Drifting Away – Ada Kaleh: Refuge on The Danube (Part Three)

“An atmosphere of prehistoric survival hung in the air as though the island was the refuge of an otherwise extinct species long ago swept away.” – Between The Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor

A strange thing happened while Ada Kale enjoyed its insular obscurity, World War I. While the island was a bastion of tradition, many other time honored traditions across Europe were being destroyed. As war raged in the nations that surrounded the island, Ada Kale’s sublime existence continued much as before. The island was much too far from the battlefields on which the Ottomans fought for that fading empire to show interest in their subjects. Nine hundred kilometers separated the empire and the island. They empire continue to send gendarmes to the island, but other than that, Ada Kaleh was an afterthought.

Since the Ottoman Empire fought along with the Central Powers, including Austria-Hungary, Ada Kaleh made it through the war unscathed. In contrast, two of the nations which were just a short ferry ride from the island, Serbia and Romania, suffered grievously during the war. In 1915, Serbia suffered an invasion from the Central Powers which led to occupation during the war. The same happened to Romania after they entered the war in 1916. Meanwhile, the Danube stayed secured through the efforts of Austria-Hungary’s naval flotilla. By the end of the war, the situation reversed. Serbia and Romania were triumphant. Both expanded their territory, gaining much of it at the expense of Austria-Hungary which dissolved. At the same time, the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Ada Kaleh was now alone.

The old guard – Men having coffee on Ada Kaleh

Tourism & Tobacco – An Exotic Outpost
With neither Austria-Hungary nor the Ottoman Empire in existence after the war, Ada Kaleh found itself stranded in a geo-political netherworld. Every side that had fought in the war wanted to either acquire or hold on to territory. The problem for Ada Kaleh is that its former masters had vanished. Whereas Austria-Hungary had willfully ignored it and the Ottomans treated the island as a loose appendage, other rising nation states might see things differently. It was not until five years after the war had ended that Ada Kaleh learned of its new overseer. The successor state to the Ottomans came about through Turkish victories on the battlefield. When the newly formed Republic of Turkey signed the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, it ceded any authority over the island. The residents of Ada Kaleh then decided to join Romania. Unfortunately, this also meant that the residents would be relinquishing their privileges. The latter had played a role in stimulating the economy.

Ada Kaleh was now part of the mainland, at least in an administrative sense. This would cause a high degree of economic hardship. The island would become impoverished, Sadly, this was at least one thing it had in common with post-World War I Romania. Restoration of privileges was foremost on islander’s minds. They were lucky enough to get a visit from King Carol II in 1931. Touched by the suffering that he witnessed, the king decided to restore Ada Kaleh’s privileges. This allowed the island to regain its economic footing. Tourism and tobacco were once again mainstays of the economy. Smuggling also became a lucrative enterprise. The island soon settled into a new existence which was much like its old one. Obscure and overlooked, Ada Kaleh was a backwater on Romania’s western frontier. An exotic outpost on the fringes of a struggling nation. It reminded visitors of what life must have been like when the Ottomans ruled over the Balkans. Coffee houses proliferated, the bazaar sold textiles and jewelry along with other consumer accoutrements, smoking was not so much a habit as a way of life.

Historic rendering – Ada Kaleh drawing from the 19th century

The Literary Vagabond – In The Form Of Fermor
After the restoration of Ada Kale’s privileges, it was not long before the economy picked back up. Each year, tens of thousands of visitors came to the island to shop at the bazaar or along the Eruzia, the main shopping street where a range of goods were on offer. It is the type of tourism seen today in the Turkish quarter of Sarajevo or Old Bar in Montenegro. Unlike those places, Ada Kule was not marketing the past. It was a dynamic, vibrant community. A mystic form of the Ottomans to outsiders, but this was a reality for the approximately six hundred inhabitants on the island. The scent of tobacco mixed with coffee was pervasive, the fetid environment lush with exoticism, a slice of the Orient along the Danube, Ada Kale’s aesthetic resonated with those who visited.

One of its visitors during the 1930’s was none other than Patrick Leigh Fermor, the literary vagabond who was in the second year of his epic journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul). He took a keen interest in Ada Kaleh. Fermor read anything he could find about the island prior to his visit. In his book, he relates a bit of legendary background by reciting the story of the Argonauts passing through the island before making a historic portage to the Adriatic. The legend is quite enchanting and patently false which Fermor surely knew. He then provides a rundown of the island’s more recent history, giving the classic description of Austria-Hungary holding “a vague suzerainty” over the island during the pre-World War I era.

Shadows from the past – Ada Kaleh street scene

Atmospheric Rendering – Down By The Danube
After landing, Fermor finds the usual Ottoman aesthetics when invited to partake of coffee with a group of grizzled men. He is a keen observer of these descendants of the Turks. They were unlike any other people he had met thus far on his journey. Fermor’s descriptions are colorful in the extreme with boleros, sashes and fezzes all making appearances in the most eyepopping colors imaginable. Fermor describes the island’s otherworldliness, as though he had set foot on an entirely different planet. The residue of Ottomania wafts through his narrative. In true Fermor fashion, he spends the night sleeping out in the open down by the Danube as fish splash in the river and meteors streak across the sky. That night he has a dream where half a millennium before, King Sigismund’s crusading force cross the Danube at this very same spot while going to battle the Ottoman Turks. It is hard to imagine a more eloquent and atmospheric rendering of an island that would cease to exist a mere three and a half decades after the intrepid wanderer’s visit.

Twilight of the Ottomans – Ada Kaleh: The Last Refuge (Part Two)

The more I researched Ada Kale, the more I wanted to travel there. Since the island lies beneath the roiling waters of the Danube such a visit would be problematic. The best any tourist can do is take a boat to the island’s pre-1970 location before it sank beneath the Danube. I spent time looking at various river cruise options if someone fancied a journey down the middle and lower portions of Europe’s most famous river. Dreams of approaching the Iron Gates on a late summer day while studying the river’s surface for a hint of the island buried beneath it danced in my head. My dreams of such a journey went temporarily on hold when I saw the alarming costs of “a river cruise.” The most affordable of the options was a seven-day journey from Budapest to the Black Sea which cost thousands of dollars.

Seeing the expense helped me realize the value of name recognition. People are willing to pay a premium for the opportunity to sail the Blue Danube, which is not blue at all. If only Strauss had immortalized the Vistula or the Volga Rivers in a waltz. Exorbitant in the extreme is an apt description of Danube River cruises. However, cheaper options are available. Boat trips from the nearby city of Orsova that take visitors through the Iron Gates area run for as little as nine euros. For that price, I could imagine making multiple trips or even chartering a boat to circle the spot where Ada Kaleh lies buried. Sadly, that is as close as anyone is likely to ever get to the island in the coming centuries.

