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The Military Lessons of the Russia-Ukraine War


Kartik Bommakanti, Ed., “The Military Lessons of the Russia-Ukraine War,” ORF Special Report No. 220, January 2024, Observer Research Foundation.


The Russia-Ukraine war remains at a deadlock despite both sides working to gain an upper hand on the battlefield. This requires an examination of how the capabilities of both sides have been used since Moscow’s foray in late February 2022.

The invasion was preceded by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk, which are part of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, as well as Crimea, a Russian-majority peninsular region. Notwithstanding the Minsk Agreements of 2014 or 2015—which called for a ceasefire, the complete withdrawal of all external occupying forces, and constitutionally mandated reform recognising the special status of Donetsk and Luhansk—Russian separatist forces and Ukrainian government forces continued combat in the Donbas from 2014 until February 2022.[1] In the case of Crimea, Russia held a referendum in March 2024 that supported its union with the Russian Federation, but it was internationally deemed to be illegitimate.[2] From the moment Russia launched a full-scale invasion—or what President Vladimir Putin called a “special military operation”—on 24 February 2022, Moscow set itself up for failure with the ambitious goal of seizing Kyiv in a quest to decisively knock out Ukrainian forces by attacking along multiple land axes.

Throughout 2022, Ukrainian forces, militarily backed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), responded with an effective counteroffensive, retaking key towns and villages in Kherson in the south and regions in the north of the Dnipro River.[3] Kyiv also declared that it would take back all territory occupied by Russia since 2014. Ukraine, supported by the West, prepared for this through the initial months of 2023, eventually mounting a counteroffensive in June 2023 with the primary aim of cutting Russian supplies to Crimea.[4] However, the Ukrainian counteroffensive, launched against well-prepared and entrenched Russian defences, proved costly for Kyiv as it repeated Russia’s mistake of attacking along multiple axes.

The inability of either side to bring about a decisive end to the war can be partly attributed to the consistent and adequate relating of means to ends.[5] Objectives have been at odds with deployed capabilities. Western military aid in 2023 has not been robust enough to help Kyiv make additional breakthroughs. Russia has also not used the breadth of its capabilities to attain territorial gains, despite its declared objectives. Tactical and operational blunders have also compounded their failure to secure any consequential operational breakthroughs, let alone a decisive military outcome.

As of writing, the war is deadlocked, with minor tactical gains being made by both sides utilising certain innovations in combat. There is a need for greater engagement with and explanations about the capabilities that have been employed by both sides.

In Chapter 1, Arjun Subramaniam examines the underperformance of Russian airpower during the war despite Russia being seemingly well prepared in the run-up to the invasion in late February 2022. Subramaniam prescribes a need to debate the means and methods for an air-denial strategy for limited and protracted wars, as well as investments in more robust cruise missile and drone capabilities.

Abhijit Singh, in chapter 2, notes how Moscow used its navy to disable the limited capabilities at the disposal of the Ukrainian navy, while Russia also employed its surface vessels and submarines to strike Ukrainian land targets in a quest to aid the Russian army’s land campaign. He underlines a key lesson for India in the use of strategy and technologies and how they relate to doctrine.

Birender Dhanoa follows with an exposition of how the Russian army’s use of armour has been ineffective because of its failure to use tanks as part of a combined arms force. For India, the lesson is in optimising the use of tanks alongside advances in electronic warfare systems, ATGMs, and unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

In Chapter 4, Amrita Jash contends that the Russia-Ukraine war has primarily been an artillery war rather than a contest of airpower. As the war has progressed, both sides are suffering from shortfalls in artillery munitions, which has contributed to slow advances on the battlefield for both sides. The lesson for India relates to the need to invest more in artillery.

In Chapter 5, Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan analyses the role played by space-borne assets in the war, especially in surveillance, navigation, and communication. Rajagopalan finds that, while space-borne assets have been used extensively by both sides, these alone cannot determine the tide of the war as they are only an enabler in warfighting.

Shimona Mohan closes the report with an examination of the role of artificial intelligence (AI) and cyber warfare in the hostilities. She illustrates how in the past, military innovations led to civilian and commercial applications, while today, there is a reversal of roles between the military and civilian technological ecosystems. Therefore, in India, cultivating and nurturing the civilian innovation ecosystem is as important as that for military technology.

Moscow overplayed its hand with a dramatic escalation of its war on Ukraine by mounting a full-scale invasion. Ukraine responded using the military aid provided by the West, pushing Russian forces further east and retaking 50 percent of the land area initially occupied by Moscow. At the time of writing, Russian forces retain control of most of the Donbas region and Crimea, which they occupied through proxies or directly in 2014; Ukraine is yet to retake these areas due to the consequences of the failed counteroffensive and robust Russian defences. Russian and Ukrainian forces remain locked in a stalemate, with neither making a significant breakthrough since Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive in June 2023.

Read the report here.


[1] Protocol on the results of consultations of the Trilateral Contact Group with respect to the joint steps aimed at the implementation of the Peace Plan of the President of Ukraine, P. Poroshenko, and the initiatives of the President of Russia, V. Putin, September 1, 2014, https://www.peaceagreements.org/viewmasterdocument/1363

[2] “Crimea referendum: Voters ‘back Russia union’”, BBC News, March 16, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26606097

[3] Nigel Walker, “Conflict in Ukraine: A timeline (current conflict, 2022-present)”, Research Briefing, House of Commons Library, London, UK, October 18, 2023, https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-9847/CBP-9847.pdf

[4] Mariano Zafra and Jon McClure, “Four factors that stalled Ukraine’s counteroffensive”, Reuters, December 21, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/graphics/UKRAINE-CRISIS/MAPS/klvygwawavg/#four-factors-that-stalled-ukraines-counteroffensive

[5] On War, ed. and trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).

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Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...

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