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Artillery Row

Putin’s big parade

Campaign Diary: Expect extra chest-thumping on “Soviet Victory Day”

It was at three in the morning on Tuesday, 8 May 1945, that Generaloberst Alfred Jodl of the German High Command, signed a surrender document at General Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters in Rheims, France. The European war was over. It was VE-Day. Stalin’s representative, General Ivan Susloparov, cabled his chief the great news.

However, the Russian leader flew into a rage. He wanted his own observance and insisted on a further ceremony at the Soviet military HQ in Karlshorst, a former Wehrmacht officers’ mess, six miles south-east of central Berlin. Chosen simply because it was one of the few buildings in the capital left with windows and a roof, the formalities were presided over by the captor of the city, Marshal Georgy Zhukov.

This time, it was Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, Jodl’s superior, who read over a near-identical document. Susloparov was again present, along with Carl Spaatz for the Americans and Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, representing France. Newsmen were unaware of the diplomatic spat that delayed proceedings.

De Lattre refused to sign unless the French tricolore was in evidence among the standards and pennants decorating the surrender room. The first Soviet solution hilariously produced a Dutch flag. To pacify an even-more outraged de Lattre, a Red Army seamstress was summoned to run up the appropriate banner. More delays ensued while the Allies bickered over the order of signatures and witnesses, only agreed after the mollifying effects of vodka and some food.

This is why the final ceremony began shortly after midnight. Cameras captured Keitel in full dress uniform, arriving in pompous mood. Flashlights caught the glint of his many medals, and the arrogant flourish of his marshal’s baton, held with gloved hands. He gazed around the room, haughty contempt written across his face. The field marshal removed only his right glove, screwed his monocle into his left eye and applied a fountain pen to the two-page, typewritten document. It was 00:16 local time on Wednesday, 9 May, which became Soviet Victory Day and remains so in Eastern Europe.

Each subsequent year on Victory Day, Red Square has echoed to the “Hurrahs” of vast numbers of Russian soldiers, sailors, marines and paratroopers, national guardsmen and airmen. They are drawn up to listen to their commander-in-chief and inspected by generals. Banners are saluted; swords flash through the air. Serenaded by massed bands playing stirring tunes, they march past the top brass, assembled on the roof of Lenin’s Mausoleum.

It is the year’s most important live outside broadcast for RT, the premier state-run news channel. As television cameras catch the burnished boots, bayonets and medals, the troops are followed by the throaty roar of hundreds of tracked and wheeled vehicles. Last year, officers and troops of thirty-seven combat units took part in the parade, totalling 12,000 personnel. This year’s will be no different, except that many of last year’s participants are dead.

Last year we got the 80th anniversary of the Fascist invasion

Western defence attachés and security analysts check every detail of Russia’s hardware as it rumbles past, looking for modifications and new models. In 2021, we were treated to 190 vehicles clattering through Red Square, including cutting-edge T-90M and T-14 “Armata” tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and artillery systems. Some of these have since become rusting scrap on the still-snow-covered steppes of Ukraine. Buk-M3 and Tor-M2 surface-to-air missile systems follow, with mobile air defence vehicles. It was a Buk that shot down Indonesian Airways flight MH-17 in July 2014 while it was innocently flying over the Donbas, killing all on board, including 80 children.

Sleek and dangerous-looking come the SS-26 “Iskander” short-range ballistic missile systems, which are also stationed in the Crimea and Kaliningrad. They can reach targets in Poland, Moldova and Romania. S-400 surface-to-air rockets also trundle past, of the type sold to Turkey in 2019, causing a still-unresolved major NATO rift. It was one of Russia’s own S-400s that downed the Su-27 fighter of Ukraine’s senior pilot, Colonel Oleksandr Oksanchenko. Affectionately known as “Grey Wolf”, he came out of retirement to defend his country but was shot down and killed on 25 February.

Pride or fear usually erupts at the sight of the SS-27 “Topol” mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, easily identified by their eighteen-wheeled launchers, which could have driven straight out of a Thunderbirds TV show. These are what the leader threatened to deploy on the opening day of the conflict, had the West been minded to interfere.

Last year’s military jamboree concluded with a fly-past of 76 aircraft and helicopters. Three Ilyushin Il-76 transport planes, with Tupolev Tu-160 and Tu-95MS strategic bombers, coasted over the Kremlin, accompanied by refuelling tanker planes and followed by a variety of fighters, interceptors and fighter bombers. It is thought that two of the Ilyushin transports carrying airborne troops were shot down in the first hours, near Kyiv. Some of the helicopters and fighters flying on that day have since sown their components into the rich, dark loam of Ukraine’s fields, where farmers are still hoping for a good crop of wheat or sunflowers.

After the marching and the banners and the military kit, like a rally at Nuremberg, comes the leader’s speech. Last year we got the 80th anniversary of the Fascist invasion. It was full of stirring rhetoric, and this (which now makes more sense):

“It has been almost 100 years since the abominable Nazi beast was gaining insolence and predatory strength in Central Europe. History demands that we learn from it. Unfortunately, attempts are being made to redeploy a large part of that Nazi ideology, and the ideas of those who were obsessed with the delusional theory of their own supremacy…

“This ideology is supported by radicals and international terrorist groups of all kinds. Today we are witnessing the surviving members of those killing squads, and their followers, trying to rewrite history. They seek to justify these traitors and criminals, whose hands are smeared with the blood of hundreds of thousands of our civilians. Our veterans, with their fates and loyalty to the Motherland, are the example we follow.”

