Ukraine — Mired In Strategic Blunders Like Hitler In 1943

Sudharshan Garg

Mar 10, 2024, 04:48 PM | Updated 04:31 PM IST

The Russia-Ukraine war.
The Russia-Ukraine war.

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, and then as farce” — Karl Marx.

This adage holds true for wars, no matter the weaponry used, be it rocks and stones, or autonomous killer drones, it is humans who drive conflicts and this brings a certain sameness to how wars are fought, and how they drive outcomes in turn.

Weapons and tactics might determine localised outcomes, but these are merely an outcome of the actions a state undertakes in pursuit of its strategic goals; and it is these strategic goals that ultimately determine loss and victory.

Some states have prosecuted wars with limited objectives, like India in Kargil, where the end goal was merely to restore the sliver of Indian territory occupied by Pakistan.

But many wars have had states with larger, grandiose goals like Germany in the Second World War, wanting to end all Slavdom and occupy their lands to drive Germany industry and agriculture (Lebensborn); or even wars with no clear end game like the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812.

What we have today in the Ukraine war is a strategic imbalance. Ukraine has a lavish endgame which is deeply tied into its own domestic politics, and the control exerted upon it by the West. Russia, the other, stronger side, has more limited goals.

Ukraine’s declared objective is to evict Russia from all the territory it claims as Ukrainian, including the Crimea, while Russia has the simple objective of demilitarising Ukraine and preventing it from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). 

These goals, in turn, drive strategy which is where we get to the battlefield. This is why Russia can abandon large swathes of territory, as it did earlier this year, while Ukraine is forced to fight pitched battles which it can ill-afford, like at Bakhmut, or mount ill-advised ventures like last summer’s disastrous offensive.

Russia, merely by keeping its forces in play (be it in a defensive role or conducting offensives), and attriting Ukrainian manpower and industrial capacity, is ‘winning’ while Ukraine, on the other hand, needs to constantly show territorial gains, both to its NATO backers as well as its own populace.

It is this urge, which drove their summer offensive, its failure, and the mire the Ukrainians are stuck in now. 

This strategic flaw was compounded by Ukrainian quandaries at the tactical level as well. While the opening days of the war saw large sweeping columns, and mobile warfare, a failure to break through Russian defensive lines pushed the Ukrainians towards positional, defensive, attritional warfare.

A smaller, more mobile side has a chance of defeating a larger, static force (like Germany in the early months of Operation Barbarossa, or indeed Israel in the Six Days war), but in attritional warfare, the force with larger manpower reserves and native industrial capacity wins.

Harken back to the German invasion of the Soviet Union: in spring 1943, Germany was in a very similar predicament. Its strategic goals, of total destruction of the Soviet Union and international Jewry, occupation of all territory on the Leningrad, Moscow, Stalingrad and Baku line were overambitious, while the Soviet Union had the goal of merely surviving.

Tactically too, the wars of mobility from the period of June-October 1941 and then again from June 1942-October 1942 had been replaced by slogging defensive battles. The siege of Stalingrad, for example, suited the Soviet Union as it simply had much larger reserves.

The German military on the other hand, was losing manpower at unsustainable rates, was facing near crippling shortages of fuel for its armored units; it was desperate to break this deadlock and restore operational manoeuvre in the theatre.

After their defeat at Stalingrad, the German situation was bleak, and they began a general retreat. In the process, a large Soviet salient formed the town of Kursk (think of a salient as a peninsula, or a finger, with German troops on three sides and the Soviet side in the middle). 

Both sides had a simple choice: attack, or defend and then counter attack. Stalin’s first instinct was to attack, but his high command prevailed; they advised him to go on the defensive, use the interlude in the fighting to build massive fortified lines, wait for the inevitable German offensive, weaken them, and then counter attack. 

Hitler’s only instinct was to attack, driven partially also by the need to be seen as ‘doing something’, and partially by his faith in German military equipment, so he refused to listen to formidable military minds like Model, Manstein and Guderian, all of whom advised Hitler to simply leave Kursk alone and go on the defensive. 

Fast forward to now and the similarities would be stark to the reader. 

Ukraine has to be seen as taking territory; its NATO backers demand it. Set piece battles like Bakhmut simply drain it of manpower and material, of which both, the Russians have more. 

In contrast, Russia drew the right conclusions as early as 5-6 months ago and withdrew into a tight defensive posture, while creating, if not Kursk-level of defensive fortifications, a very strong five-layered defensive network. 

It goaded Ukraine into an offensive which, like Germany in July 1943, it could ill-afford. Like Germany then, Ukraine also had its own delusions — new NATO trained units, new tanks all hyped as ‘war winning’, just like how Hitler pinned his hope on the Tiger and Panther tanks before Kursk.

The outcome is playing out in a very eerily similar way. Ukraine took two months to merely breach the screening line (the one before the first, main defensive line) and is now bogged down on the first main line of contact. It has four more lines to go to open up a general breach, and this is simply unachievable, given current force balances between sides.

The Zelensky regime, by trying to open up the battlespace has only drawn it tighter and closer. It has lost manpower, it is struggling to replace its elite NATO trained battalions which have been attrited heavily, and its armoured elements are in tatters. 

The question now is, are the Russians going to be content with staying on the defensive and forcing Ukraine into more costly offensives, or will Vladimir Putin, with an eye on history, order a counter offensive? 

We don’t quite know just yet, but whichever way the next phase of this war pans out, just like Hitler in 1943, Ukraine will not be able to reverse the fatal impact of its tragic strategic blunders.

Sudharshan Garg is an SCM professional with a deep interest in military history. He tweets at @SudsG5.

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