by Ralph Berry

The Ukraine war now resembles the First World War, and not the Second.

The media coverage is split between the chateau generals on TV, and the front-line reporters. The TV generals prefer WW2, which gave them a war of movement ranging from region to country, high-grade soldiering, varied map-work, interesting technology, tanks in abundance, film!  They do not care for the WW1 comparisons.  Today’s reporters at the front, who have to duck and take cover when the shells or missiles come in, have no such resources. They are the PBI of the media, and it is a WW1 combat that they witness. The front does not move much. Hence the title of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1928), a masterpiece which all armies acknowledge.

Let Bakhmut, the new Passchendaele, stand for their experience.

The overall picture of the war presented to the public has one large omission. It seems obvious to me that the war is strategically unbalanced. It is conducted within the land boundary of Ukraine (save for some maritime operations around the mouth of the Danube).

Russians and Ukrainians must fight it out on Ukrainian territory. But the Russians can continue to bombard the enemy with missiles based far inside their own land, where they are safe. The Ukrainians have no reciprocal benefit, for they cannot attack Russian territory; that would mean a deadly widening of the war, totally forbidden by NATO and leading immediately to the withdrawal of Western support. This is a huge strategic advantage to Russia, and it means that ‘victory for Ukraine’ is an empty slogan. How does one stop Russia from lobbing explosives into Ukraine from a safe distance?

The fraudulent nature of the pro-Ukrainian propaganda is clear from its advocates. Here is one, a regular in the Telegraph, General The Lord Dannatt (that really is his by-line), for whom every capital letter plays its heraldic part and deserves to be accompanied by ‘Zadok the Priest’. Britain, he fears, IS LOSING THE WILL TO STAND UP TO PUTIN. (9 January).  Never one to shy away from history, he goes on:

‘The First World War generals were lampooned for their lack of imagination, but it took time to transform a citizen army into an integrated all arms force that ultimately succeeded in the Hundred Days campaign of 1918.’

It did indeed take time, four years and many million soldiers of all countries.

Happily, the generals survived the learning experience. On Dannatt’s count Ukraine has three years to go before time can be called. He places his hopes on the next big push to come. It will be resisted by the Wagner mercenaries, now registered in Russia as a legal management consultancy company, ChVK Wagner Centre. (Telegraph, 18 January).

War mutates into new forms, following its own logic.

Another disciple of the forward school, the duty general on Sky News, offered this memorable epitome of the war: ‘Bakhmut is for those interested in battlefield pornography. Others are more interested in strategy’ (10 January).  Here is the underlying, but now overt debate that is always won by the strategists, themselves of high military rank. The lofty disdain for ‘battlefield pornography’ goes back at least to 29 December 1914, when Churchill’s letter to Asquith raised the problem: ‘Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?’

There were, and the Dardanelles campaign was the chosen instrument.

The generals scuppered that one, and the Western front was saved for their careers. Barbed wire won, and Churchill was disgraced.

Any solution to the Ukraine war is blocked by Zelensky’s continued insistence on absolute victory, which is impossible. Henry Kissinger has put forward in Davos his call for the US and Europe to get around a negotiating table as soon as possible. But ‘negotiation’ means by definition defeat for Ukraine. The ‘Western front’ is not ready for peace, any more than it was in 1917 when Lansdowne’s peace proposals were floated in the Daily Telegraph. Both the Allies and the Central Powers thought they would win; neither side could endure the thought of all the bloodshed in vain.

By a curious synchronicity, the Netflix ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is Germany’s submission for the Best International Feature Film in the 2023 Academy awards. It has already received a slew of nominations for BAFTA. There is something in the Zeitgeist that draws us back to the First World War.


4 Responses

  1. Kissinger is a diplomat and — naturally — he advertises his stock in trade: diplomacy. Unfortunately for his argument, diplomacy already ran its course, and Ukraine is solidly protected from Russian territorial claims already — by the Budapest protocols. Since those did not prevent Russian attack (first on Crimea, and now on mainland Ukraine), diplomacy with Russia won’t solve a thing — sure, another meaningless piece of paper will be signed, which won’t prevent another round of Russian aggression. The best analogy here is another great diplomatic achievement — the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 — a Russo-German “mutual non-aggression pact” that was to last for 10 years. Two years passed, and Germany invaded. The infamous “peace in our time” Munich agreement comes to mind, too…
    Military history may favor Kissinger’s approach — but diplomatic history doesn’t. I am sure the Ukrainians are mindful of that…

  2. History resolves the present mystery of ending the misery of the Uktaine/Russia death dance. Look to how the Vietnam War, Korean .’War, Afghanistan War ‘ended.’ The home folks got sick, disgusted, educated enough to threaten the war enthusiasts. Negotiations were forced on all parties, the dead were celebrated and the survivors were pleased to criticise others but not their selves.
    Will we be surprised when a ‘Chosin Reservoir’ equivalent forces us into a less than ideal cessation of hostilities? Is Crimea up for grabs? Will solitary confinement of all military and political personnel in their top three levels be the answer to whatever the proper peace questions are? What questions should be asked and amswered?

  3. I’ve just finished a book about the Japanese invasion of Shanghai.

    In that particular fracas the western powers just stood by, indeed the International residents just watched it from their settlements and the reporters sent their wires back home as if they were watching a movie .

    The US sent some arms to the Chinese to help them in their struggle (does this sound familiar?) but basically theirs was a “hands off” approach.
    It’s all very well sending in arms , but if they don’t know how to use them, you might as well dump them in the sea.
    Same with sending in money from all of these appeal organizations, what do they do with that money?(and it’s hundreds of millions!)

    The West, in effect, gave Shanghai to Japan to prevent further oceans of bloodshed….. and look who’s got it back today.

    Now, someone tell me why we have to have people dying when we all know that the results of this war can be hammered out at the negotiating table?

    The moment I propose this sort of stepping stone is when most of the domino theory zealots go ape-shit.

    We all know that Zelensky can’t negotiate because he’s being told what to do by the UK and the US.
    So there has to be a change of policy on the West’s side to allow talks to begin. The problem is saving Zelensky’s face.

    If the Russians are ceded some Ukraine territory, are they going to move in and massacre everybody ala Genghis Khan?
    I don’t think so, because half of the residents in the disputed areas are already Russian and the end result would be that the population sends their taxes to Moscow instead of to Kiev.

    There is a solution, just look at the success of Vietnam since the end of the war there.

  4. For the first time, this analogy made me wonder what “WW1” would have looked like if it had just been the Third Balkan War, with Austria Hungary somehow bogged down in its invasion of Serbia, probably having taken Belgrade eventually [it was right on the border] but otherwise stuck on or not much beyond the Sava and losing all momentum, with Serbia unable to turn the tide but being sustained indefinitely by more or less overt but not direct military Russian support which, unaccountably, did not make either Austria [which didn’t want to fight Russia anyway] or Germany [which did] declare war on the Russians.
    And in which Britain and France stood aloof because Germany was not at war either and Russia’s alliance with France had not been triggered.
    That would be the nearest 1914 analogy. The Sava Front would have looked like the Ukraine front, but it would not have been Ypres or the Somme insofar as the scale would have been much smaller and my country or my parents country would not have been taking casualties.
    Of course, while Russia’s ambitions to gain territory and regional hegemony today are similar to Austria’s Balkan ambitions in 1914, one bonus moral point to the Austrians that Russia doesn’t get- 1914 Serbia at least partly had it coming as a terrorist-sponsoring state. I know they accepted almost all the Austrian ultimatum in a bid to head off war. The Taliban was also willing to accept evidence against al Qaeda in 2001. The invasions in both cases can still be justified in ways Russia’s cannot.

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