The Perpetual Battlefield
Some of the places like certain individuals are in one way or another, linked with war and war like situations. India’s Panipat for one. The Mahabharata War. It saw Indian history’s longest war fought for 18 days, longer than the 1971 Indo-Pak War that created a new nation. Lord Krishna called it a Dharmakhestre – the field of righteous duty. It remained so as three more battles got contested here. 1526 (Ibrahim Lodi’s battle against invader Babur), 1556 (Marathas take on Moughals) and 1751, (once again Marathas against an Afghan intruder, Ahmad Shah Abdali). They changed the destiny of India.
Ukraine, in Europe too bears the cognomen of ‘perpetual battlefield’. Excluding the earlier unrecorded local struggles, Ukraine and the Caucasus Mountains have recorded histories of the Wars in 1850, 1854-56. It became the site of another Armageddon during World War II. But recall the background of the epic masterpiece War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). Tolstoy took part in the 1854-1856 wars. These war time experiences helped him write his magnum opus. Though it got based primarily on historical events of 1805, 1807 but more prominent was the Napoleonic War of 1812, that ravaged Moscow and the miserable retreat of the invaders, that made the common Russian term it as ‘Patriotic War’.
A disservice to history would occur if the stupendous foray in 1222 by Chenghez Khan gets ignored. It brought his forces to the doorstep of Kiev (today’s Kyiv). The great Genhhis, as he was then called, had his Generals Subedi and Jabe encircle the Caspian Sea region and defeat every army on their path, before finally retreating.
In 1500, barely three centuries later, when Russia began to look for more leg-space in warmer climates and resources, Ivan the Terrible started Russia’s southward extension. It resulted in the capture of warm water ports on the Black Sea and, indeed, the farmlands and the ‘bread-basket’ of Ukraine. This finally resulted in the occupation of the Caucasian regions of Armenia, Azerbaijan and the oil fields of Baku on the Caspian Sea.
About two centuries later, Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-98) with success extended the southern and western boundaries of Russia into Crimea, part of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and even Poland. The Russo-Turkish war that followed, gave Russia firm access to the Black Sea.
Little seems to have got recorded of the region during the so-called `Great War of 1914-18’, except an odd reference to the movement of reinforcements to the actual war fronts of France and Flanders. Yet, it played a decisive role during the Hitler–initiated Second World War. “Moscow-Moscow” Adolf Hitler would repeat his obsessive utterances before his military commanders and add vaingloriously, even with contempt: “I must have Moscow. I must belittle the so-called proletariat Marshal Stalin…” It was in a way, reproducing Napoleon’s words: Muscowa…wa..waa… after his Battle of Borodino!.
Hitler’s obsession and directive led to one of the greatest operations in Russia. Three Army Groups- ‘South’, ‘Centre’ and ‘North’ commanded by the best military strategists got involved. Von Rundstedt, Bock, and Leeb moved their 60 divisions with swiftness. Comprising Panzers, Motorised and Infantry they struck and enveloped Moscow. Rundstedt’s Southern Army manoeuvred into Ukraine through Odesa, Kiev (now Kyiv) leading over the Caucasus Mountains and further east towards the Baku oil fields. It was grand planning. Nonetheless, the harsh Russian winter and Hitler’s obduracy to `not withdraw or readjust and re-deploy formations to counter the stiffening opposition, neutralised the great strategic advantage that the Germans had acquired. Eventually, the Germans under Paulus’ 6th Army surrendered in January 1943 outside Stalingrad. The Russians would thereafter stop at Berlin.
Into the Twenty-first Century
Post-1990, Russia, by now reduced to a shadow from its gigantic empire of ‘Soviet Union’ began to rebuild its defence forces including its nuclear power. The former Baltic States of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia served as a barrier with the NATO-supported European Union. For, the primary aim of Russian national strategy, hinged on keeping the western border safe against NATO and keeping its access to the Black Sea –Sea of Azov open thus leading finally to the Mediterranean Sea over the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles Straits. This led to its capture of Crimea in 2014 besides creating what came to be known as the Separatist region of Southern Ukraine by name of the ‘Luhansk-Donetsk region’. Nicknamed as as ‘CYBORGS’ these Russia-backed Separatists began to control this industrial belt including the new international airport of Donetsk, virtually from 2012; in fact, the airfield was wrecked and made unfit. Any effort to bring this region under Kyiv’s control failed. So, the Russian strategy hinged on dominating the areas of sea lanes. Built with this need was to have a friendly Ukraine on lines of Belarus, which had remained an enduring friend of Putin’s Russia.
