June 13, 2022
During the first hours of the Russo-Ukrainian War, when it became clear that Vladimir Putin was mounting a full scale ‘invasion’ rather than any one of the smaller anticipated ‘incursions’ into Ukraine, most – though not all – of the leading players in Euro-Atlantic’ political, military, think tank and media circles (for the Russians, the euphemistic ‘West’) took to the airwaves to make some rather dire forecasts and dispense some rather dire advice to the Ukrainians. It was predicted that border cities in the north and east as well as coastal cities in the south might fall within a day or two and that the capital Kyiv would be forced to surrender within a week. President Zelensky was advised to move the seat of government to Ukraine’s westernmost large city, Lviv, or better (worse) yet, set up shop in exile. The Ukrainian armed forces, in turn, were told to head for the Carpathian mountains and convert to insurgency-style warfare.
As the hours turned into days, it became apparent that the dire predictions of swift failure might be off base and that the grim advice given to the Ukrainian government to evacuate was premature. Of the northern and eastern cities (oblast centers) like Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Zhitomir or Black/Azov Sea port-towns like Odesa, Mykolayiv, Kherson and Mariupil, only Kherson had been occupied and its occupation was proving to be no certain fact, given that thousands of Ukrainians in the coastal city were staging protests against the Russian invaders. Meanwhile the dreaded quick drive into Kyiv seemed stalled after preparatory air assaults on the airports of the capital had not worked out as planned. With this in mind, President Zelensky not only decided to stay in Kyiv, but opted to use his office on Bankova (in central Kyiv) to give daily/nightly briefings to the Ukrainian nation as a gesture of defiance.
As the days turned into weeks, the dire predictions were proving to be shockingly wrong and the advice to abandon Kyiv truly ill conceived. In the south, a fierce battle in Mykolayiv had not only held up any advance to Odesa, but had thrown the Russian forces back upon Kherson. In the east, the attack on Kharkiv had gone badly enough to warrant a decision by Russian forces to bypass it. And in the north, Russians had begun a ‘grand re-positioning’ in city after city – including Kyiv itself – in what looked like a ‘not so grand withdrawal’. Meanwhile, Zelensky was proving audacious enough to turn his briefings to the nation into walking tours of Kyiv and took to using zoom webinars with various friendly governments to drum up support/assistance for Ukraine’s defense needs and to assure them that his government was firmly in control of matters in Kyiv.
The unfolding of the mentioned cascade of events initially elicited disbelief (”can we verify the reports?’), followed by a period of cautious skepticism (‘Russians may not be fully committed yet’) and finally a full throated admission of astonishment (when the Russians actually began leaving the northern cities). Once ‘astonishment’ and ‘amazement’ entered the picture, an inevitable moment of self reflection occurred. The Western media turned back to its pundits as well as to the ‘myriad experts’ from the political, military, think-tank and academic circles in the Euro-Atlantic community (indeed, in the ‘global democratic’ community generally) and asked them a thoroughly blunt question: “How could all of you have gotten the whole matter so wrong?”
The question launched a veritable tsunami of ‘mea culpas’. Media outlet after media outlet witnessed a gnashing of the teeth followed by a lot of swallowing of pride; a whole series of graphics that showed the ‘glorious Russian army’ advancing along the entire ‘Northern Front’ were suddenly pulled off countless screens accompanied by apologies from various analysts who had kept ‘ceding the territory’. The only voices that were exempted from the self flagellation were those few ‘doubting Thomases’ – essentially American generals with actual experience in commanding US or NATO troops in Europe during the last three decades – who from the beginning posited their own query: “Does Putin really think that he can take all of Ukraine with 200 thousand troops when it would take 300 thousand just to capture and hold Kyiv?”
As it happened to work out, once the self-flagellation subsided (or the Western media got tired of simply beating ‘its own’), the self same commanders were allowed to ask a follow up set of questions: Were the Russians really this bad? Was it possible that the Russian army was only suited for parades on Red Square to celebrate World War II Victory Days? The new queries coincided with news that Russia’s ‘repositioning gambit’ was turning into an open, headlong retreat from all points north in Ukraine (leaving a set of atrocities on full display to be judged in the future as war crimes). At that moment, the ‘Russia has proved to be weaker than expected’ narrative leapt into the lead by a wide margin.
