Report from the Fronts #44: April 1918

Spring Offensive

Operation Michael ended on 5 April, and while it did not achieve all its objectives, Ludendorff nevertheless believed that by sucking Allied troops south to defend Amiens it had opened the way to the Channel ports – and the British supply lines – through Hazebrouck.  He consequently launched Operation Georgette (also known as the Battle of the Lys), pitting the Fourth Army under Sixt von Armin and the Sixth Army under Ferdinand von Quast against the British First and Second Armies.

Herbert Plumer

Henry Horne

Sixt von Armin

Ferdinand von Quast

Georgette

Henry Horne’s First Army was the initial target when the offensive kicked on 9 April and was an excellent choice.  It had become something of a rest home for exhausted and depleted divisions, and as it happened, the main attack was against a seven mile front held by a single division of the understrength Portuguese Expeditionary Corps (the other had been withdrawn three days earlier in order to be replaced).  The 20,000 Portuguese resisted but were overwhelmed by the 100,000 men of eight German divisions, while the British division immediately to their north also crumpled, creating a serious gap in the line.

Portuguese troops

Portuguese prisoners

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day the Germans also assaulted Herbert Plumer’s Second Army to the north and forced the British to abandon Armentières (as in “Mademoiselle from Armentières, Parley-vous). By the 11th the Germans had crossed the Lys River, and Haig proclaimed to his troops: “With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end.”  (One wonders if this obligation applied to the general himself.)  On the 14th the British abandoned the Passchendaele Salient in order to shorten their line, giving up the territory, bought with so much blood the year before, east of Ypres.

The Butcher of the Somme (and other rivers)

German prisoners

British gas casualties

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Germans continued to advance, but slowed by the usual supply and flank problems they were stopped just short of Hazebrouck on 29 April and Ludendorff halted the operation.  The forward German units were just 15 miles from the Channel ports, but now occupied a salient that was being pounded on three sides. Georgette had cost each side about 110,000 casualties.

British defending Hazebrouck

The Germans were certainly doing better in the east, where their victorious forces faced little serious opposition. On 3 April the German Expeditionary Force landed in Finland in order to help the Whites in the Finish Civil War, while in southern Russia Ekaterinoslav was captured the same day.  Kharkov fell on the 8th, and German troops pushed into the Crimea on the 19th.  (Four days later Guatemala declared war on Germany – perhaps the United Fruit Company had interests in western Russia.)  On 29 April a coup led by Pavlo Skoropadskyi and supported by the Germans overthrew the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and Skoropadskyi became Hetman of the Ukraine – at least for a while.

Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi

The Turks, meanwhile, were picking up their slices: on 5 April Van in Armenia was retaken and Batum and Kars in Georgia were occupied on the 15th and 27th.  More ominous for the Bolshevik government, on 5 April British and Japanese troops occupied Vladivostok on the Pacific coast of the old Empire.  Others would follow, as the Civil War tuned all the Russias into an abattoir.

Vladivostok in 1898

Then there was the Czechoslovak Legion. At the beginning of the war the Russians had recruited Czechs and Slovaks to fight against the Austrians, which they did with great enthusiasm, and they participated with distinction in the Kerensky Offensive in 1917.  By the beginning of 1918 the Legion numbered 40,000 troops, the war in the east was over and the men wanted to fight on the Western Front.  But how to get there with Germany in between and most Russian ports in the west blockaded?

Tomáš Masaryk, chair of the Czechoslovak National Council (and future President of Czechoslovakia), decided to go the other way, to travel the 6000 miles to Vladivostok and board transports to the west. In February the Bolsheviks granted permission for the trip, but first the Legion had to fight the Germans in the Ukraine in order to escape to Russia proper, which they did in March.  By the end of the month, however, mutual suspicion and distrust and the Legion’s understandable refusal to give up their arms was clearly heading to a conflict.

A Legion armored train

The Trans-Siberian Railway

Tomáš Masaryk (1925)

This month also saw the emergence of one of the most ephemeral states in history, the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. The evacuation of Russian troops from the Caucasus confirmed the end of Czarist rule, and while a Transcaucasian delegation from Tbilisi in Georgia signed on to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Caucasus wanted complete independence.  On 22 April the Republic was declared, uniting Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan into a single state, which immediately reopened the war with Turkey.  No one with the slightest knowledge of the Caucasus could have believed this bizarre entity would last very long.

Note the three languages

Banknote of the TDFR

The neighborhood of the TDFR

In miscellaneous news from April, on the 1st the British Royal Air Force was created from the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Services, and on the 10th Parliament passed the Third Military Service Act, which imposed conscription on Ireland and raised the age limit to 50.  Clearly, the British were getting desperate.  But not as desperate as the Bolsheviks, who introduced conscription on 22 April – in the developing Civil War their lives depended on it.

