The buzz from Ukraine in the past week heralds pull out of Russian armed forces from the West Bank of the Dnipro river thus vacating Kherson, the only provincial capital that was secured during the past almost nine months of the war in Ukraine which Russia continues to call as a, “Special Military Operation”.
The War has had many ups and downs, while Russian forces have pulled out of Kherson which is attributable to smart operational tactics by the Ukrainian Armed Forces who learnt fast in the past few months and were able to make a shift from defensive battles to a series of local offensives which were well planned and executed in an integrated manner.
From Kharkiv, in the North where Ukrainian forces rapidly pushed back Russians to the border with Belgorod, to Kherson in the south, while these have been two setbacks forced on the opponent, the harsh reality is that Russia continues to occupy almost 25 percent of Ukrainian territory.
While the Russian pull back from Kherson may be seen as an operational setback, this may not be the end of the war in Ukraine, unless there is an overall shift of objectives in the Kremlin for the time being.
NATO Secretary General Jon Stoltenberg was thus cautious when he warned on November 14 that Russia’s strength should not be underestimated. "We should not make the mistake of underestimating Russia. The Russian armed forces retain significant capabilities, as well as a large number of troops," Stoltenberg said during a joint news conference with Dutch government officials in The Hague as per Reuters.
It may be a cold calculus to be working on military lessons in the wake of immense humanitarian tragedy which may extend to the winters. With sub zero temperatures in Ukraine survival without heating is likely to place immense challenges on the large populace.
Yet examining military lessons maybe important as winter may be only an interlude to operations in the spring and summer of 2023 and thus what can be learnt so far and applied in the near future assumes importance – Here are some the key military lessons that are evident so far-
The Ten Lessons
Firstly, it is not over till its all over, thus the Kherson operational scenario is a developing one and may sustain through and beyond the winter.
As NATO Secretary General has remarked quoted above Russia continues to have substantial military capabilities that could be brought to battle in the post winter operations in 2023. Russian mobilisation in September is an indicator of continued ability to be able to garner substantial numbers to battle.
Secondly, coalitions win wars this is evident from the U.S. and western support to Ukraine being a key factor, which is not to take away from the operational and tactical brilliance of the Ukrainian armed forces who have been fast learners adapting to new systems such as the much vaunted HIMARS, Javelins, the BAE Systems 155 mm artillery guns and so on.
Russia which was a beneficiary of the US Lend Lease Act of 1941 appears to have been in denial of this important factor that led to the Soviet Union’s successes in rolling back Nazi Germany’s panzers.
Moreover, extensive information and intelligence architecture of the United States and other western countries such as UK is at the disposal of Ukraine thus facilitating a strategic and operational picture which would not have been feasible with Kyiv’s meagre resources in this sphere.
Thirdly maintaining a bridgehead across a large river as the Dnipro is to invite a military calamity, unless a substantial build up of forces is available to sustain and project beyond the same into the hinterland.
The Russian Armed Forces clearly lacked an operational plan for such a projection apart from adequate force levels thus as pressure from the Ukrainian armed forces increased, the pull back was inevitable.
Fourthly while strategists plan campaigns and tacticians win battles it is the logisticians who win wars.
Russian advance into Kherson placed the forces at the end of a long chain of supply going back to the hinterland to Rostov on the mainland. Russian logistics failures which had been exposed in the earlier phases of the war could not have kept pace with the troops in the frontline at Kherson.
Fifthly mobilisation to operational deployment of forces has a time lag, thus Russian mobilisation ostensibly of 300,000 in September can only fructify as a tactical edge post winter.
Sixthly a strategy that targets civilians causing casualties and loss of infrastructure only increases determination to fight back. This lesson was obvious from the Battle of Britain- Nazi Germany’s bombing of Great Britain which led to rallying of the British behind Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
A similar extension of support is evident to the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky who has been able to rally the nation to resist despite sustained hardship.
The winter will test the resolve and resilience of Ukrainians if Moscow sustains a campaign of targeting essential infrastructure.
Seventhly operational security has emerged as a major factor in Ukraine’s operational success as plans have been disseminated strictly on a need to know basis, access to operational areas restricted particularly to the media and a tight control over flow of information has been maintained.
Eighthly two models of information or perception management were evident. The Ukrainian model envisages promoting support of the government’s resistance and campaign with multiple objectives carried out in a masterly manner led by the President. A widespread digital network has facilitated dissemination even as missile and artillery attacks were underway.
Importantly actions contribute to perception, thus the determined resistance by the Ukrainian forces were also a part of the carefully orchestrated information campaign which would not have been possible if there had been sustained setbacks.
The Russian model has been that of denial of information with careful tailoring messages promoting the political and the military combination which is evident from the hurry with which Russian President Putin declared annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. The message to the Russian public was that sacrifices made were worth the losses.
Ninthly civil defence has an important role to play as was demonstrated by Ukraine’s organisation against Russian missile and artillery attacks while the true test may come about during the winter to sustain the public in the harsh snow and sub zero environment.
Tenthly, nuclear weapons whether strategic or non strategic [tactical as is commonly known] are unusable in the face of a threat that is non existential in nature.
Thus, Russia’s large nuclear arsenal, the many pre-emptive signalling undertaken by Moscow only evoked a strong international response against the use. China’s President Xi Jinping, a strong ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin was vocal in keeping the war conventional first in a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Schulz and then US President Joe Biden.