It’s time to rewrite the war playbook | Business Standard Column

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Why did the think-tanks, the military experts and the policy wonks get the Russia-Ukraine war so wrong?

Devangshu Datta

Seven months into the Ukraine War, it’s enlightening to note how wrong many experts were. In February, it was assumed the Russian invasion force would roll through Ukraine in a few weeks.

All the data suggested an overwhelming advantage to Russia. Russia’s population (144 million) is 3.5 times that of Ukraine (44 million). Russian per capita of $10,219 (2021) was over four times that of Ukraine ($2,450). Those things count — the smaller, poorer country rarely wins wars.

Apart from nuclear weapons, the Russians apparently had overwhelming conventional superiority. Ukraine has no navy to speak of, and very limited maritime access. Ukraine also has a small, obsolete air force, which can’t match up to Russia’s huge inventory of aircraft and choppers. Russian armour and artillery outnumbers Ukraine’s equivalents by six times.

Moreover, Russia’s staff planners should possess digital maps of every metre of Ukraine, and that means it could plan the campaign in detail. As one of the largest producers of oil, gas and metals, Russia could also be expected to move troops quickly, and rapidly replace destroyed equipment and depleted ammunition.

Ukraine is ideal tank country with only a few natural obstacles like rivers. It’s suitable for fast manoeuvres by mechanised forces led by armoured thrusts. We saw that in World War II when the same region featured some of the largest battles.

Given the consensus, initial policy responses were concerned with the following: What would the world do once Russia had taken control of Ukraine? And, what would Russia’s next actions be?

Instead, we’ve witnessed bitterly effective resistance and surprising incompetence from the Russians. Russia’s goals now appear more limited. The Russian strategy is to slowly carve up east Ukraine and flatten urban areas with artillery. Meanwhile, aided by massive supplies of Nato arms, the Ukrainians are inflicting significant damage.

Instead of a World War II type blitzkrieg, this is now a World War I trench-war of footslogging troops. Small gains of territory will only come at great cost. Guessing the outcome is hard, especially given earlier misjudgements. Russia could still achieve its objectives, (whatever those are), but it will pay much more than it bargained for. Ukraine will be devastated for years. Russian gross domestic product has shrunk by an official 4 per cent and it will shrink more as the conflict progresses.

Given globalisation, the pain of the Ukraine war has spilled over to the farthest corners. There are Africans on the verge of starvation due to disruptions of wheat exports; Western Europe is bracing for several bad winters, given the disruptions to Russian gas supply. Other global supply chains in metals, semiconductors, paper, among others, are also broken.

There’s a mad scramble to create alternative supply chains. But this will take time and there could be catastrophic consequences for climate change. Germany is considering un-mothballing nuclear plants and moving back to thermal coal, for example.

Social media also lends a new dimension to geopolitics. Information and disinformation is flowing on all sides. The fighting is in populated terrain where everyone has smartphones and access to social media. There are dozens of professional journalists, and thousands of citizens reporting their own little slices of conflict.

Social media is inevitably skewed in perspective. People create their own bubbles by consuming stuff that reinforces their personal preconceptions. By now, most people have at least a vague understanding that some of their personal misery — inflation and unemployment — stems from the Ukraine war. Since a large percentage of the world also holds elections, those opinions will influence politicians who will obviously try to maximise their chances of winning the next election.

Given the misjudgements of so many experts, there might be a re-writing of strategic playbooks. Why did the think-tanks, the military experts and the policy wonks get this wrong? What did they miss? In the 1960s Zhou Enlai was asked his opinion of the success of the French Revolution (which took place in 1789) and he responded, it was too early to tell. We need quicker and less equivocal answers in the 21st century, or else the policy responses will be wrong and they will come too late.

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