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Artillery Row

A return to duty

Campaign Diary: Bedbound reflections on the ongoing brutality of war in Ukraine

I last pondered the war in Ukraine on 26 April, when contemplating the sinking of the Russian flagship Moskva. Since then, like Asterix the Gaul defying the might of Rome, the beleaguered country has held fast, aided by Western weapons and know-how. 

Shortly after the excitement of the Moskva, and mentally composing my next column for The Critic, I found myself strolling down a street in Paris, where I was due to lecture. Then everything went dark. I happened to be talking on my mobile phone to my good friend, the historian James Holland. Although a continent away, he immediately realised my sudden silence was more than ominous. He did what any intelligent person does in such situations and alerted International Rescue, who, scrambling its various Thunderbirds craft, vectored onto my Parisian rue

Of the crazy blue-light dash through the metropolitan rush hour to a nearby hospital, I knew nothing. It was only the following day that I was able to piece together what had transpired. 

The conversation, conducted in my best medical French, was double edged. It was not a Chechen hit squad that was responsible, nor a representative of the Parisian traffic system. I was in one piece after a heart attack, but much shaking of Gallic heads revealed that my arteries chiefly comprised roast beef, sticky toffee pudding, fine claret, port and Stilton. In short, my headquarters control room was in danger of seizing up, like a car engine deprived of motor oil. Further plumbing was needed. France’s finest cardiologist and I may have celebrated my survival over a glass or two of Armagnac. At some stage I may have uttered the words “make mine a quadruple”. 

The word “cabbage” was bandied about. Not as a statement of my imminent condition, but as an acronym (CABG) for Coronary Artery Bypass Graft — English phraseology also used en français. In early May, Dr Patrick Nataf assembled his team of white-coated magicians at the Hôpital Bichat and performed some ambitious, multiple coronary bypass pipework, on a scale to rival the refurbishment of Nordstream-2. 

I have been too squeamish to investigate exactly what they did, or how. My by-now extremely fluent medical French gathered that there had been (to mix metaphors) much rewiring, scraping away of limescale and removal of barnacles. The knowledge that their wizardry took over five hours was enough: I must thank them for their patience in not skimping on the job.

Your humble scribe was quite unprepared to scale the ensuing mountain of discomfort following the restoration of normal service. At times I was too weak to lift even my digital quill. My anger at Russia and despair over Ukraine registered along the various wires to which I was attached, and I was advised to step off the toxic merry-go-round of current affairs for a while. 

Mr Putin has followed my lead with bypass operations of his own

With a railway line of metal staples holding my torso together, like iron rungs hammered into the North Face of the Eiger, I resembled a Replicant capable of unzipping himself at will from his human form. In time, the metalwork disappeared and was replaced by a form of superglue, which reminded me of nothing more than the polystyrene cement I used each weekend to assemble the Spitfires, Hurricanes and Messerschmitts which in younger years, I would suspend from my bedroom ceiling. I know not why, but none of my female friends appreciated the aerial armadas, which was the reason for their eventual demise. I refer to the aircraft, not the damsels, although I recall a ticklish moment when a New Zealander friend of mine, of whom I was particularly fond, warned me that “either it goes or I do”, pointing with her chin to a strategically placed Lancaster about to commence its bomb run. On that occasion, it was Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, who lost. 

My four-hour sojourn in Paris soon stretched to eleven weeks, and at times I was too disinterested even to take in the Montmartre, the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur and the Eiffel Tower, beautifully floodlit each evening for my benefit. These breath-taking views were afforded by my eighth-floor en-suite residence (priced, I later discovered, at a trifling 3,000 Euros per night, with breakfast). After much tunnelling, the assembly of a glider, and the acquisition of false papers and fake uniforms, I am happy to report a successful “home-run”, in this case back to my summer lair of Croatia, full of the wisdom of consigning my roast-beefing, clareting and Stiltoning days to happy memories. 

The French spend far more on their healthcare (11.2 per cent of GDP in 2019, when it was 9.6 per cent in the United Kingdom) and it shows. I was immediately struck by the profusion of hot-and-cold running staff and spare beds, with no attempt to shift me out of my cocoon until mutual agreement that I had pupated properly and was ready to leave. I was decanted, not to home as I would have been in Blighty, but to a state-run Sanitorium, for a period of compulsory rehabilitation. Appropriately, mine was a 19th century château, which had first entered the healthcare business as a convalescent home for wounded officers in 1917. 

Under these circumstances, my mind turns not to Britain’s noble NHS, but to that of Ukraine. Stuck in the becalmed limbo of a hospital bed, where even waking hours, mealtimes and choice of clothing is delegated to others, one feels more vulnerable than usual. Then add the unannounced arrival of Russian missiles into the mix.

On 7 April this year, the World Health Organisation recorded the 100th attack on a Ukrainian healthcare facility. By 3 June, this total had reached 320 assaults. On 13 July, hospitals, maternity homes, medical transport, personnel, patients, logistics and warehouses, all clearly marked with the red cross, had been assaulted by Russian weaponry on 382 occasions, killing 82 and injuring 64, most of whom were trained healthcare professionals. This overlooks care-giving in the field, whence most young and fit doctors and nurses have gone. 

Much other civic infrastructure such as schools, universities and museums have likewise suffered. Save the Children noted in April that “an average of 22 schools a day had come under attack”. By 3 June, “at least 1,888 schools had been damaged or destroyed by shelling and bombing since the conflict began, disrupting the education of all 7.5 million children living in Ukraine at the beginning of the year”.

