Stalin’s policies alive and well in occupied Ukraine

By Jeffrey Owens - Local History Writer

Editor’s note: Jeffrey Owens is a Jeffersonville native, a 1995 graduate of Miami Trace High School and 2000 graduate of Ohio University. As a life-long history buff, Owens published Victory In Europe; A People’s History of the Second World War, a more than 700 page analysis of World War 2 in Europe in 2015. Since 2015, Owens has hosted more than a dozen educational symposiums on a variety of military history topics at the Grove City Library.

Stalin’s policies are alive and well, and any doubters of the brutality of those schemes can view them impeccably preserved in occupied Ukraine. In Victory in Europe (2015) I detailed the following on Soviet occupied Eastern Poland, which Stalin ruled from September 1939 to June 1941. “After the Red Army completed its conquest (1939) all inhabitants of Eastern Poland were forced to obtain internal passports. This produced for the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) a detailed registry of all the peoples they had just absorbed. Beria (NKVD Chief) set in motion a miniature version of the Great Terror, in which Polish life was crushed…Roughly 880,000 Poles, along with tens of thousands of other “enemies,” were rounded up and deported to Gulag prison camps deep inside Russia…Polish street names were changed, national monuments were destroyed, and the population was drained of its intellectual life as the intelligentsia were imprisoned.”

In perfect lockstep with his mentor, Putin since day one of his invasion of Ukraine, has replicated this down to the detail. First came the unprovoked and violent invasion purely for personal gain. Second, the “filtration” camps were established to identify and interrogate civilians and ship them into Russia to serve various purposes; among them are forced labor and in future prisoner exchanges. More than 50,000 civilians from Mariupol alone have gone through filtration along with tens of thousands more from outlying areas. In Kherson Oblast, road signs are being changed to Russian names, the Russian ruble was introduced as currency on May 1, and statues of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, have been erected. Some 4 million tons of Ukrainian grain held at various ports on the Sea of Azov has been stolen, Ukrainian intellectuals have been rounded up and Russian is replacing Ukrainian as the primary language in schools.

As terrible as this reality is, this is still the “G rated” version of events. Atrocities and crimes against humanity abound in all regions of Ukraine either currently or previously occupied by the Russians. As discussed in multiple prior analyses, execution style murders, rape and forced deportation are daily realities in living under the heel of Putin’s armed forces or security services.

Modern technology however could serve as a far greater undoing to Putin than Stalin ever faced. Dealing with such immense communications problems, many Russian officers and NCO’s alike are using personal cell phones, which are not only easily traceable but also house an immense amount of information on their owners. Sergeant Petr Zakharov of the 64th Brigade in Bucha lost his cell phone. It was recovered by Ukrainian Intelligence and found to contain photographs of atrocities and text and call logs between himself and other members of his unit discussing details of such evil. Now the names and photographs of multiple members of the 64th Brigade involved in war crimes in Bucha have been made public, and even their commander, Colonel Azatbek Omurbekov, personal cell phone number has been published.

Meanwhile on the battlefield, Ukrainian forces are mounting on the Isyum and Kharkiv fronts their most successful counter-attack of the war. This offensive is multi-directional and involves fighting both to the north and south of Isyum simultaneously.

South of Isyum, as discussed in Analysis #15, Russian forces of the First Tank Army were temporarily enjoying slow but tedious tactical gains moving along a series of roads roughly parallel to each other. Part of this success however can be credited to the lack of any dug in Ukrainian defensive lines between Kharkiv and the Donbas, as prior to the war no such defenses were needed or even conceived of.

The momentum of First Tank Army quickly evaporated. Supply lines became stretched and increasingly vulnerable, the road bound armies were traffic jammed and could leverage no additional striking power, and the Ukrainian defenders got more aggressive. Utilizing much of the same hunter-killer unit strategies they did in Kyiv, mobile Ukrainian forces weaved in and out of Russian lines, guided by civilian reports and military intelligence, and ambushed the Russians en masse.

When the mobile Russian command post at Isyum was blown up on May 1, as referenced in Analysis #16, command and control was largely lost for several days, and the offensive of First Tank Army stalled out. Due to all these challenges it is increasingly unlikely that First Tank Army will ever link up with any Russian forces attempting to push west through Luhansk or Donetsk, and may never complete any encirclement of Ukrainian forces in the Donbas.

North of Isyum, Ukrainian forces launched a considerable counter-offensive against the Russians who had been holding the line east of Kharkiv ever since Putin’s change of strategy and corresponding withdrawal from the Kyiv front. This Ukrainian counter-offensive was launched between May 2-3 which drove the Russians 25 miles east and out of artillery range of Kharkiv.

