Updated: Mar 5
As we observed in our article “Russian Invasion Of Ukraine Updated Explainer” to most Americans the myths and facts of World War II are grounded the Western and Pacific theaters of operation: Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, D-Day, Pointe du Hoc, the Battle of the
Bulge, Patton’s tankers, Iwo Jima, the Band of Brothers, Rosie the Riveter, Bull Halsey, and the Enola Gay won WWII as every American knows.
Much of modern Russian – and Ukrainian – military doctrine has its roots in the lessons learned on the Eastern Front of World War II, as does Russian President Vladimir Putin’s view that Ukraine is part of the historic Russian Motherland.
To us the sieges of Moscow and Leningrad, the battle of Stalingrad and the battle of Kursk are vague shadows obscured by the twin Suns of America’s post-war technological prowess and Hollywood mythmaking. The notion that by invading Ukraine Russians are simply redeeming territory and people they shed rivers of blood to “free” from Nazi tyranny makes no sense to most Americans.*
But to Russians the names of the cities and villages of Ukraine are haunting reminders of what they call “the Great Patriotic War.”
The largest tank battle in history, the Russian victory in the Battle of Kursk, was fought just a short distance from the border between Ukraine and Russia. Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city, was the scene of four epic battles – two during the Nazi invasion and two during the Soviet drive to expel them. Likewise, Ukraine’s capitol Kiev, was the scene of an epic Soviet defeat as was the siege of Odessa, also the scene of an epic Soviet defeat and hard-fought recapture. Berdychiv in north Ukraine, Odessa and many other cities and villages in Ukraine were the scenes of Nazi mass murder during the Holocaust, and the use of those historical memories make the present invasion to “denazify” Ukraine look perfectly appropriate to many Russians.
Indeed, looking at the present battle map it would be hard not to conclude that in some sense the Russians are following in the footsteps of their grandfathers in what they claim is the “denazification” of Ukraine.
However, today’s Russia is not the World War II Soviet Union – it lacks both the cohesive Soviet national spirit of total war and the industrial capacity to field the vast numbers of tanks, airplanes and soldiers the Soviets threw against the Nazis.
In lifting the siege of Stalingrad the great Soviet General Georgy Zhukov fielded 500,000 Soviet troops, 900 tanks, and 1,400 aircraft in a pincer attack that stretched across hundreds of kilometers and cut off the Nazi army attacking Stalingrad.
Today’s Russian army, while embracing the doctrine of massed tank attacks and encirclement has nothing like those numbers and, instead of hundreds of Lend-Lease Studebaker trucks to transport their troops to attack Kiev, they relied upon a veritable circus caravan of civilian vehicles and 1950s era military transports.
The result has been a grinding war of attrition much more reminiscent of the worst days of the siege of Stalingrad than its glorious conclusion. Lacking necessary food, water, and medical supplies, tens of thousands of Russians have perished in the battles for such Ukrainian cities as Mariupol and Bakhmut.
And the Ukrainians also know the lessons of Stalingrad.** Mirroring General Vasily Chuikov stubborn defense of the city, the Ukrainians have – especially in Bakhmut – engaged in fierce house-to-house, street by street resistance reminiscent of what the Nazis attacking Stalingrad called the Rattenkrieg, or “Rat’s War,” where small units fought room-to-room in the ruined houses of the city.
Even the drones, used with great effectiveness by the Ukrainians to drop small bombs on precision targets, had their forerunners at Stalingrad. The Soviets employed the “Night Witches” female pilots flying ancient Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes that could cut their engines and glide silently over the Nazi lines to drop their two small bombs on individual trenches so close to their own lines they could talk to Russian soldiers on the ground.
The average life expectancy of a Soviet soldier during the height of the battle of Stalingrad was just 24 hours in what the Nazis called Der Kessel or cauldron. Today, the average life expectancy for a soldier fighting on the front lines in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut is just four hours, according to an American who is fighting against Russian forces in the Donbas.
The New York Post reported former US Marine Troy Offenbecker detailed the intense fighting in the war-torn city of Bakhmut, which has gotten so gory that it’s been dubbed “the meat grinder,” Offenbecker told the outlet.
Whether it is the “meat grinder” or Der Kessel both sides in the Russia – Ukraine war know the history of the Battle of Stalingrad. What remains to be seen is which side will take away the winning lesson as history repeats itself 1,300 kilometers to the west in Ukraine.
*At a celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory in the Battle of Stalingrad Russian President Vladimir Putin said, “It’s incredible. It’s incredible, but it’s a fact: we are once again being threatened with German Leopard tanks with crosses on them. Once again they are preparing to battle Russia on Ukrainian soil at the hands of the followers of Hitler and Bandera.”
**It is worth noting that the late Nikita Khrushchev, the former First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was Ukrainian and was the political commissar of Stalingrad during the battle. In a strange twist of fate Khrushchev may have sown the seeds of today’s conflict by transferring administration of Crimea to the then-Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, meaning it remained part of Ukraine when the Soviet Union was dissolved. Putin has used regaining “lost” parts of Russia as a justification for war.
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