In an era of Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) the extraordinarily high number of strikes against schools and hospitals is not collateral damage. Even at the height of the Second World War, all sides did their best to avoid hitting such targets, a logic that the Kremlin appears to have reversed. One is left pondering what Mr Putin (for it is his personal “special military operation”, and no one else’s), is trying to achieve. The answer may be that he is attempting to provoke a similar response from President Zelensky. So far, Ukraine has sent rockets to hit only arms dumps and transport infrastructure within Russia. To escalate the rain of Kyiv’s missiles onto schools, hospitals and civilian homes (as the Russian media machine consistently claims but never proves) would be to prove to the world that the dastardly Ukrainians were, after all, sinister Nazis and no longer worthy of Western support. Thus, Kyiv has wisely stayed its hand.

However, since I have been hors de combat, I see that Mr Putin has followed my lead with bypass operations of his own. After expending high numbers of mechanised equipment and manpower in head-on battles for the political centres of Kyiv and Kharkiv, the Russians found themselves defeated by two factors. One was the inevitable consequence of attacking in the freezing and thawing conditions of late winter. Any study of Napoleon or Hitler would have alerted Putin’s general staff to this inconvenience. 

The second, more intangible, reason was that the soul of Ukraine emerged, given voice by its actor-president. It mattered not whether citizens considered themselves of Russian extraction (in the east) or Polish (in the west), were of Jewish or Orthodox faith, or born a Soviet or a Ukrainian citizen, the widely-experienced sensation of being under mortal attack has bonded a disparate group of 40 million into a nation.

Putin’s forces have learned to follow the terrain, with artillery preparing the way. The high tempo of the first three months of operations has now settled into a different battlefield drumbeat. For the moment, with the West helping Ukraine, Russia cannot win. That same assistance is not quite enough for Ukraine to eject the Russians from the territory they have occupied since 2014, let alone since 22 February of this year. Both sides have recognised, to their mutual surprise, that this “special military operation” has become one of attrition. It is of a nature the West has perhaps not seen since 1914–18. 

The Russian Army has learned to play to its strengths

The streets of Lviv are empty now, partly because of the 11pm to 5am curfew that keeps all indoors, and because any man of fighting age (currently assessed as 18 to 60) is likely to be marched off to a military base for training, or at least stopped and interrogated as to why he is not in uniform. For this reason, taxis now are scarce, for their drivers are equally at risk from flying squads of “recruiters”. From the tiniest Siberian town to the boulevards of Archangel, Moscow and St Petersburg, the story is identical, as the warring sides are digging in for the long haul. It can be seen that a siege mentality has become Russia’s Weltanschauung (worldview) in Putin’s recent decree encouraging his citizens to use their gardens “to breed rabbits and chickens for their own needs”. This is very much a case of “grow your own onions”, as Britons were told to do in the 1940s.

At prohibitive cost, the Russians have taken almost all of Ukraine’s Luhansk oblast (province). Summer will see them invest more resources to secure the Donetsk region to its south, before the wet of autumn and cold of winter sets in. They have achieved this by concentrating most of their combat power in specific areas, rather than frittering it away with attacks everywhere, as they did in February to May. More importantly, the Russian Army has learned to play to its strengths. 

This is why the discussion of both sides’ artillery and rocket forces has been so important. It reflects the different kind of war that has been fought in June and July, chiefly artillery duels. During 1944–45 and throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Army relied on the “Red God of War”, not tanks or infantry but artillery, to dominate the battlefields. Over the years, tens of thousands of field guns were manufactured, mostly of 152mm calibre. It is these which Russia, like a magician suddenly remembering to pull the rabbit out of his hat, has recently deployed to achieve dominance over its opponent. Hence the ability, backed by an endless supply of ammunition (some of it of museum vintage), to inch its way through Mariupol, Luhansk and Donetsk. 

“Russia is firing approximately 20,000 152mm shells per day compared with Ukraine’s 6,000, with an even greater proportional disparity in multiple rocket launchers and missiles fired,” recorded a recent Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) report. The Western response has been to round up stray 152mm shells from other former Warsaw Pact countries for shipment to Ukraine. This was followed by supplies of NATO-standard 155mm guns and ammunition, but they are too few in number to tip the balance. Whilst Russia possesses an impressive volume of gun barrels (artillerymen call them “tubes”), 152mm shells reach out only to 20km, thus dictating the distance that tanks and infantry can operate forward of their guns. 

Enter the West’s HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), whose accurate rockets can hit targets up to 300km distant. These are causing significant disruption to Russian logistics, particularly in destroying artillery ammunition stockpiles, air defence systems and field headquarters, furthering the drain of senior Russian officers. 

The only brake on the numbers of these supplied to Ukraine has been the well-publicised reluctance of Germany, France, Hungary, Switzerland and Italy to sever their links with Moscow in the hope of resuming trade once the “embarrassment of Ukraine” is over. Putin’s blackmail in the disruption of fossil fuels to these countries also plays a role here. Thus, it is not just Russia, but some of the West who are also responsible for the attrition we see imposed on the bloodlands of Eastern Ukraine. 

Meanwhile, for the rest of the summer, we will see a clash of willpower. That of Ukraine is derived from its discovery of national pride, tinged with revenge. They are up against a savage fighting spirit. It disregards the norms of war, targets civilians and loots their houses (friends near Kharkiv have reported the absence even of window frames and door handles after returning home). 

My professional study of history indicates that hostile occupations, such as the one we are witnessing, always end in costly failure. However, this will only happen if the supply of Western weaponry and training is stepped up, rather than decreased. From my hospital bed, I noted how the war in the East has gradually disappeared from view. Ukraine must not be forgotten.

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