‘We Are Heroes After All, Aren’t We?’*

Capture of a French regiment’s eagle by the cavalry of the Russian guard, by Bogdan Willewalde (1884)

Northern Flank: Austerlitz

2 December 1805

While Vandamme’s division dispersed the final remnants of IV Column from the plateau, Saint-Hilaire’s battle for control of the Pratzeberg still raged. At about 11.00am Langeron, still personally involved in the fighting, received word from adjutants despatched from IV Column, advising him with stark simplicity of the collapse of this force. Langeron ordered these messengers to pass on the shocking news to Buxhöwden, who remained inactive about a mile away on the hillock overlooking the Goldbach. Having been away from the rest of his command, fighting in Sokolnitz, for an hour and a half, and with no sign of help coming from Buxhöwden, Langeron realised he must find reinforcements himself. Leaving Kamenski to continue the fight, Langeron galloped off back to Sokolnitz.

At around the same time Weyrother, Kolowrat and Kutuzov approached the Pratzeberg, following the defeat of the other half of IV Column, doing their best to encourage the Austrian troops. Kutuzov, accompanied by a staff officer, Prince Dmitry Volkonsky, then reached Kamenski’s brigade just as it was in danger of being broken by a French attack, but Volkonsky rallied the Phanagoria Regiment by grasping their standard and leading them forward: order was again restored.

As Langeron headed off to find reinforcements, the Austrian battalions recovering from their attack on Thiébault’s line reformed within reach of Kamenski’s brigade. Their brigade commander, Jurczik, anchored his position on a small rise, where he concentrated some of his artillery. Major Mahler brought his battalion of IR49 Kerpen to the rise and drew the battalion of IR58 Beaulieu in to protect the flank. At the same time he moved two guns to a position from where they could enfilade the French line, which brought their fire to a halt for a while. Jurczik applauded his actions shouting, ‘Bravo! Major Mahler!’ Shortly afterwards Jurczik fell to the ground, fatally wounded by a French musket ball. He died two weeks later.

Once the Austrian battalions had recoiled from the French artillery, Thiébault joined his men with the rest of the division and together they attacked Kamenski’s brigade, driving them back and capturing a number of limbered Russian guns as well as retaking their own previously lost guns. Their impetus took them right to the summit of the Pratzeberg, and it was only with some difficulty that the officers managed to control the ardour of their men and halt the line. In fact, the infantry had now left their supporting artillery behind and with no word from Maréchal Soult or imperial headquarters, Saint-Hilaire felt his isolation keenly. Recognising the urgent need to drive the French off the plateau, and aware of their current exposed position, the Allies prepared to make:

‘a general and desperate attack at the point of the bayonet. The Austrian Brigade, with that under General Kamenski, charged the enemy; the Russians shouting, according to their usual custom; but the French received them with steadiness, and a well-supported fire, which made a dreadful carnage in the compact ranks of the Russians.’

But the Russians pressed on. Thiébault, close to the centre of the action, watched as the Russians:

‘charged on all sides, and while desperately disputing the ground, we were forced back. It was only by yielding before the more violent attacks that we maintained any alignment among our troops and saved our guns … Finally after an appalling melee, a melee of more than twenty minutes, we won a pause; by the sharpest fire and carried at the point of the bayonet.’

According to the notes kept by Thiébault, this ‘twenty minute bayonet battle’, claimed the lives of both Colonel Mazas, 14ème Ligne, and Thiébault’s ADC, Richebourg. Thiébault was fortunate to escape injury himself when his horse fell to a Russian shot. But as both sides recovered their breath, Général de division Saint-Hilaire rushed up to his brigade commanders, Thiébault and Morand, saying: ‘This is becoming intolerable, and I propose, gentlemen, that we take up a position to the rear which we can defend.’ Almost before he finished speaking, Colonel Pouzet of the 10ème Légère interrupted: ‘Withdraw us, my General … If we take a step back, we are lost. We have only one means of leaving here with honour, it is to put our heads down and attack all in front of us and, above all, not give our enemy time to count our numbers.’ Pouzet’s stirring words did the trick, and reinvigorated, the French clung tenaciously to the ground they held, repelling all Russian attacks.

While the Russians doggedly continued to attack, the Austrian battalions were being pressed back, despite the best efforts of Weyrother and Kolowrat. Having reformed close to a small rise, supported by their artillery, the battalions reformed and engaged the 36ème in a firefight, halting an enemy advance with volley fire. However, the French recovered and attacked again, driving IR58 Beaulieu back. Mahler attempted a counter-attack with his battalion of IR49 Kerpen and that of IR55 Reuss-Greitz but reported coming under ‘a very severe fire’ that caused many casualties. With his left flank now exposed to attack due to the repulse of IR58, his position was becoming extremely dangerous. However, he managed to keep his men together and prevented them from falling back for a while with the help of his adjutant, Fähnrich Jlljaschek. Moreover, by maintaining volley fire, he was able to remove his wounded safely to the rear.

But elsewhere, the Austrians were gradually being forced back. Mahler started the battle with only 312 men in his battalion and was now reduced to around eighty, through casualties and men lost as prisoners. There was little more his tiny force could achieve and as the battalion of IR55 on his flank began to retreat he ordered his men away down the eastern slopes of the plateau.

The odds were now stacked against Kamenski’s resolute brigade as more French troops approached the Pratzeberg. Released by Vandamme, the 43ème Ligne moved to rejoin Saint-Hilaire’s division and Boyé’s brigade of cavalry (5ème and 8ème Dragons) was also on its way to add their support. The weight of French numbers now began to tell on the Russian line. On his left, the threat of an attack on his open flank by the French dragoons forced Kamenski to wheel back the extreme left-hand battalion of the Ryazan Musketeers. Having soaked up all the preceding Russian attacks, Saint-Hilaire, judging that the time was right, ordered the French line forward, in what turned out to be the decisive charge. This time Kamenski’s men had little left to offer as the French poured forward over ‘ground strewn with the dead’, leaving no wounded Russians in their wake, capturing the Russian battalion artillery and retaking the highpoint of the Pratzeberg. Yet even in this moment of victory on the Pratzeberg the Russians inflicted another notable casualty: Saint-Hilaire was wounded and forced to retire to Puntowitz to have his wound dressed.

Having arrived back at Sokolnitz, Langeron sent for General Maior Olsufiev, who was fighting in the village and informed him of the need to send reinforcements to the plateau. The only troops immediately to hand were the two battalions of the Kursk Musketeers, held in reserve just outside Sokolnitz. With no time to lose, Langeron directed these to the plateau. He then attempted to extract his other battalions from the village but only succeeded in pulling back 8. Jäger and the Vyborg Musketeers. The remaining battalion of Kursk Musketeers and the Permsk Musketeer Regiment, now so completely entangled with III Column and its battle for the village, could not be withdrawn. But even as the two Kursk battalions began their march, unknown to them, they were marching to their destruction.

Kutuzov recognised that any further resistance by Kamenski’s brigade, after two hours fighting, would lead to their total destruction, so he ordered the retreat. Abandoning the plateau, they descended the south-eastern slopes to the valley of the Littawa, where they reformed. All along the valley other Allied units that had been driven off the plateau took up defensive positions or retreated to better ground. Before he left the plateau, Kutuzov despatched a hurried note to Buxhöwden, who still had not moved, ordering him to extract his three Columns from their bottleneck and retire. Soult’s two divisions were complete masters of the Pratzen Plateau, having swept away Allied IV Column along with Kamenski’s brigade of II Column by the sheer determination of their attacks. The time was probably around noon when, into this killing ground, marched the two lone battalions of the Kursk Musketeers, sent from Sokolnitz.

Believing the troops ahead of them to be Russian, they approached confidently but as they closed, Thiébault turned his exhausted men to face them and another firefight exploded. At the same time, Lavasseur’s brigade of Legrand’s division (IV Corps), which was occupying Kobelnitz, marched southwards presenting a possible flank threat to the Kursk battalions. To combat this move, the Podolsk Musketeers, part of III Column reserve, advanced to oppose them. Even without this intervention, the French troops on the Pratzeberg were in overwhelming numbers and soon began to surround the isolated Kursk battalions, who fought on for a while before collapsing amidst massive losses.

The victorious Thiébault, now mounted on his third horse – a small grey liberated from a captured Russian artillery limber – surveyed the destruction all around him. His own brigade had lost about a third of its strength, while another of his regimental commanders, Houdard de Lamotte of the 36ème Ligne, joined the growing list of wounded.

While this final struggle to clear the Allies from the Pratzen Plateau had reached its climax, elsewhere on the battlefield matters were also coming to a bloody conclusion.

Grand Duke Constantine, at the head of the Imperial Guard, had received no orders since a request arrived for him to send a battalion of infantry up onto the plateau. Since then his Guard Jäger had fallen back from Blasowitz, along with a supporting battalion of Semeyonovsk Guards. With only limited military experience, Constantine considered his options. To his right, masses of French infantry and cavalry were pressing aggressively towards Bagration, while to his left the Austrian cavalry, which had offered some protection on that flank, were withdrawing, having temporarily held back the advance of a massed infantry formation (Rivaud’s division of Bernadotte’s I Corps). Further to the left, up on the plateau, he could see that the French were driving back at least part of IV Column. Having surveyed the position, Constantine elected to pull back to his left rear (south-east), towards the Austrian cavalry and hopefully a junction with a reforming IV Column somewhere near Krzenowitz. At around 11.30am he turned his force, deploying the Guard Jäger as a flank guard.

In fact, he had not moved very far when he realised that the French troops previously held in check by the Austrian cavalry were now slowly advancing towards him. Up until now, Bernadotte had shown a marked reluctance to move forward since he crossed the stream at Jirschikowitz earlier that morning. Napoleon sent his aide, de Ségur, to ensure that Bernadotte carried out his orders, but the imperial messenger found the commander of I Corps agitated and anxious. Bernadotte indicated the Austrian cavalry to his front and bemoaned the fact that he had no cavalry of his own with which to oppose them, begging de Ségur to return to Napoleon and obtain some for him. De Ségur did as he requested but Napoleon had none to offer. However, now that the Austrian cavalry had withdrawn, Bernadotte cautiously advanced his corps, Rivaud edging slowing forward between the plateau and with Blasowitz to his left front, while Drouet led his division onto the lower slopes of the plateau in support of Vandamme.

Aware now of this forward movement, Constantine halted the Guard and faced them to confront this new threat. Behind him, the single bridge over the Rausnitz stream represented a very dangerous bottleneck. To gain time for his crossing, Constantine decided to strike a blow at the advancing French in an attempt to halt their advance. Forming the two Guard fusilier battalions from both the Preobrazhensk and Semeyonovsk Regiments for the attack, he held back the battalion of Izmailovsk Guards in reserve and organised the cavalry in a supporting role. Hohenlohe’s three Austrian cavalry regiments took up positions protecting the left and right rear of the Russian Guard: 5. Nassau-Kürassiere to the left with 1. Kaiser and 7. Lotheringen-Küirassiere to the right. The four battalions leading the attack advanced with much confidence, roaring ‘Oorah! Oorah! Oorah!’ and when still 300 paces from the opposing French line, they broke into a run that their officers were unable to control. Although facing a withering barrage of musketry, the Russian guardsmen did not halt and smashed straight through the first line of massed skirmishers, pushing them back onto a formed second line of infantry, which they attacked with the bayonet. These too gave way, but although elated with their success, the Russian attack ground to a halt and when French artillery opened up on them they began to fall back in disorder. But the threatening presence of the Russian Guard cavalry prevented any attempt at pursuit and kept Rivaud’s division firmly anchored to the spot.

Up on the plateau, Maréchal Soult studied the ground, now that Vandamme had cleared Miloradovitch’s men from his front. He noticed the movement of a large body of troops from high ground near Blasowitz towards the Rausnitz stream, imagining them some of Lannes’ men moving to cut off the Allied retreat, but then, near Krzenowitz they turned and headed west. The movement puzzled him and he ordered Vandamme to send a battalion out to the left flank of the division to observe it. Selecting 1/4ème Ligne, Vandamme sent their commanding officer, Major Auguste Bigarré, at their head to investigate, detailing his own ADC, Vincent, to accompany him. The undulations of the plateau hid the lower ground from view and Bigarré had advanced about 1,200 yards when Vincent, who preceded him with a few scouts, came galloping back and warned him of the presence of a large body of enemy cavalry. Bigarré instructed the battalion to move to its left and then returned with Vincent to see the enemy formation for himself. As he approached the vantage point, five squadrons of Russian cavalry began to accelerate towards his battalion that now moved into view. Bigarré and Vincent galloped back to the battalion and hurried it into square to receive the inescapable charge.

The Russian Guard cavalry had kept a watchful eye on their infantry as it fell back from the French lines, which presented a formidable obstacle to a cavalry attack. But then, descending from the plateau, a lone infantry battalion appeared. As the cavalry moved towards this tempting target, the battalion scrambled into square formation. The cavalry halted at what Bigarré described as long musket range, and instead of charging, unmasked a battery of six guns, which opened canister fire on the square, creating havoc in the packed ranks. Observing this from the high ground, Vandamme ordered the two battalions of 24ème Légère forward to support the 1/4ème, but they were too late, for the cavalry was already on the move.

Considering that the artillery had done enough damage to the square, two of the five squadrons of Horse Guards charged. The leading squadron rode into a hail of musketry and veered away, but the second squadron reached the square before the men had time to reload and smashed their way in, hacking and slashing at the infantry, who defended themselves furiously. The squadron swept right through the square, turned and rode back though it again.

Two previous bearers of the 1/4ème’s eagle standard already lay dead on the ground: now, gripped desperately by the battalion’s sergeant major, a soldier of twelve years’ experience named Saint-Cyr, it was under attack again. Three horsemen surrounded him and hacked it from his grasp leaving him with five sabre wounds to the head and right hand. By now the 1/4ème had collapsed and those still standing were fleeing back towards the plateau leaving about 200 dead and wounded on the ground. The two squadrons of Horse Guards retired eastwards to reform. Even before the battalion disintegrated, the 24ème Légère arrived, advancing in line. The remaining three Horse Guard squadrons spurred forward, and despite receiving a close range volley, smashed through the thin infantry line and sent them reeling backwards too. In the confusion and panic that followed, a soldier of the 1/4ème picked up a fallen eagle standard of 24ème Légère believing it to belong to his battalion and carried it to safety. It was now perhaps around noon as Napoleon arrived on the Pratzen Plateau to oversee the next moves.

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard (Galerie des Batailles, Versailles)

No sooner had he arrived than those accompanying him observed a great dark mass of men coming towards the plateau in some disorder. Maréchal Berthier commented, ‘what a splendid crowd of prisoners they are bringing back for you.’ But Napoleon was not so sure and ordered one of his aides, Général de brigade Jean Rapp, to investigate. Leading two squadrons of the Chasseurs à cheval of the Garde Impériale, supported by a squadron of the Grenadiers à cheval and a half squadron of the Mameluks, Rapp advanced down from the plateau towards the site of the Russian Guard cavalry attacks. As soon as he cleared the plateau he saw that:

The cavalry was in the midst of our squares and was cutting down our soldiers. A little to the rear we could see the masses of infantry and cavalry which formed the enemy reserve. The Russians broke contact and rushed against me, while four pieces of their horse artillery come up at the gallop and unlimbered. I advanced in good order, with brave Colonel Morland on my left, and [Chef d’Escadron] Dahlmann to my right. I told my men: “Over there you can see our brothers and friends being trodden underfoot. Avenge our comrades! Avenge our standards!”’

Rapp led his Guard cavalry straight towards the Russian Horse Guard squadrons that had just cut up 24ème Légère. The Russians, disordered by their attack on the infantry, turned away and galloped off after a brief struggle leaving the chasseurs à cheval to ride on into the ranks of the reforming Preobrazhensk and Semeyonovsk Guard battalions, as these infantrymen defended themselves with the bayonet. The French cavalry soon received support from the half squadron of Mameluks, who slashed their way into the ranks of the Preobrazhensk battalions, currently dispersed as skirmishers in the vineyards and already engaged with Rapp’s chasseurs. But now Rapp’s formations were disordered and Constantine took the opportunity to send in the leading three squadrons of the Russian Chevalier Garde to break their attack and free his beleaguered infantry. The charge met with success, causing Rapp to withdraw and reform while allowing the Russian battalions to draw back. But their respite was brief, as the rest of the French Garde Impériale cavalry now joined Rapp. The great cavalry battle – Imperial Guard against Imperial Guard – that followed is difficult to recount in much detail from the accounts that survive. Indeed one observer, Coignet, a soldier in the Grenadiers à Pied of Napoleon’s Guard, described how: ‘For a quarter of an hour there was a desperate struggle, and that quarter of an hour seemed to us an age. We could see nothing through the smoke and dust.’

The Russian Guard cavalry drawn from the Horse Guards, Chevalier Garde and Guard Cossacks mustered about 1,800 men – the Guard Hussars appear not to have become directly involved in the fighting. Against them the French Garde mustered about 1,100 men, from the Chasseurs à cheval, Grenadiers à cheval and Mameluks. Although short on numbers, the well-disciplined French cavalry were able to withdraw from the fighting and fall back on their nearest infantry formations, reorganise and re-enter the fray in formed bodies. The Russians did not have this luxury, as their own Guard infantry battalions were caught up in the mêlée and unable to fire for fear of shooting their own horsemen. It became clear that the French were gaining the upper hand and Russian casualties mounted alarmingly, particularly in the Chevalier Garde. In particular, the fourth squadron of this elite formation was all but destroyed – only eighteen men reputedly making good their escape – and its wounded commander, Prince Repnin-Volkonsky, captured and presented to Napoleon.