Ottomania – Citizens of Ada Kaleh in the early 20th century

On The Fringes – A Precarious Position
The 20th century began in promising fashion for the inhabitants of Ada Kule. A new mosque went up in 1903. No less a dignitary than the Ottoman Sultan, Abdulhamid II, donated a large carpet to grace its interior. He wanted to ensure that his subjects knew that the Empire was still aware of its northernmost outpost in Europe. Ada Kaleh was an exotic point of pride for an empire that had labelled as “the Sick Man of Europe.” The Ottomans were maintaining a tenuous grip on territorial outposts in southern Europe. They had lost their last toehold on the Danube after Bulgaria achieved independence in 1878. Their invasion had of the Balkans and parts of East-Central Europe had followed the Danube. Ottoman power was now in its twilight years. Decline, retreat, and absence, best characterizes the Ottoman influence in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. Stagnation, corruption, and ossification all were bringing the empire to is knees. This left Ada Kaleh in a precarious position.

The island’s residents were at the mercy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or newer nations such as Romania and Serbia whose territory was within a short boat ride of the island. Of course, these states had more important internal issues to worry about than a small island of people with antiquated customs speaking a strange tongue. As for those who called Ada Kaleh home, they still enjoyed de facto protection from the Sultan. Its citizens also enjoyed other privileges that made life on the island pleasant, if not prosperous. For instance, they were exempt from military service and taxes. The island’s inhabitants lived a life insulated from much of the modern world.

Headed downriver – Ada Kaleh in the late 19th century

Economic Imperatives – Tripping Out
Just as Ada Kaleh held the distinction of being the last Ottoman territory in Europe (other than eastern Thrace which is still part of Turkey today), it also became the last territorial acquisition by the Kingdom of Hungary. In 1913, Austria-Hungary annexed Ada Kaleh, which should have meant Hungarians would administer it. The Ottomans decided to ignore what turned out to be an administrative maneuver and little else. They continued to supply administrative personnel. This included police sent from Istanbul to help the island manage its own affairs. The annexation did nothing to change facts on the ground. Life continued much as before for the island’s residents. While the rest of Hungary and greater Europe was in the throes of industrialization, A lone cigarette factory was the extent of industry on the island. Tobacco was one of the staples grown on the island. Ada Kaleh also had the status of a free port which helped boost its economy.

Prior to the First World War Ada Kaleh was a destination for both trade and tourism. The latter popular enough to get an entry in the final Baedeker Guide to Austria-Hungary published in 1911. The guidebook devoted a quarter of a page to details of the island and how to visit it. Those who fancied a visit to Ada Kule take a boat from near the Austro-Hungarian frontier guard station on the northern shoreline of the Danube. For the price of four crowns, tourists could not only visit the island, but also take in the Iron Gates. For those looking to just visit the island, they could get a boat from the Romanian village of Veciorova a bit further downriver at a cost of only two crowns. The Baedeker was known for its strict adherence to detail, but there was one notable error in the Ada Kaleh entry. The guidebook stated the Austrians had taken the island in 1878, the same year they occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina. That was not true, but their Austro-Hungarian border personnel did control crossings to it from imperial territory.

A Turkish colony – Citizens of Ada Kaleh in a postcard from 1901

A Turkish Colony – Oriental Exoticism
Baedeker termed the island a “Turkish colony.” Visitors could visit the bazaar, cemetery, and old fortification. They could also enjoy a Turkish coffee, while they perused items for sale in the bazaar. Tobacco must have lured visitors to open their wallets. Baedeker warned prospective visitors that it would be subject to customs duties. Thus, there was no great discount obtained by purchasing tobacco on the island. Surrounding attractions also lured visitors to the island. Since Ada Kaleh was so close to the Iron Gates, those who came to see the natural wonder could also enjoy the island’s exoticism on their way downriver. Those lucky enough to visit Ada Kaleh before the war did not know that they were seeing a community that would soon be subject to the massive geo-political changes to come in the next few years. The First World War would be a turning point in the history of Ada Kaleh.

Click here for: Drifting Away – Ada Kaleh: Refuge on The Danube (Part Three)

The Ottoman Outlier – Ada Kaleh: An Island Apart In The Danube (Part One)

Hundreds of years from now there will come a moment when the dams which hold back the Danube River give way. As the deluge begins to drain downriver, natural wonders long since submerged by manmade reservoirs will reappear. Slowly rising to the surface, these wonders will remind anyone lucky enough to see them of the losses incurred by the dams. These wonders include an island waiting to be rediscovered near the Iron gates of the Danube, that narrow, rocky, river route through which the Danube passed prior to construction of the Iron Gate I Hydroelectric Power Station. Even today, the area has a commendable degree of natural beauty that recommends it to visitors. The awe-inspiring rock formations of the Iron Gates can still tower above the waterline. Unfortunately, the same is not true for an island that vanished into the depths after the construction of Iron Gate I.

An isolated existence – Ada Kaleh in a 1909 postcard

Creating A Community – A Contested Space
The evocatively named island of Ada Kaleh (island fortress) drowned beneath a rising reservoir in 1970. The island had been one of the most unique communities in Europe. It was the last European possession of the Ottoman Empire. In the mid-14th century, the Ottoman Turks first set foot on European soil. Up until the late 17th century they expanded their territory in Europe to include the Balkans, a sizable portion of Hungary and on occasion the Gates of Vienna. It was not until after World War I altered the geopolitical map of the Balkans irreparably, that the Turks finally relinquished their hold on Ada Kaleh. Turkey (the smaller successor of the Ottoman state) handed it over to Romania in 1923. The island stood close to the Romanian side of the Danube. Across the river was the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (renamed Yugoslavia in 1929).

While Ada Kaleh became Romanian territory, it would always be a world apart, a fascinating outlier of ethnic Turks surrounded by the Danube. In a twist of historical irony, the creation of Ada Kule as a viable community occurred due to the same waters which would drown it. A mile long and a quarter mile wide, The Danube churned up enough gravel and sand over thousands of years to create an island just before the Iron Gates gorge. Both the Ottoman Turks and the Habsburgs coveted the island due to its strategic location. Ada Kule offered an opportunity to control access along the middle Danube. Because of this, the island became a contested space. One coveted by powers both great and small.

An island apart – Ada Kaleh Bazaar in the late 19th century

Ownership & Occupation – Plaything of the Great Powers
The location of Ada Kule from the 17th century forward straddled imperial borders. It became a point of contention between the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. Occupation and ownership of the island was tenuous. Ada Kule was the plaything of two great powers. In 1689, the Austrian Habsburgs gained control of the island. This did not last long. Only two years later, the Ottomans took it back. A year later they lost the island. Then in 1699, the Ottomans took it back again. Thus, in a ten-year period Ada Kule changed ownership on four occasions. This pattern continued into the 18th century as the island changed hands another three times. In attempting to secure their hold on the island, the Habsburgs imported labor to build a fortress on it. Expert stone masons from central Europe began work in 1717 to construct an impregnable defensive structure.

