic spectrum.

Although the impact of the Ukrainian conflict on the fundamentals of ‘limited conventional warfare’ may not be very significant, there are many aspects that will be critically evaluated. At the strategic level, the formulation of political-military objectives, the matrix of time and space, the potential integrated use of three-service operations, including the use of air power and logistics, will be more scrutinized.

Given the serious losses of ground forces Russia will take a closer look at all weapons structures, in particular the combat groups of the mechanized forces, the operation of small squads, the role of the armed forces. Emerging technology-based platform – UAVs, armed drones and network-centric support devices for better C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computing, Intelligence, Surveillance , Reconnaissance).

From India’s point of view, important areas will be the operability of Russian equipment, especially the ability of its fighters to suppress Ukrainian air defense systems, in addition to equipping armored against anti-tank systems and armed drones. Autonomy in weapons systems and advanced technology, in addition to diversifying sources of procurement, will require a holistic view. The armed forces are required to be adept at mixed weapons warfare in an integrated battlefield environment and to maintain the highest professional standards emphasized.

The Ukraine war is still going on, with no immediate end. It will continue to be the subject of intensive research as it identifies the trend lines of 21st century war.



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