On 23 April the Royal Navy engaged in a memorable action of high drama but little effect. For years German submarines and torpedo boats based in Bruges on the Belgium coast had been raiding Allied traffic in the Channel, but Bruges was some eight miles inland, connected to the sea by canals to Ostend and Zeebrugge. The British consequently decided to sink block ships at the entrances to the canals, two at Ostend and three at Zeebrugge, where the viaduct joining the Zeebrugge mole to the mainland would also be destroyed.

The Bruges canals

Zeebruggge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The operation at Ostend was a complete failure, but at Zeebrugge two of the block ships were sunk in the narrowest point of the entrance to the canal while the old cruiser Vindictive landed marines on the mole as a diversion.  The viaduct was destroyed by an old submarine loaded with explosives, but the occupation of the mole was a disaster.  A change in wind blew away the smoke cover, and German shore batteries forced the troops to be landed at the wrong place, where they suffered heavy casualties: 227 British dead and 356 wounded to the German 8 and 16.

The block ships

In the end German naval activity out of Bruges was hardly hindered; most of the boats could use the Ostend canal and a passage was dredged around the block ships at Zeebrugge. On the other hand, the Zeebrugge raid, despite its ultimate failure, was nevertheless heroic, earning eight Victoria Crosses, and the British war propaganda machine made the raid an Allied victory.  And the memory endured: at a military tattoo in London in 1977 I saw the assault on the Zeebrugge mole reenacted.

The Vindictive at the mole

The Vindictive back home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, an event with little drama and little effect. On 10 April (or sometime in June; it is not clear) a German submarine shelled Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, the African state established by emancipated American slaves.  Liberia had declared war on 4 August 1917 and subsequently confiscated German property and sent a tiny contingent of troops to France.  In consequence the Germans decided to lob a few shells at Monrovia’s radio station.  Take that America.

Daniel Howard 16th president of Liberia

Oh, on 28 April Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian nationalist assassin who started all the madness by shooting the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo four years earlier, died in prison of skeletal tuberculosis.

Gavrilo Princip

Princip’s cell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Report from the Fronts #42: March 1918

The big news for March 1918 was the German Spring Offensive, but first there was a flurry of peace treaties. On 1 March Bolshevik Russia signed a peace treaty with the Finnish Socialist Workers’ Republic, which had emerged in the industrialized south of Finland in January.  Unfortunately for Lenin, the Workers’ Republic was not at all popular among most Finns, and the result was a civil war in which the “reds” were supported by Moscow and the “whites” by Berlin, which signed a treaty of peace with Finland on 7 March.  In terms of barbarity the Finish Civil War quickly became a small-scale forerunner of the far greater horror that was the Russian Civil War.

Murdered Whites

Executing Reds

Red Guards

White Guards

The Finnish Civil War during March

On 5 March Romania agreed –what choice did she have? – to a preliminary peace with the Central Powers, Bulgaria and Turkey and four days later signed a peace with Russia, a far easier proposition.  Bolshevik Russia, meanwhile, finally bowed to the inevitable on 3 March (the day after the Germans captured Kiev), and Grigori Sokolnikov (killed in prison in 1939) signed the draconian Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  Russia lost the Baltic states, Belarus and the Ukraine (as personal possessions of the Czar, Poland and Finland were already gone), which meant that a quarter of the former Empire’s population and industry now belonged to the Germans.

Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

Slivers of the Russian Empire for Turkey

The Treaty itself

Grigori Solkonikov

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This might have been a great deal for the Germans had there not been a Western Front.  Brest-Litovsk did free up several hundred thousand troops needed for the planned Spring Offensive – Germany’s last shot before being overwhelmed by the Americans – but the desire to secure this eastern empire and its resources left a million men scattered from Poland through the Ukraine.  Inasmuch as the attempt to establish a Ukrainian puppet state would fail and the expected resources never appear because of constant revolts against the occupying troops, Ludendorff would have better served his country by evacuating everything east of Poland.

Hindenburg the figurehead and Ludendorff the ruler

The aforementioned Spring Offensive (or Ludendorff Offensive or Kaiserschlacht) began on 21 March.  Ludendorff had collected 74 divisions (out of 192 in the West) and 10,000 guns and mortars, spread along the 43 mile front from Arras south to La Fère on the Oise River.  The German Seventeenth Army, under Otto von Below, the Second Army, under Georg von der Marwitz, and the Eighteenth Army, under Oskar von Hutier, faced the right wing of Julian Byng’s Third Army and Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army.  The strategic aim was to move northwest from the breakthrough and cut the British off from the English Channel and the French to the south, forcing negotiations.

General Julian Byng 3rd Army

General Hubert Gough 5th Army

Spring Offensive

General Oskar von Hutier

General Otto von Below 17th Army

General Georg von der Marwitz 2nd Army

 

The initial phase of the offensive, Operation Michael, would throw 44 divisions, many just specially trained for rapid advance, at the line from Arras to south of St. Quentin.  The northern elements of the advance would take Arras and head northwest, while the southern units would move to the Somme and hold it against counterattacks.  Ludendorff ordered a massive but relatively short initial bombardment in order to preserve some element of surprise, but a week before the launch the British knew from reconnaissance, prisoners and deserters a big push was coming and shelled German assembly areas.

Operation Michael

In the early hours of 21 March the shells began raining done over a 40 mile front, 3,500,000 in five hours, the largest bombardment of the war. The British front lines were severely disrupted by gas and smoke and the rear areas and supply lines pounded by heavy artillery, and more important, communications between headquarters and the fronts were severed.  Further, a thick fog came with the dawn, allowing the German troops to sneak by defensive positions and infiltrate the rear.

Operation Michael would last until 5 April, proceeding through six named battles: the Battle of St. Quentin (21-23 March), the First Battle of Bapaume (24-25 March), the Battle of Rosières (26-27 March), the First Battle of Arras (28 March), the Battle of the Avre (4 April) and the Battle of the Ancre (5 April).  One can see from the names that much of this ground would be fought over again.  (That was a spoiler, I suppose.)

 The offensive got off to a great start, and within days the British were engaged in fighting withdrawals in order to protect exposed flanks and compelled to call in French troops to stem the German tide at the southern part of the front. Not only were the British dramatically outnumbered in divisions, but many were seriously exhausted and understrength.  But it was certainly not a rout, as British and Commonwealth losses demonstrate.

British 6 inch gun in action

Retreating British

German AV7 tank near the Somme

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all the initial success, however, the offensive ran up against the usual barrier: the difficulty of resupply and consolidation in the wake of a rapid advance. Making it even more difficult in this case was the fact that much of the terrain had been fought over two years earlier during the Somme Offensive and was a lunar landscape virtually impassable for wheeled vehicles.  Further, when the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line in 1917, they had destroyed everything that might be of use to the Allies and now had themselves to deal with the devastated infrastructure and poisoned wells.

Advancing over the Somme battlefield

Dragging artillery forward

German supply column

 

 

 

 

 

 

Superficially Michael looked a success.  The Germans had penetrated 40 miles (light years in Great War terms) in the center of the offensive and collected 75,000 prisoners and about 1200 square miles of French turf.  But they had not taken Arras and were stopped short of Amiens, and more important, they had suffered some quarter million casualties, particularly among the elite Stormtroopers (Stoẞtruppen).  The Allies had lost about the same number, but huge American reinforcements were beginning to arrive and Allied war production could easily replace the lost materiel.  The Germans could not.  The Spring Offensive would continue for another three months, but many in the military were already deciding the war was over for Germany.

(For an excellent account of Operation Michael from the point of view of a German infantryman I recommend the personal memoir of Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel (Stahlgewittern).  Jünger was present at the Somme, Cambrai and the Spring Offensive, where he was seriously wounded and concluded that Germany could not win.  He survived the war (and the next as well) and was the rare enlisted man to be awarded the Pour le Mérite.)

Ernst Jünger

Ernst Jünger at 100

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Operation Michael underlined the problems of coordination between the British and French high commands, and on 26 March General Ferdinand Foch was chosen to coordinate Allied activities.  In April he would be named Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies, a long delayed development.

Ferdinand Foch

In other news, on 21 March the Commonwealth troops in Palestine began crossing the Jordan River, heading for the key Turkish position in Amman, which controlled the all-important Hejaz Railway. By the 27th they had occupied the Moab hills and assaulted Amman itself (The First Battle of Amman 27 – 31 March), but Turkish/German counterattacks forced them back to the west bank of the Jordan by 2 April.

Turkish prisoners

Amman

The Jordan Valley and Amman

Bridge across the Jordan

Crossing the Jordan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More interesting, on the same day the Jordan was crossed the Germans began shelling Paris – from 75 miles away. Near Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique, behind their lines, the Germans had emplaced the largest artillery piece (in terms of barrel length – 112 feet) of the war, the 256 ton Paris Gun (Paris-Geschütz), also known as the Emperor William Gun (Kaiser Wilhelm Geschütz). The gun fired yard long 234 pound shells, which traveled 25 miles up into the atmosphere, the first manmade objects to enter the stratosphere, and the range was so great that the rotation of the earth needed to be taken into account in aiming the weapon.