A large pool of laborers helped put the Habsburg plans into action. They suffered in the fetid summer heat, failing to fend off insects and disease. In the winter, they subjected to ferociously icy winds that came howling off the river. Despite these climatic extreme, the laborers were able to build the most permanent fixture in the island’s history. The fortress took twenty years to construct. It included bastions, barracks and defensive works built to ensure that the Habsburgs controlled access to the river. The stout defensive works were no match for a four-month siege by the Ottomans. The fortress fell to the Turks a year after its completion. It would stay under Ottoman control except for a brief two-year interlude of Habsburg rule from 1789 – 1791. A treaty handed the island back to the Ottomans, who would hold onto it until the early 20th century.

Stepping into the past – Postcard of Ada Kaleh fortress

Natural Defenses – An Isolated Existence
Despite the Ottoman Empire’s prolonged retreat from the Balkans, Ada Kule’s status remained strangely the same. This Ottoman outlier’s existence became more precarious during the 19th century. Habsburg and Serbian territory would surround it. Nevertheless, it still had the natural defenses of the Danube still protecting it on all sides. The island’s relative isolation allowed it to develop an exoticism that had vanished from the land adjacent to this stretch of the Danube. In 1867, Ottoman troops left Serbia, but the island stayed part of the Sultan’s lands. A decade later, the Ottomans vacated Romania. The Austrian Habsburgs had long since pushed the Ottomans out of the middle Danube and yet the Sultan still held onto the island. It was one of the most unique arrangements of the time. While the forces of nationalism surged across the Balkans, tearing Ottoman possessions from the empire’s grasp, and threatening the implosion of Austria-Hungary, the Turks on Ada Kule continued their quixotic existence.

The Treaty of Berlin, which had granted Romania its independence, failed to mention Ada Kaleh. The regional powers brokered a deal in another treaty allowing Austria-Hungary military control over the island, while those who lived on it continued to be subjects of the Sultan. The island remained immune from the geopolitical and ideological forces which convulsed the latter half of the 19th century. Hidden in plain sight, Ada Kaleh went mostly unnoticed. One person who did take notice was the Sultan in Istanbul. After the construction of a new mosque there in 1903, the Sultan donated a large carpet to cover its interior floorspace. He also continued to appoint civic and judicial officials to administer affairs for his subjects. Ada Kaleh was an island unto itself, an insular world that left to its own devices. In the coming century that would not continue. Ada Kaleh, both physically and politically, was about to experience drastic changes.

Click here for: Twilight of the Ottomans – Ada Kaleh: The Last Refuge (Part Two)

The Bigger the Lie – NATO, New Members & Eastern Europe (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #80)

It is shocking to discover the subtlety with which Russian propaganda has found its way into conversations about eastern Europe. In some cases, that propaganda is being repeated by many of us who should know better. This was pointed out to me by one of my readers when I used the phrase “NATO expansion.” That phrase implies that NATO is actively seeking to expand its influence, rather than nations independently deciding to join the alliance. Welcoming new members and aggressive expansion are two different things. NATO does the former, Russia is trying to do the latter and create its own sphere of influence. “Joining” versus “expanding” might seem like a matter of semantics, but Russian propaganda has repeated the phrase “NATO expansion” so many times that it has come to be seen as a cause, rather than the symptom of Russian aggression.

A case can be made that NATO would lose much of its raison d’etre without Russia. It is Russia driving NATO membership, not some shadowy conspiracy. No matter what anyone inside or outside the alliance might say, NATO’s existence is predicated upon fear of Russian (or in the past Soviet) aggression. The Russian Invasion of Ukraine brought these barely suppressed fears back to the surface for smaller nations in eastern and northern Europe. Was NATO really looking to expand its influence into Sweden or Finland? Or were these two Nordic nations that have been bastions of post-World War II neutrality, spooked into joining by Russia’s behavior? One side offered the stick, the other a carrot. Russian militarism or collective security in NATO? The choice was not a difficult one to make.

The path to NATO membership – Protest of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in Helsinki (Credit: rajatonvimma)

The Best Defense – NATO Membership
Defense by its very nature is not expansive and NATO is an alliance dedicated to the defense of its members. Despite this, NATO has grown remarkably since the Cold War ended. Why is that? Like everything else with the politics of Eastern European security it goes back to history. The first three countries to join NATO from the region were Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The main reasons they wanted to become members can be summed up as eastern Poland 1939, Budapest 1956, Prague 1968. In each one of these cases that nation’s sovereignty was violated by the Soviet Union. Later such former Eastern Bloc countries as Bulgaria and Romania also joined. Both had awful experiences with Soviet style communism. The same was true for Latvia and Lithuania, both of whom needed assurance that Russia would not attack them. None of these countries could afford to take chances with a newly independent Russia which was much larger and more militarily powerful than they could ever hope to be.

Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s legacy after its collapse in 1989. As such, Eastern European nations saw it as most likely to follow in Soviet footsteps. Their worries have been justified by Putin, a man who believes the Soviet collapse was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Read between the lines of that statement and it becomes apparent that Putin would love nothing more than to expand Russia’s sphere of influence back into Eastern Europe. One of the main reasons Putin loathes NATO is because it is a barrier to Russian expansion. It also acts as a magnet, attracting nations seeking to keep Russian influence at bay.

Heading East – Map of NATO enlargement (Credit: Patrickneil)

Core Values – Heart of the Problem  
When considering the phrase “NATO expansion” ask yourself the following: Does anyone really think if Putin had not decided to invade Ukraine that Finland and Sweden would have joined NATO? Both nations are joining to ensure their security. Forfeiting their neutrality is a cost both were willing to pay. The reason why is so simple that it often escapes notice. Both Ukraine and Georgia are not in NATO, and both have been attacked by Russia during Putin’s time in office. The reason that Putin did not attack any of the Baltic States is because it would have meant going to war with NATO. Putin knew that if Ukraine joined NATO, it would be lost forever or at least within his lifetime. Thus, he invaded and made sure that it would be lost forever to Russia without Ukraine even having to join NATO. A side effect is that Ukraine could still join the alliance. What was once a remote prospect, now looks plausible.
It is often forgotten that NATO poses a bigger problem to Russia, than Russia does to NATO. The chance of NATO invading a nuclear armed Russia is near zero. It would be self-defeating and suicidal. The same situation applies in reverse to Russia, but Putin never lets an opportunity pass to engage in nuclear saber rattling with NATO. Of course, Putin probably believes NATO really is expanding at Russia’s expense as part of a shadowy plan to weaken Russia irreparably. This is not one of his usual lies, it is a core belief that propels Russian insecurity. Despite what Russian propaganda might claim, NATO acquiring new members was not part of any grand plan. Anyone who has ever studied the politics of European and North American democracies knows that divisions are often insurmountable. Disunity is as much the rule as it is the exception. Compromise is often a process that teeters on a precipice between modest successes and outright failures. To think there was some shadowy conspiracy that led nations into NATO defies logic. Then again, Putin is using his own logic, namely that the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it.