Russian reports claim that the Chevalier Garde lost sixteen officers, 200 men and 300 horses killed and wounded. The Guards battalions extracted themselves from the maelstrom and fell back on the support of the Izmailovsk battalion, then all continued back towards Krzenowitz. The battered Russian cavalry also broke off the engagement and fell back too, their retreat protected by the Guard Hussars who hovered threateningly to the north, and the stand made by Hohenlohe’s three Austrian cavalry regiments. The belated appearance above Krzenowitz of the three battalions of Russian Guard Grenadiers, numbering almost 2,000 men, but suggesting to the French the arrival of a new strong Russian formation, limited any further significant advance in this direction.

While the great cavalry battle to their front delayed Rivaud’s movements further, Drouet had finally led his division up onto the plateau to the rear of Vandamme. The retreating battalion of 4ème Ligne, which had fled back onto the plateau and streamed past Napoleon without stopping, eventually rallied when they rejoined Vandamme’s division, and despite their recent traumas, took an active part in the latter stages of the battle, unaware they had lost an eagle.

With the Pratzen Plateau secured by the gradual arrival of Bernadotte’s corps, Napoleon turned his back on the northern flank. It was now clear that his grand plan to swing Lannes and Murat unopposed into the rear of the Austro-Russian army had failed, but it was also clear that the attacks by Saint-Hilaire and Vandamme had split the Allied army in two. Leaving Lannes and Murat to drive Bagration back, Napoleon issued new orders that he hoped would lead to the destruction of the left wing of the Allied army, which still remained locked in the Goldbach valley.

On the extreme right of the Allied line, General Maior Prince Bagration, like Constantine, received no fresh instructions from army headquarters. His original orders, which he viewed with little enthusiasm, required him to hold his position until, becoming aware of progress by the Allied left wing, he was to advance directly ahead and, initially, capture the Santon. Accordingly, he had pushed forward at about 10.00am but encountered extremely strong and determined opposition from Lannes’ V Corps and Murat’s cavalry. His attempt on the Santon had failed and now the French cavalry had pushed his own horsemen back after a series of ferocious mêlées. The French had secured the village of Blasowitz and the Russian Imperial Guard appeared to be moving further away, cutting his last tenuous link with the rest of the army. Bagration abandoned any offensive plans and looked to the preservation of his command.

With the Russian cavalry driven back behind their infantry to reform once more, Lannes ordered his two infantry divisions forward: Suchet on the left, Caffarelli on the right. In the face of this advancing wall of infantry, Bagration ordered all eighteen guns of his battalion artillery to open fire, along with twelve from a horse artillery battery. The brunt of this bombardment fell on the 34ème and 40ème Ligne of Suchet’s division and 30ème Ligne from Caffarelli’s, while also mortally wounding GB Valhubert, who commanded a brigade in Suchet’s second line.

With the French infantry brought to a halt by this concentrated firepower, Lannes drew all his available artillery together and focused on knocking out the Russian guns. The more powerful French artillery came out on top in this duel and after a deadly exchange, the Russian horse battery was forced to withdraw with mounting casualties, leaving just the Russian battalion guns to support the infantry against the increasing threat. Lannes pushed his infantry on once more but now Suchet’s division became the target for a series of desperate cavalry charges by Bagration’s reformed horsemen.

However, assailed by musketry, canister fire and then French cavalry countercharges, all they could manage was to slow this advance. Caffarelli’s division, operating south of the Brünn-Olmütz road, encountered less opposition and pushed ahead of Suchet’s men to threaten Bagration’s left flank, secured on the villages of Krug and Holubitz. In fact, the garrison of these villages was not strong, both defended by the men of 6. Jäger under General Maior Ulanius – who had already suffered considerably at Schöngrabern – with recovering cavalry formations to their rear. Sometime around noon, GB Demont’s brigade (17ème and 30ème Ligne) and part of Général de brigade Debilly’s brigade (61ème Ligne), advanced determinedly against the two villages.

Up until now the jäger had managed to repulse any French cavalry showing an interest in their position, but heavily outnumbered by Caffarelli’s infantry – and despite an initial stout resistance – French troops drove 6. Jäger out at the point of the bayonet. However, despite a lack of support, Ulanius did manage to extricate some of his men and reach safety.

With the villages of Krug and Holubitz now in French hands, Caffarelli redirected 17ème and 30ème Ligne against the left flank of Bagration’s threatened line. To oppose them the Russian commander sent his reserve infantry, the Arkhangelogord Musketeer Regiment, commanded by General Maior Nikolai Kamenski II. Although the French and Russian infantry were fairly evenly matched, the French were always able to bring up supporting cavalry and artillery to disrupt the Russian lines whenever their own infantry fell back to reform for a fresh assault. At times the Arkhangelogord Musketeers were under attack from all sides, and at one point faced a charge by d’Hautpoul’s 5ème Cuirassier, suffering horrendous casualties in the process. This regiment, which marched into battle with about 2,000 men, later showed losses of 1,625. Kamenski II had his horse shot from under him and only escaped capture when another officer gave up his own mount.

With Suchet’s division pressing him more and more from the front, Caffarelli making inroads on his left flank and Murat’s cavalry ready to exploit any opportunity, Bagration gave the order to retreat. Despite constant French cavalry attacks, the Russian infantry held together, supported by self-sacrificing charges by the exhausted Russian horsemen, and fell back steadily, abandoning the road to Austerlitz and reoccupying the high ground north of the Posoritz post house. However, this constant pressure eventually caused a split and the Russian cavalry of V Column, commanded by General-Adjutant Uvarov broke away. In his report Uvarov wrote:

‘we continued to fight with fervour, from which the losses on both sides were substantial. At the same time artillery and infantry of the enemy, moving on my flanks, opened such a fire that even with all the courage of the regiments which were under my command, we had to retreat across the river situated behind us.

Podpolkovnik Ermolov of the horse artillery recalled the confusion that then prevailed:

‘Our losses multiplied even more when the men crowded together at the very boggy stream, over which there were very few bridges, and it was not possible to cross it in any other way than via a bridge. Here our fleeing cavalry plunged in wading, and a lot of men and horses drowned, while I, abandoned by the regiments to which I was assigned, stopped my battery, attempting by the means of a short range action to stop the cavalry pursuing us. The first pieces of ordnance that I was able to release from the press of our own cavalry, making several shots, were captured, my men were cut down and I was captured as a prisoner. The division of General-Adjutant Uvarov, crowding at the bridge, had the time to look around and see that it was running away from a force small in number and that the majority of the forces were concentrated on the heights and were not coming down into the valley. Those who pursued us were then forced to retreat and exterminated, and my freedom was returned to me shortly, when I was already close to the French line.’

When Ermolov returned and crossed the Rausnitz stream he found Uvarov’s command still in great disarray at the foot of the hill held by the Russian Guard Grenadiers. With them now stood the tsar, prompting Ermolov to observe that ‘there were no confidants present, on his face there was a look of supreme grief, and his eyes were filled with tears.’

Bagration continued his withdrawal in the face of ceaseless French cavalry attacks and artillery bombardment, drawing back across the Brünn-Olmütz road onto high ground overlooking it between Welleschowitz and Rausnitz. The Pavlograd Hussars suffered at the hands of the French cavalry as they protected this final move, but their sacrifice gained enough time for Bagration to take up this new position. Lannes and Murat now advanced to occupy the position abandoned by Bagration north of the Posoritz post house and found themselves in possession of row upon row of Russian knapsacks. It was the habit of the Russian soldier to take off his knapsack before entering battle to allow more freedom of movement, leaving behind him all his meagre personal belongings. But if the French soldiers expected to find luxuries and warm clothing they were disappointed. Captaine Lejeune, Berthier’s ADC, reported that each bag contained only:

‘triptych reliquaries, each containing an image of St Christopher carrying the infant Saviour over the water, with an equal number of pieces of black bread containing a good deal more straw and bran than barley or wheat. Such was the sacred and simple baggage of the Russians!’

Bagration must have been wondering just how long he could continue to hold his force together against these constant French attacks when help arrived. Advancing down the road from Olmütz with all speed appeared an Austrian artillery officer, Major Frierenberger, at the head of a column of twelve guns. As he came level with Welleschowitz he turned off and positioned his guns on the high ground rising to the north of the road. The official Austrian account of the incident continues the story:

‘The army he faced was a victorious one. It had deployed at the Posoritz post house, and was now in full advance, firing with its powerful artillery against whatever Russian troops and batteries came into view. The Austrian battery now opened up in its turn against the main battery of the French and their leading troops. The Austrians shot with such extraordinary skill that they compelled the enemy to pull back their batteries in a matter of minutes. Some of the hostile pieces were silenced altogether, and the advance of the whole French left wing was held back.’

The battle on the northern flank now ground to a halt. Lannes and Murat had expected an almost unopposed advance but became embroiled in a lengthy and costly duel that had lasted almost three hours. In the face of the resolute defence now offered by these fresh Austrian guns, with their own ammunition supplies almost completely expended and their cavalry exhausted, the two corps forming the French left wing halted, and like Bernadotte’s I Corps, awaited developments elsewhere on the battlefield.

Granted this unexpected respite, the survivors of Bagration’s Army Advance Guard and to the south, IV and V Columns, and the Russian Guard, did what they could to instil some sense of order in their greatly depleted ranks. These latter formations nervously occupied the eastern bank of the Rausnitz stream, anticipating a renewed French assault at any moment, but it never came. Napoleon saw a greater prize elsewhere.

* Captured Russian cavalry officer to Lieutenant Octave Levasseur, of the French horse artillery, 2 December 1805.


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The Mi-8/17 flying hospital is designed to offer medical assistance in remote and hard-to-access regions. Special on-board equipment provides life support and first aid to patients during the journey to hospital. Special sheeting used inside the cabin can be disinfected quickly and to high medical standards.

The firefighting model is designed to tackle blazes using a helicopter bucket on an external sling, which can deliver up to 4,000 litres of water and target the burn zone with a high degree of accuracy. The helicopter can also deliver firefighting crews and special equipment to firefighting areas.

Mi-8/17 helicopters are built at Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant and the Kazan Helicopters, both Russian Helicopters companies. More than 12,000 Mi-8/17 helicopters have been produced to date – a record for twin-engine helicopters anywhere in the world. They have been supplied to more than 100 countries worldwide and racked up total flying time of about 100 million hours.

The following models are currently in production: Mi-8AMT, Mi-8MTV-1, Mi-171, Mi-171A1 and Mi-172. 


On June 9, 1961, the first Mi-8 Hip prototype, with a single AI-24V turboshaft and four-bladed main rotor system, lifted off for its maiden flight. On September 17, 1962, the Hip B, modified with two TV2-117 1,482-horsepower turboshafts mounted atop the fuselage, and a five-bladed main rotor system measuring 70 feet in diameter, took flight. The Mi-8 went into full production in 1965, and by 2000 fifty-four countries operated the more than 10,000 Mi-8s manufactured by the Rostov and Kazan production facilities in Russia and by foreign licensees. Designed as a medium-lift transport helicopter, the Hip, in its many variants, fulfilled a miscellany of mission requirements, including troop and cargo transportation, air ambulance, attack helicopter, airborne command post, fire fighter, and civilian carrier.

Constructed of light alloys, the Hip featured a “bus-shaped” fuselage with a rounded nose and glassed-in cockpit that accommodated a pilot, copilot, and flight engineer. The cabin housed twenty-four passengers, 8,800 pounds of cargo, or twelve stretchers. A large sliding door on the forward port side and rear-opening clamshell doors simplified loading large cargo. Removable interior seats and an internal winch capable of lifting 350 pounds that doubled as a rescue hoist facilitated cargo handling. Additionally, Mil equipped the aircraft with a cargo hook capable of carrying slingloads up to 6,500 pounds. A long tailboom extended from the upper portion of the fuselage and swept up to a tapered vertical fin that housed the gearbox and tailrotor, attached to the left side (right on the export versions).

External racks attached along the center of the 61-foot fuselage were designed to hold auxiliary fuel pods or weapons systems. Variants of the Hip carried a combination of 57-mm or 80-mm rockets, AT-2 Swatter or AT-3 Sagger ATGMs, 12.7- or 23-mm gun pods, or either 4  500-pound or 2  1,000-pound bombs. In 1967, Mil introduced the Hip E and F ground support helicopters, each mounting a flexible 12.7-mm heavy machine gun under the nose and carrying 192 57-mm rockets. Combat troops could also fire their individual weapons from the windows of the helicopter. In later models Mil installed the upgraded Isotov TV2-117A engines, which produced 1,700 horsepower each. Generally a Hip cruised at 122 knots, had a service ceiling of 14,700 feet, and hovered Out of Ground Effect (OGE) at 2,600 feet. All Mi-8s rested on a fixed tricycle landing gear, with dual wheels at the nose. Total production estimates ran as high as 15,000 units of the Mi-8 and its export version, the Mi-17.

Designed to replace Mi-4, first flown in June 1961; used by Soviet and Russian forces and Aeroflot. Military versions denoted by round windows and armed with machine guns and 57-mm rockets. Later version designed and equipped for ECM operations. Introduced in August 1975, Mi-17 employed Mi-8 fuselage and Mi-14 engines; latest version with upgraded engines is Mi-17 Hip H.

More than 10,000 of all variants manufactured.

Specifications (Mil-17-1A2)

General characteristics

    Crew: 3 (two pilots and one engineer)

    Capacity: 24 troops / 12 stretchers / 4,000 kg (8,818 lb) cargo internally / 5,000 kg (11,023 lb) externally slung.

    Length: 18.465 m (60 ft 7 in)

    Height: 21.25 m (69 ft 9 in)

    Empty weight: 7,489 kg (16,510 lb)

    Gross weight: 11,100 kg (24,471 lb)

    Max takeoff weight: 13,000 kg (28,660 lb) normal

                13,500 kg (29,762 lb) with under-slung load

    Powerplant: 2 × Klimov VK-2500PS-03 turboshaft engines, 1,800 kW (2,400 hp) each for take-off

                2,000 kW (2,700 hp) emergency rating

    Main rotor diameter: 21.25 m (69 ft 9 in)

    Main rotor area: 354.7 m2 (3,818 sq ft)

    Blade section:NACA 23012[157]


    Maximum speed: 280 km/h (170 mph, 150 kn)

    Cruise speed: 260 km/h (160 mph, 140 kn)

    Range: 800 km (500 mi, 430 nmi)

    Service ceiling: 6,000 m (20,000 ft)

    Hover ceiling OGE: 4,000 m (13,123 ft)

    Rate of climb: 8 m/s (1,600 ft/min)


    up to 1,500 kg (3,307 lb) of disposable stores on six hardpoints, including bombs, rockets and gunpods.

Mi-8 / Mi-17 Hip Multimission Helicopter

End of the Crimean War 1855

Floating Batteries at the Capture of Kinburn.

Having driven Gorchakov’s army out of the south side of Sevastopol the allied commanders were at a loss about what should be done next. The battle had been expensive in soldiers’ lives, ammunition and resources; so much so that it was difficult to avoid a general feeling that they had justified their presence in the Crimea by taking the city whose capture had eluded them for a year. This was particularly true in the French camp where there were smiles and congratulations all round. Pélissier was given a marshal’s baton and, much to the irritation of the British, was appointed a mushir, or commander-in-chief, by the Sultan; Bruat was promoted to full admiral (but did not live long to enjoy the pleasure as he died at sea two months later) and Simpson was awarded the Légion d’Honneur. Even the much-reviled telegraph came into its own on 12 September when Pélissier received the thanks of a grateful emperor: ‘Honneur à vous! Honneur à votre brave armée! Faites à tous mes sincères félicitations.’ (‘All honour to you. Honour to your brave army. I send to you all my sincere congratulations.’)

At home in Paris there were sonorous celebrations allied to a sense of relief; a Te Deum was celebrated in Notre Dame, which had been decorated with the flags of the allied powers. Sevastopol had fallen and in many people’s minds the victory and the part played by Pélissier’s men symbolised a rebirth of French military might. For a few happy hours 1812 became just another dusty date in a long-forgotten history and it seemed possible that Sevastopol was but a springboard for even greater successes against the Russians. Two weeks after Sevastopol fell Rose sent a thoughtful despatch to Clarendon which captured the mood in the French camp:

After 1815 the spirit of the French Army was lowered by a succession of reverses. The successes in Algiers against Barbarians, without artillery, were not sufficient to restore them the prestige they once enjoyed.

But the share of successes which the French Army have had in conquering a Military European Power of the first order, in battles on the field, and in the Siege of a peculiarly strong and invested Fortress, a Siege without many parallels in History, have not only improved, very much, the experiences and military qualifications of the Officers and men of the French Army, but have raised their military feeling and confidence.

To capitalise on that effect Napoleon insisted that the war must continue and that Russia must be humbled before there could be any peace settlement. Not only would that process isolate Russia from Europe but it would also restore France as a major power and destroy for ever the settlement of 1815. It might even be possible to realise Napoleon’s dream of rebuilding the kingdom of Poland and placing his cousin on its throne.

There was much to recommend this way of thinking. France had been left exhausted by the Napoleonic wars and the nation itself had been humbled, its frontiers reduced to those of 1789. Napoleon III certainly believed that he had a mission to restore his country’s fortunes by continuing the war, but he was already swimming against a tide of growing disapproval with the war. While his fellow countrymen had been happy and relieved to celebrate the fall of Sevastopol it could not be denied that the victory had been won at a cost. The casualties seemed to be disproportionate to any diplomatic or strategic gain and the need to keep the forces supplied for another winter was a strain on an already overloaded exchequer. France simply did not have the resources to continue the war and was unable to match the expenditure lavished on it by her British allies. London’s well-filled purse was one very good reason why Napoleon was so desperate to keep the cross-Channel alliance in being.

He had little difficulty in persuading his allies to be assertive. Palmerston remained as bellicose as ever and, together with Clarendon, warned colleagues that the war was far from being over and might last another two or three years. Their message was clear and unwavering: Britain’s war aims would not be altered and there could be no negotiated peace until Russia had been defeated. To achieve that goal Palmerston still thought that it would be possible to construct a grand European alliance similar to the coalition which had defeated Napoleon forty years earlier. As he told Clarendon on 9 October, ‘Russia has not yet been beat enough to make peace possible at the present moment.’ Military pride was also at stake. Palmerston had refused permission for the church bells to be rung in celebration of the recent victory as it was all too evident that British troops had not distinguished themselves in the fighting.

