Putin and Modi, 2016

On Ukraine War, India Balances on Fine Line Between Russia and West

August 26, 2022
Rakesh Sharma

When visiting India in 1955, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev famously remarked in Srinagar, "We are so near that if ever you call us from the mountain tops, we will appear at your side." Khrushchev lost his post in 1964, but subsequent generations of leaders in New Delhi and Moscow kept the partnership between their two countries strong even after the Soviet Union’s dissolution. In fact, India has developed such extensive relations with post-Soviet Russia in political-diplomatic terms and military domains that the result is a strong bilateral strategic partnership. At the same time, however, the last two decades saw India build an increasingly strong relationship with the West in general and with the U.S. in particular (as, by the way, Russia pursued a close relationship with China). As a result, the war Russia launched earlier this year in Ukraine has confronted India with difficult strategic choices as it strives to balance relationships with Washington and with Moscow while competing with Beijing. However, such balancing should not prevent India from inferring lessons from the Russian-Ukrainian war, which will have significant long-term implications for India’s aforementioned balancing efforts.

Lessons Learned from the Ukraine War So Far

The Indian military believes in the adage that the best teacher of war is war itself, albeit brutal and costly. India’s military strategists are, therefore, watching the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war closely and I am no exception. In my view, the war has so far produced seven major lessons.

One: Pre-war optimism can backfire, but the offensive side can limit the damage if it adapts early in the game. There seem to have been significant political constraints in use of combat force by the Russian military in the initial stages of the war. Perhaps these constraints were shaped by Moscow’s expectations of an early capitulation of the Ukrainian government. The Russian armed forces did not initially rely on advanced offensive strategies, which typically feature mass fire, improved Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capabilities, a wide array of firing platforms and which require speed, surprise and integrated combined arms maneuver forces. The quantum of combat power applied by the Russian armed forces against Kyiv and its suburbs as well as against Sumy, through Belarus and Russia, was grossly inadequate to capture them. From this I conclude that the political leadership in Moscow may have initially wanted its military to focus on coercing the adversary to submit to Russia’s will rather than on capturing territory in the initial stage of what Moscow, perhaps, hoped would be a quick war. There were apparently no plans for using heavy firepower to cause mass destruction in Kyiv, Sumy and Kharkiv (in contrast to use of such firepower against Ukrainian troops entrenched along the line of contact in Donbas). The quick political endgame conceived prior to the war in Moscow’s corridors of power seems to have influenced the Russian military’s appreciation on the utilization of combat force.

The Russian forces launched their multi-pronged offensive against Ukraine on Feb. 24, but as soon as mid-March, it became apparent that there would be no quick capitulation of Zelensky’s government. As a result, the Russian military’s need to adapt to the stiffer-than-expected resistance of the Ukrainian forces (and the Russian forces’ own logistical and other difficulties) changed the Kremlin’s view on what a political endgame could realistically look like. As a result, the Russian political leadership conceded to its military’s retreat from the suburbs of Kyiv followed by a shift in focus to eastern and southern parts of Ukraine.

Two: Never underestimate terrain, especially urban terrain. Terrain plays a tremendous role in territorial wars, and Russia grossly underestimated the combat force necessary for conducting urban warfare around Kyiv (if they wanted to take the city without flattening it). Urban warfare is a very different kettle of fish. Recent examples of urban warfare, Grozny and Fallujah, among others, featured great devastation and there was no reason to believe warfare in the cities of Ukraine, which is a modern urban state, with very large cities and large suburbs, would be different. Urban warfare is highly manpower- and platform-intensive, and the defender has major advantages. There was a serious shortfall of infantry within the Russian forces, as reserves were not mobilized and it was generally not allowed to send conscripts into combat. With a paucity of infantry and serious damage to mechanized forces by Ukrainian irregular forces, it was not possible to pursue urban warfare to capture such large cities and suburbs.

Three: To survive, the tank must reinvent itself. Many military thinkers have already opined about the demise of the tank, and the war in Ukraine shows they may be on to something. The urban environment, modern technology(such as Javelins) and irregular warfare practiced by the Ukrainian defenders has created a serious problem for Russian tanks (all of which, by the way, suffer from the same design flaw: they carry ammunition in the turret, thus increasing the possibility that the crew will perish if the tank is hit and the ammunition detonates.)Use of tanks in Ukraine has clearly highlighted the limitations of mechanized warfare that need to be addressed in future conflicts.

Four: If skies are contested, balance the use of warplanes with drones and missiles. The tactical air force has been conservatively used in this war. Warplanes have been avoiding low level operations, and in the future would require advanced defensive aids to survive. Attack helicopters may have limited use in contested airspace. MANPADS and S300/400 type AD systems have pushed the aircraft away and increased reliance on missiles. The Russian air force was unsuccessful in achieving suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) in Ukraine in the early stages of the war, which denied its operational use in support of ground operations. The balance had to be achieved by use of drones and missiles, and subsequently long-range artillery.  

