Two Years of The Ukraine War: Lessons For India

Peace is costly. Only thing is war costs more
– Shimon Peres,2015


As the war in Ukraine is entering its third year, few observers would have imagined that it would still be raging. After the dramatic swings in territorial control during 2022, when the Ukrainian military managed to recapture parts of the Kharkiv region and the city of Kherson, the war settled into a positional and attritional grind in 2023 with both the tempo of operations and the intensity reducing.

Inspite the momentum generated by Russia’s success in the first year of the conflict, the frontline is now practically static. The Ukrainian counter offensive petered out, before it really started. The frozen conflict is fast growing towards a fresh Maginot line.

The US is wrangling over funding, and although most European leaders remain firm in their support for Kyiv, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to maintain that same level of support among their public. Cost-of-living concerns are leading many Europeans to question the sustainability of continued funding for Ukraine, and the outbreak of war in the Gaza Strip has divided the West’s attention.

The Situation Today

In comparison to the previous year, Ukraine faces multiple challenges. The performance of the military has been average inspite of their possession of the best military hardware. The image was further tarnished due to the failure of its counter offensive. A Ukrainian victory will require strategic endurance and vision as well as the ability to sustain losses.

Apart from this the West—and particularly the US is struggling to provide the military aid Ukraine needs to sustain the fight. Ukraine cannot sustain without more Western military aid. The two key challenges are obvious. The first is how to get more weapons to Ukraine. The second is, how can Europe defend itself without US backing.

Russia on the other hand is now operating from a position of strength. After the capture of Bakhmut and the creation of the Surovikin Line they spent 2023 consolidating their positions. Coupled with improvements in shortening the time between target detection and battlefield strikes, the Ukrainians, are facing a battle-hardened adversary.

To overcome this evolved enemy, Ukraine was forced to adapt its tactics, technology, and operations, in part by sending some troops to Poland and other European countries for additional combined arms training before the counter offensive began. But Kyiv’s efforts were still insufficient.

This year the Russians have met with success by capturing Avdiivka. The now-destroyed city carved a bulge in the front line that undermined critical Russian logistical operations. It sits only a few miles from the city of Donetsk, which Russia had occupied in 2014. Its fall allows the Russian military to move troops and equipment more efficiently.

The issue is Ukraine cannot be faced with the prospect of having Western weapons without soldiers to operate them or soldiers without weapons in case the ‘air bubble’ regarding the supply of these weapons is overcome. Both these are disastrous. President Zelensky’s famous response “I need ammunition, not a ride” to a US offer to evacuate him in 2022 holds just as true today. Without a constant stream of military aid, Ukrainian resistance will be very hard to sustain.

Negotiating a Ceasefire

The Ukrainians fear that discussing ceasefire with the present dispositions, they would be negotiating from a position of weakness having lost a considerable portion of their land to Russia. The fear that Russia will simply regroup and attack again also remains. The Ukrainians are in no mood to compromise. Even if a third party gets both sides to a negotiating table it is unlikely that the Ukrainian public will accept permanent loss of territory.

Arguably, principles and unacceptable compromises are one of the main reasons for countries to wage long wars. The gap between idealists and realists persists. Ukraine needs to overcome its ideological barriers and trade some degree of sovereignty for peace. Converting the present line of contact into the’ LoC’ seems to be a workable solution to end the conflict.

Lessons for India

The Myth of Short Wars

The Ukraine War has upended many of the theories of war including one that modern wars will be short and swift. This has been particularly spoken of in the Indo-Pak context. Why is this war dragging on? The fact is that war is the worst way to settle political differences. As the costs of fighting becomes apparent, adversaries usually look for an agreement to end the conflict.

Many wars, of course, do last longer. There are many reasons why compromises fail to take place. These could range from public opinion against a compromise, to leaders thinking that a defeat or an end of a conflict could threaten their own position, when there is a lack of understanding on one’s own strength and that of the enemy as articulated by Sun Tzu many centuries ago, leading to underestimating the damaging consequences of the conflict and when there is a fear of an existential threat. This manifests itself with Russia being uncomfortable with NATO at their doorstep and Ukraine fearing the loss of sovereignty. All these factors have kept the war going.