The Turks were keen to see the allies continue the war in the Crimea as this would allow them to open operations in Asia Minor and to that end they insisted that Omar Pasha be allowed to withdraw his army from the Crimea. Russia, too, was adamant that the war was far from over. ‘Sevastopol is not Moscow, the Crimea is not Russia,’ said Alexander II in a proclamation to Gorchakov shortly after the fall of Sevastopol. ‘Two years after we set fire to Moscow, our troops marched in the streets of Paris. We are still the same Russians and God is still with us.’ In military terms the Russian commander had merely made a tactical retreat into a new position which would continue to pose problems to the allies. The tsar also guessed correctly that his enemies had no intention of marching into Russia and that unless Gorchakov were defeated stalemate had returned to the Crimean peninsula. Given that unassailable position, the allies’ only hope of inflicting a decisive defeat seemed to lie in the Baltic; Dundas’s destruction of Sveaborg having given rise to hopes that a similar campaign in the spring of 1856 could crush Kronstadt and leave St Petersburg open to attack by sea and land forces. It was an idea which would exercise the minds of allied planners throughout the winter.

None the less, the continuing public bellicosity could not disguise the fact that there was also a growing desire for peace, especially in France, where Count Walewski, Drouyn de Lhuys’s replacement as foreign secretary, was playing a somewhat different game. An illegitimate son of Napoleon Bonaparte, he was considered by Cowley to be an intellectual lightweight who was too close to the emperor’s pro-Russian half-brother, the Duc de Morny, and therefore not to be trusted. To Clarendon he was a parvenu, ‘a low-minded strolling player’ whose ‘view of moral obligation’ was always ‘subservient to his interests or his vanity’. Palmerston shared that opinion and added the thought that if anything were to happen to the emperor there would be no shortage of French politicians of Walewski’s ilk who would be prepared to sue for peace with the Russians.

There were grounds for these fears. Although Cowley and Clarendon, the British statesmen most directly involved, never lost their suspicions about those who served the emperor – based largely on social snobbery, it must be admitted – they were right to pay close attention to the new French foreign secretary, Walewski. At a time when the allies were attempting to maintain a common front and continue the war he was in secret negotiation with the Russians through the Duc de Morny and a shadowy figure called Baron Hukeren, the adopted son of the Dutch ambassador in Paris, whom Cowley described as ‘among the numerous speculating and political intriguers that abound in the capital’. Initially, Napoleon seems not to have known that covert peace feelers were being made but by October he had given them tacit approval. These were conducted on two fronts: through his friendship with Prince Gorchakov, the duke made it known that France was ready for peace while a similar message was passed by Walewski to Nesselrode’s daughter who was married to the Saxon ambassador in Paris, Baron von Seebach. At the same time the Russian ambassador in Berlin, Baron Budberg, alerted the Prussian government that the tsar was ready to reopen negotiations. While, in themselves, these clandestine talks did not lead to the reopening of peace talks, they at least helped to pave the way.

Meanwhile, as had happened earlier in the year when the Vienna conference seemed to hold out the hope of a cessation of hostilities, the British and French governments urged their commanders in the Crimea to continue the campaign. Having told Simpson that from the Queen’s palace to humblest cottage British hearts were beating with pride at ‘this long looked-for success’, Panmure turned to sterner matters:

The consequences of this event upon the morale of the Russian Army must be very great, and I trust that in concert with Marshal Pélissier you have devised means to take advantage of them and to give the enemy no rest till his overthrow is completed.

In order to keep this object properly in view you must not suffer your mind to rest upon any expectation of peace; your duty as a General is to keep your Army in the best condition for offence and to turn your attention to all the means in your power for so doing.

There was considerable mortification that the victory had not been followed up with a further attack on the Russian position and Panmure told Simpson that there were to be no celebrations in the army until Russia had been finally defeated. A succession of despatches from London attempted to goad the British commander into action but without success. Simpson simply reiterated his and the French belief that it would be folly to attack the Russian positions and he remained unmoved by an unhelpful suggestion that he should think of ‘applying a hot poker’ to make Pélissier do something positive. The impasse was broken on 26 September when Panmure sent a peremptory telegram to the British commander demanding action:

The public are getting impatient to know what the Russians are about. The Government desire immediately to be informed whether either you or Pélissier have taken any steps whatever to ascertain this, and further they observe that nearly 3 weeks have elapsed in absolute idleness. This cannot go on and in justice to yourself and your army you must prevent it. Answer this on receipt.

From the evidence of the correspondence between the two men it is difficult to know what Panmure wanted to achieve from this telegraphic despatch. That he was anxious to hear Simpson play a more martial tune was beyond doubt, yet the commander’s own letters betray a worrying timorousness that was not to be cured by Panmure’s mixture of threats and cajoling. In one letter he would chide Simpson for playing second fiddle to the French and insist on action, ending the despatch with an order that the British soldiers were not to be given spirits before going on sentry duty; in another he would reflect on the pleasure of discussing the campaign at some future date over a bottle of claret. However, his latest despatch had one obvious effect: the man who had gone out to the Crimea with no other thought than to report on Raglan, finally admitted that high command was too great a burden to bear. Two days later Simpson telegraphed his resignation, explaining that he could not remain in command while facing sustained criticism, and his offer to stand down was quickly accepted.

As Codrington was the designated successor, it should have been an easy matter to confirm his promotion, but during the final assault on Sevastopol Codrington seemed to have lost his nerve – Newcastle was particularly withering in his criticism – and renewed thought was given to the command of the army in the Crimea. Once again the candidates’ claims were examined and during the hiatus, which lasted three weeks, Panmure was forced to address his orders simply to the British Headquarters in the Crimea. Despite doubts about his abilities Codrington was confirmed in command on 15 October but did not take over the office until a few weeks later: more than any other attribute, his ability to speak fluent French and his easy social skills seem to have counted in his favour. To soften the blow to the other commanders, on 10 December the army was divided into two corps, command of each going to Campbell and Eyre.

By then the British Army was in a much better position than in the previous year and relatively well equipped to face another winter. Each soldier had been given a new hard weather uniform consisting of two woollen jerseys, two pairs of woollen drawers, two pairs of woollen socks, two pairs of long stockings, one cholera belt, one comforter, a pair of gloves, a fur cap, greatcoat and waterproof cape. At Panmure’s insistence – he was a great stickler for detail – each man was also given, and ordered to use, a tin of Onion’s Drubbing, a new patented waterproof treatment for boots; and on 7 December four hundred field stoves specially designed by Alexis Soyer arrived at Balaklava. As an aid for observing the enemy in forward positions the army was supplied with a thousand trench telescopes of the kind which would be used in the First World War ‘for looking at objects without exposing the viewer’.

With better conditions, the supply problems having been largely solved, the army’s morale improved. Before winter settled in there were race meetings and hurriedly improvised shoots for the officers and theatricals for the men. Despite Panmure’s exhortations about keeping drunkenness at bay the independently owned canteens at Kadikoi did brisk business and, with the Russians content to keep their distance, the miseries of the last winter’s discomforts in the trenches were soon forgotten. By contrast it was now the turn of the French to suffer. Cholera followed by typhus ran through their camp and, added to a general air of disaffection, there were calls from the veterans of the fighting to be sent home. As the casualties from illness began to mount these demands were met: on 13 November Rose reported that the French Imperial Guards regiments were to be withdrawn and that eight line infantry regiments were to return to Algeria. Despite promises to the contrary, these were not to be replaced.

Before the armies went into winter quarters at the beginning of November, the British in good spirits, the French in as sorry as state as their allies had been in the previous season, there were two noteworthy attacks on the Russians. Having despatched part of their cavalry to Eupatoria, French units led by General D’Alonville attacked a larger Russian force on 20 October and succeeded in compelling it to withdraw with the loss of many casualties. However, D’Alonville chose not to follow up the success, other than to continue the harassment of Russian stragglers, because, according to Rose, the French chief of staff, General de Martimprey, had ordered his subordinate commanders to rein in any propensity for offensive activities:

I again perceived that he was opposed to any hostile operation against the enemy on a large scale. But whether he entertains this opinion because he thinks that the Enemy will leave the Crimea, without being forced to do [sic], or because he is of the conviction, which he lately expressed, that negotiations in the winter will bring about a peace, I know not.

The other operation was far more aggressive and it was destined to be the last blow struck by the allies during the war. It was also the most successful, a combined forces’ attack on the Fort Kinburn, a heavily defended Russian position which covered the confluence of the Rivers Bug and Dnieper. The brainchild of Lyons, it made full use of three newly developed French armoured steam batteries which, together with the allied gunboats and battleships, battered the fortress into submission. The French played a full role by committing 6000 men to the infantry force of 10,000, command of which was awarded to General Bazaine, as well as three battleships and a number of gunboats, although it remained unclear if Pélissier’s enthusiasm for the assault was governed more by a succession of orders from Paris or by his newly developed infatuation with Bazaine’s wife, Soledad. During Bazaine’s absence, Pélissier’s coach, captured from the Russians, was to be seen each day outside Soledad’s quarters. It was not the only romance thrown up by the war: Canrobert had fallen for the daughter of Colonel Strangways, the British gunner commander killed at Inkerman, but as with Pélissier’s fondness for Bazaine’s wife nothing came of the wartime dalliance.

The attack on Kinburn, though, was a complete success. On 16 October the infantry and marine forces made an unopposed landing on the Kinburn peninsula to cut off the fortress from reinforcements and to attack the garrison should it decide to retire. The following day, having advanced under cover of darkness, the allied fleet commenced a heavy bombardment, using tactics similar to those employed at Sveaborg a month earlier. Having been infiltrated into the bay in front of the fortress the gunboats and steam batteries were able to produce a sustained bombardment which quickly silenced the Russian guns. Then the allied battleships steamed into line to fire an equally heavy succession of broadsides which left the garrison with no option but to surrender. The way was open to strike inland but Bazaine called a halt to the operation once the forts and Kinburn and Ochakov (on the other side of the estuary) had surrendered. Following the destruction of Sveaborg, the successful outcome of the Kinburn operation demonstrated that the allies now had the naval capacity to attack and defeat Russia’s hitherto impregnable sea-fortresses.

As winter set in other activities included a reconnaissance of the Baider valley to ascertain whether or not an attack on the Russian positions at Simpheropol would yield results. Napoleon thought so but the French-led scouting party reported back that the Russians were entrenched on the high ground and that any attack would only result in unacceptable casualties. That fear lay at the heart of the allied command’s thinking. With the fall of Sevastopol, France had recovered her honour and, just as importantly, her right to sit at the high table when European matters were being discussed. Pélissier did not want to pursue the war against the Russians and by the middle of October he had come to the opinion that the allied army in the Crimea should be reduced by almost half to 70,000 and that it should take up defensive positions on the Chersonese peninsula.

His thinking chimed in with the mood at home where the war was now decidedly unpopular. On 22 October Cowley reported a conversation with the emperor in which Napoleon argued that the war had become an expensive anachronism and that the presence of the allied armies would not encourage Russia to negotiate. That could only be achieved by diplomatic means. As evidence, he produced a report from Pélissier in which the marshal claimed that there was nothing for the allies to conquer in southern Russia – ‘sterile plains which the Russians will abandon after some battles in which they will lose a few thousand men, a loss which causes them no decisive damage, whilst at every step the Allies with a great sacrifice of men and money and with nothing to gain will risk each day the destinies of Europe’.


Just as the Crimean crisis began to ebb, attention shifted to Ukraine’s south-east. The Crimean events provoked what is sometimes called the ‘Russian spring’, an outburst of Russian self-expression in Ukraine, but just like the ‘Arab Spring’, it soon turned into the deepest midwinter. On 1 March a 7,000-strong crowd gathered in the central square in Donetsk carrying Russian flags and the flag of a hitherto unknown organisation known as the ‘Donetsk Republic’. There were further demonstrations across cities in eastern Ukraine, warning against attack by radical nationalists from Kiev but more immediately fearing that their language and other rights would be abrogated. The movement was fired by alarmist reports in the Russian and regional media, which for weeks had been condemning the radicalisation of the Maidan. The protests, with justification, were suspected of being sponsored in part by Yanukovych, especially since his network of mayors and officialdom remained in place, yet it also had deep local roots. While the degree of separatist feeling in the region is contested, the rebellion gradually turned into a full-scale war. Ukraine’s domestic contradictions have been internationalised, with Russia supporting the insurgents on the one side, while the Western powers have lined up in support of the Ukrainian authorities. Instead of snatching Crimea and withdrawing to allow the storm to pass, Russia has been sucked into a new and far more intense conflict, drawing upon it the wrath of the West.


The ‘other’ Ukraine sought to be part of the dialogue about what it means to be Ukrainian. A poll by the Pew Research Center in May 2014 found that 70 per cent of eastern Ukrainians wanted to keep the country intact, including 58 per cent of Russian-speakers, although they expressed plenty of grievances against Kiev, including the over-centralised state that took all tax revenues before redistributing them to the regions. Both Donetsk and Lugansk were heavily subsidised by Kiev, receiving far more from the budget than they contributed, to keep the loss-making mines and mills working. Nevertheless, the Donbas represented the country’s economic powerhouse, accounting for 16 per cent of GDP and 27 per cent of industrial production.

Above all, some 60 per cent of Donetsk residents feared ‘Banderovtsy’ and 50 per cent dreaded the Kiev authorities, while 71 per cent of Donetsk and 60 per cent of Lugansk residents believed that the Maidan events represented an armed coup organised by the opposition and the West. Majorities in other regions in the south-east agreed that the protests were an uprising ‘against the corruption and tyranny of the Yanukovych dictatorship’. Gessen describes how one future rebel in the east was shocked to see how

young men in masks and the insignia of old Ukrainian fascist movements attacked riot police [in the Maidan] – some of them from the Donetsk area – with Molotov cocktails. He saw governors in the western provinces pulled out of their offices and roughed up by furious crowds. It seemed that the country was descending into chaos. When he heard a rumour that some of the young men from Maidan were headed for Donetsk, he believed it.

Any simplistic division of the country into a nationalistic west, a ‘pro-Russian’ east and a patriotic centre does not begin to capture the complex pattern of responses to the breakdown of Ukrainian statehood. What is clear is that a new relationship was required with the Donbas, but it was not forthcoming. The Ukrainian parliament’s attempt to remove Russian as a second regional language was blocked, but the damage was done. As one respondent noted: ‘Is there any other country on earth where a language understood by 100% of the population is not a language of state?’

A grass-roots protest movement welled up throughout March 2014, clearly enjoying popular support. Whereas the Maidan protesters were ‘middle class and nationalistic’, the anti-Maidan movement in the Donbas was ‘lower class and anti-oligarchic (and Russian nationalist)’. When the acting minister of the interior, Avakov, visited Donetsk in mid-March, ‘he met with civic leaders, but most of all he met with the football ultras, and demanded that they arm themselves and prepare for battle against the pro-Russian forces in the city’. The ultras are hard-core football fans whose far-right views and violent hooliganism were now turned in support of the Kiev regime, as was seen in Odessa on 2 May, and their terrace chant of ‘Putin khuilo!’ (‘Putin is a dickhead!’) was repeated on 14 June by the acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, when the Russian embassy in Kiev was besieged by an angry mob. Fighter jets flew low over the pro-Donbas protests, and it appeared that ‘from the very start, Kiev had been prepared to use force’. On 10 March the former governor of Kharkov, Mikhail Dobkin, was arrested on charges of leading a separatist movement. From 6 April insurgents occupied government buildings in Donetsk, Gorlovka and Kramatorsk. In Kharkov on 8 April some 70 anti-Maidan protesters were arrested and faced politically charged trials, and this was enough to pre-empt further action in Ukraine’s second city. In the Donbas, however, the insurgency continued to spread. These were not the professional ‘little green men’ seen earlier in Crimea, but ramshackle forces made up overwhelmingly in the first instance by local volunteers. However, on 12 April the administration, police and other buildings in Slavyansk were occupied by what appeared to be highly trained professional armed forces without insignia. As Gessen puts it: ‘At that moment, what had been a people’s uprising turned into an armed revolt, and some would say a covert invasion.’

One of the first acts of the insurgents was to take over regional television stations to restore the broadcast of Russian television, cut by order of the central authorities in many regions on 11 March. The insurgents set up checkpoints and established an armed presence in the major towns. Supporters of federalisation refused to recognise the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian authorities and called on the government to allow referendums similar to the one in Crimea. In Donetsk protesters occupied the regional administration buildings and on 7 April proclaimed the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), and next door a Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) was formed on 27 April. The ‘people’s governor’ of Lugansk, Valery Bolotov, announced the formation of the Donetsk People’s Army, whose leader soon became Igor Girkin, whose nom de guerre is Strelkov (‘the shooter’). A former colonel in the Russian army (some accounts say he served in the main intelligence directorate, the GRU, of the General Staff), he fought in Chechnya, in Transnistria and with the Serbs in Bosnia, and was one of the leaders of the takeover in Crimea. He came to the Donbas in May with around two dozen men but soon built up one of the most formidable rebel units of some 2,000 men. He later claimed to have been ‘the one who pulled the trigger on this war’. The Donbas was in revolt, and on 24 May the two entities established a de jure union known as the ‘Novorossiya Republic’. They sought to capitalise on the emotional power of the concept.