Russian Victory Day is a national holiday. Many citizens pause to watch their state media’s live coverage of the Moscow parade or attend smaller regional showcase events. Since the days of Stalin, the exhaust fumes of multiple engines, squeak of caterpillar tracks and echo of boots on the cobbles outside the Kremlin have been designed to reinforce the domestic message of international power and the overseas image of invincibility.

How then, will President Putin celebrate this year’s Victory Day? It cannot be with setback or defeat. Attention is turning from the cities of Ukraine, eastwards to the Donbas region. It has already witnessed war for eight years, since 2014. Following the wider February invasion, Zelensky’s defenders in their triple lines of trenches have been under near-constant artillery fire. Their opponents, mostly mobilised civilians from Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk, have attacked relentlessly. Yet, they have been mere cannon fodder for the larger Moscow aim of fixing the 40,000 Ukrainian troops in the East, and preventing them from joining the urban slogs for Mariupol, Kharkiv or Kyiv.

In the coming days, dozens of Russian battalion tactical groups (BTGs), the units of around 1,000 men who have done the fighting and dying up to now, will be forming up to push south from Kharkiv and north from Mariupol to encircle the Ukrainian positions. Having received a bloody nose, these BTGs have been reinforced, resupplied and re-equipped for the “big push”.

Putin has been bypassing the normal military chain of command

We have to assume the Russians have learned from their earlier mistakes. I am reliably informed that up until now, President Putin has been bypassing the normal military chain of command. He ignored the Federation’s military doctrine and the way its armed forces were trained and organised. The President, in the manner of Adolf Hitler, issued orders directly to the generals in charge of formations. The chief of army staff, ministry of defence and military district commanders were cut out, which goes some way to explaining the chaos in Ukraine’s villages, fields and roads that we have witnessed.

Each army commander (and there are up to ten involved) was running his own operation, with Putin breathing down his neck. The president piled on the pressure, inspired by his own wishful thinking, with no sense of the realities on the ground. None of the various armies’ manoeuvres were coordinated, with each general interpreting Putin’s wishes in his own, frequently contradictory way. I may be being overgenerous, but this might explain why some of the humanitarian corridors failed, with different Russian armies on each flank, working to different agendas. “Orders right from the top” may explain the war crimes, too.

Now the army has somehow wrested back control from Putin. A single, unified hierarchy under the Southern Military District’s commander, General Aleksandr Dvornikov, was announced on 9 April. A hard man and a veteran of Syria, who towers over Putin, I predict we shall see his name often in the coming weeks. As he outranks the army commanders, his word will be law. The devil’s pact Dvornikov has agreed to is that he will deliver Putin’s victory in time for 9 May, providing the Russian leader undertakes not to interfere.

This will put the 40,000 Ukrainians fighting in the east under huge pressure. So far, they have managed not to lose in what is known as the Joint Forces Operations (JFO) area. Now they need to win this very different kind of battle. Although the Russians will likely deploy far more airpower than hitherto and have an advantage in artillery, they will be fighting at close to numerical parity.

They are up against Ukraine’s most seasoned and professional troops. This force has different priorities and needs from those defending the cities. More air defence is needed, and Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger’s donation of his country’s entire S-300 air defence system, announced on 8 April, will help. Replacements will come from NATO allies.

Beyond an increased supply of anti-tank missiles and man-portable air-defence systems, Kyiv needs infantry fighting vehicles. This is why the UK and Australia are sending Mastiff and Bushmaster vehicles to move troops around, confirmed at Boris Johnson’s meeting with President Zelensky on 9 April. Ukraine also needs more artillery ammunition to feed its guns (and those captured from the Russians). Above all, it needs more tanks, although some of the T-72s seized in combat are compatible with those already used by Zelensky’s lions.

For Ukraine, the next few weeks promise to be costly, but decisive. General Aleksandr Dvornikov is likely to throw everything he has at the new objective of achieving a limited triumph in the Donbas region before the Victory Day Parade in Moscow on 9 May. Russian combat power has already been eroded once, through weather and exhaustion. This will happen again in Dvornikov’s all-or-nothing offensive, which will become a race against time. We will see him deploy his most attritional and devastating weapons systems.

By Western estimates, Russia has already lost more manpower than paraded on Victory Day in 2021. It has certainly lost more armour than the 190 vehicles which drove past their leader at the same time. If the Dvornikov offensive succeeds, and Russia manages to crawl as far as the Dnieper River, or even just deliver a completely subdued Mariupol, Putin will have a limp, faux victory to trumpet on 9 May.

However, if the new favourite general in town fails, Putin would then have to abandon any pretence of a “special military operation” and mobilise his entire country. Otherwise, watch out for suddenly urgent and meaningful peace negotiations, hosted by President Erdoğan in Turkey. Either way, Stalin, whose embalmed body was quietly removed from display alongside Lenin’s in the Khrushchev days, and lies buried behind the Kremlin, must be spinning in his grave.

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