Phase 1 of the war, which could be defined primarily as the Russian assault on Kyiv, ran from February 24 through March 25 when the offensive on Kyiv was called off. Although the fighting in the Donbas never stopped, the operational tempo of the war slowed until April 18-19 when the new Russian offensive launched Phase 2, aimed at seizing the entirety of the Donbas. The coming days could indicate if Phase 3 of the war might already be underway; in which the Ukrainian counter-offensive results in Putin shifting his combat power from an offensive push west into the Donbas and transitioning into a defensive posture to protect Russia’s existing gains.

In a move that could very well signal the beginning of Phase 3, the Ukrainian General Staff publicly announced on May 5 that Ukrainian forces on both the Izyum and Kharkiv fronts were all transitioning from defense to offense. Phase 3 or not, this announcement serves as a major turning point in Ukrainian strategy. Until this point in the war, being stretched thin across multiple fronts and lacking air power, Ukrainian forces have only been successful with localized offensives with limited goals. Now for the first time, Ukrainian forces across a whole front are channeling their combat power on a broad arc, driving the Russians east, liberating multiple towns, while all operating under a singular strategic offensive.

Russia’s Kharkiv front lies on a separate axis from Isyum and serves purely as a flank to the Isyum axis from where the First Tank Army is advancing. Although the Ukrainian counter-offensive is important and may even unhinge the Russians northern flank and possibly cause them to abandon Kharkiv altogether, it does not however directly threaten the Isyum axis.

Ground Line of Communication (GLOC) is military terminology for the lifeline of a military force, including but not limited to its supply lines, reinforcements, and communications running back to its base. The maintenance and protection of one’s GLOC is essential to the success and even survival of a military force, and likewise severing an opponent’s GLOC could mean a quick victory or defeat, depending on the perspective.

Since Kharkiv and Isyum operate on separate axioms they do not share the same GLOC, which is why the Ukrainian counter-offensive pushing east of Kharkiv does not directly threaten the Isyum axis. With the Ukrainian counter-offensive gaining steam however, the battle progression would become very interesting if Ukrainian forces could amass sufficient combat power east of Kharkiv to pivot south and bisect the Isyum GLOC which runs southeast into Russia. If successful this would cut off the First Tank Army behind Ukrainian lines, leave them susceptible to encirclement, and end the northern offensive against the Donbas.

Analysis #6 introduced the use of Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) as a tool utilized by military intelligence agencies to determine the effect that losses have on a military force. At the time of Analysis #6 I detailed how the Russian military had reached its culminating point, that the Russians were no longer capable of achieving their goals either offensively or defensively under the existing plan, and that Russian armor had been “Destroyed” with greater than 30% loss in the first month of the campaign. Since then Russian command has vastly consolidated their forces entirely in eastern Ukraine and have slowed down their tempo of advance which has greatly reduced armor losses from an average of 12 tanks per day in Phase 1 to 5 per day during Phase 2.

Ukraine on the flip side might be the first army in history to actually have more tanks two months into a war than what they began with. This is attributed to two factors. First is the transfer of tanks to Ukraine by some eastern European NATO states, mostly in the form of Cold War era Soviet machines which the Ukrainians are very familiar with. Second and more substantial is the capture by Ukrainian forces of two hundred abandoned Russian tanks during Phase 1. In this first month of the war, Russian command was so incredibly disorganized that dozens of incidents occurred in which armored convoys ran out of gas, and with no relief in sight, their conscript crews simply “quit” and started walking home to Russia.

Considering the disparity in armor and with the momentum on the side of Ukraine, it is absolutely plausible that the Isyum GLOC could be threatened in the upcoming weeks. Currently the Ukrainian advance east of Kharkiv is going so well, that they are on track to reach the Russian border possibly within a week. In this scenario however, the danger escalates by the day that Putin may employ chemical or even nuclear weapons to stop the threat to the Isyum GLOC and ensure some type of “victory” to overshadow the embarrassing show that he and his military have put on display in Ukraine.

Ukrainian Intelligence predicted in early May, that Putin plans to declare war on Ukraine on May 9 at the annual Victory in Europe celebrations in Moscow. In doing so Putin will announce the general mobilization of the economy, call up reservists, and launch massive conscriptions of civilians into the armed forces. Since February Putin has ascribed the invasion as a “special military operation” to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, a half-baked cover for Putin’s overzealous revanchism, but without a declaration of war, his hands have been tied to bring to bear the full weight of Russian power.

Any observers of the May 9 celebrations can expect masterful propaganda, scores or patriotic Russian songs and slogans and even the invocation of scripture to justify the war. How long he can maintain this façade as he sends thousands of his young men to their deaths, plunges his economy into the depths of despair and wrecks his military beyond Russia’s ability to repair remains to be seen.

By Jeffrey Owens

Local History Writer