While the ‘weak Russia’ storyline firmly took hold of the air waves, another narrative quietly and tenuously appeared alongside. The parallel narrative took to shifting the center of attention from Russia’s foibles in the war to the astounding resourcefulness/resilience the Ukrainians were exhibiting – an intriguing minor miracle, given that Ukraine until that point had been treated as an object rather than as a subject capable of having an impact of its own on matters. Equally intriguing/important, the most impressive version of the new storyline was one that placed the do-or-die tenacity of the Ukrainian armed forces (in contrast to the undisciplined childlike behavior of the Russian military) in a firmly historical context, citing a seminal experience: the Mongol invasions of 1239-1241. Unlike the Eastern Slav city-states (best way to describe them) of the north – including the newly minted Moscovy, all of whom submitted to the yoke of the Khans for the next two hundred years, Kyivans fought to the bitter end and endured a Carthage-like destruction of their beloved city state nestled on shores of the northern Dnipro only to emerge an identical two centuries later in the southern Dnipro river basin as the Zaporizhian ‘Kozaky’ (the Turkish word for ‘freemen’).
Though clearly an insightful construct, the ‘Ukrainian resilience/tenacity’ narrative was unable to gain altitude because in a matter of days, the Russians indicated that they were no longer interested in the northern cities or northern eastern cities (and for that matter, by omission, the southern cities beyond Kherson); their objective had always been and remained the Donbas -ie- attaching the Ukrainian-held territories in the region to the now recognized ‘sovereign’ DNR and LNR. There was no admission of any errors or flaws in the mission. Rather, the Kremlin, in a matter of fact tone, explained that in the ‘first phase of the war’, the task was to exhaust the Ukrainian forces thoroughly throughout Ukraine; in ‘phase two’ (the second mouth), Russian forces would break through the Ukrainian defenses in Izyum in northern Donbas, do the same in Mariupil in southern Donbas, proceed to encircle the Ukrainian forces in central Donbas, fight a classic tank-on tank-battle in a category they excel and ultimately seize control of the entire area in the aftermath. As the Western media quaintly summarized the emerging headline of the war: “The Russians are finally getting down to business!”
If for a time, Russian bravado prevailed and recaptured the headlines, the war, presently in its fourth month, has seen the sheen off Russia’s blustering pronouncements of its ‘phase two’ war aims dramatically fade – severely eroded by the sinking of the Russian Black sea flagship Moskva, continuing reports of Russian generals getting killed as well as Russian command posts being turned into rubble and very uneven or ‘tepid’ progress in Donbas despite all the hype about Russia’s vaunted artillery. In its stead, interestingly enough, a tweaked version of the ‘Ukrainian resilience’ theme has quietly reappeared as a serious nightly news talking point – with the critical issue being whether the Ukrainians possess the reserve fortitude to do a repeat of their ‘victory in Kyiv’ in Donbas. Equally interesting, Western media has focused once more on a historical perspective in attempting to measure the capacity of Ukrainians for ‘sustained tenacity’. In a particularly poignant case in point, a recent interview has featured a Donbas farmer working in an armored tractor with his combat class helmet on, trying to get his seeds planted despite all the devastation around him – beaming with pride at doing his duty to the homeland and professing that his Kozak ancestors would have expected no less.
The noted phenomenon deserves to be heartily lauded and energetically pursued. In fact, the approach should be recognized as offering real hope for finally reaching beyond ‘flavor of the week’ discussion cues and getting a handle on the general direction of a conflict that is already defining the early 21st century and may end up determining much more. For one, few observers of the struggle (including the Russians themselves) would now deny that a reprise by the Ukrainians of their ‘victory in Kyiv’ (constituting a confirmation of their capacity for ‘sustained resilience’) would effectively change the parameters/nature of the war; at that point, even DNR, LNR and Crimea (all still considered by most of the world as Ukrainian territory) would be in play from a military point of view. And the blowback into Russia could equal that generated in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 (where, incidentally, a perceived weaker power also bested a perceived stronger power). Two, Ukrainian history is precisely the place where one would explore the ‘reprise’ matter; it possesses a very rich record with regard to the issue of a ‘national predilection for persistent perseverance in the face of frightening odds’ – actually, much too rich. For purposes of example, four key episodes in the ‘story of Ukraine’ would probably suffice.