Sending a message – Billboard in Tblisi Georgia (Credit: George Nikoladze)

The Road to Ruin – Putin’s Logic
The best explanation for Putin’s obsession with NATO expansion is that he projects his own behavior and beliefs on the opposition. This is exactly the kind of behavior Putin would engage in if given the opportunity. Paradoxically, this is what he tried to do unilaterally by ordering the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This was an example of Russia’s expansive tendencies. It has now led to what Putin feared the most, more NATO aligned nations on Russia’s doorstep. And still Putin continues to prattle on about “NATO expansion.” There is no such thing except in his mind. The truth is rather benign. In essence, sovereign countries are making the momentous decision to protect themselves against Russian aggression. Right now, the only thing expanding in Europe is insecurity. It can make nations do strange things. The decision of Finland and Sweden to join NATO is a striking example of that. And if there was such a thing as NATO expansion, Vladimir Putin would be its greatest promoter. His flawed logic is leading Russia down the road ruin. That is one thing NATO will not stop.

Click here for: Meteoric Rise – Volodymyr Zelensky’s Political Career In War & Peace (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #79)

Meteoric Rise – Volodymyr Zelensky’s Political Career In War & Peace (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #79)

The war in Ukraine has proven just how fast long standing situations can change. In the space of 82 days Russia has irreparably weakened itself for at least a generation to come. Ukraine, previously seen as a corrupt backwater on the far eastern fringes of Europe, has now become a symbol of freedom and resistance to authoritarian rule. While the reputation of Russian President Vladimir Putin has sunk to a low from which it will not recover, that of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has soared. It is not a stretch to say that Zelensky is now the most popular world leader.

He enjoys sky high approval ratings both inside and outside the country, that other politicians can only dream about. He has also become one of the most admired. When the war began and the situation was at its bleakest, Zelensky could have fled Kyiv, instead he stayed. In the process, he became a powerful symbol of the Ukrainian people’s fight against Russian aggression. Few leaders have enjoyed such a meteoric ascent to prominence. Whatever the war’s outcome, Zelensky will go down as a textbook example of strong leadership.

Rising to the occasion – Volodymyr Zelensky addressing the media during the Ukraine-Russia War (Credit: President of Ukraine)

A Special Talent – Defying Expectations
One of the forgotten, but most notable aspects of Zelensky’s political career was another meteoric rise. In a matter of months, he went from a comedian who starred in a hit television show, to the highest office in the land. Zelensky has made it a habit of defying expectations. In the two most famous cases – the 2019 presidential election and the current war – not much was expected from Zelensky. Those who underestimated him did so at their own peril. No less a group of disparate figures than Vladimir Putin and former Ukrainian Presidents Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko have all been fooled into thinking that Zelensky is something of joke, but the joke has been on them. The latter two have next to no chance of leading Ukraine again. As for Putin, he will be lucky to survive his self-instigated war in Ukraine.

Zelensky is one of those rare figures who manages to rise to the occasion under the most stressful situations. Whether in a presidential election or war, he projects an air of complete confidence. To do that without coming across as arrogant or insincere takes a special talent. This has made him a beloved figure both at home and abroad. Prior to becoming the president of Ukraine, Zelensky starred in a television show known as “Servant of the People.” In one of those uncanny cases where life and art imitate one another, Zelensky’s character on the show was a high school history teacher who ends up getting elected President of Ukraine. The role made him one of the most recognizable public figures in Ukraine before he decided to run for the nation’s highest office.

Taking charge – Volodymyr Zelensky
(Credit: President.gov.ua)

The Reins of Power – Potential & Pitfalls
Being a television star enhanced Zelensky’s chances of winning the presidential election. When Zelensky did announce his decision to run for the presidency on New Year’s Eve 2018, no one knew could have predicted he would end up winning in a landslide. Zelensky hit all the right notes for a political novice in his first campaign. He avoided specific policy proscriptions by being deliberately vague. Zelensky’s magnetic personality was enough to win almost three-quarters of the vote. After his election to the presidency, Zelensky dissolved parliament and called a snap election to take advantage of his popularity.

His energetic and youthful public persona made Poroshenko and Tymoshenko look like relics from a bygone era. In a sense they were. The two had been inextricably intertwined with powerful oligarchs, the shadow powers behind Ukraine’s economy. Along those same lines, Zelensky was thought to owe much of his rise to Ihor Kolomoisky, the oligarch who owned the television show that aired “Servant of the People.” In an interesting about-face, Zelensky distanced himself from that relationship once he was in office. Zelensky could afford to do this because he had a clear mandate to rule the country.

It is worth noting that Zelensky’s early attempts to deal with Russia and war in the Donbas were not effective. One of his worst decisions was to follow the Steinmeier Formula which stated that elections in the Donbas could go forward with Russian troops still occupying Ukrainian territory. When word of Zelensk’sy decision got out to the public, it was met by protests and widespread disapproval. He was forced to backtrack. In a later effort to be seen as a statesman on equal footing with other leaders, Zelensky pushed for the Normandy Format talks in France. This resulted in Zelensky’s first and only meeting with Vladimir Putin. Predictably, the outcome of these talks was inconclusive, though it did show that Zelensky was committed to the peace process. At that time, Putin was still negotiating from a position of strength, the opposite would be true now if he were to meet with Zelensky.

Normandy format – The only meeting between Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin (Credit: kremlin.ru)

Standing for Ukraine – A Source of Inspiration
Prior to the war Zelensky had lost much of his initial popularity, reform measures had slowed and the war in Donbas was dragging on into its eighth year. When Russia invaded Ukraine during the last week of February, the situation transformed into one that played to Zelensky’s strengths as a communicator. He has been nothing short of brilliant in rallying Ukrainians to fight for their country. The fact that Zelensky had a target on his back and stayed in Kyiv during the Russia assault on the Ukrainian capital was a powerful statement. This is one of the main reasons that Zelensky’s reputation has soared into the stratosphere. Most of this is well deserved, but he is far from perfect.

There have been criticisms about Ukraine’s preparedness for the war after Zelensky downplayed the risks of a Russian invasion right up until the day it occurred. There has also been grumbling that his government failed to sufficiently support the fighters at the Azovstal Steel Plant. This line of argument states that rather than mount a rescue operation, the government left them to fend for themselves. While these criticisms do have some legitimacy, they do not take away from the exemplary leadership Zelensky has displayed throughout the war. He has been a source of inspiration, one that Ukrainians can look up to now and in the future. Whether this leads to victory in the war remains to be seen, but Ukraine and Zelensky are off to a good start.

Click here for: The Bigger the Lie – NATO, New Members & Eastern Europe (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #80)

From Impossible to Probable – NATO Expansion & Russian Insecurity (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #78)

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”  Vladimir Putin has turned that quote on its head for both himself and the Russian nation he leads. Due to the ramifications of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, it might be said that whatever doesn’t kill Putin and Russia, makes them weaker. This is reflected in the fact that the latest blow to Putin’s master plan to push back against NATO expanding its influence has resulted in Finland and Sweden deciding to join the alliance. This was done for one reason and one reason only, so both nations could protect themselves from aggression by Putin’s Russia. There is safety in NATO membership.

Relevant & ready – NATO forces in a training exercise

Taking Sides – Neutral No More
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has laid bare what could happen to any nation that finds itself in Putin’s gunsights. One of the main reasons the Russian President ordered the invasion of Ukraine was to keep it out of NATO. In the process, he has ended up strengthening the alliance. NATO is now stronger than it has been at any time since the Cold War ended. Putin decided to invade Ukraine due to his own insecurities. He has super imposed these upon Russia during his 22 years in power. Putin’s insecurities, which are mostly the product of fantasy rather than reality (as are most insecurities), created reciprocal feelings of insecurity in Finland and Sweden. Both nations then felt compelled to make the momentous decision to give up their neutrality for the sake of security. Considering that both Finland and Sweden stayed neutral during the Cold War, this is a remarkable turn of events.

Putin’s worst nightmare is coming true as NATO expands its sphere of influence into Russia’s near abroad. Put another way, Putin rolled out the red carpet for NATO expansion with his decision to invade Ukraine. NATO could not have done a better job of promoting the alliance’s value without the assistance of Vladimir Putin. Incredibly, there may be even worse ramifications to come for Putin and Russia if they lose the war in Ukraine. It is beginning to look more and more like Ukraine could join NATO after the war. What Putin wanted to prevent, he ended up causing. Unifying most of Europe and the western world against Russia has been Putin’s greatest achievement up to this point. No one could have possibly predicted this three months ago. Now Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine is looking like one of the worst geopolitical catastrophes in modern history.

Joining up – Finland & Sweden will soon join NATO (Credit: @OpenStreetMap)

Smoke & Mirrors – A Grand Delusion
Before the invasion of Ukraine, many thought Vladimir Putin was a master strategist. The cold, emotionless, and calculating former KGB agent, Putin outmaneuvered his opponents both inside and outside Russia. He expanded Russia’s sphere of territorial influence in the Caucasus, made Belarus a client state and grabbed Crimea back from Ukraine at very little cost. Russia was also busy staking its claim to a greater share of Ukrainian territory with their support of separatism in the Donbas. All these gains mean very little now. Russia has been exposed militarily, economically, and politically. Its military is based on smoke and mirrors. The Russian economy is now laboring under sanctions. It is also heavily reliant on the sale of oil and gas to nations it has alienated. Politically, Russia is a kleptocracy that has morphed into a dictatorship. Russia is run for the benefits of elites who must pay fealty to Putin, the same person whose disastrous decisions threaten their interests.

No one thought it plausible, even a month after the invasion began, that Ukraine would ever be allowed into NATO. Then the Russian Army carried out massacres in Irpin, Bucha and other areas of Ukraine. They kidnapped Ukrainians and placed many of them in “detention” camps which are little more than a lesser version of concentration camps. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been forcibly resettled deep inside Russia. This is human trafficking on an industrial scale. Then there was the prolonged destruction of Mariupol. Satellite photographs show mass graves. There is no telling how many civilians have been killed during the destruction of Mariupol. All these actions have turned into own goals in football parlance. In other words, Russia has been its own worst enemy while alienating almost everyone in Europe.

The war in Ukraine has been a proverbial train wreck in slow motion for Russia, one that has lasted for months on end and shows no sign of ending anytime soon. Russia is still searching for victory. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Army’s surprising military performance in the war, has led to a rethinking of Ukraine’s future. If Russia continues to underperform militarily, then they will have no way of stopping Ukraine from becoming the westward leaning nation it feared all along. Russia will also have no say over whether Ukraine decides to join NATO. While there will be NATO members who have misgivings about allowing Ukraine to join, how could membership be denied to a nation that has demonstrated through its actions the alliance’s core values.

One misstep after another – Vladimir Putin

Lost Greatness = An Incomplete Recovery
From the Russian perspective, the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO must be particularly frightening. It would be a colossal blow to their pride, perhaps worse than the losses they have suffered up to this point in the war. We should never underestimate the role Russian pride has played in the rise and reign of a regime that has swung from autocracy to despotism. Putin’s regime can be understood as one long reaction to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the resulting humiliation that Russians felt as they were reduced to a peripheral power. 21st century Russia dedicated itself to recovering Great Power status. More than anyone, Putin was responsible for what turned out to be an incomplete recovery.

Now Russia finds itself careening towards the same sort of calamity it experienced during the 1990’s. This time could be worse because Russia will be hemmed in by NATO-aligned nations. This leaves Russia little room for geopolitical maneuvers. The impossible has become probable with NATO more relevant and ready to defend its members interests. This is exactly what Vladimir Putin and those surrounding him feared the most. Now that it is coming to fruition, they can do little to stop it. 

Click here for: Meteoric Rise – Volodymyr Zelensky’s Political Career In War & Peace (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #79)

Russia’s Nuclear Options – The Doctrine of Self-Destruction (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #77)

For centuries, humanity has been expecting the world to end. Events that defied explanation many centuries ago, such as solar eclipses or plagues, were often seen as signs that the end time was upon humanity. Religion has only served to exacerbate such expectations. While it is often ascribed to a higher power, the end of the world would not be possible if people had not been the ones to imagine it. We should never forget that a world ending, apocalyptic event is a creation of the human mind.

Much more probable than the end of the world is the collapse of civilization as we know it. This has historical precedents in many places. One of the most famous took place in Europe and the near East following the Roman Empire’s collapse. This period known as the Dark Ages, stretched for half a millennium and was characterized by political and economic chaos along with the degeneration of architecture and the arts. Centuries worth of societal gains were lost. The Dark Ages proved that progress is not inevitable. Such a civilizational collapse is much more likely than the world coming to an end.

Raising hell – First nuclear detonation in history at the Trinity Site in New Mexico 1945

Risky Decisions – The Nuclear Option
This topic is relevant in light of the Ukraine – Russia War and the threat that it might turn into a nuclear conflagration. Such an outcome would set civilizational progress back to a level not seen since the Stone Age. This might seem like an extreme statement, but ever since the first nuclear bomb was detonated in 1945, the potential destruction of civilization has loomed over humanity. The threat of nuclear war has ebbed and flowed since then. For example, when the Cold War ended, the threat receded. At other times, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world teetered on the brink of destruction. That is the situation the world may be forced to confront in the coming months if and when the Russian Army in Ukraine is faced with the possibility of a resounding defeat.

At that point, Russian President Vladimir Putin could decide to go nuclear as the only way to stave off a humiliating defeat that could threaten his rule and his life. Unfortunately, Putin has already set a dangerous precedent by constantly referencing the potential use of nuclear weapons. If Putin decides to have Russia become the first nation since 1945 to detonate a nuclear weapon in a shooting war, there is no telling what the response would be from NATO. And make no mistake there would have to be a commensurate response of some sort whether nuclear or non-nuclear. The use of either option would further threaten Putin’s grip on power which could lead to more nuclear detonations. At that point the world might be caught in a death spiral.

Of course, this is the single worst outcome of the war anyone can imagine. Hopefully, cooler heads would prevail. Thankfully Russia does have a doctrine which outlines the situations in which they would use nuclear weapons. In the best case scenario the Russians would follow this doctrine. Unfortunately, since Putin is the ultimate deciding official, much of the decision comes down to him. That is a terrifying prospect. Nonetheless others would be involved in helping make that decision and carrying it out. That is why it is worth looking at the official doctrine that Russia might use in deciding whether to use nuclear weapons.

Firestarter – First detonation of a nuclear weapon by the Soviet Union in 1949

Path of Destruction – Principles & Potentials
One might imagine that a doctrine which contains the seeds of modern civilization’s destruction would be given a title to match the catastrophe it could cause. That is not the case with Russia’s doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons. Its official title is the bureaucratically bland, “Basic Principles of the Russian Federation’s State Policy in the Domain of Nuclear Deterrence.” The title sounds more like an academic, rather than an apocalyptic treatise. The doctrine was sealed with a formal decree enshrining it as policy on June 2, 2020 by Putin. National security analysts, military strategists, and policy wonks have been studying its finer points to gain a better understanding of Russian thresholds for using nuclear weapons. The thresholds as stated in the policy are as follows:

a) arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies;

b) use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies;

c) attack by adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions;

d) aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.

Taken at face value these points seem reasonable, but it is the actions of Russian leadership rather than their opponents that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. This is especially true when it comes to points b) c) and d). For instance, while Ukraine does not have weapons of mass destruction, there have been multiple attempts by the Russians to suggest they discovered evidence of labs where the Ukrainians were developing biological weapons with American assistance. Such stories are created to allow Putin a potential justification for the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Thus, it is a Russian action, in this case a fabrication, that could lead them down the path of nuclear war.

False flag incidents could be used by Putin to claim their adversaries were attacking critical military sites in Russia. Then again, the Russians might not even have to manufacture such stories since the Ukrainians have likely been behind some of the mysterious fires and explosions in Belgorod just across the border in Russia. The Ukrainians have been tight lipped about these operations. Of course, nothing Ukraine could destroy in critical Russian military infrastructure would rise to the level of triggering a counter-reprisal of nuclear attack, at least not by a reasonable Russian leadership. The problem as everyone knows is that Vladimir Putin is not reasonable. If he was reasonable, there would have been no Russian invasion of Ukraine in the first place.

Hidden intentions – Vladimir Putin

False Flags – Self-Fulfilling Fallacies
Deterrence has been the key to keeping the world safe from nuclear war since 1945. The problem now facing the free world is how to deter Vladimir Putin and Russia’s leadership from creating justifications (false flag incidents being the primary example) that could lead to their use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine and perhaps further afield. Deterring someone hell bent on creating what amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy of Russia being attacked by NATO might be an impossible task and yet the fate of civilization as we know it may depend upon it. While nuclear war would not be the end of the world, it could lead to the end of humanity. How to weaken Russian aggression and get Putin out of power is the task that Ukraine, NATO, and like-minded nations now face. The world without Vladimir Putin leading Russia would be a better place. The world without humanity quite the opposite.

Click here for: From Impossible to Probable – NATO Expansion & Russian Insecurity (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #78)

The Russian Army’s Repeat Performance – From Kyiv to Kharkiv (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #76)

The phrase “history repeats itself” has become something of a cliche. It is generally used to connect historical events that were decades or centuries apart. This allows both academic and armchair historians to compare two historical events that have striking similarities despite the years between them. It also begs the question whether humanity ever learns from past historical events. The Ukraine-Russia War has been fertile ground for such comparisons. Many have compared Vladimir Putin’s behavior with that of Adolf Hitler. Parallels have been drawn between fighting on the Eastern Front in the Second World War and battles in some of those same areas today.

One of the more common comparisons is with the lenient treatment of Russia prior to the war with the policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany by the west leading up to the Second World War. There have also been attempts to show similarities between the Ukraine-Russia War and the Winter War where Finland and the Soviet Union faced off in similar circumstances. Some of these comparisons are thought provoking, others seem like a stretch. “History repeats itself” often becomes an explanation for events that seem beyond the realm of reason. Unfortunately, the phrase has been used so many times that it has lost much of its power.

Repeat performance – Destroyed Russian tank in Kharkiv region

Unlearned Lessons – The Battles of Kyiv & Kharkiv
There is one use of “history repeats itself” that is quite appropriate for the Ukraine-Russia War, but which I have yet to see mentioned. This is probably because events related to it are still unfolding. It can be particularly enlightening to compare what is happening in the war now, to what happened in it earlier. That might seem strange considering the war is only ten weeks old, but the Russian Army has managed the feat of repeating a failure within the same war. It did not take long for the Russians to repeat their failed attempt to take Kyiv. This time it occurred in their campaign for Kharkiv. The Russians failed to heed the lessons they should have learned during the Battle of Kyiv, thus they doomed the same type of operation to failure.

The military campaigns to take Kyiv and Kharkiv have striking similarities. There was the initial assault which looked promising, then a stalled offensive followed by indiscriminate attacks on civilians and infrastructure to sew terror. This did nothing to improve their tactical situation. The Russian attempt to surround Kharkiv quickly turned into yet another disaster. Rather than besieging Kharkiv, they soon found themselves facing counter attacks. This led to a humiliating retreat, one that continues today. This defeat may end up the worst of these failures because Ukrainian troops are now going all the way to the Russian border.

The Battles of Kyiv and Kharkiv were part of concurrent, but separate campaigns until Russia withdrew forces from the assault on Kyiv. Then the campaign for Kharkiv continued. Now the result looks much the same as what happened outside of Kyiv. This is the product of astonishing incompetence, coupled with a lack of flexibility. It also begs the question whether the Russians can make the necessary adjustments to succeed. At this point, that does not look like probable. Centralized military leadership crushes individual initiative. The Russian military’s adherence to rigid and outdated doctrines are hamstringing their campaigns.

