Fragments from a War Diary, Part #161
Today is Armistice Day, the day upon which it was agreed that the fighting in World War One would stop and peace negotiations would begin. It is a day on which we all pause to recall the massive loss of life incurred not just in World War One but in all wars around the world ever since, and in the United States it is also known as Veterans Day, the day on which retired members of the United States Armed Forces are honoured across the country. I have also paused on this day to reflect on the huge losses of life due to war since 1914, and of course the massive losses of British lives fought in various wars. In fact British troops have been engaged in active operations across the globe constantly since 1914, and for that reason it is rare if ever that a year goes by without British deaths in some combat theatre or another. I therefore write speaking to my fellow countryman, for all the grieving we undertake in respect of our Glorious Dead, the fallen, in recent wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq, as well as those who have been permanently injured as a result of combat operations. The pain and suffering we feel for our lost relatives and loved ones, and the admiration and respect we hold for those fellow citizens we have lost serving the national interest: Ukrainians feel precisely the same way about their dead and wounded. We hold these cherished values and feelings in common and we are united in valour.
Reflections upon Armistice Day also causes me to engage in a series of reflections about how wars come to an end. In World War One the German Army ultimately collapsed; but the reason it collapsed was illustrative and it was principally by reason of the extended military blockade imposed by the British Navy upon Germany that rendered it impossible for Germany to trade. This meant that Germany could not afford to replenish her army with all the necessary equipment and ammunition or to maintain her supply lines to the various fronts she had initiated. Hence Germany was forced to sue for peace, and that was how the war that in Britain, when it started in the summer of 1914, everyone assumed would be over by Christmas, in fact came to an end over four years later.
The point I am trying to make is that military victories on the battlefield are often imagined to be determinative of the outcome of a war but that really this is an old-fashioned, pre-twentieth century way of thinking about wars - at least of thinking about European wars. In European wars at least, there tends to be an early stage in which one side or the other - the aggressor party - seizes substantial quantities of territory and then the sides dig in, as they did in World War One, in a series of trenches and other obstacles the very purpose of which is to fortify the territorial advances made and to prevent the seized lands from being recaptured. Hence a stalemate ensues and it is extremely difficult for either side to make any advances. In World War One we called this “trench warfare” - the sides each built a series of trenches from which to shell and shoot at one-another over a front line that moved a few kilometres here and there over the course of the war but essentially remained much in place throughout the war until the sides reached an armistice and a peace process began which was not so much a negotiation between the Allies and Germany and her allies as a negotiation between the Allies as to how Germany and her allies should be partitioned and penalised and the maps of Europe redrawn as a result of what was known as “the war to end all wars”. It turned out not to be so, as World War Two showed us a mere twenty years later.
11 November is also the anniversary of the final day of the Russian evacuation of Kherson. Between 9 and 11 November 2022 the Russian Armed Forces withdrew from Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine they had occupied from the early days of the war and had entered virtually unopposed because the Ukrainian Armed Forces had little in the way of active troops with the capacity to resist. The reason they withdrew was because the Ukrainian Armed Forces had been placing them under significant military pressure, attacking Kherson from the western suburbs and Russian supply lines were proving insufficient to stretch that far. Russia had occupied Kherson principally for propaganda purposes as a historical city in south Ukraine in order to evoke (Russian) national pride at the extent of the Russian occupation and also to control the railhead in Kherson that provides the best current military-grade railway to supply Crimea and therefore to complete the so-called “land bridge” between occupied Donbas and Crimea via railway.
In the end the Russian logistics proved inadequate and therefore an alternative plan was made to use the wide River Dnieper as the natural front line; to withdraw from Kherson city and to maintain Russian military positions on the opposite side of the river; and to destroy all the bridges over the Dnieper River in the vicinity including blowing up the dam upstream at Nova Kakhovka because that dam also served as a means of crossing the Dnieper River and the associated Kakhovka reservoir. Kherson and its surrounding rural regions were flooded as a result. Now Russia is building a new military-grade railroad from occupied Donbas to occupied Crimea to compensate for the loss of the Kherson city railhead.
In the past twelve months since the Russian evacuation of Kherson the front line has moved only a few kilometres in a couple of locations in the proximity of Zaporizhzhia and we are faced with the fact that this war is looking very much like the stalemate that prevailed in World War One after the initial German advance into the Low Countries and parts of France. A series of trenches have emerged, and trenches and their associated landmines and tank traps and all the rest prove very difficult to navigate around or make territorial advances against. Hence there is now a gritty realisation on the part of both sides that continuation of the war over a substantial period of stalemate is inevitable and this will cost a great deal in terms of loss of life, injury to troops and financial resources.
The only hope of prevailing over the Russian occupation is gradual economic degradation of Russia which was the strategy that succeeded with the naval blockade of Germany in World War One. Unfortunately Russia is too large a country over which to execute a successful naval blockade and the countries of the world are not united in condemning Russia or in applying sanctions to her exports. Two of the world’s principal consumers of hydrocarbons (Russia’s principal export that is funding her invasion of Ukraine), China and India, continue to buy Russian oil and gas and even take advantage of the fact that other countries have embargoed Russian hydrocarbons to negotiate the prices down. This leaves us with the uncomfortable conclusion that there can be no peace to be imposed upon Russia as was imposed on Germany in World War One without the participation of India and China or at least one of those two countries: reasons no doubt why Russian President Mr Putin is keen to preserve cordial diplomatic relations with these countries. The true stalemate at this juncture is geopolitical, between the United States and Europe on one side and India and China on the other. If we could negotiate something with India and China, then collectively the world’s powers could squeeze Russia sufficiently hard to stop this war using financial and economic means. Unfortunately we have failed in our efforts to do this so far, and Russia is taking advantage of that failure herself to maintain her occupation of Ukrainian territory in violation of the principles of international law that we in the West have prided ourselves upon upholding since 1945.