The first episode would involve those descendants of Kyiv’s survivors who found shelter in Zaporizhia and whom the contemporary Ukrainian farmer deemed worth mentioning as his spiritual mentors the Kozaks (‘Kozaky’). The Zaporizhian ‘Host’, as the Kozaks came to be known collectively, developed, in the 15th and 16th century, into a free-wheeling, land owning elite military caste on the frontier of Europe that eventually helped create the second iteration of the Ukrainian state (the Kyiv principality being the first) known as the Hetmanate (1647) and then withdrew back to their home region to let the Hetmanate find its own firm ground without their interference. Lo and behold, in 1683, the Ottoman Empire decided to make a major move on Europe – conquer its very heartland – and arrived at the gates of Vienna, seat of the Holy Roman Empire, the responsibility of the Habsburgs at the time. The Habsburgs wisely put the defense in the able hands of the head of another powerful European state, Polish-Lithuanian Confederation ruler Jan Sobieski. He, in turn, turned to the Zaporizhians for help (having engaged them earlier in friendly and less than friendly circumstances).
The Zaporizhans arrived in Vienna too late to make an impact on lifting the siege that Sobieski and the Polish cavalry brilliantly managed, but they were given the task of rooting out the Ottoman forces in Hungary, which they did to tremendous effect. After the double defeat, the Ottomans never ventured back to Europe in a serious way. As a wonderfully anecdotally token of appreciation, one of the Zaporizhians (actually, a Western Ukrainian accomplice), Mykhailo Kulchytsky, was awarded the entire supply of coffee the Turks left behind and ended up opening Vienna’s first coffeehouse.
The second episode would bring back the Ukrainians and Poles, once again working in tandem working against an existential threat from the ‘East’ – this time, Russian imperialism in its various stripes. In early 1919, Simon Petliura, head of the third iteration of the Ukrainian state (the Ukrainian National Republic), having lost control of Kyiv as a result of attacks by both ‘White Guardist’ and ‘Red Guardist’ Russian armies, turned to fellow European Social Democrat, Polish leader Josef Pilsudski, to beat back the forces of Russian imperium whatever the color and regain control of the Ukrainian capital. The two went to work quickly and did precisely what Petliura intended; they took back Kyiv in mid May. However, the Reds (Bolsheviks), having defeated the Whites and having received reinforcements from Siberia began a new offensive in the summer, first driving Petliura and Pilsudski out of Kyiv and then heading for Warsaw.
Petliura and his army had the possibility of remaining in Ukraine and turning into an insurgent force, but instead decided to stay with Pilsudski and prepare for the defense of Warsaw. The Ukrainians under the generalship of Marko Bezruchko took the southern (or ‘right’) front and deftly kept Bolshevik army from turning the said Polish flank at a critical point in the Battle of Warsaw (also known as the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’). The ensuing victory kept Poland and, for that matter, a large number of newly minted central and eastern European nation states, from Bolshevik domination for another two decades – allowing them to more strongly develop their national identities. The Ukrainians, unfortunately, did not benefit from the ‘Miracle’, being splintered by 1920 into four parts. Worse still, the largest splinter was taken by the Bolsheviks (with all the consequences that fact entailed, including the genocidal Holomodor).
The third episode would continue with a Bolshevik component but add another another genocidal regime, Nazi Germany, into the mix – with the Ukrainians stuck in the middle. For all of Russia’s present day talk of chasing Nazis away from Ukraine, it was one of Putin’s predecessors in the Kremlin, Josef Stalin, who made a ‘Pact of Steel’ deal in 1939 with his maniacal Nazi counterpart, Adolph Hitler, to pick up real estate that Moscow had not managed to pick up in 1920 (after the ‘Miracle’). Within two years, Hitler, having used Stalin’s steel and wheat (taken from Ukraine) to conquer European lands north, west and south, decided to betray his naive buddy and head east; the ‘Great Patriotic War’ ensued.
The Ukrainians from the three western splinters – unencumbered by the trappings of a Bolshevik mindset – took to opposing both totalitarian systems equally (despite the Cold War Soviet dezinform ops that claimed otherwise) An armed underground resistance movement that morphed into a more formally structured Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) emerged to do battle, first with the Nazis in 1943-1944 and then the Bolsheviks from 1944 until 1952; the valiant struggle received no outside aid – no Lend Lease. When captured and sent to either Nazi KZs or the Gulag camps, the Ukrainians were reputed to be among the ‘toughest nuts to crack’. The Ukrainians from the eastern splinter, trapped in a Bolshevik framework of reality, chose to do battle with only the brown version of totalitarianism. But here too, the Ukrainians shined. After June 1944, Ukrainians made up 40% of the ‘Soviet’ forces plowing through East Europe and it was the 1st Ukrainian Front armies that took Berlin from Hitler in 1945.
