Clipped from: https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/lessons-from-a-year-of-war-123022600915_1.html
Nine errors from Moscow, and one thing Kyiv got right
It has been a year since Russian tanks, airplanes and paratroopers crossed the border into Ukraine in the largest land invasion in Europe since World War II. Unlike the invasion of Poland in 1939, however, Ukraine did not fall within weeks. Given how power is concentrated in the Russian Federation, the decision to invade — as well as the nature, scale and prosecution of the war that followed — must eventually be the responsibility of the top leadership, and of the president himself. If the decision, and the war, have not gone as planned, there are surely specific errors of judgement that we should be able to identify. And, if we can identify them, we can perhaps seek to learn from them.
Here is a partial list:
- Consult as widely as possible. As the Financial Times reported this week, even the Russian foreign minister was unaware of the planned invasion until a few hours before it occurred. The president only informed the political and economic elite of his decision when it had already been taken.
- The more unusual a decision, the wider the consultation should be. Some actions —the invasion, say, or India’s demonetisation — are unexpected precisely because few rational observers viewed them as sensible options. If such decisions are made without wide consultations, it is more likely that basic reasons why they are bad ideas will not be heard by the decision-makers.
- Be very certain about your implementation capacity. The Russian military’s relative incapability came as a shock not just to global observers, but to many within their own establishment. It is very unlikely that the invasion would have been signed off on if, for example, the Russian weakness with combined arms combat operations had been properly understood. Also overlooked: The quality of arms in stock, the quality of maintenance of equipment such as trucks, and the fact that some stocks were only on paper.
- Check your decision isn’t informed by wishful thinking. Perhaps central to Moscow’s overconfidence was the idea that the Ukrainian state, its government and indeed its very national identity were a hollow shell that would collapse the moment the slightest force was applied. The failure of this assumption may well have been more shocking to the Kremlin than even its discovery of the military’s ineffectiveness. Pro-Moscow informants from Ukraine — such as the oligarch and politician Viktor Medvedchuk — were very confident of this narrative. But when the tanks crossed the border even prominent members of Mr Medvedchuk’s own party made it clear that they were on Kyiv’s side, not Moscow’s.
- History is a treacherous guide. According to the FT, the Russian foreign minister told oligarchs a year ago that his president had no advisors other than “Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great”. All three rulers had expanded the borders of the Moscow czarate, but at a time when their heartland’s population appeared limitless as compared to its adversaries, not true of rapidly shrinking Russia today. Today’s Russian Federation has also built up the memory of World War II, what it calls the Great Patriotic War, into a cult that teaches that it is capable of solo victory over the world.This might have been true of the Soviet Union, but is not true of the Russian Federation.
- Don’t assume your opponent will be static. In 2014, when the Russian Federation last bit off a chunk of the country, the Ukrainian military was generally revealed as weak and unprepared. That was no longer the case in 2022. And, indeed, over the course of the past year, Ukrainians in the field have shown not just the ability to learn, but an aptitude for improvisation with widely different weapons and platforms. This makes the Russian military’s task harder with every passing month. Meanwhile, Russia’s main paymasters in the European energy sector have moved more swiftly to cut Russian hydrocarbons out of their future energy mix than Moscow could have expected.
- Personnel choices should be about competence and not a cover for policy shifts. The reasons for changes at the command level in the Russian military are very opaque. But, in many cases, it seems clear that they are at worst the result of bureaucratic and political infighting and at best because the approach to the war has been silently changed without telling anyone. When Sergei Surovikin was put in charge in October, it was assumed that it was actually a cover for tactics that prioritised defence behind prepared structures and the incorporation of private militia into military planning. When he was replaced by Valery Gerasimov in January, it may have been a signal of a planned “winter offensive” into Ukrainian-held territory and a reduced role of private military contractors. Neither really worked, in part because of the lack of clarity and transparency.
- Don’t expect equal partnerships with those who can swallow you whole. As the war progresses, Europe becomes more independent of Russian energy, and the Russian military will be more and more depleted. It will be forced to rely ever more on the People’s Republic of China. This is not the 1950s, however, when the USSR was the senior partner in the era of the Korean War. Today, Beijing can expect suzerainty from Moscow and not the other way around. Will the “Russian world” become just a subset of Beijing’s world? A few days ago, it was reported that the Ministry of Natural Resources in Beijing had issued new map regulations which require eight places along the border with Russia — including Vladivostok and Sakhalin — to be given old Chinese place names in addition to the official Russian ones.
- Don’t raise the stakes without the ability to follow up. Perhaps the most humiliating passage in the war for the Russian leadership will have been the retreat from the south, especially the city of Kherson on the north bank of the Dnepr, just weeks after a ceremony in which Kherson and its province were formally “annexed” by the Russian Federation. Before the annexation, a retreat from Kherson could have been just tactics; after, it was the abandonment of Russian land to the enemy.Illustration: Ajay MohantyI find it hard to believe the Russian leadership would have decided to invade a year ago if it could have foreseen such humiliations — and what it would do to Russia’s place in the world order.
- Finally, what of the other side? Are there any leadership lessons to be learned from Ukraine’s unexpectedly stiff resistance? I would choose one, but it’s a biggie:
- Ask for ammunition, not a ride. The biggest reason that Ukraine did not collapse this week last year was that its leadership remained visibly committed and relatively confident. Many of us, thinking of the first hours of the invasion, remember first the Ukrainian president’s seconds-long video with members of his cabinet and advisors from the streets of Kyiv saying “we are here”. The contrast between the disengaged leadership in the Kremlin and the Ukrainians in harm’s way is perhaps, in the end, the most powerful explanation for how this last year of war unfolded.
The writer is head of the Economy and Growth Programme at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi