Doctrinal lessons from the Russia - Ukraine War

Recent analyses of the Russia-Ukraine war have ranged from talking about flawed Russian strategies, outdated tactics, and the role of technology in future wars to the centrality of territorial control and the alternative view that war is an instrument of political assertion, not limited to capturing land. While these analyses illuminate a strategic perspective, doctrinal lessons must be addressed.

First, sustainable political power emanates from the economy, not the barrel of a gun. The classical objective of any military commander in a war is to capture and hold the ground of tactical importance, or GTI in military jargon. The textbook definition of GTI is ground whose loss will render the defender incapable of fighting a successful battle.

At a tactical level, GTI could be a commanding height, such as Siachen, an axis control, such as Kargil, or beachheads such as Normandy during World War II. At strategic levels, GTI signifies the centre of gravity of the war. For instance, the Allied Powers wrested GTI with the destruction of German industrial warfighting capability. GTI can also be intangible elements such as war fatigue, the reason why the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union were driven out of Vietnam and Afghanistan, respectively.

However, at the doctrinal level, nations have an overarching policy of economic dominance and/or degradation towards their adversaries. While the former president of China, Mao Zedong, coined the aphorism that political power flows from the barrel of a gun, his successors realised that guns and war need a strong economy. The victorious and vanquished pay a heavy price during and after a war. Being economically more robust than the adversary and hurting the latter is the essence of all wars. And it is in that context that two adversaries frame their respective doctrines.

Second, wars are about the economy and control over resources. Pakistan follows a low-intensity, deep State and seditious doctrine towards India. With a relatively low investment in terror, agent provocateur and sedition sponsorships, it forces India to spend vast amounts on stabilising Kashmir while preventing potential economic leveraging of that vast swathe of Indian territory.

Stationing a third of Indian security forces to prevent the havoc caused by a few terrorists is a win from the Pakistani perspective. While successes such as the liquidation of terrorists or destruction of terror camps trigger tactical celebrations, they disguise the fact that Pakistan deploys a minuscule fraction of the resources to destabilise the region at will. India, on the other hand, expends massive resources to maintain a fragile stability.

Similarly, the 2008 Mumbai attacks started the diversion of resources required for nation-building into security expenditures. That economic bleed is a strategic form of “controlling” territory or damaging the enemy without physical occupation.

China has a far more insidious, all-encompassing, multi-pronged doctrine while dealing with India. The Chinese doctrine is insidious because it has systematically infiltrated the Indian economic, technological and financial ecosystems so profoundly that any hostility towards China will hurt India much more.

Despite the rhetoric after the 2020 Galwan Valley incident, our economic dependence on China and imports have only increased. Peeling off the layer of bravado will reveal how much Chinese components, finance and input materials fuel the Indian economy. Also, given the economic, military and world heft disproportionality between the two, any conflict may not end well for India.

China's tactic of salami-slicing Indian territory doesn't carry expansionist intent per se. Taiwan and the South China Sea are far bigger prizes than the desolate wastelands of Galwan. This has little to do with controlling territory. Instead, it is to keep an inordinate number of Indian forces tied down and bleeding - which we can ill afford. Once again, we are being made to outspend to stay in our own territory. This is a lever China can crank up anytime to imperil the Indian political establishment and compel acquiescence.

Three, war as a tool of political assertion usually fails. As an instrument of political assertion - whether internal or external - war is a notoriously bad option; apart from wreaking misery on millions for generations, it usually doesn't deliver on political assertion either. Like many world leaders before him, Russian President Vladimir Putin got it wrong despite being a military man. Under his watch, the second strongest army in the world has been reduced to the second strongest military in Ukraine. The retreat from Kherson could be for Putin what the Battle of the Bulge was for Hitler - the beginning of the end.

And, that is happening largely because Putin lost touch with reality. He started believing in his propaganda and overplayed his hand one too many times. Senior commanders and ministers who should have been counselling against the misadventure or, more importantly, the state of preparedness and morale of the troops failed to do so and caused the unnecessary slaughter of soldiers and misery.

Putin overestimated the shelf life of his war-rating popularity and has now opened a second front within Russia, which can have serious global repercussions. If Russia does not win this war conclusively, renegade provinces will renew their separatism. A weakened Russia threatens India's national security, given our military dependence on it. It also pushes India further into US influence as a riposte to China. No matter how it ends, Ukrainians and Russians will suffer for generations, the region will be fractured, and all global concerns such as the climate crisis will be overshadowed.

The current generation destroys the next generation's well-being by choosing war as an option for political assertion. The countries with the third and fourth strongest armies in the world should heed that lesson.

Raghu Raman is the founding CEO, NATGRID