Those analysts who kept a close watch of situations arising on the Ukranian-Russian border from 2008 could recall how succinctly and deceptively Putin planned and covered the annexation of Crimea. The themes bordered on ‘anti-Russian violence’ from Kyiv to the Black Sea by the so called ‘nationalists, fascists and anti-Semites’ which were mixed with fake stories of refugees fleeing to Russia. The majority of them were said be from Crimea, which morphed into Russia’s genuine effort in reclaiming the ‘historic lands/islands’. Added to these was the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church which claimed that the church of St Sophia having been established by Russia at Kyiv in 11th Century had an influence and share over the Ukranians! ‘Ukranians are very much Russians or vice versa’, went around the gossip.
In his speeches and even discussions, Putin made it abundantly and repeatedly clear that “Ukraine was not a real country, but a so-called ‘Nazi-controlled province” and hence should be eliminated and be made part of Russia’. “The American influence”, he claimed, “had made it so.” He publicly and repeatedly preached Ukraine’s ‘systematic absorption and assimilation into its motherland Russia’.
Situation built up menacingly from December 2021, when some 100,000 Russian troops deployed themselves on the border of Ukraine that made US President Biden hold a conference with Putin to defuse the tension. He is said have assured Putin that there would be no NATO entry into Ukraine-which is said to be the Russian cause for mobilisation and several other areas of concern. Rather than pacifying the situation, it emboldened the Russian to spring a surprise. It was then that President Biden began to warn Ukraine and other allies of the likely Russian invasion. When and where or how, of course, remained speculative.
There are, indeed, some more reasons for creating situations conducive or adding to the Russian fears and antagonism. The expansion of NATO to the east by 2000, a decade after the collapse of the USSR, with some fourteen new members including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania getting added to the NATO. Kosovo got created out of Serbia. Ukraine and Georgia got offered ‘welcome entry’ in 2008. Russia reacted and intervened in Georgia and took over Abkhazia and Ossetia. The capture of the most important geopolitical region of Crimea followed in March 2014. Characteristically. Russia termed it as ‘Reunification’ of Crimean region of Russia with its parent country! To provide it a legal status, it was called, ‘Crimea’s exercise of ‘self – determination through a referendum that is in accordance with international law and the UN Charter’. But then if such a referendum could keep the bully of Russia, under control Ukraine did not have to undergo such an indignity besides punishment.
Annexation of Crimea.
In March 2014, Putin surprised everyone including the EU and its somnolent NATO, as he grabbed the so called fleeting opportunity by creating the ‘Republic of CRIMEA and SEVOSTOPOL’. Small ripples of opposition were in Putin’s own words, ‘brushed aside’. Russia thus found excuse to ‘forcibly annex an undefended Crimea’. All Ukraine could do was to approach UN, where the General Assembly reaffirmed the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine. It also emphasised the high-handedness and indeed, the ‘illegitimacy’ of the so- called referendum. An exercise in futility!
So when the Russian forces walked into this helpless Ukranian strategic island on the Black Sea, Putin rose to address a large native crowd in the Red Square. Amidst great fanfare he said “After a long, hard and exhausting voyage, Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to their harbour, to their native shores and to home port, to Russia.” It was like Hitler’s speech on annexation of Austria and Sudetenland territories in 1938-39. See how history continues to serve not only revival of faith but the cause of one’s ambitions!
Upon annexation of Crimea, Putin, in his own words was ‘recreating and reviving the Russian historical glory’. He was then quoted saying further, “It was Emperor Vladimir I who introduced Christianity in Crimea and Catherine the Great who conquered it and we have restored it without (firing) a single shot.” He was using the legacies of the past to embellish his own role in the Russia of 2014.