Five: High-precision munitions matter more than ever. Major powers’ militaries have been progressing toward increased use of high-precision munitions. The armed forces of the U.S. and its allies used those frequently in the second Iraq war, as well as in Afghanistan. The People’s Liberation Army is increasingly reliant on deployments of missiles and other high-precision attack systems in its efforts to coerce Taiwan militarily. In fact, the PLA has established and operates a separate branch devoted to these weapons, the PLA Rocket Force. Most recently, the lack of high-precision weapons has been acutely felt among the Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. It is time for the Indian armed forces to examine creating an Integrated Missile Force.

Six: When it comes to logistics, don’t push, pull. Much has been said about poor logistical planning by the Russians, whose military has chosen the system of push logistics, whereas Western armies typically rely on the pull system when it comes to managing inventory as it is distributed to combat forces. Operations of the Russian push network in the Ukraine war is based on data forecasts. It delivers supplies based on pre-determined requirements. That system is flawed, in my view, as demand for combat-enabling supplies such as rations, fuel, ammunition and spare parts are difficult to forecast because of the nature and unpredictability of conflict. The actual demand for items for the forward combat echelons is never truly known, only projected. The pull system is preferable, in my view, as it relies on demand-driven data: requirements are made and exact quantities are delivered. That said, pull systems can also be criticized for being slower because of the time required to deliver supplies to the requesting forces. We need to learn from large operations that have happened in this century, including the Russian-Ukrainian war, and contemplate transitioning to pull model logistics and avoid creating cumbersome logistics echelons. This will require logistics automation, dedicated communication and must be practiced during peacetime. 

Seven: People matter. Human resource is critical to warfare, very difficult to train and retrain. The Russian “special military operation” was so named to avoid mass mobilization and calling in reservists. The Russian battalion tactical groups hence remained sub-strength, with reservists unavailable and conscripts pulled out as they could not be used in combat by law. Ukraine’s success in urban areas also rested upon the trained reservists who joined the Territorial Brigades and undertook the task of irregulars. This is a critical element of analysis for the armed forces in India, presently on the cusp of immense changes.

War Illuminates Three Areas for Further Study

Looking beyond the aforementioned seven lessons, I also see three areas for further study that have emerged in the context of the war in Ukraine.

One: Is smaller better? Major armies of the world—U.S., Chinese and Russian—have gone in for combined teams at the tactical level, with Brigade Combat Teams (U.S.), Combined Arms Teams (PLA) and Battalion Tactical Groups (Russian). The success of these teams and groups ought to be studied and analyzed. India has not yet thought about converting to combined teams at the unit level. While there is some thinking and testing on what is being called Integrated Battle Groups, India is learning from the war in Ukraine and from the U.S. on the success of combined arms units. 

Two: How do we uphold humanitarian law? There has been a distinctive emphasis on issues of morality, rules of warfare, human rights, humanitarian corridors and the evacuation of civilians from the thick of battle zones, as well as war crimes investigations in many  recent inter-state conflicts, and the war in Ukraine will be no exception. There is need to further delve into and study application issues of International Humanitarian Law, and moral issues of warfare. The Ukraine war has witnessed what I view as newer concepts of humanitarian corridors from war zones for evacuation of civilians, like from Mariupol. Also, while the war is ongoing, international war crimes investigators were already investigating alleged war crimes, like in the Kyiv region’s town of Bucha. International public opinion is greatly cognizant on morality issues and this trend requires further investigation.

Three: Information warfare (IW) and information dominance need to be studied rigorously. Virality triumphs veracity, and negative information becomes viral in no time. The creation of narratives is a process that mandates specialization and requires specialists, or social media will become the handmaiden of inimical elements and adversaries. The role of IW and its effect need further deliberation. 

Long-term Implications of the Ukraine War for India

India has followed a policy of strategic autonomy, which must not be taken as isolationism, for a long time. As part of that policy, New Delhi has been walking a fine line, balancing between Washington and Moscow. On one side,  India has been building a relationship with the U.S. that is multifaceted, intensive and growing. On the other side, India has been maintaining deep and strategic ties  with Russia, ties that have been tested by time.

Such balancing was the case prior to the Ukraine war, and it was further accentuated after the outbreak of war. Despite Western criticism of India’s stance on that war, India has maintained firm foreign policy positions. These, like urging “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states” and seeking “immediate cessation of violence and hostilities,” are a reiteration of its traditional policies. Nevertheless, the ongoing war will have long term implications for India’s efforts to balance its relationships with the U.S. and with Russia while also grappling with the rise of its arch-rival, China.


Rakesh Sharma

Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Rakesh Sharma, an infantry officer, served in the Indian Army for forty years and commanded the Ladakh Corps. He currently holds the Gen. Bipin Rawat Chair at the United Services Institution of India and is a distinguished fellow with the Vivekananda International Foundation and Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by Kremlin.ru shared under a Creative Commons license.