Avakov accused Moscow and the ousted president Yanukovych of ‘ordering and paying for another wave of separatist turmoil in the country’s east’. Using his characteristic form of communication, his Facebook page, he insisted that ‘a firm approach will be used against all who attack government buildings, law enforcement officers and other citizens’. The storming of government offices in the west of the country in the final months of Yanukovych’s rule was considered something entirely different – part of the revolutionary surge in support of monist nationalism – whereas now the ‘anti-Maidan’ insurgency using the same tactics in support of pluralism was called a terrorist movement. In mid-April the Ukrainian security service (SBU) took control of what was called the ‘anti-terrorist operation’ (ATO) – the constitution allows only this designation for an internal counter-insurgency operation, although that does not render the designation any less forbidding. Government forces re-established control over several major towns, including Mariupol, Kirovsk and Yampol, and the insurgency in the end was limited to parts of the Donbas.

The leadership of the insurgency was a motley crew. They included Denys Pushilin, one of the organisers of the MMM pyramid scheme in Donetsk in the 1990s, while Nikolai Solntsev, a technologist at a meat-processing plant, became the DPR’s ideology minister. Most leaders were blue-collar workers with limited outside experience. They drew on the experience of Crimea to plan their actions and were deeply imbued with Soviet values, looking to Russia to provide support for their alternative to Maidan-style Europeanism. This applied in particular to Girkin, who soon became one of the most effective rebel commanders in the Donbas. In mid-May he assumed command of all insurgent forces and called on Russia to intervene. It is far from clear how much direct control Moscow could exert over a man who described himself as a monarchist and condemned the USSR and the post-Communist Kremlin authorities. His hobby was dressing up in costume to re-enact historical battles, part of the Russian paramilitary subculture, and he now donned a real uniform and proved himself a ruthless and capable guerrilla leader until he ‘disappeared’ in August.

The OSCE had created a ‘special monitoring mission’ to the region in March, but on 25 April a group of seven foreign military monitors from the OSCE and five Ukrainian military observers were detained in Slavyansk. The ‘people’s mayor’ of the city offered to swap the observers in exchange for the release of his supporters detained by the Kiev authorities. Russia, as an OSCE member, condemned the capture, and soon after the observers were released. On 28 April the shooting of Gennady Kernes, the pro-Kiev mayor of Kharkov, Ukraine’s second city, demonstrated how far events in the east were spiralling out of control. Kernes had opposed the Maidan, but he reversed his position following Yanukovych’s ouster, and he was wounded shortly afterwards.

The conflict became a struggle between west and east Ukraine, with endless shades between. The physical and rhetorical violence of the Maidan was generalised to the rest of the country. The language of the Kiev forces is quite shocking in its brutality. Already in March, in a conversation about Putin, probably recorded by Russian intelligence, Tymoshenko declared: ‘I’m willing to take a Kalashnikov and shoot the bastard in the head.’ The Orangist demonisation of Putin soon entered the bloodstream of discourse in the Western world, poisoning sensible discussion. Tymoshenko was equally bloodthirsty in her condemnation of the insurgency in the east and no less extreme in her evaluation of the larger geopolitical situation: ‘Putin is attempting to uproot the world’s security system, established as a result of


Second World War, and turn the global[…] order into chaos. Redrawing world maps by wars, mass murders and blood is becoming his Mein Kampf.’ The new Kiev authorities were fighting for their survival, but their ‘Orange’ vision of Ukraine was rejected by the insurgents in the Donbas and, in part, by Moscow. Anger and resentment would be laid down for generations.

The ferocity of the ATO can in part be explained by the view of many in western Ukraine that the people of the Donbas were not ‘real Ukrainians’, but Russians who had come to replace those who had died in the Holodomor and to staff the industrialisation of the region from the 1930s. They were often denigrated by monists as lacking intellect and ‘national identity’, and could thus be considered a Russian incubus that needed to be cut out to ensure the healthy development of the Ukrainian nation. When asked in a famous YouTube interview ‘What should we do now with the 8 million Russians that stayed in Ukraine? They are outcasts?’ Tymoshenko responded: ‘They must be killed with nuclear weapons.’ To which the man answered: ‘I won’t argue with you here because what happened is absolutely unacceptable.’ This reflected the restitutive model of Ukrainian statehood with a vengeance, the idea that there was some Platonic ideal statehood to which the country should return. Where the actual population differed from the ideal, it was to be subject to special measures to bring it into conformity with the ideologically appropriate format.

When Putin in his Direct Line session of 17 April brought up the notion of Novorossiya, it was not clear what he had in mind. His assessment of the situation was vivid and clear:

Regarding the question of what should come first: a constitutional referendum followed by elections, or elections first to stabilise the situation and then a referendum. The essential issue is how to ensure the legitimate rights and interests of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in the south-east of Ukraine. I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya [New Russia] back in the tsarist days – Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolaev and Odessa – were not part of Ukraine back then. These territories were given to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government. Why? Who knows. They were won by Potemkin and Catherine the Great in a series of well-known wars. The centre of that territory was Novorossiisk, so the region is called Novorossiya. Russia lost these territories for various reasons, but the people remained. Today, they live in Ukraine, and they should be full citizens of their country. That’s what this is all about.

Was this a reference to his comment to US President George W. Bush in Bucharest in 2008 that ‘Ukraine is not really a state’, and thus a call for the dismemberment of the country? Novorossiya was a special tsarist administrative arrangement for a broad swath of territory running along the Black Sea as far as Moldova, and its incorporation into the new Ukrainian SSR in 1922 was as controversial then as it has once again become now. Or was it simply an attempt to stress that Ukraine was made up of many traditions, and thus a call to give institutional form to pluralism, diversity and different identities? Either way, it galvanised those who sought to exploit Ukrainian state weakness for their own ends.

The extent of Moscow’s materiel and personnel support is far from clear. A welter of volunteers spilled across the border, drawn from the old opposition that had fought against Yeltsin in 1993, Cossack groups, Chechen militants, and a range of Russian nationalist and neo-Soviet imperialists. The danger, as with volunteer militants in Syria, is that these battle-hardened and radicalised fighters would gain experience and then ‘blow back’ into Russia, and potentially pose a threat to Putin himself if he failed to meet their expectations about supporting the rebellion in Ukraine. In his 17 April Direct Line programme he noted:

Refusing to see that something was badly wrong in the Ukrainian state and to start a dialogue, the government threatened to use military force and even sent tanks and aircraft against civilians. It was one more serious crime committed by the current Kiev rulers.

In this broadcast Putin acknowledged that the ‘green men’ in Crimea were in fact Russian forces.

Separatist aspirations were not supported by the majority of the population, and the insurgents rejected the ‘separatist’ label, while the mainstream Western view that the insurgency consisted of ‘terrorists’ backed by Moscow is equally false. A well-known survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) from 29 April to 11 May 2014 revealed that only 20–30 per cent of the population of the Donbas supported outright separatism, slightly fewer supported Kiev, while about half were in the middle. Various types of autonomy were supported by 54 per cent, but in the Donbas only 8 per cent favoured independence, 23 per cent supported joining Russia, while a further 23 per cent favoured greater autonomy within Ukraine. The majority of the insurgent leadership came from the Donbas, with some from other regions of Ukraine, including Crimea. This demonstrates that there was no overwhelming desire to leave Ukraine, but it also shows a high level of alienation. Serhiy Kudelia’s study confirms this finding, arguing that despite Western accusations that the insurgency was provoked and sponsored by Russia, it was in fact ‘primarily a homegrown phenomenon’: ‘political factors – state fragmentation, violent regime change, and the government’s low coercive capacity – combined with popular emotions specific to the region – resentment and fear – played a crucial role in launching the armed secessionist movement there’. It would take skilful political management to bring these people back into the fold of Ukrainian state-building. Instead, aspirations for federalism were considered tantamount to separatism, provoking military action and a devastating civil war.

The insurgents announced a referendum on the self-determination of the Donbas for 11 May. On 7 May Putin urged the referendums to be postponed, but they went ahead anyway with a very simple wording: ‘Do you support the creation of the Donetsk People’s Republic?’ and a similar question in Lugansk. Turnout in both regions was reported to be 75 per cent, with 89 and 96 per cent, respectively, voting for independence. Neither Kiev nor the West recognised the ballot as legitimate, with Poroshenko resolutely condemning the vote, although Firtash on 12 May argued that federalisation was the only acceptable option and that Ukraine should be a neutral state, and he personally was ready to step in to act as an intermediary between Russia and Ukraine. The vote can at best be taken as indicative of widespread ‘separatist’ sentiment at that time and should be tempered by the results of opinion surveys which, as noted, show a strong commitment to Ukrainian integrity. Nevertheless, the high level of dissatisfaction among the Blues is hardly surprising since for the second time in a decade a leadership that reflected their concerns was removed in contentious circumstances. On this occasion the interim administration formed after 22 February lacked representation from the Donbas and propounded a virulently monist ideology. This certainly does not justify armed rebellion, but helps explain the logic of developments.

The agreement between the DPR and the LPR establishing Novorossiya on 24 May was a propaganda move designed to rally support within Ukraine and volunteers from Russia proper. This was accompanied by accusations that Russia was massing a 40,000-strong army on its western border, ready for a possible invasion, and that Russian undercover operatives were fomenting the occupations and blockade. The troops were ordered back and forth to follow the various diplomatic contortions, while NATO and Western leaders repeatedly claimed that Russia had invaded or was on the verge of doing so, a crying of wolf that in the end rather discredited them. Instead, Russia trained and filtered in some genuine volunteers, as well as regular forces as ‘advisors’, a category well known from the early stages of US interventions, and only in August did Russian ‘volunteer’ paratroopers apparently take part in regular battles. The insurgents came to be dubbed ‘pro-Russian separatists’, and while this may be accurate for some of them, the rebellion reflected broader concern about the lack of constitutional and political defence for their way of life and historical economic and cultural links with Russia.

The pluralists in the Donbas and other Russophone regions seized the opportunity to institutionalise their long-term aspirations for Russian to be made a second state language and for genuine power-sharing of the regions in a more federal state. This was a quite legitimate democratic aspiration, and could have transformed the agenda of the Maidan into a genuinely national movement. The interim government in Kiev was resistant to such a broadening, given its deep roots in the monist tradition. At the same time, the pluralists in the Donbas and more widely in ‘Novorossiya’ lacked democratic and civil-society organisational capacity. The years of polarisation and corruption had deeply eroded the bases of civic activism. The PoR had become little more than a claque of the Yanukovych regime, and was deeply factionalised between the various oligarchs. It was discredited and in disarray following Yanukovych’s ouster. The CPU remained a bastion of neo-Soviet sentiment, winning some 13 per cent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary election, but was largely discredited because of its failure to condemn Yanukovych’s excesses. All that was left were a few individual politicians who could give voice to pluralist sentiments, while oligarchs like Akhmetov hedged their bets. Firtash added his voice in support of the pluralists, but, isolated in Vienna, he was unable to bolster the cause of compromise.

Although it became axiomatic in much of the West that the insurgency was financed and sponsored by Russia, evidence of this before August is far from conclusive. The provenance of the insurgents who emerged in April 2014 to take over administrative buildings in Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and Donetsk is unclear, but they were certainly not the ‘little green men’ who had operated so effectively and clinically in taking over Crimea. The story of Artur Gasparyan, an Armenian from Spitak, is a moving tale of how he volunteered to fight for the resistance in Ukraine and was given assistance and training in Russia by shadowy organisations and then transferred to the Donbas. He was part of the chaotic attempt to take over Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk on 26 May. The fighters simply did not believe that the Ukrainian military would bomb the gleaming new terminal, built for the Euro 2012 football championship, and hence left their anti-aircraft missiles back at base. In their chaotic flight one of the trucks was destroyed by ‘friendly fire’. After several weeks Gasparyan was transferred back to Russia and home. Asked why he, an Armenian, volunteered, he stated: ‘I don’t consider Russia a foreign country. I have the mentality of a Soviet person. My grandfathers fought for the Soviet Union and I am fighting for it.’

There is no more controversial issue than the extent to which Russia was implicated in inciting and supporting the insurgency. What is incontrovertible is that two elements developed in parallel: a genuine regional revolt adopting the tactics of the Maidan against the ‘Ukrainising’ and anti-Russian policies pursued by the Kiev authorities; and the strategic political considerations of Moscow, which exploited the insurgency to exercise leverage against the Kiev government to achieve defined goals – above all a degree of regional devolution, initially called federalisation – as well as to ensure that the strategic neutrality of the country was maintained. These goals, as well as the establishment of Russian as a second state language, may well have been in the best interests of Ukraine itself, but the method was catastrophic for the region and the country. Russia may well have stirred the pot at the beginning, and thereafter held regular consultations with resistance leaders, but the scale of its initial materiel support was greatly exaggerated by the Kiev government and its Western supporters. Moscow did allow a stream of volunteers to join the resistance, and some military equipment found its way across the border. But a constant refrain of the resistance movement was the lack of supplies and support; they repeatedly called on Russia to be more assertive in its backing, including direct military intervention, although this would only ever be a desperate measure. Moscow had learned the lessons of Afghanistan and the West’s own ill-advised interventions in that country, Iraq and Libya. Nevertheless, already in April NATO foreign ministers announced that they would suspend practical cooperation and military ties with Russia because of its actions in Ukraine, while once again (as in August 2008) the NATO–Russia Council proved itself to be useless.


A meeting in Geneva between Ukraine, Russia, the US and the EU on 17 April sought to start a process of ‘de-escalation’, the term used in this crisis to try to create an ‘off-ramp’ from the internationalised civil conflict. The brief joint statement by the countries involved called for ‘initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security for all citizens’, and stipulated a number of measures:

All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions. The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-semitism.

All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.

Amnesty will be granted to protestors and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrendered weapons, with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes.

It was agreed that the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission should play a leading role in assisting Ukrainian authorities and local communities in the immediate implementation of these de-escalation measures wherever they are needed most, beginning in the coming days. The U.S., E.U. and Russia commit to support this mission, including by providing monitors.

The announced constitutional process will be inclusive, transparent and accountable. It will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies, and allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments.

The participants underlined the importance of economic and financial stability in Ukraine and would be ready to discuss additional support as the above steps are implemented.

The onus was placed on the Ukrainians to take the initiative, with the international community to assist in the implementation of the de-escalation measures. The signatories agreed that that all armed formations should be disbanded, but it was not clear who would be able to do this, or the scope of the provision – would it include the armed battalions spawned by the Maidan? While the Western powers held Russia responsible for controlling the insurgents in the east and getting them to leave occupied buildings and installations, as we have seen they were mostly not under the direct control of a single authority. The situation was exacerbated by the lack of eastern representation at Geneva. Moscow’s attempts to get the supporters for regional autonomy invited had been blocked by Kiev, but now the eastern insurgents were held responsible for fulfilling decisions in whose adoption they were not involved.

The Geneva deal was ignored by both sides, although its principles were to be at the core of all subsequent ceasefires. On 5 May, government forces attacked checkpoints around Slavyansk, with the two sides exchanging mortar fire, and the insurgents were able to down a helicopter using a hand-held air-defence system. On 9 May government forces using tanks and heavy weaponry retook the interior ministry building in Mariupol, in which at least seven ‘separatists’ were killed and 40 wounded. In another action in Mariupol on 16 May insurgents attacked a local military base. The insurgents had taken over Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk on 26 May, but in a ferocious counter-attack it was retaken by government forces, at great cost in lives and damage. On 28 May insurgents in Slavyansk shot down a military helicopter, killing all 14 servicemen on board, and on 14 June in Lugansk insurgents shot down a Ukrainian military aircraft, killing all 49 servicemen on board (of whom nine were crew). And so the fighting went on. Both sides were subject to international humanitarian law (the laws of war), and both sides egregiously disregarded them, above all in targeting civilian populations, using disproportionate force, not respecting the rights of journalists and abusing the rights of prisoners. Neither Ukraine nor Russia is a signatory party to the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, with the mandate to try people suspected of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, so it would take a UN Security Council referral to activate an investigation.


Right Sector turned itself into a political party but retained its armed battalions, allied with the football ‘ultras’, and went to war in the south-east. In April the Donbas battalion was created, while the Aidar battalion was drawn from the mainstream Maidan self-defence units. The Azov battalion drew particular attention for the ferocity of its commitment, taking the Donetsk suburb of Marinka in late July and thereby opening the path for regular forces to attack the city. Azov flew the neo-Nazi Wolfsangel (Wolf’s Hook) on the background of the Schwarze Sonne (Black Sun) on their banner. The battalion was founded by Andriy Biletsky, the head of the extremist Social–National Assembly, who argued: ‘The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival […] A crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen.’ Their ideology harked back to the integral nationalism of the 1930s and 1940s, aiming to create a ‘natsiokratiya’ (ethnocracy) based on syndicates representing the different classes of the population. They appealed to Ukraine’s European identity, but their Europe was one of corporatism and traditionalism: ‘We consider the present tendency of Europe leads to the destruction of civilisation, with no control of immigration, the destruction of the family, of religious identity and of everything that made Europe Europe.’ This was accompanied by an assertive foreign policy that included the nuclear rearmament of Ukraine. On 23 July Svoboda registered a motion with the Rada’s secretariat to restore Ukraine’s status as a nuclear power. Rather surprisingly, this evoked no response from the Atlantic security community. In the end some three dozen volunteer battalions were created, with the number of fighters swelling to around 8,000. While formally subordinate to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), they were in effect private armies. These proto-Freikorps forces attracted all sorts of malcontents and radicals from across Ukraine, and represented a substantial threat to Poroshenko’s ability to pursue an independent policy. He was constantly threatened by a ‘third Maidan’ when he suggested compromises, and these forces would take control if the government fell.

The fighting became increasingly vicious, with significant casualties on both sides, accompanied by the exodus of citizens who now became refugees if they crossed into Russia, or ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) if they moved elsewhere in Ukraine. Unleashed against the insurgency was a crew no less motley than the insurgents themselves. The new National Guard absorbed most of the Maidan militants, among whom, as we have seen, right-wing nationalists figured prominently, and their indiscipline and cruelty in the Donbas became infamous. The volunteer detachments organised by ‘warlords’ such as Kolomoisky added to the volatile mix, as did the worker detachments raised by regional oligarchs such as Akhmetov. There were also volunteer units created by politicians. The most famous of these was Oleg Lyashko, who led volunteer battalions to the region. In a famous incident in mid-May he was seen humiliating a captured insurgent and the self-proclaimed defence minister of the DPR, Igor Kakidzyanov, who appeared in his underwear and with his hands bound. The trademark signature of his black-clad paramilitaries was to strip captives to their underwear, put bags on their heads, and lecture them on camera for their treacherous behaviour. His popularity soared, turning him into a serious political force and winning him over 8 per cent of the vote in the presidential election. Only later did the regular army take the initiative and lead the offensive.

