With the fall of Debaltsevo some interesting military-technical questions are starting to emerge. Is the Ukrainian general staff grossly incompetent, or outright treasonous? “A colonel is a rank,” says my source, a former general officer of a NATO-affiliated army, “but a general is a clinical diagnosis.”
Ever since Hannibal’s masterful double-pincer maneuver at Cannae it has been the wet dream of field commanders to repeat the feat, to surround and annihilate the enemy in a cauldron. Some ancient strategists, like Sun Tzu, believed that it is better to let the enemy retreat through a corridor rather than bleed it to death, but the concept is alien to the blood-thirsty European mind. As it happens, the Western experience is that – rather than prompt the surrounded force to fight to the bitter end – the envelopment rapidly leads to demoralization and the loss of combat effectiveness of the defending force. Kiev 1941 is the most spectacular example of what happens when an army leaves its flanks exposed to the claws: 600,000 Red Army soldiers ended up in “the bag,” the biggest surrender in history.
Sometimes a general will deliberately expose his ostensibly vulnerable pocket to enemy attack in order to lure the foe into a well-defended trap. This is exactly what happened at Kursk in July 1943, when – in its last offensive action on the Eastern Front – the Wehermacht spectacularly wasted countless tanks and men to achieve the elusive feat. It turned out to be a fatal defeat, mathematically predicted by the Stavka.
Debeltsevo was no Cannae 216BC, let alone Kiev 1941 or Kursk 1943, but in essence the problem was the same: do you reinforce a potential cauldron while its threatening flanks remain vulnerable? My interlocutor, with no axe to grind in the ongoing fight, says that from the purely professional point of view it was insane to reinforce failure:
This ‘strategy’ is reminiscent of Hitler’s obsession with defending all those indefensible Fetsungen, from Stalingrad to the Kurland, Budapest and Breslau, for political reasons. But in the end, military realities catch up with the political vision. Today’s Ukrainian generals were trained in the Soviet military academies over a quarter of a century ago. The doctrine may seem outdated, but still they surely know the score. Nevertheless, just like their colleagues everywhere else, they are susceptible to political pressures which trump professional arguments. The victims are the hapless conscripts. The death squads will get away.
The result is that one-third of Ukraine’s battle-hardened troops – up to 8,000 soldiers – are surrendering en masse, or are about to surrender. They could have been safely withdrawn until about a week ago.
What is particularly curious is that last August several major Ukrainian units, albeit of smaller size, were surrounded under similar circumstances – and ended up surrendering. It seems that the Ukrainian top brass does not mind sacrificing the hard-core fighters who may prove troublesome to the Kiev regime. The Right Sector’s claim that the Ukrainian High Command is riddled with Russian spies may sound like an ultranationalist rant, but one is left to wonder at the generals’ inaptitude. Debaltsevo should not have been defended the way it was defended. A sober commander would have evacuated it while the exit road was still open.
This is a value-neutral analysis of the military score on the ground. Its political consequences will be considered in the days to come.
Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, foreign affairs editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.