Pointing the way – The Kharkiv offensive

Flawed Execution – An Objective View
When it comes to comparisons between the Kyiv and Kharkiv campaigns, it as though lightning struck twice, not in the same place, but in the same way. On both occasions, the Russian forces never made it into the city center, failing to come anywhere close to breaking through Ukrainian defenses. Instead, they resorted to massive artillery bombardments. The Russians failed to surround either city or put them under siege. As the campaigns faltered, their soldiers took to committing war crimes against innocent civilians. Whether this was out of anger, frustration or malevolence is hard to say, but it was most likely a combination of all three. Such acts of violence did nothing except turn an already hostile population into a desperate one. In turn, this desperation served to stiffen resistance. The Russians made a difficult campaign even more so by losing sight of their objectives while descending into barbarity.

The Russian Army also overextended itself. They hardly had time to finish one campaign before they were refocusing their efforts on another. When Phase Two of the Special Military Operation commenced, the Russians could have focused solely on taking Kharkiv. Instead, they attempted to strike in the Donbas as well. On the face of it this looked like a good decision, but the execution was flawed. Success in Kharkiv could have helped the Russian forces fighting in the Donbas since it would ensure their supply lines were not threatened. Yet the Russians did not learn from their initial loss in the campaign for Kyiv when running several military fronts at the same time proved beyond their capacity. The effects of the failures to take either Kyiv or Kharkiv will be long lasting. They provided the Ukrainians with greater confidence that boosted morale.

Forward progress – Artillery barrage during the Kharkiv offensive

Unsustainable Losses – Plummeting To New Lows
Perhaps the Russian soldiers knew that these battles were lost long before their commanders were willing to admit it. Thus, they took the opportunity to pillage, rape, and murder. In any case, the outcomes turned out to be the same. Such acts of cruelty did nothing to change the military situation. If anything, it exposed poor leadership, a loss of focus, and abysmal morale. The Russians did little to rectify any of the problems which plagued their assault on Kyiv. Thus, they ended up with the same problems around Kharkiv. If the Russian military keeps repeating their recent failures, it is impossible to imagine how they will emerge victorious in the Battle of Donbas.

The Russians lack the resources they had when the campaigns for Kyiv and Kharkiv took place. Despite a focus on new objectives, the lack of tactical acumen is telling. Leadership on the ground is poor, morale has plummeted to new lows and there is no end in sight. Incremental gains come at a high cost as they incur unsustainable losses in men and material. History really is repeating itself in the Ukraine-Russia War. Whether that cycle will be broken by the Russians in the coming months could mean the difference between a limited success and yet another failure. Judging by history, failure is the most likely result.

Click here for: Russia’s Nuclear Options – The Doctrine of Self-Destruction (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #77)

A Watery Grave – Incident on the Siverskyi Donets River (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #75)

The dividing line between eastern and western Europe continues to shift eastward. This line is open to interpretation. It is not clearly established the way it was during the Cold War when the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall formed a hard border between the Eastern and Western worlds. On one side was the Eastern Bloc of communist totalitarian countries, on the other were NATO aligned or neutral democratic capitalist nations. This East-West divide collapsed in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Ever since that time the shifting ground of geopolitics in Europe has altered this hypothetical line. Prior to the Ukraine-Russia War, the East-West divide ran between countries aligned with NATO or the European Union and those outside of it. Nations such as Ukraine and Moldova straddled this divide. That distinction has now been obliterated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Whichever side emerges victorious will come to dominate a critical geopolitical space.

Better days – Bridge crossing Siverskyi Donets River before the Ukraine-Russia War

Natural Barrier – A Watery Dividing Line
At the beginning of the Ukraine-Russia War, the invisible dividing line between east and west in Europe was centered on Kyiv. With Russia’s defeat and withdrawal on that front, the line shifted into eastern Ukraine as Russia began “Phase 2” of their so called “Special Military Operation” focusing on the Donbas region. This area was supposed to be fertile ground for the Russian Army to fight a campaign that magnified their strengths while minimizing weaknesses. The ambushes they suffered in the heavily forested areas of northern Ukraine would be a thing of the past. Terrain in the Donbas is much less topographically challenging, as it is comparatively flat. Vegetation is mainly grass or cropland with thin lines of trees interspersed throughout the region. Russian armored vehicles and heavy artillery would find this much more to their liking. Of course, there were still geophysical obstacles that would be fiercely contested.

This is the situation that confronts the Russian Army with the Siverskyi Donets River in eastern Ukraine. The Russians have quickly discovered that even in a region that should favor their army, the Ukrainian forces can make the crossing of natural barriers extremely difficult, if not impossible. As rivers go in Ukraine, the Siverskyi Donets is not well known. It does not have the name cachet of either the Dnipro or Dneister Rivers, though it is the fourth longest river in the country. Like many of Ukraine’s rivers, this one begins in Russia then carves its way through the Donbas before flowing back into Russia and surging into the Don River. Though it starts and ends in Russia, most of the Siverskyi Donets is in Ukraine. That means it acts as a natural barrier that influences the fighting that now rages in the Donbas.

A picture of destruction – Russian armored vehicles destroyed while crossing the Donets River

Sink or Swim – Drowning In Defeat
The miracle of modern transport often makes us forget just how difficult crossing a river once was and can still be in wartime. When bridges are destroyed in a war, an army that later attempts to make a river crossing must construct and utilize pontoon bridges. This was never an easy task in wartime. It required exceptional amounts of firepower, often in the form of air superiority, to ensure the safety of those doing bridge building on the ground. Now with real time intelligence and the use of drones these operations are as dangerous as they have ever been. For Russian forces trying to cross the Siverskyi Donets on a pontoon bridge last weekend, this was more difficult than they could ever have imagined. Like so many Russian operations in the war, it turned into a nightmarish defeat.

Near the village of Bilohorivka, Russian forces attempted to cross at a point where the east and west banks of the river were only 80 meters apart. The bridging was part of an ongoing operation to capture the small cities of Lyman and Sievierodonetsk. Crossing the river required the Russians to construct and connect eight ten meter pontoon bridges. They made it as far as the seventh, when artillery from the Ukrainian Army’s 7th Tank Brigade unloaded on them. The result was that most of a Battalion Tactical Group, the main fighting unit of the Russian Army in Ukraine, was wiped out. Images from the attack’s aftermath showed a great deal of destruction. By one count, over seventy armored vehicles were destroyed. Hundreds of Russian soldiers were also killed. Open-source intelligence images show that the Russians are trying once again to bridge the river and effect a crossing in the same area. Their efforts have not been successful.