The armed forces had been starved of funds for two decades, and under Yanukovych their resources had been pillaged. As Parubiy, secretary of the NSDC, put it:

Unfortunately, we now realize that our defense forces were deliberately sabotaged and weakened by the previous government in Kiev, in collaboration with Moscow, to subordinate Ukraine to Russia’s imperialist policies. We inherited a dilapidated army, a security and intelligence service awash with Russian agents, a demoralized law-enforcement system and corrupt courts and prosecutors.

The poor state of the Ukraine armed forces was soon exposed. Much of its weaponry and other materiel had been allowed to decay or been sold off, and there were not many more than 6,000 combat-ready troops in an army numbering some 80,000. The regular armed forces lacked training, intelligence equipment and geo-referencing systems. Once launched into combat, the army suffered from defections and desertions. Attempts by the Ukrainian military to dislodge the militants, including the use of air power and later Grad missile-launchers in civilian areas, did little more than harden local sentiment against Kiev. The creation of the National Guard, consisting largely of far right militants and others from the Maidan self-defence forces, had the advantage of removing these militants from the centre of Kiev and other western Ukrainian towns, but they often lacked discipline and treated south-east Ukraine as occupied territory, regularly committing atrocities against civilians and captured ‘terrorists’. In addition, the ‘third force’ of oligarch-sponsored irregular militias, notably those funded by Kolomoisky, added to the volatile mix.

In his speech at West Point on 28 May, Obama boasted of American success in isolating Russia. He dismissed those who suggest that ‘America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – [they] are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics’, and insisted that ‘America must always lead on the world stage’. As for the current crisis:

In Ukraine, Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe. But this isn’t the Cold War. Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away. Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions. Europe and the G-7 joined with us to impose sanctions. NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies. The IMF is helping to stabilize Ukraine’s economy. OSCE monitors brought the eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine. This mobilization of world opinion and institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda, Russian troops on the border, and armed militias.

Soon after, Obama’s visit to Europe, including Poland, to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, was once again used as an occasion to isolate Russia. The French president, François Hollande, however, took the opportunity to engineer a meeting between Putin and the newly elected Poroshenko, establishing what was to become a pragmatic period of interaction. In all of this, the EU as an institution was redundant and could not be taken as a serious, positive independent player in European – let alone world – politics.


On coming to office, Poroshenko outlined three main challenges: the preservation of a ‘unified Ukraine’, including stability in eastern Ukraine; the European choice for closer ties to the West; and the return of Crimea. The latter goal, he stressed, would be pursued through diplomatic methods and excluded the military option. As for maintaining the unity of Ukraine, this was obviously a priority and one that had a solid basis. Numerous opinion polls in early 2014 repeatedly showed sizeable majorities in the east and the south supporting Ukrainian unity and only small minorities in favour of secession or accession to Russia. In the event, Poroshenko was unable to build on what was clearly a strong sense of membership of the Ukrainian state, although favouring a pluralist interpretation. Instead, his initial comments were far from conciliatory: ‘The first steps of our entire team at the beginning of the presidency will concentrate on ending the war, ending the chaos, ending the disorder and bringing peace to Ukrainian soil, to a united, single Ukraine.’ His promise to wrap up the ATO ‘in a matter of hours’ entrenched the hardliners on both sides, and the irreconcilable tone was repeated in his inaugural speech on 7 June.

The insurgents in the south-east were characterised as ‘terrorists’, and thus their demands and concerns were rendered null and void. The resolution of the long-standing Ukrainian identity, it appeared, would be settled on the battlefield. The ATO was intensified, with the regular army reinforced by volunteers in the National Guard. On 5 June the Verkhovna Rada adopted changes to the law on terrorism, signed into law by the president on 18 June, giving greater powers to the security forces and legalising the use of the regular army in ‘counter-terrorism’ operations. Commanders gained the power ‘to temporarily restrict the rights of local populations’ as well as to ‘shut down business entities – fully or partially’. On the other side, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov proposed a resolution to the UN, but stressed that it would not include the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region, a demand repeatedly made by the rebels. A genuine peacekeeping force could only be introduced if sanctioned by the UN Security Council, otherwise it would be another term for occupation.

After several false starts, on 20 June Poroshenko announced a unilateral ceasefire to last a week, while outlining a 15-point peace plan. Building on the Geneva deal, he proposed an amnesty for rebel fighters who had not committed serious crimes, as well as safe passage for volunteers seeking to return to Russia. It also called for decentralisation that would allow a greater degree of self-rule in the east, the fundamental demand of the militants. The insurgents were to surrender and a 10-kilometre-wide security zone would be established along the border with Russia, while the decentralisation excluded federalisation or official status for the Russian language. On 23 June talks were held in Donetsk involving Poroshenko’s representative, the former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, and the militant leaders. Also in attendance was an OSCE representative, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, the pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk (on the US sanctions list for his part in the annexation of Crimea). The fact that he was trusted in Moscow rendered him suspicious to the new Ukrainian authorities. Following the meeting, the self-declared prime minister of DPR, Alexander Borodai, announced that the militants also agreed to the ceasefire. It was soon threatened when on 24 June the insurgents shot down the helicopter that was carrying equipment and specialists to monitor the ceasefire near Slavyansk, killing nine personnel.

On that day the Russian Federation Council revoked the ruling of 1 March, adopted before the annexation of Crimea, that authorised Russia to deploy troops on Ukrainian territory, ‘in order to normalise and regulate the situation in the eastern regions of Ukraine, and due to the start of the three-way talks on the issue’, as Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov put it. In 2009 the Russian president had been granted a ‘universal mandate’ allowing him to deploy troops abroad, so this act was meant to signal that Moscow was set on the path of conciliation. Throughout, Russian actions lacked consistency and even coherence. There was no response to the first wave of sanctions imposed in April, whereas retaliation in the form, for example, of stopping cooperation over Afghanistan and blocking the Northern Distribution Network, the rail route for the removal of American forces and materiel, or even withdrawal from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), would have signalled Russia’s readiness for confrontation. Instead, the repeal signalled Russia’s openness for rapprochement and that the country would not intervene militarily, but this allowed the full force of the Ukrainian armed forces to be unleashed against the Donbas militants. Despite the virulence of the anti-Western campaign, Putin clearly did not want to burn all the bridges back to a normal relationship with the EU and the US. Nevertheless, the exploitation of unrest in the south-east to exercise leverage over the rest of Ukraine to achieve desired policy outcomes – notably federalisation and neutralisation – remained.

The insurgents had earlier insisted that there could be no talks until Ukraine withdrew its forces, but, after consultations in Moscow, Borodai (who is a Russian citizen) softened his stance. His security advisor was Sergei Kavtaradze, a military historian and an expert on the conduct of civil wars. This was another example of the eclectic character of the rebel leadership. Borodai compared the fighting in the Donbas with the Spanish Civil War, as it drew in volunteers (notably from Serbia) to join the new international brigades, now united around the ideology of anti-Americanism and geopolitical pluralism. The negotiations were also attended by Alexander Khodakovsky, the commander of the Vostok battalion (no connection with the body of the same name in the Chechen wars), and Valery Bolotov, the leader of the insurgent forces in Lugansk. Notably absent was Girkin, also a Russian citizen, who commanded the insurgent forces in Slavyansk. Speaking in Vienna on 24 June, Putin warned that a ceasefire and calling on the rebels to disarm without addressing their long-term political grievances would come to nothing. He qualified his support for Poroshenko’s plan by insisting:

It is important that this ceasefire open the way to a dialogue between all of the parties to the combat, so as to find solutions that will be acceptable to all sides, in order to ensure that people in south-east Ukraine have no doubt that they are an integral part of the country.

The talks gave no immediate breakthrough, and Poroshenko’s peace plan was condemned at a four-hour extended meeting with the hawkish NSDC on 30 June. Poroshenko’s proposal to extend the ceasefire was now dropped, and on 1 July he announced the resumption of hostilities: ‘We will attack and we will liberate our land. The end of the ceasefire is our response to terrorists, rebels, looters, all those who mock civilians, who paralyze the economy of the region.’ The ceasefire was perceived to have given the insurgents a chance to rearm and regroup. There was not a word here about reaching out to his citizens in the south-east; and, indeed, in the words of one Moscow Times journalist, the lack of compassion ‘by residents of both Moscow and Kiev over the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the future of Ukraine as a whole ought to give us serious pause’. A hate-filled generation was being nurtured. Poroshenko had come under enormous pressure from the ‘war party’ in Kiev to continue the attack, with the NSDC urging him to take active measures. Lyashko reported that he had heard from the president ‘what he had wanted to hear from him’, and, satisfied, he returned to continue his vigilante activities on the eastern front.

There was also a ‘war party’ in Washington, although both US vice president Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry urged Kiev to exercise restraint. It was not clear that Kerry was able to control his subordinates. Equally, the relationship with Kiev assumed some classic Cold War features, in which the ‘client’ tail was able to wag the ‘patron’ dog. There was very little at stake for the US in renewed conflict, whereas the burden of the Ukraine crisis would be borne by Russia and its European partners. Although Poroshenko was responding to the demands for a military victory coming from radical nationalists, in the end his position was weakened by revulsion at the heavy death toll and the destruction of the Donbas. There were many cases in which Kiev’s forces refused orders to fire on their compatriots. In the end over 90 per cent of Ukrainian armed forces were deployed in the south-east, accompanied by successive waves of call-up reservists. The Ukrainian armed forces had learned to avoid infantry combat, and instead launched air strikes and long-range artillery bombardments against apartment blocks and villages. This rained down indiscriminate fire on heavily populated areas, causing numerous civilian casualties. This was justified by alleging that the rebels placed their own ordinance next to civilian objects. There are documented cases of this, although in heavily built areas almost any position would be next to a hospital or school; and, as the UN stressed during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in July and August, the laws of war state that there is no excuse for killing civilians. It looked as if the tide of war was turning to Kiev’s advantage.

Stephen Cohen notes how on 2 May at the UN Security Council the US ambassador, Samantha Power, suspended

her revered ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine, [and] gave Kiev’s leaders a US license to kill. Lauding their ‘remarkable, almost unimaginable, restraint’, as Obama himself did after Odessa, she continued, ‘Their response is reasonable, it is proportional, and frankly it is what any one of our countries would have done.’

Cohen notes that on 26 June Kerry demanded that the Russian president ‘in the next few hours […] help disarm’ the resistance in the south-east, ‘as though they are not motivated by any of Ukraine’s indigenous conflicts but are merely Putin’s private militias’. In sum:

We may honourably disagree about the causes and resolution of the Ukrainian crisis, the worst US–Russian confrontation in decades, but not about the deeds that are rising to the level of war crimes, if they have not already done so.

In early July an intensive round of diplomacy was led by the German and French foreign ministers, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius respectively. A hastily convened meeting in Berlin on 2 July brought them together with Lavrov and the new Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin. As far as the Russians were concerned, the absence of the Americans increased the chances of the peaceful regulation of the conflict. As Lavrov put it in a television interview on 28 June: ‘Peace within the warring country [Ukraine] is more likely if negotiations were left to Russia and Europe’, and he noted: ‘Our American colleagues still favour pushing the Ukrainian leadership towards confrontation.’ The hawks in Washington warned the Europeans against ‘craven surrender’ to Russian aggression (in the words of a Washington Post editorial on 2 July), but European leaders were beginning, surprisingly, to show some independent resolve. The provisional deal of 2 July was far-reaching, and included not only a ceasefire and further talks involving the OSCE but also strengthened control over the Russo-Ukrainian border, which would stop the supply of personnel and materiel to the insurgents. The Donbas resistance movement now turned into fierce critics of Putin, accusing him of betrayal and worse. Such nuances were lost on the hawks, with the Washington Post thundering: ‘A failure by the West to act following such explicit rhetoric would be a craven surrender that would provoke only more Russian aggression’.

On 5 July the insurgent forces under Girkin retreated from Slavyansk and regrouped in Donetsk. By that time over 100,000 refugees had fled the region. Clearly, no help was officially going to come from Russia, despite Girkin’s appeals for military aid. The rebels now faced almost certain defeat as the Ukrainian army advanced on all sides. As Pavel Gubarev, the former advertising executive and extreme Russian nationalist who became one of the founders of the DPR, put it on 9 July: ‘We are surrounded – we will defend our city to the end, there is no room to move back – we have a situation where we must win or die.’ The imposition of a new round of American sanctions on 16 July further narrowed Putin’s room for manoeuvre. What could have been the quiet withdrawal of support to groups who had never entirely been controllable proxies would now look like capitulation to hostile Western powers, and that was simply politically impossible in the febrile atmosphere in Russia that the regime had done so much to provoke. Intensified sanctions at this point were entirely counterproductive.

By July 2014 the combined interior-ministry forces, including the National Guard, had swelled to 35,000, including some from abroad, reinforcing the 77,000 regular troops. On 31 July the Ukrainian parliament authorised an additional $743 million for the army, to be financed by a mandatory ‘war tax’ of 1.5 per cent on all incomes. Already Ukraine was the second-worst-performing economy in the world, with the hryvnia losing 70 per cent of its value by September, when it was trading at 14 to the dollar, a deep recession that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) expected would see a 9 per cent year-on-year fall in GDP. Prices and unemployment were rising fast. The Donbas had provided a sixth of Ukrainian GDP, but war had removed much of that. Nevertheless, money could still be found to strengthen the frontier. The head of the NSDC, Parubiy, announced on 16 June that Ukraine planned to build a wall along its border with Russia to ‘avoid any future provocations from the Russian side’. On 5 September Yatsenyuk announced the plan to build what was later called the ‘European Rampart’ (Evropeisky val) along the border with Russia. In the first instance there would be a four-metre-wide and two-metre-deep ditch equipped with electronic systems. On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, there can be no better symbol of the failure of European politics in our era.

The conflict provoked a humanitarian catastrophe. The generation whose grandparents had suffered so much during collectivisation and World War II looked forward to living in peace in a Europe, ‘whole and free’, but once again they were visited by war. By June some 250 hotels, summer camps and other sites were converted into centres housing up to 30,000 refugees, while another 70,000 escaped across the border into Russia. By late August the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported that at least 285,000 people had fled their homes because of the conflict, with some 190,000 IDPs in Ukraine and 17,000 in Crimea. In addition, 25,000 had gone to Belarus, 1,250 to Poland, and 207,000 to Russia, of whom 88,000 asked for temporary refuge and 119,000 applied either for temporary residence or citizenship. The authorities reported that over 800,000 Ukrainians had entered Russia without registering. In July Amnesty International issued a report detailing kidnapping and torture in eastern Ukraine, and in September a further report criticised the ‘non-selective’ shooting, as a result of which over 1,000 civilians died. The report condemned the lack of oversight over the volunteer units, condemning in particular the Aidar battalion for ‘abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion and possible executions’.

From the very beginning Russian policy was caught between bad and very bad options. It was clear that ‘Novorossiya’ was not Crimea, where there had long been a powerful irredentist movement calling for reunification with Russia. There was nothing of the sort in the Donbas, where the overwhelming majority sought a new settlement within Ukraine. Separatist aspirations only came later, after Yanukovych fled and the new authorities made several ill-judged moves in the absence of effective representation from the east, and then launched an all-out war against ‘terrorists’. The fragmented and questionable nature of the resistance, moreover, meant that Moscow lacked a credible interlocutor in Ukraine. The only serious politician who could have fulfilled this role was Medvedchuk, Kuchma’s former chief of staff, but he was unpopular and was associated with too many failed projects. Above all, the political programme advanced by Moscow lacked substantive popularity in Ukraine. Only 13 per cent, for example, supported the idea of federalisation. This helps explain Moscow’s more conciliatory approach, reinforced by the fear of ‘level-three’ sanctions that would be designed to blast whole sectors of the Russian economy. Russia and Europe sought to avoid moving to that stage, which would immeasurably damage both.

In his speech to diplomats on 1 July Putin adopted a regretful tone. He put the conflict in a broader context:

We need to understand clearly that the events provoked in Ukraine are the concentrated outcome of the notorious containment policy. As you know, its roots lie deep in history and it is clear that unfortunately this policy did not stop with the end of the Cold War. […] I would like to stress that what happened in Ukraine was the culmination of the negative tendencies in international affairs that had been building up for years. We have long been warning about this, and unfortunately, our predictions came true.

He outlined Russia’s main concerns:

What did our partners expect from us as the developments in Ukraine unfolded? We clearly had no right to abandon the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol to the mercy of nationalist and radical militants; we could not allow our access to the Black Sea to be significantly limited; we could not allow NATO forces to eventually come to the land of Crimea and Sevastopol, the land of Russian military glory, and cardinally change the balance of forces in the Black Sea area. This would mean giving up practically everything that Russia had fought for since the times of Peter the Great, or maybe even earlier – historians should know.

As for the latest peace attempts, he stressed the active part played by Russian diplomats, but:

Unfortunately, President Poroshenko has resolved to resume military action, and we failed – when I say ‘we’, I mean my colleagues in Europe and myself – we failed to convince him that the road to a secure, stable and inviolable peace cannot lie through war. So far, Mr Poroshenko was not directly linked to the order to begin military action, and only now did he take full responsibility, and not only military, but political as well, which is much more important.

