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Early Lessons of Ukraine War: Russian Military Operations Phase 1

Let’s start with a caveat firstly these are only early lessons of the war in Ukraine and hence subject for review once more evidence can be collected on the first phase of Russian offensive.

Secondly these are based on open source information, tracking of maps provided by various agencies such as the Institute for the Study of War amongst others and photographs shared on social media.

If still you are inclined to read the lessons than go ahead.

As we know by now, Phase 1 of the Russian offensive which Moscow referred to as a, “special military operation,” broadly speaking was launched on five axes or prongs – Kyiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Donbass and the Southern maritime front.

Russia retracted from the Kyiv and Sumy axis for now and is pursuing mainly the Kharkiv, Donbas and Southern front.

The initial operations were marked by lack of adequate preparations – intelligence, operational as well as logistics.

Know your enemy and know yourself is a phrase used by many savants including Sun Tzu. Apparently, the Russians failed to do both.

Particularly in the North operations which were launched from Belarus lacked a politically compatible firm base as commitment of Minsk to support the Russian forces vacillated.

Lack of intelligence of the Ukrainian resistance was evident on the Northern Front and a perception that Ukraine will cave in just as they see Russian tank trains embarking towards the main cities and towns was misplaced.

Nor did the Russian estimation of an uprising by the Ukrainian citizens against the government accurate.

Possibly based on this assessment Russian forces were underprepared for a conventional offensive and were bogged down in clearing cities and towns.

United States Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) Report on Russia Military Power 2017 highlights the, “basic principle of [Russian] land warfare is violent, sustained, and deep offensive action, just as it was during the Soviet era”.

“Mechanized and armored formations supported by aviation and artillery are to seize the initiative at the outset of hostilities, penetrate the enemy's defenses, and drive deeply and decisively into the enemy's rear area,” as per the DIA Report.

Clearly these tactics were not employed in February March 2022 in Ukraine.

Instead, Russian forces were bogged down and used extensive fire power – air, missile and artillery leading to large number of civilian casualties as well as destruction of buildings and infrastructure.

Fire power is an expensive option particularly high technology missiles including the hypersonic as the Kinzal, though its use may have been only for demonstrative purposes.

Fire power is also effective when used in tandem with maneouvre.

However, Russian experience in Chechnya and Syria possibly drew then to massive use of fire in urban areas.

Russia has always been a proponent of use of massed fire assaults with thousands of guns pouring TNT on a single objective ironically in battles such as Kharkov [now Kharkiv] during the Second World War.

Tank maneouvre in closed urban conurbations requires adequate mounted or foot infantry support even though “motorized rifle troops are the most abundant,” as per US DIA report.

Russian forces failed to use tank and infantry effectively at least in the Northern axis towards Kyiv and Sumy, other axes do not provide adequate evidence for now to make a judgement.

The all arms battle by combined armed armies, brigade and battalion battle groups appears to be missing.

One big factor of course is TERRAIN.

While Russian flexibility to pull back from Kyiv and Sumy due to lack of success was an effective response to failure, engagement in urban combat in cities as Mariupol in the South defies military common sense.

Bypassing rather than clearing such towns is an option that was not exercised possibly based on Russian experience in Chechnya and Syria. “Strike Deep into the Rear,” was given lip service.

Russian armed forces also do not seem to have fought a networked battle in the modern sense due to lack of communications and challenges in command and control.

Ukraine has claimed loss of several senior Russian generals two and three stars on the battlefield, if these are true then while their valour can be commended, the necessity for leading from the front implied that the battle group commanders were not effective enough.

Not only professionalism of the Russian battle groups needs to be questioned but of soldiers given the reports of civilian massacre in Bucha and other Ukrainian cities with Mariupol yet to be cleared.

Professional military soldiers commit atrocities in war due to poor leadership and discipline.

Here reports of use of conscripts by the Russian Army comes up for questioning, particularly in view of the plan of the Indian Army to go in for short term Tour of Duty for soldiers.

The conscript and contract profile adopted by the Russian Army and performance in Ukraine may be studied before the proposal is finally accepted.

Logistics is another grey area with lack of adequate preparations thus leading to reports of Russian soldiers scavenging for food and water.

Overall, the Russian offensive in phase 1 can be said to be grossly under prepared, while success achieved in the East and the South was through use of brute force.

How did the Ukraine organize defence of their country in this phase, that’s another story?

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