Look at Goa 1961 to Understand the Russian Response to Ukraine
The first anniversary of Russia’s unfinished “special operation” in Ukraine coincided this year with the G-20 Foreign Ministers Meet in India, which last made available foreign dignitaries for the annual gabfest grandly dubbed the “Rasina Dialogue” that the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) funds and sponsors.
In other words, this is an out-and-out MEA affair that some Joint Secretary or the other should have orchestrated more carefully considering the session with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov on Febeuary 4 almost blew up into a diplomatic incident.
In a session dealing with the Ukraine conflict, the host Sunjoy Joshi, ex-IAS, took on himself the role, embarrassingly, of an uninformed Inquisitor, grilling Lavrov with deliberately provocative questions entirely blaming Russia for the military intervention in Ukraine that revealed astonishing ignorance of the post-Cold War history of great power politics, Ukraine and NATO expansion.
Indeed, Lavrov, a consummate diplomat, was pushed into losing his cool. He publicly upbraided Joshi for not doing his “homework” before the session. Any workaday TV news reporter would have done a better job of reading up on material and asking thoughtful questions, rather than leading ones designed to rouse and rile the Russian minister, who reminded the audience that India’s “specially privileged strategic partnership” with Russia is unlike any relationship New Delhi has with any other country. [See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nihwViCcUW4 ].
It raises an important Question: If MEA is paying the piper, Joshi ought to have been singing a tune more in line with India’s policy of artful equivocation on this issue. MEA failed properly to brief this out-of-his-depth host or even vet his list of questions.
In the event, shouldn’t the Ministry’s superintendence of this annual event have been more direct and effective, rather than leaving the proceedings to the mercies of an ignoramus or, worse, a motivated ex-babu, who all but skewed Russian perceptions of India and its interests? The Indian government cannot afford these sorts of diplomatic snafus.
Now to tackle the great mystery of why the mighty Russian army is making such heavy weather of its annexationist intervention in Ukraine.
Given the flood of Western media reporting of developments in Ukraine over the past year that the Indian media gobbled up whole, an average Indian would be forgiven for thinking that Russia is backpedalling on the battlefield against the hard-charging Ukrainians amply supplied with all manner of military hardware, tactical and strategic intelligence, and unflagging political support from the US and the West.
Let’s first be clear about where the Russian army is on the ground and how much of eastern Ukraine is in Russia’s possession. Russians now fully control much of the Donbas corridor — roughly the line Kherson-Kharkiv, habited by Russian-speaking people on the eastern periphery of Ukraine, which is the bridge connecting mainland Russia with the Crimean Peninsula captured by Moscow after a fast, uneventful, campaign in 2014.
As mentioned in my very first post on the topic in February 2022, the need for Russia to command the approaches to the Black Sea and its coastline, is a strategic imperative Moscow had to achieve at all cost. The first part of that objective was realized with the absorption of the Crimean Peninsula. With the Donbas corridor too captured with heavy loss of life and destruction of most of the large towns in it, Russia, for the first time, is potentially more secure now than it has ever been since the unravelling of the old Soviet Union in 1992. It is not exposed anymore and vulnerable to possible US/NATO military interventions from the Dardanelles, with Turkey, a NATO member, as the staging area for a from-the-sea push against Russia’s relatively weak underbelly.
Fine. So, how come the ingressing Russian armoured columns lost over 500 tanks and the advance by the Russian army, generally, seems so tardy?
Plainly, the Russian army expected it to be cake walk. Rolling in leisurely as the tanks did over highways without a thought about being ambushed, they were sitting ducks for the Ukrainian anti-tank units firing off their Kornet portable anti-tank munitions from the old stock before being replaced by the newer NATO Javelins. The resulting disarray was as much among the forward troops as the command ranks, and manifested the absolute unpreparedness of the Russian army to fight an actual war.
The turgid Russian military bureaucracy only compounded the problem of incomprehension up all the way to the Kremlin and down to the trooper who was promised a picnic but got lethal firefights instead.
Kyiv’s resistance and President Volodomyr Zelenskyy’s emergence as a resolute wartime leader came as a rude shock to President Vladimir Putin, who was also surprised by the sheer volume of arms supply worth a stupendous $28 billion that the US funnelled into Ukraine emptying, in the process, the NATO stocks of shells and ammunition of all types, long range precision artillery, and even Leopard-2 tanks from the Polish and German inventories with American Abrams tanks awaiting transhipment. The American strategy to fight to the last Ukrainian is being well executed because, realistically, Ukraine has not a spitball’s chance in hell.
Still, why the Russian army’s lackadaisical approach in this conflict that Putin described as a “special operation”?
Two reasons. Firstly, Ukraine has always been a problem for Russia, resisting assimilation to the maximum. And secondly, the Russian army always takes time to get up to battle speed. Let’s briefly examine each of these reasons.
