Nearly a week after Russia invaded Ukraine, the two sides have met for talks. Ukrainian civilians, reservists and troops are fighting a valiant but unequal battle. More than 150 civilians including 11 children, have been killed, more than 1000 persons are injured. Troops and sophisticated war machinery of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) have been standing by along Ukraine’s western borders since – months. Why is Nato not helping Ukraine fight Russia? In an exclusive conversation with Padma Rao Sundarji for Times Online, defence analysts Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain and Lt Gen Shokin Chauhan, who have decades of experience dealing with cross-border insurgencies and full-fledged wars, provide the answers.
For months now, tens of thousands of US and Nato troops have been positioned along Ukraine’s western borders. Their leaders have issued thundering threats to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yet, Russia unleashed air power, tanks and 190000 troops and invaded Ukraine. Ukrainian civilians, reservists and troops are fighting a valiant but unequal battle. Nearly 150 civilians including 11 children, have been killed within barely a week. Nato says it can’t send its troops into Ukraine. Are there other measures to repel the Russians?
Hasnain: One of the things is proxy war. Iraq was a total hybrid war. Today, this hybrid parlance is being used in the context of Ukraine, Iraq, Kashmir, all over. It’s not something new, it’s been there before. But it’s been given a new fillip because of developing technologies, particularly in the field of information technology. I refer to the ability to pass messages quickly, convey them to masses, mass communication methodologies, etc. Look at the recent photograph of five helicopters over Kyiv, in a kind of surveillance mode. The Russians are using it very effectively. It’s being shown to the world, and to the Ukrainian population, as if to say: see how powerful Russia is. So, imagery is very, very important. The Iraqi model can be played out in Ukraine quite effectively. There is effective Ukrainian nationalism today, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged his nation to fight to the last.
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Chauhan: Nato has huge numbers of Cruise missiles. So, the first thing it could have done is to hit them (the Russians) with standoff missiles, and a huge cyber-attack. Russia has great resources, but in comparison with US and Nato, Russian resources are simply not there. In case you did do something, you would start with weapons systems, isolation of Russian cities, hitting vital areas, vital points, and you would use your Tomahawk, Cruise missiles, cut off their Internet, etc. Nato has huge capability to get in their ground troops, special forces. They could airdrop them in places where Russian army is isolated, and has over-extended itself. Especially in the case of Ukraine: if this war lasts, many isolated Russian troops could be hit.
But Nato will do none of that. It says it cannot act militarily because Ukraine is a non-Nato country. That rings hollow. The West didn’t think twice about going into Iraq and Afghanistan, also non-Nato countries. So why the hesitation over Ukraine?
Hasnain: No one in the West wants to get involved in it, because they know what is going to happen at the hustings tomorrow. How are they going to manage their own electoral scenarios ? These are all democracies. Secondly, everyone has realized that conventional war is a very very expensive thing. See what happened in Afghanistan. The estimates range from 1 to 3 trillion US dollars. The Americans lost 2400 soldiers in 20 years. And they lost 3800 military contractors. More military contractors died than the number of soldiers of the US. So, it’s more about outsourcing conventional operations. No one has the stomach to fight conventional wars today. And that is what Putin has taken advantage of.
Chauhan: Could they do it? Should they do it? And, if they do it, what might happen? If it were a weaker opponent, Americans would have sat down in Kuwait, cobbled together an alliance as they did against Iraq, and Afghanistan, and decided when to launch the next Gulf war. Is Nato ready for war? Let’s start with the US. It has moved 3000 troops to Poland – that’s a single brigade. Secondly, Germany is not ready to fight. Economically, none of the European countries are ready for war. Psychologically, none of them are ready for war. All of them have just started recovering from the 3rd or 4th wave of the pandemic. And they are definitely not ready to now mobilize their troops. So, Putin kept all this in mind, when he hit Ukraine at the time he did. Nowadays, war is not fought only on one battlefield, it is fought on all battlefields. And on all at present, Nato is not ready yet.
But Europe and the US have seen recessions before. Nato went into Afghanistan in 2001. The Great Recession from 2018-2012 didn’t see them pull out troops hastily. They left Afghanistan only in 2021. Something else is halting Nato in its tracks over Ukraine. Could it be President Putin’s warning when he launched the invasion of Ukraine? He said: “I have taken the decision to carry out a special military operation. Anyone who tries to interfere with us, or threaten our country and people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and lead to consequences the likes of which you have never seen before.”
