A man carries shopping bags as heavy smoke from a warehouse destroyed by Russian bombardment casts shadows on the road outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 24, 2022. (AP)
The eyeballs are all concentrated on the missiles, rockets and shells landing on Ukraine’s cities. Tanks continue to remain lined up away from those cities and Russian infantrymen are so far desisting from approaching the major built-up areas to assault and capture them. This war, launched by President Vladimir Putin a month ago, on February 24, is proving to be quite different. It’s not classically conventional and is veering towards combinations: hybrid, conventional and grey zone, all rolled in one.
There are a couple of domains which appear to be characterising the war, now that it’s seen to be going beyond the conventional mode. The Russians, beset with demographic problems which prevent them from accepting too many fatal casualties, are looking at the employment of foreign fighters or simply paid fighters to overcome this problem. A figure of 18,000 Syrian fighters was recently mentioned; probably a quid pro quo for Russia’s assistance from 2015 till the defeat of ISIS. In addition, there are Chechen fighters who are not regulars in the Russian Army. These elements bring shades of disorder in what would have been conventional operations with military order of battle. The fighting norms are also different in the context of the ratios of troops employed, while ruthlessness is also of a higher order. Humanitarian considerations are much lower in priority as the rules of war-fighting seldom apply. The longer this war prolongs, the more the reliance on such elements will increase.
On Ukraine’s side, there are reports that US contractual elements have been training the army and a constant supply of anti-tank weapons and shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles have been making their way to the arena for fairly long; with the success gained by small teams using them effectively at the periphery of urban areas, and many more missiles are said to be in the pipeline.
These personnel may not fit the classic definition of mercenaries but they are deeply involved in training, organising, maintenance of equipment and even logistics; and interior lines available to the Ukrainians are being fully exploited.
Electronic intelligence gathered by these elements with sophisticated equipment has probably helped in homing fire on to command locations of Russian formation commanders; six of whom have reportedly been killed.
Companies like Mosaic and Blackwater are known for their capability in organising resistance, evacuating people from battle zones, with other tasks ranging from armed missions such as convoy protection to feeding and housing troops at military bases. Much of the success being achieved in Ukraine’s fierce resistance and ability to counter the Russian troops’ ground movement has been ascribed to the organisation and leadership brought to the ground by these elements.
So, if the war prolongs with Vladimir Putin unable to gracefully accept the inability of the Russian Army to make headway, it could well turn out to be a war between irregulars. A taste of this existed in Bosnia over 25 years ago. A proxy war with a relatively unique model is likely to emerge, with the potential of this going fairly out of control, with unpredictable consequences. With relatively low levels of control over the irregular elements, especially if some Middle East extremist groups sneak into the conflict zone, it will be difficult to prevent the flow of these into Europe. Post-conflict turbulence is almost certainly guaranteed.
We are also witnessing a high-profile information war blitz by Nato to help Ukraine. Eyeballs across the world are being captured by narratives put on the print and electronic media, that is then further spread via the social media. With special emphasis on humanitarian issues involving displacement of populations, destruction of homes, maternity hospitals under attack and a constant motivational barrage by Ukraine’s leaders to resist and not give in, the information domain is being successfully pursued by Nato and Ukraine.
Unfortunately, little efforts have been shown or any urging projected to put an end to hostilities; the peace cause at present is relatively far behind in priority, with resistance and strikes being the priority. With 142 nations at the UN backing Ukraine and condemning Russia’s invasion, the information domain clearly lies in favour of Nato. Their intent of targeting Russia’s military and civil population through the social media may not have yet penetrated, but sooner than later technologies will probably facilitate the piercing of the "iron curtain" that has been created once again by Russia to promote opaqueness. Russia has imposed a ban on Facebook and Instagram. It does not have equivalent instruments which can carry its messages internationally. More Russians are now using virtual private networks, or VPNs, to get around governmental restrictions on the social media. The demand for VPNs in Russia was much higher on March 14 than before the fighting began. Over 15,000 Russian protesters have been arrested in the past three weeks as new laws have criminalised public statements about Ukraine that do not align with the Kremlin's official view of what it calls the "special military operation". How far and fast can Nato and the Ukrainian information war reach the Russian public, especially with the main tools absent, will also contribute to the pressure which will be generated internally on the Russian leadership.
Theoretically Russia, as one of the world’s most militarised powers, should face no problems regarding reserves of munitions. However, the organisation for the delivery of this and other logistics appears to be reasonably inefficient. The war’s prolongation will see the employment of Special Forces by both sides to reduce each other’s war-fighting stamina. Ukraine has lost a fair quantum of reserves but the supply chain is open as weapons and equipment are pumped in through the bordering Nato countries. Russia has so far concentrated only on the blockade from the Black Sea, while the western routes are all open. Focusing on these to prevent the ingress of wherewithal will adversely affect efforts around cities, although Russia could comfortably employ its Air Force and leave the neutralising of the cities to gun, missile and rocket units. It may not wish to up the ante any more than what already exists.
Finally, political and military objectives at such a stage get obfuscated and need to be reworked from the original. Russia may seek a face-saver through the eventual capture of one or two cities, retain full control over entire Donbass and execute the Black Sea blockade more rigorously. Regime change may no longer remain an objective. None of this may, however, achieve conflict termination; a proxy war for some time seems to be almost guaranteed.