In fact, the Russian military strength including the Black Sea Naval Fleet and the Russian speaking majority of civil population facilitated the conquest as much as an inept government at Kyiv – which could garner support from neither the EU nor backing of the NATO. Nor was it succeeding in keeping the rebellious population of Donetsk-Kharkiv united. They were said to be unfurling the Russian flag.
History of modern times also added to the fragmented Ukraine. Of all the former Soviet Republics that won independence in 1991, Ukraine emerged as most passive, images of which were propagated all over Russia. Even Mikhail Gorbachev tried to inject a new spirit through his much lauded Perestroika. Blessed with a moderate climate, rich land which everyone recognised as the ‘bread basket’, access to the Black Sea, and the rich industrial areas of Donetsk, it began to serve as prize to be acquired or controlled by Russia especially after the ambitious Vladimir Putin took over Russian leadership. He who has proved as ambitious and vainglorious as Stalin. So fomenting chaos in Ukraine seemed to have become Putin’s ‘objective numero uno’.
Ukraine, the Russian Larger Objective.
One of the crucial factors in this game was to also keep Ukraine out of the influence of European Union and susceptibility or influence of a virtual somnolent NATO. Russia, after its ‘de-Sovietisation’ from the erstwhile ‘Soviet Union’, had virtually led NATO to downgrade the Russian threat from ‘minimal to zero’. In this stratagem, Putin was following the Chinese thinker Sun Tzu’s enduring dictum, “All warfare is based on deception…the art of subtlety and secrecy…be invisible, inaudible”. And, “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles…” That strategy, as it is, bore fruits in Putin’s strategic aim involving Russian forces occupying Crimea in 2014 and after that he has sought to show that no matter what the West was willing to do for Ukraine, he will do more – to neutralise or wreck it. He handled it by imposing economic sanctions and covert threats to the Ukranian President Yanukovich,-and his successor Volodymyr Zelensky, and made them dither and sway from joining the EU. Bereft of support from EU and NATO, Putin planned his ‘Op Yukraine’-willy-nilly turning it into a European battlefield.
‘After an impending sharp and swift military operation’ so Putin told his ‘Order Group’, on February 23/24, “Russia will emerge stronger, sanctions if any, will rebound on the West but there will be no compromise on security. Economic sanctions, if any, will enable us to be self-sufficient. We are, after all, supplier of one-third of Europe’s energy and will continue to do so to fulfil our objective.” Putin had taken into consideration all factors while churning out his plan. (1)
Not that early warning of an ominous development from Russia was lacking. The US administration had received clear indication of the coming Russian invasion in early February (2022) and it sent a US mission under Col Kvien, an officer with the CIA credential, to Kyiv. Her mission was to warn the Ukranian Government of the impending threat. This mission, according the US Intelligence, ran into a ‘wall of denial’ from President Volodymyr Zelensky and the government did little to prepare or mobilise for a possible war.
That situation prevailed on February 24, 2022, when Putin unleashed his Armageddon against undefended Ukraine. Except dumping some ammunition to the battered garrisons all over the country, and offering ‘moral and financial support’, NATO refused to counter-balance the brutish Russian offensive from all cardinal points. It became Putin’s inferno which turned many towns and other facilities as ghost towns. NATO and EU as well as the UN failed to prevent this three month long Russian onslaught on a small country, whose only crime – to say euphemistically-has been its desire to live in dignity and freedom. The only excuse was technical, the one created out of intent to stay away from getting embroiled in the coming disaster. ‘Ukraine was neither part of the EU nor a NATO member’ and ‘it would be wrong to enter the fray’.
The USA, however, promptly released military hardware including five attack helicopters, 100 combat drones, thousands of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and 90 million rounds of small arms and ammunitions. Having seen the growing threat and devastation, the other major NATO members – Germany, France and UK-also began to support Ukraine. Poland and Hungary opened their borders to the never ending voluminous flow of refugees. A somnolent NATO also mobilised their troops to the Russian border of which US 82nd Airborne Division was deployed in Poland. Soon military assistance too poured from Germany, UK and France. Thousands of citizens volunteered to join the Ukranian defenders in their ongoing war. The financial and equally moral support kept the Ukranian will to fight, die and face the Russian onslaught. A languid NATO and rest of the EU sprang from their sleep but did not enter the conflict directly.