Hasnain: We need to look at it historically. If you remember during the Cold War, Nato, as such, did not have matching strengths in terms of the number of troops, that the Warsaw pact and the Soviet Union had at that time. It was always assumed that should the Soviet Union attempt to invade western Europe, it would be nuclear deterrence which would come into play. That was what was holding the whole thing together. in today’s environment, you are looking at conventional means of deterrence. Russians are not going to get deterred by conventional means. He (Putin) didn’t say it in so many words, but he did hint at it. And I am surprised that neither the US nor Nato leadership referred to his remarks. It would have become a very dangerous thing. Besides putting boots on the ground, what could have deterred, is obviously a nuclear threat. But the world seems to have gone past that for the moment. This is a typical Cold War type of strategy, not something which has been tried and tested in the last many years. Otherwise, if you remember in the Cold War, you had the Bay of Pigs faceoff (a failed invasion of Cuba), and many times, the whole build-up was based on deterrence through nuclear means. That seems to have vanished, as far as the European theatre is concerned.
Chauhan: I was the strike corps commander of India. I carried out a very big exercise with the Russian army and have seen that they are willing to use their nuclear weapons at the first instance. Because they say if we don’t use it now, we don’t survive. So, the Russians not only have them, they have also planned them, they exercise with them and – they are willing to use nuclear weapons. The kind of armaments the Russian army has, and the Russian ability to use these weapons of mass destruction, simply prevents Nato from putting any kind of boots on the ground. If Nato comes in, it’s World War III. Then, it’s the globe that’s at war, definitely not Ukraine and Russia.
You say it’s Russian nukes that are preventing Nato from retaliating militarily against Russia. You are both veterans of the Indian Army. India and Pakistan are nuclear weapons states too. India conducted lightning strikes against Pakistan successfully. The Ukrainians are pleading the West for at least an air cover. Surely Nato can provide one, without unleashing a nuclear war?
Hasnain It is always possible to put in an air cover. But besides putting up missile silos here and there, you also have to fly physically over that terrain. And in the case of an air force, the moment an air force crosses the boundary, it is war. We struck at Balakot. But we decided that we will not go back, we will not repeat it. So that was not an act of war, and we went clearly against a target, a terrorist target. Russia is in total control of the air space right now. I don’t think Nato would risk doing a thing like that. Because the moment you stick your neck out and you start giving this kind of cover, there’s bound to be a contact. And if that happens, then there is war.
Chauhan: The Balakot strikes were not in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir but inside mainland Pakistan. But we worked out that Pakistan may not, or should not react with nuclear weapons for this particular strike, because of a whole host of other issues. We kept it below a certain threshold. With Putin and with Nato, there is no such threshold. If – and he has said this repeatedly – you come inside Ukraine, I will react with the greatest power I have. And keeping that in mind, Nato has wisely kept out of Ukraine at the moment.
Do you expect a resolution of the conflict in the coming days? Or has Nato merely been paying lip-service to Ukrainians by assuring them protection?
Hasnain: About 120,000 Russian troops have entered Ukraine. They may capture a few cities, they may capture communications centres, they may destroy command and control centres, important airports, etc. But at the end of the day, they’ll be left holding these, and have nothing to fight the insurgency, which is bound to come. I have no brief for either side. But I do believe that there is divisiveness taking place within the Russian ranks, at the moment. Not many people are supporting Putin’s current strategy. Given more civilian casualties, you’ll find greater divisiveness taking place in Russia. I’m looking at the next 3-4 days as a very crucial period, during which – depending on success or the lack of it – the future will be decided.
Chauhan Putin mobilized the Russian army so quickly that the world could not match his ability. Remember: Ukraine is a neighbour of Russia. Up to 20-30% of its citizens support Russia’s actions. There are much greater advantages that Russia has in Ukraine, than Nato does. Yes, it is lip service. For two reasons. The world is not ready for war, and no European country is ready to go into it. And if you’re not ready, you simply can’t fight.
Has Nato lost the war against Russia, even before it began?
Hasnain: That’s a very loaded question.
Chauhan: At this particular moment this game is over.


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