Of course, the above reasons are rooted in a situation where there is not a clash of ideologies such as Communism versus Capitalism and autocracies versus liberal democracies or on religious grounds. Peace is impossible, if ideological barriers prevent negotiations. Such values and ideas will continue to play a leading role in the wars waged in the future. The West has grown more rights-based over time: resulting in their defending certain liberal principles, whatever the consequences.

International Pressure to End Conflicts

The fog of war lifts slowly, and as it lifts you find that even the granted did not happen. The Ukrainian forces initially exceeded everyone’s expectations by preventing the fall of Kyiv and by their dogged resistance and some successful campaigns. But then the Russians got going, and village after village fell. The whole world wanted it to end. Some began to broker peace. However, the war went on. Therefore, it is abundantly clear that war will end when the waring nations decide, and not by international pressure.

Most Europeans “are desperate to prevent a Russian victory” but do not believe Kyiv can win militarily. A European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) survey conducted across twelve EU countries revealed that most Europeans support Ukraine in its war against Russia but only 10% think Ukraine can win.

This pessimism about the war’s outcome was being fuelled by Ukraine’s failed counter offensive, a potential US policy shift and the possibility of Donald Trump getting into the White House. Could a Trump-led US abandon Ukraine in addition to the NATO.

The question that needs to be answered is for how long can Europe sustain the support for Ukraine? A fatigue is setting in as costs grow. Domestic concerns from inflation-led cost-of-living could also make it difficult for governments to spend huge sums on Ukraine. This thought is not new, but is increasingly being echoed and reflects a grim truth.

Power of a UN Veto

What has clearly come out from the two present ongoing conflicts is the helplessness of the international community represented by the UNSC, when a member of the P5, or a country which has the backing of the P5 is involved. The veto has exposed the core shortcoming in the UN.

The system was designed to prevent conflict between states and preserve stability through sovereignty. Yet those who designed the system also gave themselves the Veto. This has resulted in them dictating international politics in their favour. No wonder Brazil’s Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira stated that; “Multilateral institutions are not properly equipped to deal with the current challenges, as has been demonstrated by the Security Council’s unacceptable paralysis.”

Pakistan today is benefitting from China’s support at various international forums when it comes to blacklisting terrorists. Presently, Israel is benefitting from US support while conducting its offensive in Gaza. While India benefitted from the veto by USSR in 1971 in the face of the genocide by Pakistan, there is no doubt that we need to ensure the backing of a member of the P5 until UN reforms take place.

Both the above points make our position clear. No international pressure will make a difference and no UN is going to end a war. We are on our own.

Need To Develop and Sustain Hard Power

At its core, war is about power, who has it, who doesn’t, and who can effectively use it. The war in Ukraine is no exception. General Manoj Pande the Army Chief has clearly stated;” “The current Russia-Ukraine conflict provides some very valuable pointers. The relevance of hard power stands reaffirmed with land continuing to be the decisive domain of warfare and notion of victory still being land centric.” There is no doubt that the instrument of force has returned to the centre of the power calculus.

Countries need to develop hard power as deterrence based on their military capabilities to include weapon systems, training and doctrines backed by the resolve to use their military.

While Long-range precision fires have proved that distances do not guarantee safety, and air is no longer dominated just by manned aircraft. There is so much more. Technology has emerged as a new strategic arena of geo-political competition. However, come what may, the fact remains that you need boots and tracks on ground.

The very appearance of tanks over the horizon has a psychological impact on the enemy. Their employment is a fine art honed by meticulous planning and training. To seize and hold ground you need the king and queen of the battlefield, i.e., the Armour and the infantry. The war in Ukraine has not revealed anything fundamentally new about the tank. It has confirmed old lessons and reflected the challenges of armoured warfare. When there is peace the issue of armour getting redundant comes up time and again but moment there is war, countries clamour for armour, as witnessed in Ukraine where they have been clamouring for Chieftains, Leopards and Abrahms to ensure their safety.