It is worthwhile to recall as to what led the once hot-shot NATO to turn into a cold-footed limping organisation. In 1997 when the world was a gentler place, NATO and Russia came to a far-reaching security agreement. As part of this, Kremlin accepted the idea that several countries from the former Warsaw Pact would become full members of the alliances. In return, NATO agreed not to amass lots of troops, equipment and nuclear missiles on Russia’s border and resultantly most of the US contingent of NATO remained concentrated in Central Europe. NATO even refrained from drawing contingency plans against Russian attack on its former vassals (and now part of NATO) or from holding exercises and/or increase the force level to the Russian border. Sadly, the Russian aggression towards the Baltic States –and Crimea-had been met with words from the West and little else.
The threat from Russia under Putin had in – fact begun to manifest itself as Crimea was annexed and Donetsk corridor was added in form of a separatist region. Putin was openly calling it a Eurasian Union with Russia. But NATO ignored the lurking threat to rest of Ukraine. That state of somnolence was, in fact, clear when President Barack Obama on February 9, 2014, just before the capture of Crimea, said that ‘Ukraine should not be seen as some cold war chessboard in which we are in competition with Russia’. Later President Donald Trump pooh-poohed the NATO members and harangued them to ‘donate/contribute more to NATO defence funds rather than ask the US to share its cost of modernisation’. The apathy to NATO was so evident.
A SPINELESS UN
The UN, it will be recalled, was created at the inspiration from US President Franklin D Roosevelt and UK’s PM Winston Churchill as ‘a great experiment in organising and sustaining peace in a world fragmented by the Second World War’. Its ‘solitary aim was to prevent the world running into the holocaust of the previous two so called Great Wars in shape and intent, large and small’. It opened membership to all the nations of the world. In chartering it, the original creators, formulators –that is the Big FIVE – coined and formalised, ‘the veto power’ of each member. It ensured that each one of them however serious an offender himself with all clear signs and designs, could continue to remain above law. For, ‘Veto, the miracle power’ gave each one of the FIVE members an immunity to censure. See what stupendously empowered all these have emerged. China’s entry into the Korean War as the UN forces leaned on the Yalu in 1950, Russia’s westward expansion in Europe 1946-51, US aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now Russia, with blatant and unprovoked assault on Ukraine, has experimented the power of this very unchallenged power of Veto while trying to ‘swallow’ not only the little Island of Crimea in 2014, but the entire country.
Veto has become the most invincible weapon for the honourable five! Even Boutros Boutros Ghali, a one-time UN Secretary General had observed that the UN was ‘getting marginalised and the UNSC in some cases was playing the role of scapegoat’. “Change” he advocated, “must be brought, but how and when?” He suggested no answer. The answer remains elusive to date.
Little wonder then the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, himself bitterly criticised the aims, role and performance of UN SECURITY COUNCIL (secret council). “It is failing, it needs to be immediately modified”, he remarked during his visit to Russia and Ukraine from April 28 to May 1, 2022. He stopped short of adding to scrap it completely.
THE LAUDABLE UKRANIAN RESISTANCE
Surprisingly and even pleasantly, the small nation of Ukraine rose to defend its borders, prestige and place. “We will fight to the end,” announced the young and determined President Volodymyr Zelensky. “We will not give up and we will not lose.” So he added. Some observers thought Zelensky was well on way to equate and even surpass Winston Churchill in his most inspiring WW II address to his beaten and limping nation in 1940! And soon, while millions of civilian population took refuge in neighbouring countries even in England and USA, the small armed forces of Ukraine got deployed from all cardinal points against a massive concentration of Russian mechanised forces on the north which had been tasked by Moscow to ‘capture or destroy Kyiv and areas around’.