The Paris gun

Emplacing the Paris gun

Paris gun mount

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The guns – there were three of them – were designed by Krupp engineer Fritz Rausenberger and marvels of engineering for the time, but as an effective weapon they had serious drawbacks. Inasmuch as the shell had to be sturdy enough to withstand the pressures of firing, it could only carry 15 pounds of explosive, a trivial amount when the smallest target you could expect to hit was a city.  (A proposal to employ a sabot-mounted shell, which would increase the explosive payload was inexplicably rejected.)  Further, each shot wore down the barrel enough that the next shell had to be slightly bigger, and after 65 had been fired the barrel was sent back to Krupp to be restored.  An average of 20 shells a day were fired, amounting to only 300 pounds of explosive delivered in small packets.

The gun

The shell and propellant

Hello, stratosphere

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearly the gun was not intended to level Paris, but to undermine morale in the capital.  But when the firing stopped in August (the Allies were approaching the site), only 250 Parisians had been killed and 620 wounded, and after initial confusion regarding the source of the shelling Paris shrugged off the threat.  The psychological offensive had failed.  On the other hand, Germany had reached the stratosphere.

On a lighter note, the first confirmation of a new strain of influenza came on 11 March.  It was found coursing the bloodstream of Private Albert Gitchell at Fort Riley, Kansas, though the ultimate origin of the disease is still in dispute.  This was the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1919, so named because more cases were reported in neutral Spain, where there was no military censorship.  It would kill 3% to 6% of the human race.

The influenza hospital at Fort Riley

 

 

 

Report from the Fronts #40: February 1918

In February the focus of the war remained in the east, as the Bolsheviks struggled to reach an accommodation with Germany and the incredible horror of the Russian Civil War began to pick up steam.  The German demands for Russian territory and an “independent” Ukraine stirred outrage among the Russians, and on 10 February Trotsky declared his government would not sign a peace treaty but would also not resume hostilities.  The German response was quick: on the 18th they initiated Operation Faustschlag (the Eleven Day War).

Faustschlag gains

On a line from the Baltic to the Black Sea 53 divisions moved east, heading for St. Petersburg, Smolensk and Kiev.  There was little the Bolsheviks could do, especially since on 29 January the supreme commander, Nikolai Krylenko (shot in July 1938), had ordered demobilization of the army, and the German and Austrian forces gained 150 miles in a week.  By the beginning of March the Central Powers had captured Minsk and Kiev and were a 100 miles from St. Petersburg, which prompted the Soviet leadership to move the government to Moscow, where it would remain.

Nikolai Krylenko

German troops in Kiev

Austrian troops enter the Ukraine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After prolonged debate and threats by Lenin to resign the Bolshevik Central Committee narrowly voted to accept a peace treaty.  It was clear to Lenin that battling the gathering counterrevolutionary forces was at the moment far more important than the territories that would be lost.  Even the Ukraine and its grain supplies would have to take second place to securing Bolshevik power.  There was simply no alternative to signing a formal peace, which the Ukraine had already done on 9 February.

Ukraine and Kuban republics

The storm clouds were already gathering. In the south the Cossacks, always a restless group, were organizing under General Alexey Kaledin, who was joined in November 1917 by Lavr Kornilov (of failed coup fame) and Mikhail Alexeyev (who had arrested Kornilov).  Together they created the Volunteer Army, filled with former czarist officers and virulently anti-Bolshevik; it would form the  core of one of the major White armies.  On 28 January they proclaimed the Kuban People’s Republic, which declared its independence on 16 February.

“Why aren’t you in the army?”

Volunteer Army poster

Kornilov

Alexeyev

Cossack guard with the royal family

Alexey Kaledin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In other news, General Allenby decided in late January that he needed to secure his right flank in Palestine by occupying the Jordan Valley and began preparations in February.  After a three day battle Jericho was taken on 21 February with minimal casualties, and by the 25th Turkish forces had withdrawn to the east bank of the Jordan River.  But the Hejaz railway was still functioning, providing a supply line for Turkish units further south.  Far to the north the Turks benefited from the Bolshevik Revolution when the Russians evacuated northeastern Anatolia; on 25 February they retook Trebizond, lost to the Russians in April 1916.

Hejaz Railway

Marching to the Jordan Valley

Turks at the Dead Sea

Capture of Jericho

 

 

 

 

And on 5 February the British government repeated its promises to the King of the Hejaz regarding the independence of the Arabs, which pledges had already been dramatically undermined by the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of early 1916.  That the Bolsheviks had already published the text of the Agreement seemed not to bother London.

(yes, I posted #41 before #40)

 

 

 

Report from the Fronts #39: January 1918

The new year brought no particular hope for the Allies.  The disaster of Caporetto and the exit of the Russians in fact boded ill, and the Allied command was looking to 1919 for a victory.  The Central Powers had eliminated Russia from the war and could bring more troops west, but they were on the verge of starvation because of the Allied blockade and would need to take some action soon.