The four-party Berlin talks had offered a genuine chance of stopping the violence, but it appeared that the hawks preferred war rather than a deal in which Russia was involved. Putin had prevented the US from launching a bombing campaign in Syria in September 2013, and Washington sought at all costs to avoid Russia once again garnering the laurels of peace. The Ukrainian offensive breached several international treaties on the conduct of war, and in due course the Kiev regime would have to answer for its actions to international war crimes tribunals.

Putin was coming under enormous pressure to offer succour to the Donbas insurgents and to stop the killing of civilians. As Putin put it in his 1 July speech, he ‘would like to make clear’ that Moscow would be compelled to protect ‘Russians and Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine […] I am referring to people who consider themselves part of the broad Russian community; they may not necessarily be ethnic Russians, but they consider themselves Russian people.’ There had been a powerful upwelling of domestic support for the resistance movement in the Donbas, to which Putin’s fate now became effectively tied – a situation of dependency that he had devoted his whole presidency to avoiding. Already insurgent leaders, such as Girkin, were loudly accusing the Kremlin of betrayal in not providing adequate support. Radicals and nationalists, such as Alexander Dugin, Sergei Kurginyan and Alexander Barkashov (head of the ultra-nationalist Russian National Unity), were raising money, recruiting volunteers and using their extensive influence in Russia’s security establishment to provide support for the Donbas rebels.

There was much talk of Russia mimicking the West and imposing a no-fly zone over the Donbas, although in the end Russia appears to have decided to remove Ukraine’s control of the air by covertly supplying anti-aircraft missiles. There was increasing pressure for some sort of ‘humanitarian’ intervention to assist the suffering population, but which would also block Kiev’s military victory. There was a full-scale war and a massive humanitarian disaster on Russia’s doorstep, but a military intervention threatened to draw Russia into a direct conflict with Ukraine and its Western backers, a conflict that Russia could not hope to win. Like the Afghanistan war in the 1980s, the outcome could in the end be the fall of the government in Moscow. Unlike the Soviet Union, however, Putin faced powerful domestic pressures.

In his study of the Ukraine crisis, the well-known Russian publicist Nikolai Starikov argued that in 2013 Russia moved from its long-term defensive posture to a more activist diplomacy. In Syria, for example, ‘Russia did not allow Syrian statehood to be destroyed by the [United] States’; in Ukraine the EU’s ‘blitzkrieg’ was repulsed, and in general Russia found itself on the frontline against the aggressive world politics of the US. Starikov is only one of a vast ‘nationalist’ civil society that long pre-dates Putin, and towards which after 2012 Putin tacked (having lost the support of the liberal intelligentsia), but which was certainly far from satisfied with his characteristic caution. Indeed, disappointed nationalists began to compare him to Slobodan Milošević, who had fuelled intense Serbian nationalism against Croats and others, only to back down under Western pressure and betray the Serbian diaspora. Although Putin presides over an all-encompassing power system, there are domestic constraints that deprive him of the total ‘agency’ powers assumed by his critics.

The History of the Russian Navy I

Top: Y.A. Apanasovich. The cruiser Sverdlov. 2008 Bottom: L.K. Akentiev. Our Arctic. Nuclear Submarine 705. 2015

Top: L.K. Akentiev. “St. Phoca” at Cape Flora. 2015 Bottom: M.P. Goncharov. Squadron battleship “Tsesarevich”. 2001

Russian Navy 1695-1900

The Russian Navy was founded by Peter the Great (1682-1725) in the Baltic to protect Russia from then powerful Sweden and on the Sea of Azov to counter the Ottoman Empire. Catherine the Great extended Russia’s control to the Black Sea by adding a fleet based at Sevastopol. Russia maintained small flotillas on the Caspian and White Seas. By the end of the eighteenth century there was also a Pacific Squadron that supported the Russian-American Company colony in Alaska. From Catherine II’s reign until the late 1820s, periods of friendly relations with Britain allowed the Baltic Fleet to deploy to the Mediterranean in a series of campaigns against the Ottomans. A Russian squadron joined an Anglo-French fleet in the victory over Mehmet Ali at Navarino in 1827. Thereafter until the 1854-56 Crimean War, the Baltic Fleet declined into the autocrat’s naval parading force. At the same time the professionalization of the Black Sea developed apace as a result of superior leadership, notably Admiral M. P. Lazarev, and continuous operations in support of Russia’s protracted war with Caucasian mountaineers. Nakhimov’s overwhelming victory against a Turkish Squadron at Sinope in late 1853, which brought Anglo-French intervention in the Crimean War, was, in fact, a continuation of the Black Sea Fleet’s mission to isolate the Caucasian theater of operations from maritime supply.

The 1856 defeat that saw the Black Sea Fleet abolished and made very clear the need for rail connections to link south Russia with the Moscow-St. Petersburg core and to avoid a Baltic blockade, also came at the crucial time when the great steam-and-steel revolution was taking place. This coincided with the scrapping of the IRN’s sailing ships and their replacement both by modern warships, such as those which visited the United States in 1863-64, and in a revival of concern with naval strategy and tactics. Though reduced in size to one thirty-sixth of the million-man army, the 28,000 men in the navy were much more technically proficient and efficient.

Between the beginning (1696) and the end (1917) of its history, the Imperial Navy had far more influence than its modest size and marginal role would suggest. Three key themes emerge. The first concerns the role of the navy in national strategy; the second the relationship between the navy and the process of technological modernization and Westernization; and the third the issue of the professionalization of the officer corps. By the mid-nineteenth century the latter involved the development of a system of advanced schooling for officers, the cultivation of a shared vision of the service through publications for the officer corps (the official and unofficial sections of Morskoi sbornik), and the unsuccessful resolution of the especially difficult question of officer advancement (chinoproizvodstvo) which turned on the conflict between promotion based on bureaucratic seniority or talent and achievement.

The navies that Peter built on the Sea of Azov and in the Baltic were fleets in being that, as in the later Soviet case until the 1950s, had deterrent value, but also served as a “second arm” supporting amphibious operations against hostile shores, a mission that the Black Sea Fleet also developed. Given the demands of maintaining a continental army, the navy had few levers to use to extract bigger budgets. After the early combined operations under Peter, the navy languished until the reign of Catherine II, when it once again dominated the Baltic and won command of the Black Sea. In this period the IRN did venture out of the Baltic and enjoyed some success in battle. Because of the nature of the final struggle with Napoleon, a continental war fought in alliance with Britain and as a result of the debt incurred in prosecuting that war, the navy once again went into decline. The exception to this being the mounting of scientific expeditions and round-the world cruises. Russian naval officers came to see such deployments as necessary for the training of professional naval officers.

The history of the navy from Petrine days to the end of its second century reflected the patterns and tensions between repressive, militaristic autocracy and thoughtful, visionary obshchestvo (educated society). The Crimean War dealt a heavy blow to that structure, challenged its institutions and stimulated the Great Reforms, which included the emancipation of the serfs as a basic move toward a more productive economy and the needs of the armed forces.

In this the admiral, General-Admiral Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevieh, played an important role from 1854 in protecting and training five future ministers in bureaucratic politics and administration and instilling in them the hope that virtue and talent would triumph. He also cultivated an alliance with the naval officers who had been proteges of Admiral Lazarev and brought them into the senior leadership of the navy. With no Black Sea Fleet because of the demilitarization of the Black Sea, this leadership focused its attention on the modernization of the Baltic Fleet and the development of a Pacific Squadron. The visits to the United States in 1863 of Baltic and Pacific squadrons were part of a new naval strategy that embraced such deployments as a deterrent threat to British trade.

By the time of the Great Reforms (1856-70) following the Crimean defeat, the navy was allowed to play a wider role through modernization so as to help the Russian Army preserve the country’s great-power status. From 1856, then, the Russian Navy developed in parallel with Western naval forces and created its own industrial base in alliance with private enterprise. This development rested upon the cultivation of a professional officer corps, where initiative and experience took precedence over seniority. In 1877-78 the Black Sea Fleet, which was almost non-existent-remilitarization had only become possible in 1870 and there were no yards or mills in the South to build modern ironclads-managed to neutralize a much larger Turkish Navy through the aggressive use of mines and torpedoes.

Believing that he should, unlike most Russians, consult affected parties, the grand duke turned Morskoi sbornik (Naval Digest) from a dull official bulletin into a lively journal of discussions, which helped clarify the confusions and the liberations of the Great Reforms.

These abolished the ancien regime and introduced a new world in which local organizations governed what was within their ken. This very much affected the army deprived of its privileged aristocratic officers and its serf soldiers. It also touched an increasingly technological steam and steel navy after 1860. At the same time the implications of the reform process frightened many conservatives in the Imperial family (notably the heir to the throne, the future Alexander III, the bureaucracy, and society). Konstantin Nikolaevich was for them a “red,” a dangerous figure whose ideas could lead to the undermining of the autocracy itself. After the death of Alexander II, the new tsar moved to remove the grand duke from his post as general-admiral and other state offices.

With the grand duke’s departure from leadership of the navy, leadership of the Naval Ministry passed into the hands of men who once again cultivated appearances at the expense of accomplishments and saw initiative and experience as grave dangers to institutional stability. The naval counter reforms, especially the tsenz (promotion based on positions held and time in service) created a bureaucratized force. The Naval Ministry reverted to the purchase of major combatants abroad and failed to develop a staff system to guide the navy in preparation for war. The full implications of this decline were only revealed by the destruction of the Russian squadron at Port Arthur and the defeat of Rozhestvennsky’s squadron at Tsushima (1905).

Russian Navy WWI

Peter the Great founded the Russian Navy in the early 1700s. The main fleet operated in the Baltic Sea with a squadron on the Sea of Azov which expanded later that century to become the Black Sea Fleet. During the Crimean War the sailors and guns of the Black Sea Fleet played a distinguished role in the defence of Sebastopol. However, the Baltic Fleet was reduced to passivity having proved itself incapable of breaking the Anglo-French blockade. When the empire expanded eastwards a Pacific Squadron was established with its base at Vladivostok. The remilitarization of the Black Sea at roughly the same time led to a further period of expansion but due to limited resources, the Baltic Fleet was somewhat overlooked. However, pressure from France following the 1894 treaty led to an increase in the strength of the Baltic Fleet to counter the growing naval power of Germany. As a result French companies received ship-building orders as Russian heavy industry did not have the capacity to build complete, modern warships.

The Russo-Japanese War was a disaster for the Russian Navy that lost virtually all of the Pacific Squadron as well as much of the Baltic Fleet which sailed to its doom at the battle of Tsushima. With severely limited resources the navy was faced with the dilemma of, “we must know what we want” in terms of ship types and whether it should concentrate on the Pacific Ocean, the Baltic or Black seas.


Although there had been a Navy Minister for decades his role was that of junior partner in the War Ministry where the army was regarded as the more important service. Strategically the navy’s role was to support the army.

In 1906 a Naval General Staff was established under the new State Defence Committee but was almost immediately at loggerheads with the Navy Minister Admiral A. A. Birilov who regarded the new body as an upstart creation of little value. Both the Navy Ministry and the Naval General Staff produced plans for modernisation and reform, but neither was acceptable on the grounds of cost. Furthermore the army and the Council of State Defence objected, complaining that they exceeded the Navy’s defensive role. As the arguments and politicking dragged on the Tsar intervened. Nicholas II, in common with his cousins George V and Wilhelm II, liked ships and wished to expand Russia’s overseas influence by the possession of a strong, modern navy. However, the Third Duma (1907–12) preferred to invest the money that was available in the army. Consequently the annual naval estimates became a matter of prolonged debate.

A series of emergency grants provided for the replacement of several ships lost at Tsushima and as money from increased state revenues and French loans filled the treasury and Turkey began to expand its fleet in the Black Sea, it was decided to increase the size of the fleet both there and in the Baltic. While a considerable proportion of this money was invested in capital projects such as shipyards, dry docks and improved port facilities, a large ship building programme was also approved. With the appointment of a new Navy Minister who was more receptive to reform, Admiral I. K. Grigorovich, in 1911 the Duma began to look more favourably on the naval estimates. On 6 July 1912 the Tsar signed a £42,000,000 expansion plan. The problem was that many of the ships laid down under this programme were not scheduled for completion for some time. Furthermore they were highly dependent on foreign expertise and equipment, and the overseas contracts were not placed with Russia’s likely allies. As with heavy artillery procurement orders were made with German companies as well as those of Britain and France.


At the outbreak of war two Russian cruisers, paid for and on the point of completion in German yards, were commissioned into the German navy. According to the 1914 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships, four Dreadnoughts and two cruisers were also under construction for the Baltic Fleet, as were three Dreadnoughts and nine cruisers for the Black Sea Fleet. These new capital ships were to be complemented by thirty-six new destroyers and a large number of submarines and auxiliary vessels. The majority of these ships were due for completion within the next few years. By 1914 Russian naval expenditure only lagged behind that of Britain and the USA having overtaken Germany and other potential enemies. Indeed Russia and Britain were on the point of signing a naval agreement when the war broke out. But the Russian Navy was not to be committed offensively during the war years and the majority of its operations were defensive.


As noted in Plan 19 both fleets were subordinated to Stavka. The HQ of the Black Sea Fleet was at Sebastopol, the headquarters of the Baltic fleet at Helsingfors (Helsinki) in Finland, having major bases at Kronstadt and Riga. The Navy Ministry at Petrograd acted as a clearing house for orders from Stavka.

As the Pacific Squadron took virtually no part in the war it is mainly the operations of the Baltic and Black sea fleets that concern us here and as little or no co-ordination was possible each will be dealt with individually.

Baltic Sea Fleet

At the outbreak of war the Baltic Fleet put a carefully planned defensive mining programme into operation. Russian mines were reputedly the best and most effective used by any navy in the war. The objective of this was to prevent the movement of German naval units against the capital or the flank of NW Front. The officer in charge of mining was Captain A. V. Kolchak who was to advance swiftly to the rank of Admiral. The major achievement of the Baltic Fleet during 1914 was the capture of a set of German naval code books from the Magdeburg during August thus enabling Allied intelligence officers to monitor German movements.

For the next two years the Baltic Fleet’s major units were preserved in anticipation of a decisive fleet action. The burden of offensive operations was undertaken by the eleven submarines of the Baltic Fleet and a small number of British submarines that reached Russia via the Arctic or by running the gauntlet of German patrols at the mouth of the Baltic. Although the submariners of both navies did sterling work against coastal traders plying the Baltic, the bulk of the Russian fleet remained in harbour. Such passivity had a dire effect on the officers and men leaving them prey to apathy and politicisation. Protected by the increasingly complex web of minefields the sailors’ discipline eroded slowly. Cruises were limited due to the lack of British anthracite coal stocks which were in short supply (although interestingly enough, thousands of tons of coal had in fact been stockpiled at Archangel and Murmansk but were instead being used to ballast ships returning to their home ports after delivering munitions to Russia). The sailors’ dockside work was also inhibited by the blanket of ice that built up on the harbours and the ship building programme was held up because many of the vessels under construction were designed only to take German-made turbines. The overall result of all these problems was a number of crews with little or nothing to do.

When the army’s rifle shortage became critical in 1915 the navy exchanged its Russian rifles for the Japanese Arisaka to ease ammunition supply problems. Japan also salvaged ships from the Russo-Japanese War, which were re-commissioned by the Russians and a Separate Baltic Detachment was formed but it did not manage to return to the Baltic.


The first outbreak of trouble occurred on the cruiser Rossiia in Helsingfors during September 1915. The sailors protested about poor food, overly harsh discipline and “German officers”. Rumours of the treachery of the “German officers” had been growing since the loss of the cruiser Pallada when on patrol duties in November 1914, though the fact that it went down with all hands did not enter into the gossip mongers’ tales.

The navy seems to have had a greater proportion of officers with German sounding names than the army and being a smaller service they were more noticeable. Indeed the commander of the Baltic Fleet in 1915 was Admiral N. O. von Essen who apparently considered “russifying” his name during this period. Although the ringleaders aboard the Rossiia were arrested it did not prevent further problems in November 1915 when part of the crew of the battleship Gangoot rioted beyond their officers’ control over poor food. More worrying for senior commanders was the refusal of neighbouring vessel’s crews to train their guns on the mutineers. Finally the threat of a submarine putting torpedoes into the Gangoot put a stop to the mutiny. A series of arrests were made resulting in those men being assigned to disciplinary battalions. Disciplinary battalions, usually 200 men at a time, were often sent to NW Front until Twelfth Army complained that they more trouble than they were worth. Subsequently the disciplinary battalions were detained at the naval bases where they became progressively more difficult to control.

As 1916 wore on morale declined still further. Whenever ships changed commanders or officers transferred and attempts were made to tighten discipline where it was perceived to be too lax the men reacted with dumb insolence or worked at a snail’s pace. That November Grigorovich expressed his concerns to the Tsar during an interview at Stavka. However, Nicholas refused to discuss internal security matters nor did he respond to written reports on similar matters. The situation was summed up in a report from the commander of the Kronstadt base to the navy’s representative at Stavka. “Yesterday I visited the cruiser Diana…I felt as if I were on board an enemy ship.… In the wardroom the officers openly said that the sailors were completely revolutionaries.… So it is everywhere in Kronstadt.”

In November 1916 the Russian defences claimed their greatest victory. A force of eleven German destroyers became entangled in minefields while hunting coastal traffic and within forty-eight hours seven were lost and one severely damaged. There was no Russian shipping in the area as they had intercepted radio transmissions and stayed away.

Boredom and lack of activity were not the only reasons for the men’s increased disillusionment with the war and the regime. Service in the navy demanded a different sort of recruit to those of the army. The literacy rate amongst sailors was approaching seventy-five per cent, (in the army it was less than thirty per cent) a higher standard of proficiency with technology was vital as were teamwork and initiative, all qualities which fostered a more highly skilled and integrated body of men. The close proximity to urban, industrial centres inevitably led them to be exposed to extreme political viewpoints and the discussion of conditions ashore. Consequently when the revolution came in March 1917 the sailors of the Baltic Fleet were ready and willing to participate.