This Russian force was contained by the Ukranian Army. Indeed, the winter the mud and snow, added to partially immobilise this mammoth mechanised force too. (It certainly showed lack of tactical knowledge of the Russian military brass and ability of the Ukranian defenders to exploit the vulnerability of a static or partially immobilised mechanised force.) However, the Russian artillery, missiles and air arm continued to destroy and damage not only vital communications, civilian areas but tried to immobilise the entire nation. It became more prominent and nerve-wracking in the south from Odessa to the Donetsk region especially as defenders of Mariupol garrison vowed to ‘do or die’. While the Ukranians put their hearts and souls into defending their shattered state, the defenders stole a truly great prize on April 14 2022, hitting and destroying CRUISER MOSKVU in the Black Sea. A great war trophy and an emblem to the Ukranian spirit.
“We are fighting for Donbas”, Putin and his Foreign Minister had repeated in April with a tad bit of back foot. “We are fighting for our security from an expansionist NATO. Invasion (of Ukraine) was the only decisive action against an enemy.” Zelensky, who had won international moral support for his cause, was once again prompt in response as he retaliated, “We won against the invaders during World War II and will also win again in this war thrust upon us…”
The impression one got from Putin’s written speech was absence of an invader’s sense of elan at victory. After all what did the ‘great’, ‘valorous’ and ‘invincible’ Red Army of Russia achieve in over two months of military operations? It had failed to capture even its ‘primary objective’ of Kyiv, or its fringes and it was forced to pull back. So it had failed to capture the so called strategic region of Odessa – Mariupol, including the Donbas region. One then wondered if Russia would ever get out of the quagmire it had created in Ukraine!
Some Interim Reflections
By the 80th day of this military operation Ukraine ended with its last defence of MARIUPOL when over 2,000 fighters along with a large number of war-wounded of the Azov Brigade stationed at Azovstal steelworks, surrendered. It gave a chance to Russians to celebrate their so called ‘great’ victory. With that the Russians began to control fully the coast of Sea of Azov – the whole stretch of southern and eastern Ukraine, about the size of Bangladesh (or even Greece) that stretched more than 800 km from Luhansk in the east to Kherson on the Black Sea. “We have achieved our strategic objective”, so Putin declared over radio. But selective bombardment of targets in Ukraine has continued.
Not dispirited, the Ukrainian Supreme Command at Kyiv announced, “the Mariupol garrison has fulfilled its combat mission and the country needed our heroes alive to further fight the invaders”.
Was it a ‘great victory’? The Russian could hardly celebrate this small success in the south and east especially when a huge mechanised force deployed on the north failed to make any headway and withdrew leaving a melee of destroyed T-90s behind besides causing atrocities to the civilian population. So did its assaulting infantry struggle in south and east. So much so Mariupol took them almost three months to ‘gobble’.
While the military analysts wondered at the state of affairs, the Russian analysts themselves observed, “Attack on Ukraine showed a sharp deterioration in Russian defence forces”, capability to undertake swift and lightning actions even against a small enemy. It also showed poor morale of the combatants, poor planning by the Russian military planners and inadequate control over the conduct of troops and their soldierly behaviour. Geo-strategically, it arrayed western countries to align against Russia, and Russia – whether it admits or not-had been forced into total geopolitical isolation. The whole world-or most of it-had gone against Russia. Ukraine, on the other hand, was receiving support from all over the world. And even neutral Nordic nations of Finland and Sweden were limbering up to join NATO for ‘a shared safe future’. (2)
Over three months of military offensive by the Russian army has had an unconvincing victory if at all one calls it so. The Russian force lacked not in quantity, but definitely so in quality. It lacked operational preparation and failed to appreciate the fighting spirit of a tiny Ukrainian armed force. And added to its reinforcement are the Western (NATO) armed deliveries in guns, light tanks, drones, night vision devices and indeed, full civilian support with extensive funding from the west. Notwithstanding Russian long range missile and artillery fire which, are responsible for the Ukrainian destruction bordering on `genocide’, the Ukrainians have so far shown no inclination to ‘throw towel in the ring’.
There are yet more far –reaching consequences of Russia’s ‘Hitlerite, myopic military misadventure. Big economic losses, loss of face and trust at the UN, of which Russia is one of the founding members with privilege of Veto and, equally the loss of prestige as a super-power.
(1) Putin’s war in Ukraine is something akin to what he did in Chechnya and even Syria. So is his oppression inside Russia.
