Kharkov, 80 years on

My former countrymen tend to play truant when history teaches its lessons. To be fair, they aren’t the only ones. They just happen to be even worse pupils than most.

Ukrainian troops in Kupyansk yesterday

If history were a school teacher judged by results, it would have been sacked a long time ago. But let’s not anthropomorphise history – it’s merely an inanimate passage of time jam-packed with events. The fault lies not with the teacher but with the pupils.

Each generation believes, wrongly, in its own uniqueness. Hence, contrary to Einstein’s caution, they all do the same things over and over, while expecting to get different results. Logic triumphs; they fail.

The on-going bandit raid is the first traditional war Russia has fought since 1945, and the Second World War was the latest teacher offering lessons to heed or ignore. (As the British can attest to from personal experience, the Afghan war was sui generis for Russia too.)

The rout suffered by the Russians over the past few days shows that their generals chose not to study the Second Battle of Kharkov fought on 12-28 May, 1942. George Santayana must be smiling in his grave: those who do not learn history are indeed doomed to repeat it.

It’s not just history that’s screaming parallels but also geography. Battlefield reports are again bulging with the names of the same cities, towns, villages and rivers as they did 80 years ago: Kharkov, Izium, Balakleya, Kupyansk, Seversky Donets.

Then, in 1942, the Red Army was trying to develop its counteroffensive after stopping the Wehrmacht at the gates of Moscow. The Germans retreated and the Soviet High Command sought to build on its temporary strategic initiative.

Yet the Red Army had suffered appalling casualties in the first 11 months of the war. In fact, until the Battle of Moscow in December, 1941, the casualty ratio was 10 : 1 in favour of the Germans.

That defied the basic tenets of military science, according to which the attacking side usually suffers two to three times as many losses. It’s only in colonial wars, when Europeans armed with cannon attacked natives wielding arrows and hoes, that defenders ever lost ten times the number of men lost by attackers.

Straining every sinew, the Russians stopped the Germans at Moscow, but their regular army had for all intents and purposes been wiped out. The gaping holes were plugged with recruits, hastily armed and even more hastily trained, if at all.

Yet Soviet military doctrine called for offence at all costs, and at first the Red counteroffensive developed rapidly. But its momentum was attenuating.

Vindicating another military cliché, the Red commander, Marshal Timoshenko, was still fighting the previous war. He had been a divisional commander in the First Horse Army wreaking havoc on the Whites during the Civil War. In his mind, Timoshenko was still leading, sabre in hand, a daring cavalry charge.

He was soon taught a lesson about modern war. Using their Izium salient as a springboard, the Soviets launched an attack against the German 6th Army. Yet on 15 May the Germans managed to stop the huffing and puffing Red forces.

Any wise High Command would have sensed a change in momentum, regrouped and got ready for defence. But Timoshenko continued to attack when his troops had been depleted and such an aggressive strategy was no longer on.

That left his troops open to a devastating pincer attack at his flanks that cut off three Soviet armies. After six days of desperate fighting that army group was wiped out, with the Soviets losing 280,000 men, compared to just 20,000 for the Germans. The theory-defying 10 : 1 became even a more improbable 14 : 1 in favour of the attacking side.

Exactly the same scenario has been played out on almost exactly the same terrain over the past few days. The Ukrainians first launched a strike in the southerly direction, towards Kherson.

They made some modest gains, but the Russians didn’t feel there was real cause for concern – especially since they were redeploying there significant forces from the Kharkov theatre. With those reinforcements, the Russians were ready to handle anything the Ukrainians could throw at them.

They didn’t realise that the attack in the direction of Kherson was to a large extent an exercise in military deception. Having made sure sufficient Russian forces had been diverted from the Kharkov region, the Ukrainians struck.

Fearing a total encirclement, the Russian forces retreated or, to be more precise, fled. Many surrendered, and Ukrainian soldiers ought to be praised for agreeing to take prisoners at all. After the unspeakable atrocities perpetrated by the Russians, one could understand, if not condone, summary executions.

Yesterday the Ukrainians took Izium, the focal point of the 1942 operation. Kupyansk, an important railway hub, was next, and both towns were taken practically without a shot. The Russian Defence Ministry explained that a decision had been made “to regroup the Russian troops deployed in the Balakleya and Izium areas”.

Like their predecessors in 1942, the Russians have finally understood the need to set up a line of defence. Yet this is where the parallel ends.

The 1942 defence line was set on the Volga, over 500 miles from Kharkov. There the same German 6th Army suffered a crushing defeat at Stalingrad, and the Soviets eventually won the war – with a lot of help from their Western friends.

They have no Western friends now, and the Ukrainians have more modest objectives than the Germans had. The German Nazis wanted to conquer the Soviet Union, annihilate the Soviet state and enslave the Soviet people. By contrast, the Ukrainians simply want to prevent the Russian Nazis from conquering, annihilating and enslaving them.

They have no far-reaching ambitions to capture Moscow. All they want is to drive Putin’s bandits from their territory. Judging by the morale of their troops, the support from the whole population and the military talent of their generals, that goal is well within their reach.

Yet all those factors would go to naught if the supplies of Western arms slowed down or, worse still, stopped. It’s in this area that the current success of the Ukrainian army has secured a crucial victory.

For Western countries have been dreading Afghanistan Mark II, when they poured billions’ worth of arms into the country, only to see them end up in the bloodstained hands of the Taliban.

Now we can see how effectively the Ukrainians are using our supplies, how with their help they are putting the Russian army to flight. It’s possible that the on-going counteroffensive will make the West’s resolve even firmer, and the stream of arms flowing into the Ukraine even mightier.

Generally speaking, I avoid slogans, but I can’t exercise such self-restraint now. Slava Ukraini! (Glory to the Ukraine! – the traditional call of Ukrainian patriotism.)

1 thought on “Kharkov, 80 years on”

  1. “Many surrendered, and Ukrainian soldiers ought to be praised for agreeing to take prisoners at all”

    Fair and humane treatment will encourage other Russians to surrender. An important part of negotiation peace terms to is the phased repatriation of the prisoner-of-war.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.