January saw no major fighting – the winter in France and Flanders was exceptionally cold – and most of the action was diplomatic.  At Brest-Litovsk the Russians were discovering just how much a peace was going to cost them, and on 5 January ceased negotiations, demanding they be conducted at Stockholm.  Three days later they resumed the talks, only to withdraw again on the 23rd and then reengage on the 30th.  Dissension was growing among the Bolshevik leadership, and some wanted to wait until the expected worker revolutions broke out in Europe.

On 6 January a delegation from the Ukraine, which was seeking a separate peace with the Central Powers, arrived.  In the wake of the February Revolution in March 1917 the Ukrainians had begun organizing their own state, and while this development was tolerated by the Provisional Government, the new Bolshevik regime was definitely unenthusiastic, despite its proclamation of self-determination in the former empire.  As is still clear in the 21st century, the Ukraine occupied a special place in the Russian heart: though possessing a different culture and language, it was considered “south Russia” and the birthplace of Russia itself – Kievan Rus’.  And Lenin desperately needed Ukrainian grain.  Two decades of nightmare were about to begin for the Ukrainian people.

The Ukrainian delegation at Brest-Litovsk

Others were leaving the one-time Greater Romanov Co-Prosperity Sphere.  After the abdication of Czar Nicholas in March 1917 Finland declared itself autonomous, inasmuch as the personal union between Finland and Russia was based on the monarchy.  When the Bolsheviks announced self-determination on 15 November, the Finish Parliament declared complete sovereignty and on 6 December passed a Declaration of Independence, which the Soviet government accepted on 4 January.  Poland was occupied by the Germans, and Belarus and the Baltic and Caucasian states would soon be departing.

Signatures on the Finish Declaration of Independence

Incidentally, the Bolshevik leadership demonstrated in January that it was also unconcerned about self-determination in Russia.  On the 18th a supportive crowd marched on the Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg, where the Constituent Assembly, elected in November, was to meet.  They were shot at by government soldiers, but the Assembly convened anyway, surrounded by troops, who finally forced the meeting to adjourn around 4 AM.  The next day the Assembly was dissolved by the Bolshevik government, which had no need for a freely elected parliament.

The Tauride Palace

The meeting place in the Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, in a speech to Congress on 8 January President Wilson outlined his Fourteen Points for a just settlement of the war.  The first point called for “open covenants, openly arrived at,” a provision that the Allies, with all their secret treaties, were not amused by, though Lenin, who had revealed all the Russian treaties, thought the document enlightened.  The French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, who was less interested in Wilson’s idealism than squeezing every last pfennig out of Germany, responded to the Fourteen Points with Le bon Dieu n’en avait que dix ! (“The good Lord had only ten!”).  Nevertheless, the Points would serve as a basis for negotiating the peace treaty at Versailles after the war.

Clemenceau

Wilson

Germany faces the Fourteen Points

Thugs, Missiles and the Beefcake Czar

(There are currently two important events unfolding, the downing of the airliner by Russian supported thugs and the Israeli invasion of Gaza.  The first is far more important to the US, and I simply cannot think and write rationally about Gaza at this moment.  I keep thinking about the German liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, which is an outrageous analogy, though there are some disgusting and disturbing similarities.)

 

 

While the details are still lacking because of the inability of the inspectors to enter the crash area fully, it has become clear that the plane was shot down by Russian supported Ukrainian separatists using Russian supplied equipment.  It is also clear that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin bears great responsibility for the deaths of almost three hundred innocents and is seemingly unwilling to take any action whatsoever to reign in his terrorists, who are now reported to have bragged about their crime.  (I want to say that any person anywhere found wearing a mask and carrying an assault rifle should be immediately shot, but then I would be descending to their level.)

The Beefcake Czar

The Beefcake Czar

 

What is the problem with the Russians, who are presenting an increasingly good impersonation of an uncivilized and barbarous country that happens to possess nuclear weapons?  Why is this society so addicted to autocratic government and content to live in the nineteenth century?  With the possible exception of the Stalin era I have only a superficial knowledge of Russian history, but it is still possible to suggest some answers, some of which are probably wrong (and any Russian historian reading this will likely groan).

 

Unlike Europe, Russia inherited virtually nothing from classical antiquity but the eastern version of Christianity, and their model civilization was the Byzantine Empire, a thoroughly autocratic society in which church and state were completely fused.  The post-classical West on the other hand began its evolution with a church that for all its later efforts to dominate secular rulers was distinctly separate, having developed its own governing structure parallel to that of the Roman Empire.  That structure also provided barbarian Europe with some measure of administrative competency, which was completely absent from the infant Russian state. Europe also inherited a sizable body of literature and art produced by a high civilization, and the remains of the Empire included a long-lasting network of roads and other useful infrastructure.