The Black Sea Fleet

The Black Sea Fleet (Admiral A. A. Eberhardt) followed a more aggressive policy, mounting operations against the Bosporus on 28 March 1915 and again the next month in support of the Gallipolli expedition. By way of drawing the Turks attention to the Black Sea coastline pretence was made of reconnoitring the shore for possible landing sites as had been agreed with the Western Allies. The Anatolian coastline slowly came to be dominated by the Russians which forced the Turks to rely more and more on the slower overland route to supply men and munitions for their Caucasian Front. When Bulgaria entered the war several raids were made against coastal shipping but the presence of German submarines limited such operations. However, it was in support of the right flank of the Caucasian Front that the Black Sea Fleet made its strongest contribution.

In August 1916 Kolchak was appointed commander of the Black Sea Fleet. In November the Black Sea Fleet suffered its greatest loss, the newly completed battleship Emperatritsa Mariia which blew up in Sebastopol harbour with over 400 casualties. For the remainder of the war the Black Sea virtually became a Russian lake and increasing use was made of the navy to ferry and escort supplies to the army. The reasons noted for the decline of the Baltic Fleet were much less pronounced amongst the Black Sea sailors. The simple fact that the men were more or less continually involved in an active war and were not subject to urban influences to the same extent as in the Baltic saved the Black Sea Fleet from the worst excesses of the March Revolution. Kolchak took many of his ships to sea when the situation in Petrograd became serious and only returned to harbour when the Tsar had abdicated. Thus, when dozens of officers of all ranks in the Baltic Fleet were being murdered by their men the Black Sea Fleet remained comparatively quiet.

The navy and the revolutions

The speed with which the Baltic Fleet’s sailors responded to the March events in Petrograd points to a sense of unity of purpose, although not necessarily a carefully tailored uprising guided by a single mind. When the revolution began the sailors supported it from the outset and were prepared to shoot any who stood in their way. This included their officers, although many were also killed as retribution for past behaviour. On 16 March Admiral A. I. Nepenin, commanding the Baltic Fleet, informed the Provisional Government, “The Baltic Fleet as a military force no longer exists.” As far as he could see his ice bound ships had raised red flags.

In both fleets committees were established with powers similar to those in the army. The difference between the fleets was Baltic Fleet’s greater degree of militancy and involvement with the affairs of Petrograd. During the July Days Baltic Fleet sailors were heavily involved but the actions subsequently launched to contain radicalism seem to have achieved little but the further alienation of the men. Despite this the sailors supported Kerensky during the Kornilov affair but by the end of September the Provisional Government exercised very little authority over them.

The History of the Russian Navy II

Top: M.P. Goncharov. BOD Admiral Isakov. 2012 Bottom: S. M. Ananko. Gloomy morning. 2012

Top: S. M. Ananko. TAVKR “Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov” while practicing combat training tasks at sea. 2016 Bottom: S. M. Ananko. The heavy nuclear missile cruiser Peter the Great. 2016


Popularly known in the West as the “Red Fleet,” the Soviet Navy was divided by geography and ship and base disposition into the Baltic Fleet, Black Sea Fleet, and Pacific Fleet. It suffered a bloody purge in 1930, and was intermittently purged by Joseph Stalin after that. From 1935 Stalin ended debate over whether the Soviet Navy should deploy as a “Jeune École” fleet equipped only for “small wars” or deploy as a “Mahanian” blue water battlefleet that sought “command of the sea.” He chose the latter and thereafter launched a shipbuilding program that centered on battleships, heavy cruisers, and other large capital warships. Stalin insisted on building battlecruisers as well, a ship type for which he exhibited a pronounced preference against all professional advice. The purpose of the big ships was to gain mastery of the sea around the northern coastlines of the Soviet Union: on the Gulf of Finland, Baltic Sea, and Sea of Japan. That essentially clear, rational, traditional naval outlook was complicated by personal quirks and oddities of the views and personality of Stalin. Most important among his direct interventions was refusal to build aircraft carriers, a decision that reflected his limited understanding of how navies projected power.

Stalin at first looked to the United States for assistance in building a blue water fleet of battleships and battlecruisers. His request to commission a U.S. shipyard to build a battleship for the Soviet Navy was spurned. Stalin turned next to Adolf Hitler for technical aid, from the end of their partnership in conquering Poland in 1939 to the start of Hitler’s BARBAROSSA invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Stalin paid Hitler back by extending operational cooperation to the Kriegsmarine in its war with the Western Allies. A special naval base was set up for the Germans at Lista Bay near Murmansk that was used by the Kriegsmarine to facilitate the WESERÜBUNG invasion of Norway in April 1940, while several other Soviet ports were opened to German warships. The Soviets also aided transfer of a German auxiliary cruiser around Siberia to prey on Allied shipping in the northern Pacific. For this assistance the Kriegsmarine provided Moscow specialized naval equipment, ship schematics, and a partially completed cruiser in a form of barter exchange. This odd situation reflected Stalin’s long-term view of the need to build up Soviet naval power and misreading of the German Führer’s intentions. Stalin’s view contrasted sharply with Hitler’s belief that any short-term naval aid to Moscow would prove irrelevant once he unleashed his armored legions in the east.

The Baltic Red Banner fleet began the war with just two World War I–era battleships and two cruisers. These remained confined to the base at Kronstadt. It also had 19 destroyers and 65 submarines of varying quality, as well as a fleet air arm of over 650 planes. During the Finnish–Soviet War (1939–1940) the Baltic fleet moved to cut off Finland from sea lanes to Sweden, but no naval engagements ensued with Finnish surface ships. That changed with BARBAROSSA, as the Kriegsmarine joined the fight in the Baltic. The Germans moved dozens of minelayers, minesweepers, and other coastal warships to Finland before June 1941, and afterward established a major base in the port of Helsinki. Most naval action in the early part of the German–Soviet war in the Baltic was confined to laying sea mines, sweeping for mines, U-boat attacks, and aerial attacks by the Luftwaffe on exposed Soviet ships. There were several small Soviet and German amphibious clashes over a number of small islands. The major Soviet warship and transport losses came in August in one of the least known, although the worst, convoy actions of the entire war. The Soviets sought to relocate smaller warships from Tallinn to Kronstadt and to evacuate as many personnel by ship as they could before the Panzers arrived in the Estonian capital. In the German attack on the hastily formed Soviet convoy the Soviet Navy lost 18 small warships and 42 merchantmen and troopships, most to a night encounter with a dense minefield. The following day, as all major warships fled the convoy, Luftwaffe dive bombers struck floundering and exposed troopships and transports. Only two survived. Total loss of life was at least 12,000.

The naval garrison on Kronstadt held out for 28 months during the siege of Leningrad, then used its big guns to support the Red Army in the operation that finally broke the siege in January–February, 1944. Meanwhile, in 1942 the Soviet Navy went on the offense in the Baltic. It sent submarines deeper into the sea, where they enjoyed some success against German and Finnish shipping plying trade routes from Sweden and along the coastline of Germany. Several Swedish ships were sunk inadvertently, which moved the Swedish Navy to introduce a convoy system and on occasion to depth charge Soviet boats. The most successful Soviet naval operation in the Baltic was an amphibious lift of nearly 45,000 troops to Oranienbaum in 1944, during the offensive that lifted the siege of Leningrad. An even larger set of amphibious operations landed Red Army soldiers and Soviet Navy marines on a number of small, but key, islands in the Gulf of Riga in late 1944. The situation in the air was also reversed by 1944, as Red Army Air Force and Soviet Navy planes harassed and sank congested German shipping. From 1941 to 1945 the Soviet Baltic fleet lost one old battleship (to bombs), 15 destroyers, 39 submarines, and well over 100 minesweepers, smaller warships, and transports, as well as numerous landing craft. A modern battleship under construction before the war was locked in port by the siege of Leningrad and never completed.

The war began disastrously for the Soviet Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, which was bombed at anchor on the first day, June 22, 1941. Before that attack the Black Sea Fleet comprised a single modernized dreadnought, four cruisers, dozens of older and new destroyers, 47 old submarines, nearly 90 motor torpedo boats, and sundry coastal craft. It had 626 aircraft, mostly of obsolete types. The Black Sea Fleet was also responsible for the Caspian Sea, the Sea of Azov, and patrolling the lower Don and Volga Rivers. A 59,000 ton giant super battleship, the “Sovetskaia Ukraina,” was still under construction when the bombs started to fall, just like its sister ship in Leningrad. When Army Group South took the port of Nikolaev during the Donbass-Rostov operation, the “Sovetskaia Ukraina” was captured. Once the terrible siege of Sebastopol began, the Fleet’s main port was closed to naval operations and ships scrambled to relocate to ports farther east. The first Black Sea Fleet amphibious operation was a landing of 2,000 marines behind Rumanian lines near Odessa, a desperate action that failed to save the city. Instead, between October 1–16, 1941, an evacuation of over 86,000 soldiers and 14,000 other Soviet citizens was carried out from Odessa. The Fleet facilitated large-scale amphibious landings at Kerch-Feodosiia in December 1941. Without effective Kriegsmarine opposition in the Black Sea, the Soviets took the Germans in the Crimea by surprise. They came ashore in force, over 40,000 strong, at more than two dozen locations behind the main enemy force, which was investing Sebastopol. More troops were sent in via an ice road over the Kerch Straits. A larger amphibious and airborne operation was planned to retake the entire Crimean peninsula in January 1942, but it was canceled when the situation badly deteriorated. When the Germans assaulted in May with their main force, relocated from Sebastopol, the Soviet Navy evacuated survivors across the Kerch Straits.

All this time, the Black Sea Fleet maintained a 240-mile lifeline into Sebastopol under constant and heavy Luftwaffe attack. By late 1942 the Fleet faced German and Italian small craft flotillas that were shipped overland and reassembled in the Crimea. The Soviets also faced at least six Axis submarines in the Black Sea, including one from Rumania. In February 1943, the Soviets carried out two amphibious landings around Novorossisk. The smaller landing established a beachhead that held on, and was successfully reinforced by sea. On September 10 the port fell when Black Sea Fleet leaders used over 130 small boats to enter and assault the harbor. However, in October the Fleet lost three new destroyers to land-based bombers, after which Stalin forbade its commanders to expose any surface ships to danger. More landings were made in German rear areas to block the Wehrmacht on its long retreat out of the east. These were mostly wasteful of Soviet lives and forces. Worst of all, the Soviet Navy failed to prevent evacuation of over 250,000 Axis troops of Army Group A across the Kerch Straits during September–October, 1943. That was mostly Stalin’s fault: he refused to expose any large surface ships to German bombing, lest they be lost. That lessened the victory at Sebastopol achieved by Soviet ground forces in May 1944: a flotilla of small ships and barges was massively bombed and shelled, but 130,000 German and Rumanians escaped who could have been stopped by the big guns of destroyers, cruisers, and the Fleet’s unopposed dreadnought that Stalin would not allow into action.

Pacific Fleet operations were minimal and strictly defensive until the Manchurian offensive operation (August 1945). Most submarines were therefore released for service in the North Sea. To get there, they made a remarkable voyage across the Pacific, down the coast of North America, through the Panama Canal, and across the Atlantic to Murmansk or Archangel. Not all survived the journey. Those that did took up duty scouting for and protecting arctic convoys from Britain. In September 1943, the Soviet Navy was denied any ships surrendered by the Regia Marina to the Royal Navy at Malta. They went to the British instead. The Soviets did acquire a number of German surface ships in late May 1945, along with a share in those U-boats that were scuttled by their captains or sunk by the Western Allies.

Soviet Navy – Post WWII

In the immediate post-war years the only naval units of even marginal significance were three battleships: a Russian vessel dating back to tsarist times and two British ships of First World War vintage, which had been lent to the USSR during the war. One of the latter was returned to the UK in 1949, having been replaced by the ex-Italian Giulio Cesare, which the Soviets renamed Novorossiysk.fn3 There were also some fifteen cruisers – a mixture of elderly Soviet designs, nine modern Soviet-built ships, a US ship lent during the war (and returned in 1949), and two former Axis cruisers, one ex-German, the other ex-Italian. There was also a force of some eighty destroyers, also of varying vintages and origins.

During the 1940s and 1950s these Soviet warships were rarely seen on the high seas, apart from a limited number of transfers between the Northern and Baltic fleets, which tended to be conducted with great rapidity. The only exception was a series of international visits, mainly by the impressive Sverdlov-class cruisers, which were paid to countries such as Sweden and the UK. The navy suffered a major setback in 1955 when the battleship Novorossiysk was sunk while at anchor in the Black Sea by a Second World War German ground mine, an event which led to the sacking of the commander-in-chief, Admiral N. M. Kuznetzov; he was replaced by Admiral Gorshkov.

In the early 1960s, however, individual Soviet units began to be seen more frequently in foreign waters, as did ever-increasing numbers of ‘intelligence collectors’, laden with electronic-warfare equipment. These ships, generally known by their NATO designation as ‘AGIs’, monitored US and NATO exercises and ship movements. The original AGIs were converted trawlers and salvage tugs, but, as the Cold War progressed and the Soviet navy became increasingly sophisticated, larger and more specialized ships were built, culminating in the 5,000 tonne Bal’zam class, built in the 1980s. In addition to such ships, conventional warships regularly carried out intelligence-collecting and surveillance tasks, particularly when Western exercises were being held. Apart from general eavesdropping on Western communications links and studying the latest weapons, such missions helped the Soviet navy to learn about US and NATO tactics, manoeuvring and ship-handling.

The Soviets also put considerable effort into espionage (human intelligence, or HUMINT, in intelligence jargon) against Western navies. This included the Kroger ring in the UK, which was principally targeted against British anti-submarine-warfare facilities, and the Walker spy ring in the USA, which gave away a vast amount of information on US submarine capabilities and deployment.

The growth and increasing ambitions of the Soviet navy were best illustrated by the size, scope and duration of its exercises. The first important out-of-area exercise was held in 1961, when two groups of ships – one moving from the Baltic to the Kola Inlet and the other in the opposite direction (a total of eight surface warships, four submarines and associated support ships) – met in the Norwegian Sea. There they conducted a short exercise before continuing to their respective destinations.

In early July 1962 transfers between the Baltic and Northern fleets again took place, coupled with the first major transfer from the Black Sea Fleet to the Northern Fleet. This was followed by a much larger exercise, extending from the Iceland–Faroes gap to the North Cape, which included surface combatants, submarines, auxiliaries and a large number of land-based naval aircraft. The activity level increased yet again in 1963, and the major 1964 exercise involved ships moving through the Iceland–Faroes gap for the first time, while units of the Mediterranean Squadron undertook a cruise to Cuba. By 1966 exercises were taking place in the Faroes–UK gap and off north-east Scotland (both long-standing preserves of the British navy) and also off the coast of Iceland.

In 1967 the naval highlight of the Arab–Israeli Six-Day War was the dramatic sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat by the Egyptian navy using Soviet SS-N-2 (‘Styx’) missiles launched from a Soviet-built Komar-class patrol boat. Not surprisingly, Soviet naval prestige in the Middle East was high, and the Soviets took the opportunity to enhance it yet further by port visits to Syria, Egypt, Yugoslavia and Algeria, employing ships of the Black Sea Fleet.

The following year saw the largest naval exercise to date; nicknamed Sever (= North) it involved a large number of surface ships, land-based aircraft, submarines and auxiliaries. The exercise covered a variety of areas, but the main activity took place in waters between Iceland and Norway. One of the naval highlights of the year, for both the Soviet and the NATO navies, was the arrival in the Mediterranean of the first Soviet helicopter carrier, Moskva.

Further exercises and deployments took place in 1969, but in the following year Okean 70 proved to be the most ambitious Soviet naval exercise ever staged. This involved the Northern, Baltic and Pacific fleets and the Mediterranean Squadron in simultaneous operations, with the major emphasis in the Atlantic. A large northern force, comprising some twenty-six ships, started with anti-submarine exercises off northern Norway between 13 and 18 April, and then proceeded through the Iceland–Faroes gap to an area due west of Scotland, where it carried out an ‘encounter exercise’ against units from the Mediterranean Squadron. The two groups then sailed in company to join the waiting support group, where a major replenishment at sea took place. Other facets of the exercise included units of the Baltic Fleet sailing through the Skaggerak to operate off south-west Norway, and an amphibious landing exercise involving units of the recently raised Naval Infantry coming ashore on the Soviet side of the Norwegian–Soviet border.

This was a very large and ambitious exercise, from which the Soviet navy learned many major lessons, one of the most important of which was the falsity of the concept of commanding naval forces at sea from a shore headquarters. Such a concept had been propagated for two reasons: first, because it complied with the general Communist idea of highly centralized power and, second, because it also avoided the complexity and expense of flagships. Once Okean 70 had proved this concept to be impracticable, ‘flag’ facilities were built into the larger ships, although the Baltic Fleet continued to be commanded from ashore.

The exercise which took place in June 1971 rehearsed a different scenario, with a group of Soviet Northern Fleet ships sailing down into Icelandic waters, where they reversed course and then advanced towards Jan Mayen Island to act as a simulated NATO carrier task group, which was then attacked by the main ‘players’. Again, a concurrent amphibious landing formed part of the exercise.

There were no major naval exercises in 1972, but in a spring 1973 exercise Soviet submarines practised countering a simulated Western task force sailing through the Iceland–UK gap to reinforce NATO’s Northern flank, while a similar exercise in 1974 took place in areas to the east and north of Iceland. Okean 75 was an extremely large maritime exercise, involving well over 200 ships and submarines together with large numbers of aircraft. The exercise was global in scale, with specific exercise areas including the Norwegian Sea, where simulated convoys were attacked; the northern and central Atlantic, particularly off the west coast of Ireland; the Baltic and Mediterranean seas; and the Indian and Pacific oceans. Overall, the exercise practised all phases of contemporary naval warfare, including the deployment and protection of SSBNs.

