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Bakhmut and the limits of historical parallels

Historical parallels are often used by political actors in the present trying to mobilize the past for their own ends

EuropeWar Zones

Photo by the 93rd Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Army showing a destroyed Bakhmut during the winter of February 2023. Photo courtesy the Armed Forces of Ukraine/Facebook/Wikimedia Commons.

The media loves historical parallels. They can supercharge an argument through their suggestion that history might repeat itself. They are also emotionally evocative. Sometimes historical parallels provide a sort of comfort that things will work out as they did in a familiar historical example, or they might offer an apparent warning from the past that things shouldn’t be allowed to work out as they did back then.

The war in Ukraine has already drawn its fair share of parallels, the latest of which has been the comparison between the Ukrainian defence of Bakhmut and the Soviet defence of Stalingrad during the Second World War. Recently on Ukrainian television Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, Oleksiy Danilov, suggested that “Just as the fascists lost at Stalingrad, so the Russians will lose at Bakhmut.” Numerous Western journalists have also leapt on the comparison.

In the historical case the Red Army fought tenaciously in late 1942 to prevent the city of Stalingrad from falling to Germany and her allies, before a Red Army counteroffensive turned the tide of the fighting in the region and in some senses the European war as a whole. I can certainly see why both the Ukrainian government and a Western press cheering for Ukraine would decide to compare Bakhmut to Stalingrad—both for the positive connotations of the battle for ultimate Allied victory, and because there is superficial similarity between the historical case and the fighting for Bakhmut today.

The Stalingrad parallel has appeal for some very simple reasons beyond the heroism of many of the soldiers involved. Most simply, in the case of Stalingrad the fighting was taking place in a city—where almost any urban warfare seems to provoke Stalingrad parallels given how famous the Battle of Stalingrad has become of late, even in the West. Stalingrad, now Volgograd, certainly isn’t all that far from the current fighting, and of course the Battle of Stalingrad did involve both Russians and Ukrainians. However, comparing Ukrainian forces defending Bakhmut with the Soviet defence of Stalingrad is to ignore so many ways in which the current fighting differs from events just over 80 years ago.

First of all, in the Stalingrad case in 1942-1943 material and numerical superiority was, certainly by November 1942, very much on the side of the Soviet defenders. Ukrainian forces either in the Bakhmut region or overall don’t have such an advantage, and Russia has far greater potential to mobilize additional troops than Ukraine. As Ukraine’s army is ground down no likely quantity of Western tanks can make up for the possibility of running out of trained soldiers. That Ukrainian forces are taking heavy casualties in the fighting for Bakhmut is something that the Ukrainian government is keen to suppress, but the recent case of the testimony of a Ukrainian battalion commander, ‘Kupol,’ highlights how Ukrainian units involved are being bled white as their Russian counterparts are too.

The center of the city of Stalingrad after liberation from the German occupation, February 2, 1943. Photo courtesy RIA Novosti/Wikimedia Commons.

Secondly, in the case of Stalingrad the defenders did not face the sort of overwhelming superiority in firepower now by all accounts being faced by Ukrainian forces in the Bakhmut region. Indeed, it was the Red Army that typically had superiority in terms of artillery during the Soviet Union’s Great Patriotic War, and particularly as the war progressed. German artillery was often of better quality than Soviet (particularly in an indirect fire role) but far less numerous than on the Soviet side. Today’s Russian army has inherited a military in which artillery has a central role to play. At Stalingrad German forces were further hampered by the fact that they were at the end of extended supply lines—a situation that doesn’t really apply to either side in the current war in Ukraine unless one considers the fact that much Ukrainian equipment and many munitions have to come from as far as Western Europe or the United States.

I could go on pointing out significant weaknesses in drawing parallels between the Ukrainian defence of Bakhmut and the Soviet defence of Stalingrad, but will leave further comparison to my colleague Geoffrey Roberts in a recent piece he has written for Responsible Statecraft. Yes, there are similarities that resonate—not least the fact that taking or holding Bakhmut has become a deeply symbolic goal for both sides far out of proportion to its military significance. However, that doesn’t mean for example that the Russian side is fixated on Bakhmut in the way that Hitler was increasingly fixated on Stalingrad. If it was then Bakhmut might have already fallen by now.

While any parallel will be imperfect, as human beings we like to look for similarities between the past and present. The current fighting for Bakhmut certainly reminds me as much if not more of the fighting for Verdun during the First World War than Stalingrad, a parallel that unsurprisingly has been put forward in the French press. In that case French forces defending Verdun in 1916 were subjected to ferocious and concentrated German artillery bombardment that caused significant casualties for a defender who continued to pour troops into the cauldron rather than give it up. Although Verdun didn’t lead to French defeat—and German forces also suffered horrendous losses that they couldn’t afford to lose—the battle significantly weakened the French army. Fortunately for France and Britain—the allies fighting Germany on the First World War’s Western Front—hundreds of thousands of US troops would soon be on their way to Europe to reinforce the British and French. With nuclear weapons in the potential mix in Ukraine, the chances of the US army racing to save the beleaguered Ukrainians are slim (or at least we hope they are).

Historical parallels can sometimes be useful tools for helping us understand contemporary events, but they can also be useful tools in the sort of propaganda war that Western governments and the mainstream Western media are fighting in an effort to keep the war in Ukraine going. It is important to remember that the use of historical parallels is not about the past as some sort of benevolent actor talking to the present, but often about political actors in the present trying to mobilize the past for their own ends.

The fighting in and around Bakhmut won’t be another Stalingrad or Verdun, because what is taking place isn’t history repeating itself and nor can it be, even if we can find similarities between past and present. Nonetheless, on a very basic level the fighting for Bakhmut is similar to both Stalingrad and Verdun in that it is a battle of attrition in which many thousands are being killed and wounded—but where in the case of Bakhmut the many deaths and maimings being suffered by both sides are unlikely to change the ultimate outcome of a war that is likely to end in some sort of stalemate.

Professor Alexander Hill teaches at the University of Calgary, and is a leading expert on the military and political history of Russia and the Soviet Union since 1917.

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