 

Further, the Roman Empire had laid the foundation of a common European culture, which was not significantly disturbed by outside forces, and Europe’s wars were mostly among European societies.  The Norsemen could be absorbed, and the Arabs could be repulsed.  Earlier Russian history is characterized by constant assault and domination by steppe barbarians, inimical to settled and urban society and not easily repulsed.  Warfare in feudal Europe revolved around horsemen, but they were only the elite component of armies, and the evolving weaponry of infantry helped drive innovation and societies sophisticated enough to produce the necessary new military technologies.  There were foot soldiers in the east, but the armies were overwhelmingly mounted, and the technology of mounted warfare had been pretty much perfected.  And who can live centuries in the shadow of the Mongols and not be brutalized to some degree?

Russian role model

Russian role model

In the West feudalism helped limit the power of the monarch and produce some tradition of resistance, and although absolutist kings appear in the early modern period, that tradition spurred the emergence of deliberative bodies that could and in some places did prevent and undermine the absolute authority of the king.  In Kievan Rus’, Muscovy and other states that ultimately became Russia the boyar was a sort of parallel to the medieval knight and they might form a deliberative body, a Duma, but their power gradually eroded in the face of the growing authority of the Czar.  Why this happens is not clear to me, but the result is that by the modern period the Czar is the absolute, unchallengeable ruler, his authority, like that of the Byzantine emperor, derived from god.  In the West the growth of trade and industry produced a third powerful player and a challenge to the existing power centers of church and state, while in Russia commerce remained subservient to the authority of the church-supported state, perhaps because the absolutism of the Czar was already so advanced.

 

Russian culture seems also to support a xenophobia more deeply rooted than in the west, perhaps because of the absence of the classical influences embodied in the literature of Europe and perhaps because of the constant assaults from the steppe.  Whatever the cause, this made modern Russia suspicious and hostile to the ideas and innovations coming from western Europe, and despite a Peter or a Catherine Russia lagged in its development, retaining a rural population that essentially remained in the conditions of the early middle ages.

 

And when Russia finally began to see some change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the cataclysm of World War I and the incredibly bizarre, virtually chance triumph of the Bolsheviks doomed the country to another three-quarters of a century of an absolutism that put the Czars to shame.  By the time the Soviet state collapsed the complete absence of any developed institutions or tradition of democratic rule led the state to its present more or less absolute ruler, Vladimir Putin, the Beefcake Czar, who unsurprisingly emerged from the security apparatus of the previous regime.  Well, he is certainly the most buff man to ever rule Russia.

 

Putin role model

Putin role model

Putin role model

Putin role model

Who knows what the fate of Russia will be?  Putin plays to the broad masses, who seem to yearn for another Stalin, and caters to their crude nationalism and traditional phobias, and this has a price.  The educated and highly skilled are fleeing to the West, and the corruption, malfeasance and capriciousness inherent in his rule discourages increasingly necessary foreign investment.  The country survives on the selling off of its immense natural resources, a sign of the economic primitivism associated with developing countries. Meanwhile he squanders badly needed resources on patriotic cosmetic projects like the Winter Olympics and the upcoming World Cup.  And if Europe is dependent on Russian gas, Russia is increasingly dependent on Chinese markets.

 

Russia is also becoming a pariah because of its illiberal policies and creeping expansionism, and Putin has now grandly exacerbated this development with the barbaric act of his Ukrainian/Russian thugs and his refusal thus far to do anything about it.  He is playing the same laughable propaganda game the Soviet rulers did, and the entire world is perfectly well aware of his complicity in the destruction of the Malaysian airliner. The guy is a thug, a clever one, but a thug nevertheless.

Men with small johnsons

Men with small johnsons

 

What to do now?  Obama has begun attacking Russian assets in foreign countries and moving towards excluding Russia from the financial mechanisms of the global economy, which would be a disastrous blow.  I would suggest even more immediate pressures, recalling the American ambassador and giving Putin, say, forty-eight hours to deal with the terrorists and open up the crash site or face a ban on Russian air traffic to the US and whatever European countries that can be persuaded to follow.  I might even threaten to prohibit American carriers from flying into Russia, but this is extremely unlikely, since one then runs up against corporate interests, which would certainly be loath to surrender profits simply because an airliner was shot out of the sky.  Already the Europeans and the all-important Germans are dragging their feet because of the natural gas issue and business interests with the Russians.

 

Well, it is all disgusting and harkens back to the less attractive aspects of the last century, but it sure makes for interesting news.

