Soviet soldiers freshly painted with Ukranian flag colours, at the base of the Soviet Army monument in Sofia, on 27 February 2022. (Photo by Nikolay DOYCHINOV / AFP)
Artillery Row

The war in Ukraine may have only just begun

Campaign Diary: Russia is playing a long game and tapping into its Soviet past

“We had such a great pathological mistrust of the West. Whatever they said, Stalin’s philosophy told us, you must think the opposite.” The speaker was a Soviet 1940s aviator who later defected to Britain, Grigori Tokaty. I first heard these words in 1973, when Tokaty was interviewed for the television series, World at War. Jeremy Isaacs’ legendary 26-episode documentary left as indelible an impression on the thirteen-year-old me as it did on my entire generation. Alas, history has come full circle, for Stalin’s philosophy is now that of Putin.

The conflict has awoken deep hatreds we thought extinguished in 1945

Tokaty was speaking during episode 5 of the series, which dealt with the German invasion of Russia in 1941, Operation Barbarossa. I watched it again only days ago, and found that despite fifty years of new scholarship in Russian, German and English archives, the crisp narrative has worn remarkably well. The archival footage and veterans’ interviews, with Laurence Olivier’s voice stitching it all together, remain a gamechanger as a presentation of popular history. If you have never seen them, you should watch. Particularly as the Barbarossa episode has reinforced my belief that the current Russo-Ukraine conflict has awoken deep hatreds we thought extinguished in 1945.

We know that Vladimir Putin is obsessed with his place in history, and with his antecedents of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. I doubt he has viewed World at War, but as I observed in The Critic on 8 March, he has altered his nation’s understanding of that struggle, and wrapped his own interpretation with laws making it illegal “to give false information concerning the activities of the USSR during the Second World War”.

I am informed that he will have personally viewed, and approved, the modern Russian equivalent of World at War, such is the 69-year-old’s determination to keep company with the ghosts of the past. But who is tapping on his shoulder? Is it Tsar Nicholas II or Josef Stalin, whose empires he would like to imitate? Or is it his fellow secret policeman, Heinrich Himmler, with whom he shares a birthday (7 October), and whose system of repression, murder, genocide and camps, he is copying?

In the last five weeks of fighting, a wider theme has occurred to me. It has been overlooked by most commentators, intent on feeding the hungry 24-hour news cycle. The need for drama and headlines has deluged us with media reports, of the reduction of proud former-Soviet tank units to handfuls of men and machines; the destruction of Russian truck columns; and the wiping out of squadrons of helicopters, and battalions of airborne troops, marines, artillery and rocket launchers. I am as guilty as the next journalist. We have been hung up on debates about Moscow’s logistics and shredded tyres, No Fly Zones, the efficacy of British-supplied anti-tank weapons, both sides’ use of foreign volunteers, nuclear forces and whether Vladimir Putin will unpack his Mattel Discover-and-Learn Chemistry Set, as he did in Syria.

We have no true figures of each side’s gains and losses

This need for short-hand summaries is because we are so used to understanding our military history in terms of the two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf and Afghanistan. A win here, a decisive moment, an outstanding leader, a set-back there. Yet, having been in a privileged position in two command centres during large-scale military operations, I know how difficult it is to interpret events, even when privy to many of the secrets that lurk in a headquarters at war. The first was in Bosnia in 1996–97; the second occasion was exactly nineteen years ago, while the invasion phase of the Iraq War was being fought in 2003.

Both experiences taught me that our true understanding of events, through interviews with the warriors of both sides, analysis of documents and walking the actual combat terrain — all the so-called primary sources of an academic — takes about twenty years to assemble. At present, our day-to-day assertions about the Ukraine war are barely the first draft of the notes that will help the military historian of 2042. The war is far from over, yet some are beginning to talk of its lessons, of the future of the tank, of peace and the post-conflict phase. It is far too soon to tell. The contest is like an hourglass full of sand that you have just inverted. The grains are still in motion and have yet to land. The fighting is still in mid-flow.

I am struck by the fact that we have no true figures of each side’s gains and losses. Ukraine’s gallant Ministry of Defence issues daily tallies of Russia’s casualties, but not their own. Moscow’s figures, as I illustrated last week, are laughably false. Western observers in Ukraine are making best guesses, and what we have is not the historical, objective truth. Nor should we expect it to be. Some of this is not deception, but the true fog of war. Yet during any conflict, operational security also requires that neither side reveals its true hand to the outside world. Our news headlines may be giving us false comfort. The truth is we simply do not know the real picture.

I thus fear our short-hand, first-draft history of the military situation in Ukraine is premature. Much of Russia’s modern weaponry, including its advanced aircraft, has yet to be seen. Most of the tank losses are older T-72s, not more modern T-90s. Of equal concern is that Zelensky’s warriors who are doing so well at holding the Russian forces in the Donbas (a largely unreported confrontation in Western media) are in danger of being surrounded. With the impending fall of Mariupol, the arrival of fresh Russian units from elsewhere (they are certainly on their way), and the likely reallocation of forces from Kharkiv or Kyiv, the situation could radically alter in the sector known, in another echo of an earlier war, as the “Eastern Front”.

It is far too soon, however much we might wish it, to talk of Russia’s defeat

An advance with fresh Russian troops might push back the tired and degraded defenders, in relentless combat now for over a month, and force them west, across the Dnieper River. At a stroke, this would change the strategic picture to Ukraine’s detriment. Moscow will drag out peace talks until the situation has turned to Putin’s advantage. Another line from the Barbarossa script of World at War echoes for me. “One Wehrmacht colonel wrote that in invading Russia [in 1941], the German army was like an elephant attacking a host of ants. The elephant may kill thousands, maybe millions, but in the end, their numbers will overcome him, and he will be eaten to the bone.” There are fewer ants in today’s Mother Russia, a fraction of the size of the former Soviet Union. They may be clumsy and ill-directed, but they are still more numerous than their Ukrainian opponents. Thus, it is far too soon, however much we might wish it, to talk of Russia’s defeat.

On 29 March came the news that Russia had decided, “To drastically reduce military activity in the cities of Kiev and Chernihiv”, in order to “increase mutual trust for future negotiations, to agree and sign a peace deal”. What are we to make of this Russian decision? Are they giving up on a bad job, to move their forces elsewhere? Perhaps to the Donbas?

Chernihiv is 100 miles northeast of Kyiv. The aggressors have been battling, with limited success, for control of this city, once home to 300,000. By some accounts, the region has been a graveyard for several Russian Motor Rifle Brigades, which field tanks and armour carrying infantry. It was also where ten Chernihivian civilians standing in a breadline, were reportedly gunned down in cold blood. Western observers and the Ukrainians themselves allege there has been no mass removal of Russian troops. As I write, the region’s governor stated that shelling and other attacks have continued without let-up during the subsequent 24 hours.

Up until now, a pattern has emerged of Moscow using peace talks as an excuse to rearm and regroup and there is every reason to assume it is negotiating in bad faith once more. If so, this is another echo Putin has inherited from the Great Patriotic War. As Grigori Tokaty offered in his World at War interview, “Because of our pathological mistrust, when we say something to the West, we must do the opposite.”

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