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Lessons of Ukraine War: Clausewitz is Back

On the Russian side Moscow’s vast military industrial complex was exposed with many chinks resulting in a reach out to the most unlikely quarters Iran and North Korea for weapons and munitions support.

3 mins read
Clausewitz while in Prussian service [ Photo Credit: Wikipedia]

A year after, the war in Ukraine has invited diverse reactions from across the World. The two warring sides are continuing to look at successful culmination by attaining political objectives. There is a consensus in the military community internationally however that a closure to the War is not in sight in the near future.

At the larger geopolitical level division in blocks – West versus Russia/China was clearly evident at the G 20 Finance Minister’s conclave in Bengaluru, India over the week end. A joint communique could not be issued as mention of the Ukraine War was opposed by Moscow and Beijing jointly. India’s attempts at mediation as the G 20 chair could not achieve a breakthrough.

On the military front these ‘blocks,” have solidified in terms of provision of support to Ukraine in the form of a strong western alliance with an arms supply of billions of US dollars that will sustain Ukrainian armed forces in their ambition to regain lost territories including Crimea.

On the Russian side Moscow’s vast military industrial complex was exposed with many chinks resulting in a reach out to the most unlikely quarters Iran and North Korea for weapons and munitions support.

China has remained out of the arms grid so far and is not likely to provide lethal weapons concerned over what impact this may have on economic relations with the United States and Europe. An economically weakened at least partially Beijing may not seek to antagonise the West by providing arms to Russia, which will also pull the rug of the high moral ground attempted to be projected by China of abhorrence of lethal means for conflict resolution. If China does so to support Russia there may be repercussions that will go beyond the US and Europe to the many developing countries where Chinese projects are ongoing and Beijing is mindful of the same.

But what about the military lessons of the Ukraine War-

Firstly, Clausewitz the doyen of conventional warfare – fought by military of one state against another is back.

There are many military analysts who had written the obituary of conventional warfighting as it has been known since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

Coining new phrases as Hybrid War, Three Warfare Strategies, Grey Zone Warfare and so on they had advised a focus away from tanks and guns.

Russia abandoned the Gerasimov Doctrine the chief proponent of which was Valery Gerasimov the longest serving Chief of Staff of the Russian armed forces and embraced Clausewitz.

Alas! The proponents of New Way of War were proven wrong for in Ukraine it was not cyber or information that made a difference but the artillery shell and the missiles the roaring of tank guns and close in fighting in urban areas as the Azov Steel plant.

This is not to undermine the value of information, communication and media as well as other addendums that influenced Ukrainian people as well as the global community to support Kyiv, yet had the Ukrainian forces folded up as the Russians expected them, no amount of information tweaking could have saved the country.

Secondly Clausewitzian trinity of war – violence, chance and reason survives. Exemplified in the resistance by the government, people and the armed forces that dictates the outcome of wars.

While well versed in this trinity Russia attempted to target all three elements at various stages of the War so far but has failed and is unlikely to succeed in the near term.

Thirdly as Napoleon said moral is to material is to three is to one – this axiom has also been proven by the Ukrainian armed forces and the people at large who withstood the brunt of the fighting suffering heavy losses in turn yet the wondrous counter offensive undertaken in Kharkiv and Kherson proved Napoleon right apart from many other instances.

Fourthly integrated operations are the essence of success on the modern battlefield while artillery is the God of War, armour the King and Infantry traditionally known as the Queen – only combined arms can win success.

Importantly the air arm will also assume important though it did not receive as much attention due to limited employment for reasons which need to be gone into in detail in due course.

Fifthly logistics once again proved a key factor – an underprepared Russia military could not make a breakthrough in Kyiv in the initial months of February – March 2022 due to poor logistics preparation.

Sixthly just as in the Second World War – alliances win wars while the Soviet Union fought with the West in the 1940’s today the successor Russia is on the other side.

Ukraine supported by the West has survived without this support a collapse would have been inevitable and in the future too any weakness of support to Kyiv will spell disaster.

Seventhly security of information, operations and preparations continues to be an important factor. Ukraine’s curtain of security was evident as information flow was controlled even from the closest allies.

Eighthly, unmanned aerial vehicles commonly known as the drone – suicide and other forms is here to stay. First making a decisive mark in December 2020 in the Azerbaijan – Armenia war, in Ukraine multiple use of drones facilitated tactical advantage to the side which could employ the same effectively. Yet the limitations of drones to create strategic success continues to be limited.

Ninthly asymmetry has a decided advantage be it against the drones and the cost benefit calculation of use of inexpensive drones versus expensive missiles to bring them down is a dimension that needs to be explored further.

Finally the jury is still out if the supply of a bouquet of tanks, guns and air defence missiles provided by the West to Ukraine can be effectively managed through the training, operational and logistics cycle by Ukrainian armed forces.

On the flip side the depth of reserves manpower and military material of Russia will also be under test.

Rahul K Bhonsle

Brigadier (Retired) Rahul K Bhonsle, MSc, MPhil, MBA is an Indian army military veteran with 30 years active field experience in counter militancy and terrorism operations. He is presently Director of Sasia Security-Risks.com, a South Asian security risk and knowledge management consultancy which specializes in future scenarios, military capacity building and conflict trends in South Asia.

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