If You Had the Luck of Ukraine, You’d Wish you Were Russian Instead

In 1938 Adolf Hitler prepared to send troops into the Sudentenland, the western predominantly German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia, on the grounds that the ethnic Germans there were being mistreated.  At the infamous meeting in Munich, to which the Czechs were not invited, France and Britain agreed to German annexation of the area, easing Europe a bit further down the road to war, which broke out a year later when the western powers refused accept the same justification for Hitler’s claim on Danzig and the Polish Corridor.  Vladimir Putin, czar of the reborn Russian empire, has now done the same in Ukraine, occupying the Crimea and threatening the Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine.  Unlike Hitler, however, he did not wait for permission from the west.

the Black Earth

the Black Earth

 

 

The history of Ukraine is to a large extent the history of Russia, and both groups trace their origins to the Kievan Rus’, the first great Slavic state, which took shape in the late ninth century.  Ironically, the initial ruling elite was not Slavic but Scandinavian, the Varangians, a Viking group that had settled the region via the great rivers from the north.  They quickly disappeared into the Slavic majority, but it was under their leadership that Kievan Rus’ was established, and under the Rurik dynasty it became in the tenth and eleventh centuries easily the most powerful state in Europe, controlling territory from the Baltic to the Black Sea.  The state began to disintegrate in the twelfth century, and in the thirteenth the Mongols showed up, devastating the land and destroying Kiev itself in 1240.  Kievan Rus’ fragmented into separate principalities, the most powerful of which was the kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, which in the fourteenth century fell under the control of the grand Duchy of Lithuania and the kingdom of Poland.  This complicated matters inasmuch as the new rulers were Catholics, and in 1596 they introduced the Uniate Church, which employed eastern rituals but was under the Pope, thus creating a sectarian divide.

Where it all began

Where it all began

The southern area, along the Black Sea, became the Crimean Khanate, ruled by the Crimean Tatars, descendants of the Mongols.  At the same time a principality on the northeastern periphery of Kievan Rus’, Vladimir-Suzdal, grew into the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which would become Russia.  And there was of course the growing power of the Cossacks on the Dnieper and the Don, leading to the emergence of the Cossack Hetmanate, which dominated much of southern Ukraine.

 

 

In the seventeenth century the Ukraine experienced its own Thirty Years War, when from 1657-1686 the Poles, Russians, Cossacks and Turks (and a dash of Tatars) fought for control of the area.  The result was the “Eternal Peace,” which gave the land west of the Dnieper to Poland and the land east to Russia.   This divided the Cossacks, who nevertheless remained a powerful force in Ukraine, and in the early eighteenth century they joined Poland and Sweden in a war against Russia.  They were crushed, and the Hetmanate was abolished by Catherine the Great in 1764.  The last Hetman, Kirill Razumovsky, declared Ukraine a sovereign state in 1763, the first to do so.  When Poland was partitioned at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia and Austria divided Ukrainian territory west of the Dnieper.  The Crimean Khanate was annexed by Russia in 1783.

 

 

A relatively backward agricultural area, Ukraine was of little concern to St. Petersburg and Vienna in the nineteenth century.  The western half, Galicia, enjoyed a greater degree of freedom under the Hapsburgs, producing a nationalist movement, while the eastern half suffered under a program of Russification, which attempted to eradicate Ukrainian culture and literature and even language.  Ukrainians fought on both sides in World War I, and the entire nation was swept into the chaos and violence following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.  In the period 1917-1921 several Ukrainian “states” came and went, and while the bulk of the territory became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, parts of the west went to Poland, Belarus and the new republic of Moldava.

 

 

Then came suffering not seen since the days of the Mongols.  Some million and a half Ukrainians died during the Russian Civil War and the War with Poland, and an unknown number followed them into the grave during the famine of 1921.  During the twenties the Soviet government actually encouraged a revival of Ukrainian culture and language, but that changed with the triumph of Stalin at the end of the decade.  As a result of the forced collectivisation millions died of starvation in the early thirties, and during the purges more than a half million people were murdered, eliminating 80% of the Ukrainian cultural elite.  In the wake of this horror many Ukrainians in the west welcomed the Nazis as liberators, but German atrocities turned most to the unpleasant course of supporting the USSR, and during the war Ukraine actually regained territory previously ceded to others.

 

 

To the destruction caused by the war was added the deaths of tens of thousands during the famine of 1946-1947 and the deportation of hundreds of thousands prior to Stalin’s death in 1953.  Familiar with Ukraine and interested in establishing better relations, in 1954 Khrushchev transferred the Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, thus establishing the circumstances for the present crisis.  During the post-war period Ukraine enjoyed tremendous economic growth and influence, producing many prominent figures, including Leonid Brezhnev.

