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Putin Asked Santa For A Donbas Christmas Gift But He Should Prepare For Disappointment
If Russian troops have not taken Bakhmut by Christmas morning, they never will. Sadness shall instead stalk the halls of the Kremlin. Oh Santa, Vladimir Putin will blubber. Why did you not give me Bakhmut? I was a good boy all year, cleansing the earth of Ukraine, yet still my stocking remains empty of candy and nuts, Santa. Not even a plum inside. Not even a lump of coal. This is bullshit, Santa. Do you even exist?
Kidding aside, the Battle of Bakhmut is culminating in the depths of December. Terrain and weather do not allow for much armored support. Tanks are mainly being used for indirect fire, in other words as artillery. Infantry must advance through open ground, and upon seizing any objective, it must be supported and reinforced by troops advancing over open ground. Reporters compare it to the holocaust of the Western Front because this arrangement is perfect for artillery. It looks like the blasted wasteland of the Somme because the same kind of battle is happening.
An artillery battle.
Artillery war is a material endeavor. Failure to anticipate a sustained conflict, or meet the needs of the artillery branch during such conflict, has led to the defeat, as well as the dissolution, of states and sovereigns. Put another way: cannons are hungry, like dragons. Either feed the guns or watch them eat your whole kingdom.
Those guns, and the ammunition that goes into them, account for 40-50 percent of logistical capacity in wars throughout the modern period. Historians argue about what the “modern period” is, but for the history of modern artillery we can start in 1494. When the European continent dissolved in fire over the death of an obscure archduke, this rule of thumb had been good for 410 years. It remains good in year 518 of the explosive artillery era.
Our popular conception of the First World War, informed as it is by even gritty and gruesome visual productions, can be summed up as “climbing out of our trenches and walking very slowly towards the enemy,” per the famous Blackadder quip. The reality is that soldiers are killed and wounded climbing out of their trenches to walk in any direction at all. No direction is safe.
This anecdote, via the Wall Street Journal, illustrates the point. Emphasis mine:
A 35-year-old soldier said he had only just arrived with his 71st brigade when he fell under enemy artillery the previous night and had to walk from his battlefield position under enemy fire to the hospital.
“I don’t even know what hit us,” he said. “It’s bad out there.”
It is not true that all of the initial assaults failed at the Somme. On the contrary, some of the greatest attrition to British units took place while they advanced under artillery fire to relieve units that had taken their objectives, despite the odds. Men were killed by artillery fire as they retreated or retired after relief. Soldiers were killed carrying food and ammunition forward, casualties back, messages sideways. There are a million ways to die in an artillery battle and survival is ultimately a chance.
Writing for the Financial Times, Christopher Miller also makes the WWI comparison in his account of a Russian assault.
A heavy bombardment of the Ukrainian position comes first, followed by “the Russian infantry, charging in a first world war-style attack across a no man’s land of shredded trees and artillery craters,” whereupon “The Ukrainians popped up and mowed down many of them with machine guns and grenade launchers.”
Moments later, the scenes were repeated — although this time the Russian fighters had to navigate their comrades’ bodies. Again many were cut down by Ukrainian bullets.
“It’s like a conveyor belt,” Kostyantyn, an exhausted Ukrainian machine-gunner who described the scene to the Financial Times, said of the Russian tactics. “For what? A fucking metre of our land.”
Gazing at a “model” of the ground gained in Blackadder Goes Forth, measuring seventeen yards on a side and made to 1:1 scale, General Melchett, played by Stephen Fry, emphasizes the positive. “Well, young Blackadder didn’t die horribly in vain after all.”
Russian “progress” is measured in meters per day, at a rate of around 60 killed and at least twice as many wounded. Ukraine suffers slightly fewer casualties and does an admirable job of evacuating them, so their overall deaths are probably a bit lower, but both sides will have accumulated tens of thousands of casualties at Bakhmut by now.
Russia has directed manpower to Bakhmut from two main sources: recent mobilizations and the withdrawal from Kherson Oblast. Likewise, Ukraine has reinforced Bakhmut from Kherson. Thus the war has come to focus on what seems a culminating objective, one that mystifies analysts.
Perhaps the answer is as simple as the name. Until 2016, Bakhmut was named Avdiivka. A change brought by Ukrainian de-communization was perhaps received in the Kremlin as de-Russification. This would fit elegantly with the genocidal character of Putin’s war. Leaving the full discussion of that topic to Dr. Timothy Snyder and other historians, I will note that artillery is the original tool of social-political annihilation.
This is not a trite oversimplification. Ancient artillery is as old as the city, and cities are where civilizations happen.
Poliorcetics, the study of attack and defense of cities, is a specialist branch of military history. From ancient Mesopotamia, where we find the city of Ur conquering the Syrian city of Tel Hamoukar around 3,500 BC, to the siege of Azofstal in Mariupol, artillery has been a means of taking, controlling, or erasing place communities.
Maybe the destruction of Bakhmut is the entire point, for Putin.
Prominent pro-war Germans were very conscious of their 1914 adventure as a war between cultures. They were outspoken. As the Louvain library burned under their occupation, and the Ypres Cloth Hall disintegrated under their fire, Kultur was the word on their lips as they explained themselves. Between October of that year and the summer of 1918, German gunners aimed thousands of long-range artillery shells at the most prominent target in Reims, its cathedral.
It was at the city center, the downtown, the place where the law courts, the theatre, the Grand Hotel, and the best restaurants were located. Residents refused to evacuate, protecting the structure as best they could using sandbags, rescued the statue of Jeanne d’Arc.
