• News
  • Columns
  • Interviews
  • BW Communities
  • Events
  • BW TV
  • Subscribe to Print
BW Businessworld

Lessons From Ukraine

The performance of the Russian military is of particular consequence to Indian forces which use weaponry similar to all that has proved ineffective in Ukraine

Photo Credit :


The ongoing Ukraine conflict has many useful lessons to offer. The crisis has seen a revival of geopolitics -- it could lead to a marked fragmentation in the international system, significantly diminish Russia and propel the rise of China further. There are valuable lessons for deterrence; the crisis also underlines the fact that ‘nuclear matters.’ The intended short and swift war (now turning into a long slog) has shone fresh light on the salience of the instrument of force in the calculus of power. 

Putin was winning the war in Ukraine till he chose to cross the Rubicon on the 24th of February this year. With relative successes in Georgia, Crimea and Syria, the Russian military was proving to be a rapidly learning and adaptive force. The Gerasimov Doctrine was working well and Putin seemed to be winning without fighting. His problems began when he chose to win by fighting. While the Russian military has had successes in the south and the east, it has suffered major reverses in the north; the battle of Kyiv certainly went the Ukraine way. Moscow’s successes in the south and east, however, will not only give Russia a critical land bridge to Crimea but could potentially turn Ukraine into a land locked, economically crippled, rump state. 

The operational paradigm

The Russian armour juggernaut had sent a chill down the spines of Western Bloc armies during the Cold War; Russian tank hordes, it was similarly estimated, would crush Ukraine – in tank numbers, Russia outnumbered Ukraine 6:1. When asked to perform real-world manoeuvres in the context of Ukraine, the Russian military, despite enjoying a 10:1 advantage over Ukraine in terms of defence spending, has indeed fallen short.

The role of drones, yet again, has been seminal. Russian tank columns that came close to Kyiv city and the airport were ambushed and stalled by drone attacks. Commercial drones were used effectively as eyes and ears to ascertain what was going on in the next village and along the next kilometre of the road. Drones saw Russian artillery preparing for strikes and warned civilians to shift to safer areas. The Bayraktar TB-2 drones proved to be extremely utilitarian in targeting Russian tanks, artillery, SAM launchers and logistic columns -- the last named proved particularly effective since lack of fuel and spares led to the abandonment of a large number of armour pieces by the Russians. The Puma (recce drones) and Switchblade (loiter) combination allowed the engagement of Russian tanks from a safe distance of 5-6 kilometres. Tanks with four-man crews inside were near hapless before these drone assaults. Tanks, heavy artillery and aerial platforms (the prima donnas thus far on the battlefield) have proved to be rather ineffective before a suite of small and emerging technologies (loiter, drones, javelins, stingers, EW and jammers). The abundance of javelins in the Ukraine theatre saw the anti-tank system being made available to regulars, personnel of the Territorial Army, irregulars and even civilians – this has taken a heavy toll on Russian armour. ERA panels have not proved very effective either. Softer vehicles have suffered even more grievously.  

The ‘tank moment’ in warfare, therefore, has been challenged yet again – this time by a lethal combination of anti-tank systems and a variety of drones. It has perhaps given way to the ‘drone moment.’ The Ukraine conflict gives as enough evidence, not to make any assertion, but to at least ask the question.  

Key takeways

The performance of the Russian military is of particular consequence to the Indian military – given the fact that a significant part of our inventory is similar. It may be wise to carry out a thorough audit with regard to operational concepts/ tactics, techniques and procedures as also equipment performance. 

We need to enhance our defence spending. In doing so, we may consider prioritising emerging technologies over legacy platforms. We need to revisit the equipping and leveraging of our tank fleet. Legacy tank platforms, being of limited utility must be discarded. The potency of our airpower to penetrate a very strong Chinese AD umbrella in the Western Theatre Command (WTC) merits realistic examination.  

Drones in modern conflict do seem to be the future. DMA must conceptualise and drive the induction of drones and related technologies into the three services, as part of a well-thought-out, integrated enterprise. Concurrently, transition of the Indian military to digital combat is long overdue and must be effected with speed. 

A glaring deficit in most recent conflicts has been a conceptual/ expectation gap between the political leadership and the military brass. A comprehensive exercise of scenario evaluation/ validation by the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, National Security Adviser with the top military brass to bring about congruence in thought and combat preparedness followed by a tri-services wargaming exercise is an absolute necessity. 

The theatre commands need to be set up with alacrity - unity of command and integrated operations need to be institutionalised. 

We need to move away from demonstrations/ operational discussions in sand model rooms to upscaled, live exercise with large formations and troops, ala, DIGVIJAY or MAYFEVER exercises of the past. Orchestration of large scale, joint formations is a stupendous challenge – that is one of the principal lessons from Ukraine. Testing our own preparedness in the stated dimension is now a strategic imperative.   

In terms of doctrinal focus, what should the Indian military do? Should it focus on strategic competition, grey zone, limited wars or all-out conflict? Well, the simple answer, budgetary constraints notwithstanding, is that we need to be equally proficient in competition and conflict. 

We may also like to revisit the metrics of our nuclear posture. From the conceptual underpinnings (transparency or ambiguity) to smarter vectoring (China’s FOBS poses fresh challenges), there is a need for fresh ideation, even possible re-structuring. 

Portents for the future

To the extent that the Russian assault on Ukraine was launched with the tacit nod, if not the explicit nudge-and-wink of China, it points to the enlarging contours of a ‘friendship without limits’. The Russian spearheading of a Sino-Russian pushback against the US seems to suggest that, for the moment at least, China is a winner. 

As far as India is concerned, our diplomatic skills will be put to severe test in navigating the Sino-Russian clinch, especially since our northern adversary is quite hell bent on diminishing its closest peer competitor (India). The fragility of the junior partner (Russia) in the Sino-Russian partnership in terms of its ability to extend military aid/ assistance is not in doubt today, but could be challenged at some point in the future. The performance of Russian equipment in Ukraine, in terms of combat delivery, too, has been far from encouraging. While the skills of the MEA in navigating these diplomatic challenges is not in doubt, the surest guarantor will be a well-heeled and well-oiled Indian military machine. To resource our critical military capacities, should we need to widen our options, there is little doubt that our interests will trump our beliefs. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tags assigned to this article:
Magazine Issue 5 Nov 2022

Lt General Raj Shukla (Retired)

The author is one of India’s foremost military strategists. He retired recently as the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Army Training Command (ARTRAC)

More From The Author >>