There is Ukraine's long history with Russia. And there’s Russia’s military troubles in Ukraine. Notwithstanding Putin’s claim of Ukraine being the “cradle of Russian civilization”, the largely Roman Catholic country has always nursed a separate and distinct cultural and political Tatar identity different from that of a Slavic Russia wedded to the Russian Orthodox Church.
To go no further back than the civil war, the Bolsheviks and the Red Army had the most difficult time of it on the “south-western front”, meaning Ukraine. The revolutionary council of state for war presided over by Lenin and featuring, among others, Stalin and the founder and the first Political Commissar of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, wrestled interminably with issues such as how much force to use against the rebellious Ukrainians without doing permanent political damage, how ruthlessly to fight the “White” Russian army massed around Kyiv and other major cities, and how to fight all out without alienating the Ukrainian masses — Lenin’s overarching concern, and with what consequences for the eventual Ukrainian Soviet in the nascent USSR.
Perhaps, it is the kind of debate that preoccupies Putin and his advisers in the Kremlin today. Indeed, the indecision from the top got so militarily frustrating for the Red Army commander on that front — the redoubtable Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevski — inarguably the greatest military mind of the 20th Century who, for instance, first conceptualized “deep operations”, and whom Trotsky called “The reorganizer of the Red Army”, that he petitioned Trotsky to be allowed to prosecute a decisive war against the Ukrainian nationalists, or to be relieved of his command. (Tukhachevski and the cream of the Red Army General Staff were executed by a paranoid Stalin in the “great purges” and show trials of the 1930s.)
During the Second World War, Stalin’s Red Army had not only to face Hitler’s armies advancing on several fronts — Operation Barbarossa, June 1941, to occupy the European part of the Soviet Union, i.e., the line Archangel-Astrakhan, but had to deal with the rear area troubles in Ukraine (with its industry, grain, and oil fields) that Berlin had prioritised for capture, instigated by the Nazi-aligned nationalist armed groups under Stephen Bandera, and which forces also constituted the Ukrainian arm of the Gestapo. This to say that there’s an awful lot of bad blood between Russians and Ukrainians. Something akin to, yea, the Hindu-Muslim rift in the subcontinent!
The Russian army, historically, has been strategically surprised, taking time to react, to mobilize, and to get its forces up for a fight, before turning the corner and wiping out the adversary.
It started in the modern era with Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, his march stalling on the outskirts of Moscow not little because of the withdrawal eastwards by the Czarist armies committed to a “scorched earth” policy of destroying any and everything the French army could possibly use, a situation aggravated by the onset of icy weather and not improved by its pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Borodino. It was exactly the pattern repeated some 129 years later by “General Winter” and the Red Army under Marshal Georgy Zhukov decimating the German land forces and winning the war in Europe for the Allies.
It is this history of the Russian army’s pattern of success the US and NATO do not want to be victimised by — the reason why US and NATO will absolutely avoid having their “boots on the ground” even if Ukraine becomes extinct — which is not on the cards. Russia will have its Donbas bridge to Crimea, and that’s it.
To most Indians and Indian policymakers unschooled in military history, perhaps, an analogy may drive home the point — India’s grab of Goa in Winter 1961.
The Indian military prepared for it as if it was some major operation. The 17th Infantry Division and 50th Para Brigade were fielded along with three Indian warships, and all the air resources the Western air command required. This array of forces was pitted against a skeletal Portuguese military group comprising some 8,000-10,000 troops, one sloop. one patrol boat, and two passenger transports at Dabolim, the sole air base.
The size of the Portuguese army units can be explained by their having to put down guerilla actions carried out by the Azad Gomantak force, and the Goa Congress materially supported by India.
Nehru had given sufficient warning of forcefully taking Goa — as Putin had made known his plans to annex the Donbas corridor. It prompted US President John F Kennedy to plead for some time to convince the Portuguese dictator, Antonio Salazar, to decamp gracefully. Nehru decided to force the issue but his regime’s instructions to the military were to achieve the goal with minimum damage and loss of life.
Just how worried Nehru was about not harming the Goan people may be gauged by the order to the Western Air Command to damage the Dabolim runway but not the terminal building.
In the event, on December 18, IAF Canberra sorties dropped 63,000 pounds of explosives with partial effect because that night a Portuguese Constellation aircraft with military and civilian families took off safely for a low level escape to Karachi, outwitting Indian radar!
Portuguese POWs in Goa
Now consider what would have happened had NATO heeded Salazar’s calls for Western military intervention to thwart Nehru’s designs. No disrespect to the Indian armed services, but they’d have been up against it had NATO cleared and then secured sea and air supply corridors channeling armaments, troops and air and naval platforms and generally military reinforcements to Goa.
Would the Indian army, navy and air force, realistically, have managed to even put up a fight, considering they didn’t against the more primitive Chinese PLA less than a year later?
It puts the Russian intervention in Ukraine in perspective, does it not?
Bharat Karnad is an emeritus professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi and a national security expert. Views expressed are the writer’s own.