For both sides, the war became a struggle of identity, with one civilization attempting to erase the other from a place in the world using a curtain of explosive fire, replacing the vanquished with itself, and the other defending its existence with a similar curtain of fire.
Perhaps Putin, stuck in his 19th Century conception of the world, still thinks that way. Evidence is available in present-day Syria, where both targeted and indiscriminate bombing have aimed at demolishing the cities which resist his ally Assad.
Other than some structural differences resulting from the use of rebar in concrete, urban zones subject to barrel bombing for a few years have striking similarities to photography of urban devastation wrought by artillery fire in 20th Century Europe.
Maybe the Bakhmut offensive is really about erasing Bakhmut so that Putin can rename it Avdiivka on maps. This writer gently suggests that the campaign is another note in his Götterdämmerung opera of annihilation alongside Bucha, the torture chambers, the deportations, et al, and fits his concept of civilizational history.
As an amateur historian, Putin assuredly knows how the artillery branch has shaped Russian history as well as modern battlefields.
“Military reform” was a key priority for his Ukrainian puppet Viktor Yanukovych, whose most drastic defense policy change in office was to virtually eliminate field artillery batteries from the Ukrainian Army. Rapidly rebuilding this corps after 2014, Ukraine has since shown us exactly why Putin targeted this specific branch of arms within their force structure.
Verdun, a ten-month battle in 1916, is perhaps the most apt parallel to Bakhmut that we can glean from the earlier war.
France lost more men defending Verdun than Germans lost attacking Verdun, but only by a small fraction. French stubbornness accounts for much of the loss on their side, as their persistent counterattacks to reclaim lost positions were vulnerable to artillery barrage. German generals increased their own casualties with bloody repulses trying to actually conquer the city of Verdun which — if we are to believe Erich von Falkenhayn — was not his plan at all. Both armies were “bled white.”
His basic premise, confirmed by history, was that France would defend the medieval city at all costs because it was a symbol of the nation. In the event, however, Germans made Verdun into a greater symbol than it had ever been before, and a similar result is likely to happen now in Ukraine.
Signs already exist. “Bakhmut Holds!” has become the Ukrainian slogan. It echoes the French motto of Verdun, Ils ne passeront pas! (“They shall not pass!”). A victorious Ukraine will surely hallow the ground forever.
One lesson from Verdun, perhaps over-learned by the French, is the utility of underground fortresses for hosting troops that can surge out to counter infantry attacks on the fortress. A similar scene lasted almost three months at Azofstal. Urban terrain does not allow either side to concentrate force easily, with the advantage going to the defender.
Bakhmut will be a rabbit warren by now. Even if Russian troops reached the city center on Christmas day, they would simply be standing barefoot on a nest of fire ants. Indeed, “the Anthill” is the German defensive complex that Kirk Douglas fails to capture in the 1957 classic film set within the French Army of WWI, Paths of Glory.
All the combatants of WWI were immediately challenged by the prodigious expenditure of ammunition. Just six weeks into the war, all of them had depleted stocks accumulated in expectation of a six-month war. Both attack and defense proved more costly for insufficient artillery support.
Russia suffered a legendary defeat at Tannenberg in part because the commander of the First Army, Paul von Rennenkampf, did not move to support the 2nd Army as they advanced into East Prussia. Historians have noted Rennekampf’s bitter relationship to the First Army commander, the top-down relationship of both units to the Stavka (Russian general staff) without any communications between them.
However, the best historical explanation for Rennenkampf’s inaction is that his army had only just expended 800,000 rounds of ammunition in the Battle of Gumbinnen a week before, including tens of thousands of artillery shells, and he could not advance without resupply.
The Tsar’s officials still found ways to fight on, importing much of what they needed. Efforts to mobilize society and ramp up production worked, at least for a while, but Russian artillery ammunition shortages, as well as other material shortages, consistently blunted their offensives and led to defeat throughout the war. Tsar Nicholas had only just gotten started on a program to increase shell stocks before the war; the price of this failure would be the lives of himself, his family, and the Russian monarchy.
Nor was he the only political casualty of the “shell crisis,” as it is known to historians. Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith began the war in a strong position, and at first, shell shortages were largely a secret confined to the front.
In May of 1915, however, British war correspondent Charles à Court Repington reported the matter to great outrage in Parliament. Asquith was forced to appoint Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George to a brand-new office, “Minister for Munitions,” with plenipotentiary powers to direct the war effort in the nation’s factories.
Lloyd George was the consummate technocrat, someone who could explain why the old shrapnel shell fuse did not work as well as planned, what made the new fuse better, and how the mix of shrapnel shells to high explosive shells to gas shells mattered. Little wonder that he supplanted Asquith as Prime Minister in 1916. French munitions minister Albert Thomas was selected for similar reasons.
Here is another resonance. Space does not allow a complete historical and literary analysis, but the present conflict is highlighting a problem that appears, over and over again, throughout the modern era: the procurement demands of artillery battle.
The United States Army is rethinking how many shells and rockets they keep in storage. European NATO partners are all reconsidering the frugal size of their ammunition reserves.
Production lines are not easy to start up. Systems require capital, bureaucracy, and access to key precursor products, such as picric acid, or toluol, the supply of which became an issue for Lloyd George and Thomas to solve separately, sometimes against one another’s intererests. Complexity, difficulty, differences — the present European alliance must learn the lessons of the past one.
No such thing exists as the “short” artillery war. Putin wanted one for Christmas, but he cannot have one, for they are not a thing that exists, just like Santa Claus.
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