Peter Caddick-Adams on the echoes of history in the Russia-Ukraine war
“The language, tactics, and even the weapons of the Russia-Ukraine war hark back to the 1940s,” writes Peter Caddick-Adams
Spread over 25 acres on a hill overlooking the Dnieper River near the heart of Kyiv in Ukraine is the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. It tells the story of the Soviet Union’s struggle with Nazi Germany. Among the quiet halls, stuffed full of weapons, clothing, equipment, artwork, models, and propaganda, are tanks and guns. Lots of them. And anti-tank obstacles called ‘hedgehogs’. These are lengths of angle-iron, welded or bolted together, which the Germans also put on the Normandy beaches to halt the Allies in 1944.
In a bizarre exodus, these Ukrainian hedgehogs have been recalled to duty. Migrating out of their museum and onto the streets of Kyiv, complete with plaques, identifying them as museum exhibits, they have been recycled to do the job for which they were first designed in 1941. All through Ukraine, citizens are digging trenches and filling sandbags, in another mirror to the 1940s. Although the attackers are now the Russians, and some of the defenders’ anti-tank missiles attacking them will be German-made, there are many echoes of history in this bitter war that none thought would ever happen.
Some of Ukraine’s mobilised citizen defenders have brought out trophy pistols of the Second World War taken by their grandparents, though none would have expected to fire them in anger against a Russian
This is a conflict whose very parameters have been set by history. Vladimir Putin has attempted to justify his invasion with references to a “fascist coup” in Kyiv. It is a throwback phrase to the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War is often called in Russia), but meaningless in the current context. The Russian leader has also alleged “genocide” being practiced on ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking citizens, but this is also untrue. The term is defined as the ‘systematic and widespread extermination or attempted extermination of a national, racial, religious, or ethnic group’. If anything, people in the the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk provinces which comprise the Donbas region had been conducting their own intimidation of non-Russians. If the language of the Russia-Ukraine war harks back to the 1940s, then so do some of the weapons.
Recent footage of the pro-Russian militias in the Donbas region reveals that their rifles and anti-tank weapons also date to the 1940s. Almost like historical re-enactors, they are marching into battle with PTRD 1941-era anti-tank rifles and 7.62mm Mosin muskets produced in their tens of millions for Joseph Stalin’s lions. Some of Ukraine’s mobilised citizen defenders have brought out trophy pistols of the Second World War taken by their grandparents, though none would have expected to fire them in anger against a Russian.
The Winter War
It was during the Winter War of 1939–40, when plucky little Finland stood up to the might of the Soviet Union, that the Finns prepared a nasty surprise for their attackers. They made millions of petrol bombs and named them after the Russian Foreign Minister, Mr Molotov. Today, it is Kharkiv and Kyiv that have borrowed the Finnish recipe book to greet a new generation of Russian invaders with petrol and fire. Molotov cocktails are being made and stored in their millions, ready for the invaders.
This war’s tactics are grounded in history as well. When the Russians invaded in February 2022, they brought little extra fuel, mistaken in the belief they would be welcomed with open arms. Instead, Ukraine’s population rose up to oppose their invaders, using what they knew from their schoolbooks of the Great Patriotic War. They practiced “scorched earth”, destroying some of Ukraine’s own infrastructure in an attempt to hinder Russian troops.
The history books also teach that any campaigns in the east during February will mean battling with ‘general winter’ – as some poorly-clothed and equipped Russian conscripts have discovered; a lesson that Napoleon or Hitler could have taught them. Every March the winter ice melts the rich Ukrainian loam, creating Rasputitsa, the region’s legendary deep, treacherous mud. This has kept Russian vehicular columns to the main roads and railway lines. Pictures of trucks and even tanks bogged down in Ukrainian mud have shown the inadvisability of leaving hardstanding. To make good their widely advertised losses of transport, the Russian Federation has been rounding up huge numbers of civilian trucks and sending them west on long trains. Strangely enough, this was exactly the Wehrmacht’s solution to its truck shortages in 1941–42, but created more logistical headaches than they were worth, with shortages of spare parts for more than 100 different vehicle types. It is difficult not to believe that today’s Russian Federation forces will suffer the same supply challenges.
Russia-Ukraine war: events in context
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- Nato, Russia, and the history of the post-WW2 tensions
- “We missed a precious window”: why did America and Russia squander an opportunity for peace in the 1990s?
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- Has Russia always played by its own rules?
- 9 history podcast episodes that chart Russia and Ukraine's changing interactions with the world
- What does Iron Curtain mean, and who popularised the term?
If I am honest, like the rest of the world, I did not hold out much hope for Ukraine’s survival. However, into the third week of fighting, the incredible seems to have happened. David has hit back at Goliath and the giant has a sore head, partly because of Ukraine’s will to resist, best expressed by the Churchillian figure of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky urging resistance. Since then, some of Zelensky’s team have widened the Churchillian rhetoric to a plea: “Give us the tools and we will finish the job,” referring to the continued flow of weapons with which the west is currently supplying Ukraine.
The cultural reputation of the Russian and Ukrainian armies in 1941–45 rests on the defence of Leningrad, now St Petersburg, and two big city fights of Stalingrad and the capture of Berlin. In the latter cases, Soviet forces encircled the conurbations, stood back and relied on the ‘Red God of War’ – their artillery and rocket forces – to first demoralise the Germans, then pulverise their defensive positions. Only then did Soviet tanks and infantry enter the streets, systematically subduing the areas, block by block. It was time-consuming and extremely costly in casualties. The Germans fought back with hand-held anti-tank weapons and machine-guns. These are precisely the weapons and tactics that Ukraine hopes will prevail against the Patriotic War tactics we expect to be used by Russia in Kyiv and Kharkiv.
- Read more | Operation Barbarossa: why Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union was his greatest mistake
While the conflict continues, I shall return to explore the many historical parallels offered by this conflict. For now, we are left with two salutary military lessons from the past. It is often said that “amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics”. Military commanders are constantly reminded that “No plan survives first contact with your enemy”. Both have already rung loud and clear from today’s war in Ukraine.
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Peter Caddick-Adams is a writer and broadcaster who specialises in military history, defence and security issues. He lectures at universities, military academies and staff colleges around the world and spent 35 years as an officer in the UK Regular and Reserve Forces. His next book, 1945: Victory in the West, is due to be published by Penguin in May 2022
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