 

 

On 24 August 1991 Ukraine declared itself to be an independent democratic state, freeing itself from foreign control for essentially the first time in almost a millennium, and in December Ukraine, Belarus and Russia formally dissolved the USSR.  The Ukrainian economy suffered massively during the wild days of the nineties, but by 2000 real economic growth had been established.  Unfortunately, as with virtually all the former members of the Soviet Empire democracy did not come easy, and increasing fraud, corruption, concentration of power and the plundering of the national wealth led to the Orange Revolution in 2004.  Viktor Yanukovych, winner of rigged elections, was thrown out by Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.  Two years later Yanukovych was back in power only to be replaced by Tymoshenko the following year.  In 2010 Yanukovych was elected president in a questionable election and had Tymoshenko thrown in prison.

Ukrainian military

Ukrainian military

the stooge

the stooge

Ukrainian Evita

Ukrainian Evita

Corruption was rampant under Yanukovych, who established a kleptocracy supported by the country’s oligarchs and became a puppet of Vladimir Putin, who, as is perfectly clear, wanted Ukraine in the new Russian empire.  This led to the current revolution and Yanukovych’s flight to Russia.  Having lost his stooge, Putin stirred up trouble among the majority Russians in the Crimea and sent in troops (with no insignia) to “protect” them and the Russian naval base leased from Ukraine.  This was a blatant violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed by Ukraine, the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom, which guaranteed the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state.

 

 

Vladimir Putin in not just the latest autocrat of all the Russias, he also a thug, nurtured in the bosom of the KGB.  Knowing that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was terrified of dogs, he deliberately had his large dog present when they met for the first time in Moscow.  He may be the most buff ruler of Russia in centuries, but he is a thug, with a Mussolini-like propensity to bare his chest.  But then, he is the ruler of Russia, a country filled with a greater than average number of vulgar and cruel people.  He is also a liar and a hypocrite, but what national leader is not?  He constantly touts national sovereignty (“stay out of Syria”) and then promptly invades Ukraine.  Of course US protests about violating sovereignty also ring a bit hollow, since we do it constantly, especially in Pakistan, and give unqualified support to a state, Israel, which seems to have no concept of national sovereignty beyond its own.

macho czar

macho czar

So what can the west do?  Western leaders are of course “closely monitoring” the situation, expressing “grave concerns” and calling for calm, all while wondering what the hell they can do.  Who actually controls the Crimea is hardly a major security interest for the west (good luck with all those Tatars, Vlad!) and places like Germany are far more concerned about Russian natural gas supplies, but from the beginning of time major powers have been concerned about losing face.  And there is substance to the notion that if aggression is not countered, the aggressor will seek more.

 

 

Still, we hardly want an actual war with the Russians, despite the fact that their military is a shadow of its former self.  It is mighty risky policy to get into a shooting contest with someone who has nuclear weapons, and if Hungary was not worth getting nuked for in 1956, the Crimea certainly is not in 2014.  Of course there is John “Why Are We Not Still in Vietnam” McCain advocating activating NATO junior partner status for Ukraine and Georgia, failing completely to understand that this is exactly the sort of thing that drives paranoid dictators over the edge.  Look at the virtual wall of American bases encircling Iran, and one gets a better idea of why they are belligerent.

 

 

On the other hand, Barack “Everything Is Secret” Obama has hardly been inspiring in his relatively placid response to the crisis.  It certainly does not take an expert in foreign affairs to see the only options available and to begin to implement them.  Immediately pump money into Ukraine to stabilize the economy and provide relief if Putin turns off the gas.  Ratchet up the diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia.  Prince Vlad probably does not care that much about world opinion, despite the big Olympic splash, but his country is a relative economic wimp and might have serious trouble enduring major sanctions, although his people are well accustomed to enjoying a low standard of living.  Throw Russia of the G8, freeze her foreign assets, place a travel ban on her leaders and surround the country with a fence of economic sanctions.  The problem here of course is those trading with Russia are likely to be far more concerned with the money to be made trading with Russia than who controls the Crimea.

 

 

And how did this crisis take the US by such surprise?  We are able to monitor every phone call on the planet – to little apparent end – yet our intelligence agencies could not catch troops and equipment being slipped into the Crimean peninsula?  Once the revolution against Yanukovych began last year did no one in the government consider what might happen if he fell from power?  Is that not basic foreign policy planning?  Are we not supposed to mistrust characters like Putin and expect the unexpected?  And this in a country where the Pentagon is rumored to have gamed wars against zombies?  Perhaps the President and Congress were too busy raising money?  I’ll bet there are contingency plans to invade the Russian Commonwealth if they injure Israeli interests.

 

 

Well, too bad there is a nuclear component.   A naval battle in the Black Sea would be very cool.  Where is the Wehrmacht when you need them?