Since the end of the Cold War and the advent of US-Russian arms control, the threat of nuclear weapons has become less salient. However, there has been certain signalling of nuclear weapons by Russia. US President Joe Biden also declared the risk of a nuclear armageddon to be at its highest level for 60 years, bringing the nuclear issue firmly back to the forefront. The issue of nuclear ‘guard rails’ by countries not part of the ‘nuclear club’ will no doubt have ramifications well after the conflict. Are nuclear capabilities the ultimate guarantor of national security?

Hard power also extends to relationships between states that are decisive in shaping conflict outcomes. While power is measured by looking at capabilities, such as military weapons or GDP. However, globalization and changes in technology have made it cheaper and easier for goods, services, and information to flow across borders and advance interconnectedness between countries, relationships such as alliances and trade networks have become as important to any assessment of national power as capability-based measures. Though interdependence can be a double-edged weapon yet, in today’s world, when two states compete, the one with stronger and more robust relationships may retain the upper hand, even in the face of capability imbalances. Hence relationships matter.

Self-Reliance Crucial to Sustaining and Winning Wars

One of the major takeaways is that India needs to wean away from import dependency. While the pursuit to infuse technology in our war fighting system indeed remains an enduring one, the conclusion that we can draw is that self-sufficiency in critical technologies and investment in R&D is an inescapable strategic imperative. The security of nations cannot be outsourced, nor can it be dependent on other nations.

Inadequacies in military–industrial complexes have come to light. As per reports North Korea has transferred more artillery ammunition to Russia than the West has been able to supply Ukraine. Further, the monthly consumption of some munitions is much more than can be produced in a year.

Possibly, the aspect of war wastage reserves is the greatest lesson one needs to learn from the Ukraine conflict. We have been cutting down our requirement of reserves, repeatedly stating that war will last only 10 days. Military officers have started believing in it and accordingly our war wastage reserves have been so catered for. This requires an urgent and immediate recalculation.

In India’s case the initiatives under ‘atmanirbhar’ have been transformational but a technologically enabled innovation driven, industrial base is a prerequisite to winning wars. However, we need to appreciate since self-reliance demands long term capital and personal investments and since it is also dependant on the private sector, the government needs to lay down consistent policies and ensure financial commitments.


The war in Ukraine is an example of a fight that grinds on, not because of strategic dilemmas alone but because both sides find the idea of termination of the conflict impossible.

The conflict has also established new benchmarks in the ways of modern warfare and demonstrated just how dangerous the world we are living in is. Countries therefore need to remain ‘fighting fit’ which involves building deterrence by developing hard power, backed by a strong military industrial base to ensure a fair degree of self-reliance.

It’s an old adage, that wars are world-shaping. Their outcomes are far-reaching: redrawing maps, establishing new fault lines, and ushering unprecedented changes. This war is proving to be no different.

One needs to be a realist. One needs to read and understand the environment we live in. You own a donkey, but everyone calls it a horse. Soon you too start believing that it is horse since that is what you hear day and night. However, do remember when push comes to shove, it will be a donkey you will be riding.


Maj Gen VK Singh, VSM was commissioned into The Scinde Horse in Dec 1983. The officer has commanded an Independent Recce Sqn in the desert sector, and has the distinction of being the first Armoured Corps Officer to command an Assam Rifles Battalion in Counter Insurgency Operations in Manipur and Nagaland, as well as the first General Cadre Officer to command a Strategic Forces Brigade. He then commanded 12 Infantry Division (RAPID) in Western Sector. The General is a fourth generation army officer.

Major General Jagatbir Singh was commissioned into 18 Cavalry in December 1981. During his 38 years of service in the Army he has held various command, staff and instructional appointments and served in varied terrains in the country. He has served in a United Nations Peace Keeping Mission as a Military Observer in Iraq and Kuwait.  He has been an instructor to Indian Military Academy and the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington. He is  a prolific writer in defence & national security and adept at public speaking.

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