The final episode would begin in the aftermath of the mentioned Ukrainian struggles of the 40s and early 50s. While Nazism was extinguished, Bolshevism lingered – expanding its grip for four decades to all of eastern Europe; in the process; it took all of Ukraine’s splintered pieces and glued them together. By doing so, the red brand of Russian imperium made a terrible mistake. ‘Western’ Ukrainians, finally able to live together and embrace their ‘eastern’ brothers and sisters, slowly but with great purpose, brought home (using the dissident movement in 60s & 70s) the idea of ending the ‘last prison of nations’. Once an opportunity presented itself with the Kremlin’s crisis of faith (concerning Bolshevism) in the 1989-1991 period, the Ukrainians bolted for the door. In a referendum in December 1991, they voted 91% in the affirmative to leave the USSR and live in an independent Ukrainian polity. In the 2004 Orange Revolution and 2014 Revolution of Dignity, an additional message was sent to the northern neighbor, increasingly sporting a (KGB) blue version of Russian imperium: the fourth iteration of the Ukrainian state intended to get as far away from a ‘Russkie Myr’ of whatever stripe as it possibly could.
The reigning ruler in the Kremlin – a self styled ‘Restorer of the Glory of the USSR’ – got the message and struck back with an invasion of Crimea and a hybrid war in Donbas. The move caught Ukrainians short handed in as much as the pro-Putin Yanukovych regime ousted in 2014 had reduced the actual number of regular troops available for defense of the homeland to less than 10000. Undeterred, the new Ukrainian government turned to the veterans of the Revolution of Dignity and organized them into volunteer battalions. These battalions, eventually organized as a ‘National Guard’, stepped into breach and stopped Putin’s incursion cold in its tracks. Donbas devolved into a ‘trench war’ – a terribly frustrating result for ‘Vlad the Restorer’. More frustrating still, contemporary Ukrainian heroes were born in the Donbas fight; the story of the vastly outnumbered and outgunned ‘Ukie Cyborgs’ defending Donetsk airport for several months filled many Ukrainian 13 year olds with pride and desire to emulate.
Armed with insights culled from the just elaborated episodes of Ukrainian history, it would not be difficult to envision a credible construct for forecasting the end result of the war – ‘a final narrative’, if you will. It is clear from the evidence that Ukrainians are capable of fighting above – often well above – their ‘weight class’. It is also abundantly clear that they have always possessed that capacity. Staying with the boxing imagery, the Ukrainians can be said to be a lot like their great featherweight champion Lomachenko, who, because of his speed, dexterity and fight-smarts, has been able to conquer the junior lightweight and lightweight classes. Now add two more items to the stated thought process. First, note the latest news indicating that the US is presently (after some earlier ‘mistaken’ hesitation) pouring a large number of weapons into Ukraine. And then switch back to more boxing imagery. Just think of Lomachenko acquiring the arms and fists of a Ukrainian heavyweight champion – whether Vitaly or Volodymyr Klitchko. At that moment, a likely outcome of Russia’s gambit in Donbas should begin to emerge distinctively into view. Oh and yes – so should the fate of DNR, LNR and Crimea. Oh and yes again, so should the analogous relationship between the Russo-Japanese War and Russo-Ukrainian War.
As promised in the title of this contemplation, give credit where credit is due, and all else will follow. (That is, if Vlad the Bad does not try to become Vlad the Mad.)
[About the Author: Walter Zaryckyj is Executive Director of the Center for US-Ukrainian Relations. The Center provides “informational platforms” or venues for senior-level representatives of the political, economic, security, diplomatic and cultural/academic establishments of the United States and Ukraine to exchange views on a wide range of issues of mutual interest, and to showcase what has been referred to as a “burgeoning relationship of notable geopolitical import” between the two nations. Dr. Zaryckyj completed his undergraduate and graduate work at Columbia University; he taught political science at NYU for nearly three decades before moving on in recent years to do postdoctoral research work on Eastern Europe.]