The Fifth Battle of Kharkiv

The ruins of the Regional Administration Building on Freedom Square, Kharkiv

When a speaker at yesterday’s vigil mentioned that his family were from Kharkiv, the scene of great destruction and heavily civilian casualties as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I was reminded that this location was the scene of no fewer than four huge and bloody battles during the Second World War.

Kharkiv fell to German forces after the First Battle of Kharkiv took place in October 1941. The first attempt by the Soviets to take it back led to the Second Battle of Kharkiv, which took place in May 1942, and was a catastrophic defeat for the Red Army. Among other things this fiasco revealed Stalin to be a military leader of legendary incompetence. He had a huge numerical advantage in men, tanks, artillery and but most of his troops were poorly trained conscripts who were sent into a position from which they were easily outflanked, then encircled and finally destroyed. The losses were appalling: almost 300,000 casualties and the destruction of over a thousand tanks. This defeat left the way open for German forces to advance on Stalingrad (now Volgograd), where they were finally halted in 1943.

The Third Battle of Kharkiv of January 1943 was another German victory but resulted in a salient which was successfully attacked during the Battle of Kursk leading to a massive German defeat. Kharkiv was finally recaptured by the Soviets in August 1943 after a fourth major battle.

It seems in the Fifth Battle of Kharkiv, Putin is following Stalin’s policy of sacrificing the resource he values least – the lives of his young conscripts – but the big difference between then and now is that it is the Russian army is attacking a predominantly Russian-speaking part of Ukraine; Kharkiv is only 25km from the Russian border. If Putin’s army is prepared to behave so abominably to people he claims are his own, one can barely imagine the horrors he will inflict on the Ukrainian-speakers elsewhere in Ukraine. This isn’t just a war, it’s a genocide.

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