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Ukraine: The Debaltsevo Plot Thickens

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By:Srdja Trifkovic | February 18, 2015

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 The doctrine may seem outdated, but still they surely know the score.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. 

Comments

 

 
Leo Hylan
2/18/2015 10:55 PM
 

  A phony regime with a phony army abandoned by a morally and fiscally bankrupt "EU" (which I sneer is neither European nor united) and the utterly cynical US and what exactly is surprising here? Putin in Kiev next year.

 
 
G. Engelhardt
Moscow
2/19/2015 03:02 AM
 

  The reason for insanity was purely political. It was politically impossible for Kiev (Poroshenko) to evacuate an cizeable enclave due to high degree of chauvinist mood in Kiev and media. So only way was to face the encirclement which caused the public anxiety for the soldiers safety. Thus the political possibility of selling retreat (saving our guys) and covering the loss of territory & general defeat appeared. It's crazy but it is very Soviet. And all the Kievan majors and oligarchs were waiting Poroshenko decree to withdraw to attack him for lack of patriotiotism and treason.

 
 
Eric Van De Hey
Santa Clara
2/19/2015 03:20 AM
 

  "With the fall of Debaltsevo some interesting military-technical questions are starting to emerge. Is the Ukrainian general staff grossly incompetent, or outright treasonous?" You're only seeing those emerge now? This has been the subject of debate and analysis about the war more or less since it came out. On the whole, it's mostly "incompetent", but probably with a few "treasonous" sprinkled in. The Ukrainian military has not fought a real war since its' independence, and before was used mostly as a political tool and pork barrel. Now when an insular military force is suddenly forced into the cauldron, that isn't work. Not helped by insistent claims that the city wasn't surrounded when it was. That said, in keeping with longstanding intelligence doctrine, it's almost certain that Putin has a number of spies inside the Ukrainian government. Though how much they've had to do with this is a question, since the move into Debaltseve made sense. The better question is: how on earth is this allowed under the Minsk ceasefire? And why on earth does anybody think it would make for a stable peace? "“A colonel is a rank,” says my source, a former general officer of a NATO-affiliated army, “but a general is a clinical diagnosis.” " Your source is an idiot who is letting rank rivalries get the better of his analysis. There is a reason why people train generals up. It isn't because they want to inflict clinical conditions on themselves. Colonels have an essential role on the military, but Generals do as well. As demonstrated by - amongst many others- Hannibal Barca and his rival Scipio Africanus. It has not been the wet dream of every military commander to surround the enemy in a cauldron and annihilate them, though it certainly rates as being up there. Many have dreamed of winning the war from the air or sea, of doing it without pitched battle, of doing it with a minimum of bloodshed (see Ulm), et cetera.

 
 
Eric Van De Hey
Santa Clara
2/19/2015 03:41 AM
 

  "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." Which is totally why the "blood-thirsty European mind" also gave us battles like Stirling Bridge, Hard, Kohima-Imphal, Desert Storm, and Russia's own Molodi and the (strategic) defeat of the Grand Armee? All of which featured the victor leaving a route for escape open, and indeed forcing his forces onto it where they would meet catastrophe (like the English forces crammed on Stirling Bridge, the Iraqi army convoys hammered along the "road of death", and the dwindling elements of the French Army withdrawing along supply-barren routes)? And why these examples are still taught today as examples that can be emulated? "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" ... during the times when it in fact doesn't prompt a fight to the bitter end. Which still happens far too frequently. Remember the Alamo? Thermopylae? Fort Vaux? Stevastopol (both times in modern memory)? Stalingrad and Leningrad themselves? Or the Bolshevik revolutionary battles of Tsaritsyn and Petrograd that preceded them? Or perhaps the siege of Sarajevo, which you "conveniently" forgot to mention when blaming the US for scuttling the Portuguese peace deal when it forced the AriBH and civilian defenders to the wall, gave support to the hardliners (like Izetbegovic himself), and probably helped spell doom for an already feeble peace process? Encircling an enemy can still be a tricky proposal, and it is still an escalation. That doesn't mean it can't be pushed one way or another- It's hard for an encircled force to fight on without supplies or ammo- but if you're not prepared you might get a hard battle.

 
 
Eric Van De Hey
Santa Clara
2/19/2015 03:50 AM
 

  Which is why the "blood thirsty European minds" are still asked to keep Stirling Bridge etc. al. in their heads as well as Cannae. Because the situation is not always "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? " The best answer to this question is "depends." "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:" From a purely professional point of view, it was not a failure until the floor (or rather, rear) fell out from under it. Debaltseve was a powerful salient for the Loyalists in the rebel rear, and everybody knew it. It could and was used to interdict Russian movement in the territories still held by them, and could have been used as a future base for advance. It also should not have been as seriously endangered as it was without lake crossing equipment so long as the rear and the rear's sides sides were held. And for a long period of time that kept true. However, when the rebels made an indirect approach and hit the weakened rear there was nothing to stop them. Thus turning what had been a danger to the Russian flank into a danger to those inside it, in a move that I'm sure Maurice of Nassau and Genghis Khan would have recognized. Maintaining the salient was not the issue in and of itself. It was failing to either maintain it properly, or to pull out in good order. "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. " And your esteemed, experienced source apparently ignores that it was not merely a political vision, though political visions with military veneers are even more tempting.

 
 
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