(2) Within Russia, though tightly controlled, there were reports of retired Service officers and analysts demonstrating their dissent of Putin’s action against Ukraine. That however was clamped down. Instead the ‘strategic’ victories in the South and East and surrender of the living Ukrainian soldiers of the Mariupol garrison was blared loud.
Observe this news item carried by the Indian Express of May 18, 202,: ‘All’s not going well.’ Russian analyst Mikhail Khodaryonok, a retired Russian Colonel and a conservative columnist on military affairs said that the conflict in Ukraine was deteriorating Russia. The situation for us will clearly get worse. The problems included low morale, the array of western countries aligned against us and the amount of fighters and material that Ukraine was assembling. Russia is in total geopolitical isolation. The whole world is against us, even if we don’t admit it. Resources military, political and military-technical are limited. Russia should not take ‘informational sedatives’.”
According to the international news service Boris Bonderev, a Russian diplomat at UN recently resigned, as he saw the Ukrainian war a `Russian shame’.
Today in 2022, Crimea looks fully ‘Russianised’ meeting all its strategic requirements. To provide safety to its newly acquired freedom of navigation over the Black Sea and a safe land border was created with the help of the so-called Ukrainian pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas Basin in South-South East Ukraine. It stretched from east of Odessa to Kherson-south of Mariupol and further east/ north east on to Sea of Azov. Skillfully carved out, this region began to serve as a launch pad for further future expansions.
The present military intervention is not ‘off the spur’ as being contended but for reason, strategic. The economic one including the EU’s energy dependence on Russia which supplied almost 40% of gas and 30% of oil, added to the Russian emboldenment. It was thought that even if the EU cut this source, Russia could always siphon it to the other needy nations including China, their latest buddy. The Sino-Russian friendship has been growing steadily and the present developments have spurred it further. It was hoped that the UN would be able to prevent this tragedy of the 21st Century but the saddest part of the UNSC on February 24, 2022 was that while rest of the UNSC – and even the General Assembly-demanded Russia to observe ‘immediate secession of hostility’, Russia nullified it by using its ‘veto’. It went to prove what the French call: Du sublime au qu’un pas-There is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.
To add to it, Zelensky sought an alliance with the NATO and EU. The reaction and support to the Zelensky government by the NATO and EU have nevertheless been a guarded one. Though small contingents of US and EU troops got stationed in and around Ukraine, they too looked askance when Putin mobilised Russian troops to action on February 24, 2022. And as the situation developed, Ukraine’s membership got denied. All that the Western world including USA did was to impose economic sanctions, donate small consignments of weapons and ammunition, besides generously providing financial help and accepting millions of refugees in their own countries. What Ukraine needed was a ‘no –fly-zone’ and a second line of defence.
Russia had demonstrated its intentions and military objectives when on February 24, 2022 Putin conducted an open-door–open-air discussion of the forthcoming military operation against what he ridiculously named as ‘de-Nazification’ of a hostile neighbour with members of his national security council. He highlighted the so-called ‘existing threats to Russia’ through ‘anti-Russian developments’ which, he said, ‘called for strategic solutions’. All members of the council presented the threat to Russia from the West. They suggested solutions. And finally, Putin summed up the meeting. To most observers, it was an exercise in Russian propaganda. But pitted against a weak state with hardly any combat power, Russian armed forces used their full destructive power to punish Ukraine.
As things are today, (end May, 2022) Russia has expanded its hold on the region bordering the Sea of Azov-Black Sea, hit hard at nuclear facilities, destroyed communication installations including airfields, and forced some 6.5 million Ukrainians flee their homeland to the neighbouring countries. There is small material support to Ukraine by the US, UK, Germany, and the Ukrainian militia is trying to provide some resistance, but it is a battle of a mythical David against the monster Goliath. It is hoped that Russia’s ‘March of Folly’ ends sooner than later and for Ukraine, despite deaths and destruction, an abiding hope of survival remains. And out of this din and dust Zelensky is emerging as a Ukrainian hero. Putin is now being openly called as the Second Ivan, the Terrible’! And Russia as a super-power is globally isolated-as isolated as Russia of 1950-80 period was.