Watery grave – Russian armored vehicles and tanks destroyed on the riverbank at the Siverskyi Donets River

Irreplaceable Resources – A War of Attrition
The destruction at the river crossing shows just how difficult it is for the Russians in the Donbas. Their latest offensive has made only minimal gains with increasing loss of men and material. This is of great concern for their military leadership because Russian President Vladimir Putin did not declare a full mobilization as some analysts expected at the Victory Day celebrations earlier this week. It is an open question how long the Russians can keep offensive operations going as they continue to lose what amounts to irreplaceable resources. A war of attrition in the Donbas was thought to be the best case scenario for a Russian victory in Ukraine. The large losses incurred by their forces could end up jeopardizing the entire campaign. Even successful operations have come at great cost. While the Russians have several times the amount of human and material resources available to the Ukrainians, they cannot afford to take the kind of losses that occurred while trying to make the river crossing.

The Ukraine-Russia war has now entered a possibly decisive phase. Neither side has an inexhaustible supply of resources. While the Ukrainians can rely on western military aid in the months ahead, that support might wane if the war drags on. The Russians know that if they cannot emerge victorious in the Donbas it will bode ill for their future operations. Tough decisions will have to be made about a mass mobilization which could lead to domestic unrest. The battle between Russia and Ukraine, the symbolic forces of east and west in Europe, will continue into the foreseeable future. The side which can inflict maximum damage with minimal losses is likely to be the winner. In their attempted crossing of the Siverskyi Donets River, the Russian forces were dealt a decisive defeat. They cannot afford many more such episodes or Ukraine might achieve an improbable, but by no means impossible victory.

Click here for: The Russian Army’s Repeat Performance – From Kyiv to Kharkiv (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #76)

Taking Offense – From Kharkiv to the Russian Border (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #74)

To get an idea of just how far the Russian Army has not come in their invasion just look at a map of Ukraine. On the upper right side is the northeastern corner of Ukraine and the city of Kharkiv. The second largest city in the country, Kharkiv had been under Russian shelling since the war started on February 24th. The Russians never made it into the city though they did their best to inflict massive damage with artillery bombardments from a distance. The fact that they could not take Kharkiv, which is a mere forty kilometers from the Russian border, speaks volumes about just how bad the war effort has gone for the Russian Army and the ferocity of resistance by Ukrainian forces. After the war began. Kharkiv was a prime candidate for first city to fall status. It was literally a joy ride away from the border for Russian armored columns, but that journey turned joyless after a couple of weeks. Despite constant shelling of the city and its outskirts, the Russians made only halting progress in their efforts to capture it.

After several weeks, it became obvious that there was a good chance the Russians would not set foot in Kharkiv. They could not break through Ukrainian defenses. The fighting turned into a stalemate with the Russians lobbing artillery at civilian structures and causing hundreds of casualties, not to mention the wide swath of destruction their strikes caused in outlying areas. It looked like Kharkiv would suffer the same fate as Mariupol, but on a much lesser scale. The Russian assault on the city was the usual tale of indiscriminate bombing and aimless attempts at trying to break the defender’s will. This strategy yielded very little in the way of results. Now the tide has turned as the Ukrainians mount a successful counteroffensive. They have pushed the Russians beyond artillery range of Kharkiv. They did not stop there. Their units are now within a couple of kilometers of the Russian border. An incredible turn of events that could change the wars trajectory in Eastern Ukraine.

On the move – Ukrainian tanks in the Kharkiv offensive

Advance Notice – Bordering On Failure
The most plausible explanation for the Russian failure to take Kharkiv was that their initial invasion of Ukraine attempted to advance on too many fronts. Thrusts into northern, southern, and eastern Ukraine were poorly coordinated. Russian forces spread themselves too thin by trying to advance along so many axes. The failed assault on Kharkiv has been the most striking example of this problem. They failed to mass the forces necessary to penetrate Ukrainian defenses. This was a byproduct of arrogance and poor planning. No matter the resistance, it is baffling that the Russians were unable to advance a mere forty kilometers to the city. They enjoyed many advantages over the Ukrainians in this sector. That included proximity to their own territory. This meant there will little threat to Russian supply lines or the overextension of them. The advantage of interior lines should have helped the Russians reinforce their army with overwhelming firepower when needed.

The Russian did expend plenty of munitions, but it did comparatively little damage to the Ukrainian Army. The only accomplishment was terrorizing civilians and destroying infrastructure. That is not a recipe for military success. If anything, it shows that the Russians lacked an overarching strategy. Both their tactics and execution were deeply flawed. This was no way to fight or win a war. Considering that they needed to travel such a short distance to achieve their objective, Kharkiv might be the Russian Army’s greatest failure of the war up to this point. That failure is a microcosm of the Russian war effort in Ukraine. If the Russians could not take Kharkiv which was literally a hop, skip and a jump from their border, then how will they possibly achieve more far-flung goals with less soldiers and firepower.

Closing in – Map showing Ukrainian and Russian positions north of Kharkiv

Holding The Supply Line – The Battle for Vovchansk
Whatever excuses might be made for the Russian Army’s failure to subdue Kharkiv, the Russians now have a much bigger problem on their hands. The Ukrainians have mounted a counteroffensive to push Russian forces back across the border. The counteroffensive has met with a great deal of success. Ukrainian units are now within ten kilometers of the border. Though most of the focus is on the Donbas region further to the south, since that is where a majority of Ukrainian and Russian troops are engaged in bitter fighting, there is no denying the importance of the Kharkiv region to that campaign. The tide of war could change dramatically if the Ukrainians manage to take back the city of Vovchansk, home to a vital transport artery the Russians are using to resupply their forces in the Donbas. Vovchansk is one of those places that was seemingly anonymous to history prior to the war, but now its presence looms large.

Vovchansk is located astride the supply route between the city of Belgorod in Russia and the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian counteroffensive has now brought those supply lines within the range of their artillery. Now that the Russian strategy has shifted to fighting a war of attrition, it is critical that they are able to resupply the most important sector of the war. If that connection was to be severed, it could lead to dire consequences for their army’s ability to conduct offensive operations in the coming months. The Russian strategy in the Donbas is predicated upon staying on the offensive. Losing Vovchansk would threaten their ability to do that. Furthermore, they would then be then forced into a role reversal, as the Russian forces would be on the defensive. Up to this point in the war, anytime the Russians had to go on the defensive it has led to poor performance and in some cases retreat. Being on the defensive in enemy territory is difficult for any army. For one with morale problems and understaffed units like the Russian Army, it is a nightmare scenario.

Taking offense – Ukrainian fighter in the Kharkiv region

Situation Critical – Back to the Border
If all of this was not bad enough, the Russians are now being forced to transfer troops from the Donbas to the Kharkiv region to defend against the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The threat of being understaffed and undersupplied must be causing a great deal of stress for Russian commanders. Eastern Ukraine was the one place they felt assured of success during the war. The opposite has occurred. In both phases of the war around Kharkiv, the Russian forces have been brought to a standstill, forced onto the defensive, and then pushed back towards their border. Kharkiv might be a harbinger of what is to come for the Russian war effort. Then again, maybe that has already happened.

Click here for: A Watery Grave – Incident on the Siverskyi Donets River (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #75)