In 1976 an exercise started with a concentration of warships in the North Sea, following which they transited through the Skagerrak and into the Baltic. Although not an exercise as such, great excitement was caused among Western navies when the new aircraft carrier Kiev left the Black Sea and sailed through the Mediterranean before heading northward in a large arc, passing through the Iceland–Faroes gap and thence to Murmansk. NATO ships followed this transit very closely, as it gave them their first opportunity to see this large ship and its V/STOL aircraft.

The following year saw two exercises in European waters, the first of which was held in the area of the North Cape and the central Norwegian Sea. The second was much larger and consisted of two elements, one involving the Northern Fleet in the Barents Sea, while in the other ships sailed from the Baltic, north around the British Isles and then into the central Atlantic. Also in 1977 the Soviet navy suffered the second of its major peacetime surface disasters when the Kashin-class destroyer Orel (formerly Otvazhny) suffered a major explosion while in the Black Sea, followed by a fire which raged for five hours before the ship sank, taking virtually the entire crew to their deaths.

In 1978 the passage of another Kiev-class carrier enabled an air–sea exercise to take place to the south of the Iceland–Faroes gap. Similar exercises followed in 1979 and 1980. The 1981 exercise involved three groups and took place in the northern part of the Barents Sea.

There were no major naval exercises in 1982, but the following year saw the most ambitious global exercise yet, with concurrent and closely related activities in all the world’s oceans, involving not only warships, but also merchant and fishing vessels. In European waters, three aggressor groups assembled off southern Norway and then sailed northward to simulate an advancing NATO force; they were then intercepted and attacked by the major part of the Northern Fleet.

The major exercise in 1985 followed a similar pattern, with aggressor groups sailing northeastward off the Norwegian coast, to be attacked by a large Soviet defending task group which included Kirov, the lead-ship of a new class of battlecruiser, Sovremenny-class anti-surface destroyers and Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyers, as well as many older ships. There was also substantial air activity, which included the use of Tu-26 Backfire bombers. Although not apparent at the time, this proved to be the zenith of Soviet naval activity, and in the remaining years of the Cold War the number and scale of the exercises steadily diminished.

These major exercises enabled the Soviet navy to rehearse its war plans and to demonstrate its increasing capability to other navies, particularly those in NATO. There were, of course, many smaller exercises, such as those involving amphibious capabilities, which took place on the northern shores of the Kola Peninsula, on the Baltic coast and in the Black Sea. It is noteworthy, however, that the vast majority of the exercises held in European waters, and particularly those held from 1978 onwards, while tactically offensive, were actually strategically defensive in nature, involving the Northern Fleet in defending the north Norwegian Sea, the Barents Sea and the area around Jan Mayen Island.

Soviet at-sea time was considerably less than that of the US and other major Western navies. The latter maintained about one-third of their ships at sea at all times, while only about 15 per cent of the Soviet navy was at sea, reducing to 10 per cent for submarines. The Soviets did, however, partially offset this by placing strong emphasis on a high degree of readiness in port and on the ability to get to sea quickly.

Modern Russian Federation Navy

The 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union led to a severe decline in the Russian Navy. Defense expenditures were severely reduced. Many ships were scrapped or laid up as accommodation ships at naval bases, and the building program was essentially stopped. Sergey Gorshkov’s buildup during the Soviet period had emphasised ships over support facilities, but Gorshkov had also retained ships in service beyond their effective lifetimes, so a reduction had been inevitable in any event. The situation was exacerbated by the impractical range of vessel types which the Soviet military-industrial complex, with the support of the leadership, had forced on the navy—taking modifications into account, the Soviet Navy in the mid-1980s had nearly 250 different classes of ship. The Kiev class aircraft carrying cruisers and many other ships were prematurely retired, and the incomplete second Admiral Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier Varyag was eventually sold to the People’s Republic of China by Ukraine. Funds were only allocated for the completion of ships ordered prior to the collapse of the USSR, as well as for refits and repairs on fleet ships taken out of service since. However, the construction times for these ships tended to stretch out extensively: in 2003 it was reported that the Akula-class submarine Nerpa had been under construction for fifteen years. Storage of decommissioned nuclear submarines in ports near Murmansk became a significant issue, with the Bellona Foundation reporting details of lowered readiness. Naval support bases outside Russia, such as Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, were gradually closed, with the exception of the modest technical support base in Tartus, Syria to support ships deployed to the Mediterranean. Naval Aviation declined as well from its height as Soviet Naval Aviation, dropping from an estimated 60,000 personnel with some 1,100 combat aircraft in 1992 to 35,000 personnel with around 270 combat aircraft in 2006. In 2002, out of 584 naval aviation crews only 156 were combat ready, and 77 ready for night flying. Average annual flying time was 21.7 hours, compared to 24 hours in 1999.

Training and readiness also suffered severely. In 1995, only two missile submarines at a time were being maintained on station, from the Northern and Pacific Fleets. The decline culminated in the loss of the Oscar II-class Kursk submarine during the Northern Fleet summer exercise that was intended to back up the publication of a new naval doctrine. The exercise was to have culminated with the deployment of the Admiral Kuznetsov task group to the Mediterranean.

As of February 2008, the Russian Navy had 44 nuclear submarines with 24 operational; 19 diesel-electric submarines, 16 operational; and 56 first and second rank surface combatants, 37 operational. Despite this improvement, the November 2008 accident on board the Akula-class submarine attack boat Nerpa during sea trials before lease to India represented a concern for the future.

In 2009, Admiral Popov (Ret.), former commander of the Russian Northern Fleet, said that the Russian Navy would greatly decline in combat capabilities by 2015 if the current rate of new ship construction remained unchanged, due to the retirement of ocean-going ships.

In 2012, President Vladimir Putin announced a plan to build 51 modern ships and 24 submarines by 2020.[32] Of the 24 submarines, 16 will be nuclear-powered. On 10 January 2013, the Russian Navy finally accepted its first new Borei class SSBN (Yury Dolgorukiy) for service. A second Borei (Aleksandr Nevskiy) was undergoing sea trials and entered service on 21 December 2013. A third Borei class boat (Vladimir Monomakh) was launched and began trials in early 2013, and was commissioned in late 2014.

War Against the Cossacks I

At the start of 1919, the Red Army was in disarray; by the end of the year, the Whites were fleeing. General Denikin reached the high point of his push toward Moscow when the Volunteer Army took Orel, two hundred miles south of the capital, on October 13, 1919, where the campaign stalled. In November, General Iudenich was defeated in the north. In Siberia, as we know, Admiral Kolchak renounced his claim to supreme leadership on January 4, 1920, and was executed a month later. On April 4, 1920, Denikin was succeeded at the head of the Volunteer Army by Baron Petr Wrangel, a scion of the German and Swedish Baltic nobility. The last of the White commanders, Wrangel continued the effort for another six months. On November 2, he retreated to the Crimea; two weeks later, he boarded ship to Constantinople with the remainder of his troops and as many civilian refugees as managed to escape along with him. The challenge to Bolshevik power from the old regime military establishment had been defeated.

In some respects, Red victory reflected certain obvious advantages. The Soviets controlled the geographic center and what was left of the imperial administration; they had a unified mission and a leader of overwhelming authority, equipped with a powerful ideology accessible at every level of the social hierarchy, from sophisticated intellectuals to the last ragged foot soldier. The Whites had a defensive, not an inspirational message; their leadership was fragmented geographically, ideologically, and personally; their forces were scattered around the peripheries. Yet the outcome was far from inevitable, and the Bolsheviks felt themselves vulnerable until the very end.

Although in 1919 the Reds were fighting “on all points of the compass,” the focus was on the south. As we have seen, Moscow continuously pressured Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko in the Ukraine to send troops to the Southern Front. By mid-February, the Red Army had moved a quarter of its men and resources to the Southern Army Group. Ranged against it were three White armies—Denikin’s Volunteer Army, Petr Krasnov’s Don Army, and Wrangel’s Caucasus Volunteer Army—which at the start of the year had combined to form the Armed Forces of South Russia, under Denikin’s command, headquartered in Ekaterinodar in the deep Kuban. Krasnov and Denikin had never been able to cooperate. Once the armies joined forces, Krasnov was replaced at the head of a much weakened Don Army by a more accommodating commander.

In January and February 1919, the Armed Forces of South Russia easily swept the Reds out of the North Caucasus, taking fifty thousand prisoners. The commander of the North Caucasus Red Army, Grigorii “Sergo” Ordzhonikidze, wired Lenin that his army had “ceased to exist. … The enemy occupies cities and stanitsas almost without resistance. … There are no shells or bullets.” Those Red Army men who escaped walked across the desert to the port city of Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea, some dying along the way, from typhus, storms, cold and hunger; after leaving Stavropol, some headed south through the mountains into Georgia.

The Red defeat gave the Whites an important advantage. With the Caucasus Mountains at their back, Denikin could safely head north, on the quest to put the Empire back together again. “A swollen army, really a horde rather than an army,” Trotsky remarked, “has clashed with Denikin’s properly-organized troops and in a few weeks has been reduced to dust. For the illusion of partizanstvo we have once more paid a high price.” To counter desertion and insubordination, in late 1918 Red Army Commander in Chief Ioakim Vatsetis had demanded the application of Red Terror in the army, “not only against outright traitors and saboteurs but also against cowards, scoundrels, and their accomplices and concealers.” As we have seen, the Bolsheviks had from the start considered the struggle against the class enemy as a form of warfare, authorized and executed by the state, against the domestic population. But in the military itself not all problems could be solved by terror. In the south, the Red Army was far from home base, suffering from a weak supply system and chronic desertion, reliant on relatively young and inexperienced officers and on former tsarist commanders of doubtful loyalty.

By contrast, the Whites were supplied out of the port of Taganrog; they had overall a more professional officer corps and the use of battle-hardened Cossack cavalry. Though troop reinforcements were not forthcoming, the British supplied ammunition and equipment, clothing and boots. Whether the supplies served their purpose is not clear. Of the beds and medical equipment destined for a hospital in Ekaterinodar, British journalist John Ernest Hodgson reported, nothing ever got there. “Beds, blankets, sheets, mattresses, and pillows disappeared as if by magic. They found their way to the houses of staff officers and members of the Kuban Government.” Nurses’ uniforms were similarly rerouted. “I did not, during the whole of my service with the Army in Russia,” Hodgson later recalled, “ever see a nurse in a British uniform; but I have seen girls, who were emphatically not nurses, walking the streets of Novorossisk wearing regulation British hospital skirts and stockings.”

Misappropriated or not, British aid continued until the end of the year, bolstering the Whites’ military advantage. Red Army troops in the south greatly outnumbered Denikin’s forces, yet in the first months of 1919 the Whites conquered one city after another. All attempts by the Red Army between March and May to regain control of the Donbas and the Upper Don ended in failure. By the end of June, they had lost Tsaritsyn, which they had captured in fall 1918, Kharkov, and Ekaterinoslav. Buoyed by success, on July 3, 1919, Denikin issued a secret order, the so-called Moscow Directive, outlining his plan for conquest of the Soviet core. His leading generals were each to follow a railway line and converge on the capital—Wrangel up the Volga, Vladimir Sidorin north along the Don, Vladimir Mai-Maevskii from Kharkov to Moscow. This was an ambitious plan, intended to recruit a peasant army along the way, threaten the regime’s geographic hub, and establish a popular base for the counterrevolution. It seemed to be working. Wrangel, after taking Tsaritsyn, moved up along the Volga, chasing the Reds before him. By early August, he was approaching Saratov, 250 miles further up the river.

The Red Army had no choice but to focus on the southern threat. On July 3, Vatsetis had been replaced as commander in chief by Colonel Sergei Kamenev, a former tsarist officer who had welcomed both February and October and soon rose in the Red Army. The appointment of Kamenev and his chief of staff, General Pavel Lebedev, reflected the shift in summer 1919 to greater reliance on old regime holdovers, though accompanied by lingering distrust. But the “military specialists,” as they were dubbed, were needed. Trotsky insisted that the use of partisan outfits, with headstrong commanders resistant to central authority, was a recipe for defeat; the army must impose discipline and unitary top-down command.

On July 9, Lenin demanded “All Out for the Fight Against Denikin.” The Soviet Republic “must be a single armed camp.” Instead of focusing on the Donbas, with its denser railroad network and a factory work force that would presumably have welcomed the Reds, Kamenev proposed moving into the Kuban, striking at Denikin’s heartland, through uncertain Cossack terrain. Trotsky disliked the plan and attempted to resign as commissar of war, but the offer was rejected. Meanwhile, the Whites, under the command of General Mai-Maevskii, gained control of the Donbas. In the Upper Don, the Red Army was hampered behind the lines by Cossack revolts in the very area which had earlier deserted Krasnov and allowed the Reds to enter. The conduct of Soviet officials had since then turned the Cossacks against them. In the course of August, in central Ukraine, the Whites took Poltava, Kherson, Nikolaev, Odessa, and Kiev.

The most spectacular moment in the northward White sweep was the raid executed in August by Lieutenant General Konstantin Mamontov’s IV Don Cavalry Corps. His seven to eight thousand fierce Cossacks covered five hundred miles in forty days of pillage and destruction, on a path that included Tambov and reached Voronezh, three hundred miles south of Moscow, in mid-September. Mamontov used the familiar slogan as his rallying cry: “Arm yourself and rise against the common enemy of our Russian land, against the Jewish Bolshevik Communists!” Trotsky denounced his fighters as “mounted bandits,” “wild dogs,” who “get drunk, rape women, beat up old men.” They were not soldiers but degenerates who must be “tracked down like beasts of prey” and annihilated. As usual, though, the enemy also lurked within. Communists must be on guard, Trotsky warned, against anyone giving aid, directly or indirectly, to the bandits. “Cowards, self-seekers, deserters must be punished on the home front as they are in battle—by shooting.”

After Voronezh, however, Mamontov’s men had taken their loot and gone home. The remnants of the IV Don Corps were destroyed in November. Mamontov died of typhus in Ekaterinodar in February 1920, but he had taught the Red Army a lesson. His men behaved like criminals, but he was a skillful partisan leader and the style of warfare was effective. In Ukraine the Bolshevik leadership had rejected “primitive, inexperienced partisan methods.” The regular army had not yet formed, and the independent bands were out of control. At the start of the year, Trotsky had again denounced “the partisan scourge,” but now he insisted the Red Army needed a new kind of partisan—disciplined outfits subordinate to the main command but capable of supplementing the regular army with targeted actions behind the lines.

Mamontov raised the issue not only of partisan warfare but of cavalry. And here, too, Trotsky changed course. In mid-September, he issued the incongruous command, “Proletarians, to horse!” “The most conservative type of weapon, almost on the point of extinction,” he explained, “has suddenly returned to life and become a most important means of defense and offense in the hands of the conservative and declining classes. We must tear this weapon from their hands and make it our own. The workers’ revolution must create a mighty Red Cavalry.” By the end of the year the Red Cavalry (Konarmiia), under Semen Budennyi’s command, counted fifteen thousand horsemen. They were neither proletarians nor even mostly Cossacks, but peasants.

Partisan methods might be needed in extremis, but the Red Army continued to develop in the direction demanded by Lenin and Trotsky, toward greater professionalism and discipline. New men were trained as “Red Commanders,” noncommissioned officers were promoted, and party members were recruited into the army, where they helped educate the troops. The Cheka paid special attention to monitoring the conduct and attitudes in the ranks. The army still suffered from lack of equipment, high rates of desertion, illness, and draft dodging, in addition to battle casualties. The campaign against deserters intensified in mid-1919, leading to the return of 1.4 million men in the second half of the year. Technology was still primitive. The Red Army relied mainly on horse-drawn carts to transport machine guns; armored cars were useless on the terrible roads; armored trains fared better, when the tracks were still in place.

Despite these changes, in early fall of 1919, the Soviet regime was still embattled. Denikin resumed his northward offensive in mid-September, following the railroad from Kharkov through Kursk and Orel toward Tula, site of the Red armaments factories, headed for the capital. A week after Kursk fell on September 20, martial law was declared in Moscow. On October 13 Denikin took Orel. General Iudenich’s Northwest Army was meanwhile nearing Petrograd. The tide turned quickly, however. By the end of October, as we have seen, Iudenich had been driven back. By then, also, the Latvian Rifle Division had helped the Red Army retake Orel, and Budennyi’s Red Cavalry had recaptured Voronezh. It was the turn of the White armies to retreat, this time on a long trek southward. In early January 1920, they crossed the Don.

In August 1919, Trotsky had dismissed Denikin’s Moscow Offensive as an audacious gesture born of despair. Wrangel later called the plan “the death sentence of the South Russian armies.” “Striving for space,” he concluded, “we endlessly stretched ourselves into a spider’s web, and wanting to hold on to everything and to be everywhere strong we were everywhere weak.” Denikin defended the strategy. “We lengthened the front by hundreds of versts and became from this not weaker, but stronger.” At their farthest reach, the White armies had occupied 350,000 square miles with a population of forty-two million, but they were never in any one place for long. The only area they held for more than five months was the North Caucasus and part of the Don, with a population of a mere nine million. The Soviets, by contrast, dominated a population of sixty million on a vastly broader terrain, fielding a vastly bigger army, which, despite its many weaknesses, continued to gain in strength.

Once his fortunes changed, Denikin’s forces crumbled. In December 1919 Denikin shifted Wrangel from the Caucasus Army to the Volunteer Army, but Wrangel, then ill with typhus, quarreled with the Volunteer command and was replaced at the start of the new year. The Whites lost Kiev on December 16, Tsaritsyn on January 2, 1920. The Volunteer and Don Armies were tired of fighting. The Red Army took Novocherkassk and Rostov on January 7, and crossed the Don ten days later. Denikin now, belatedly, offered concessions to the Cossacks—the greatest being their own army under the Cossack general Andrei Shkuro—but the White commanders kept quarreling, and the old distrust between former tsarist officers and the Cossack “separatists” endured. The Kuban Cossacks had their own leader and were unwilling to attach themselves to the broader Russian crusade. They were reluctant even to follow their own local but fragmented leadership.

In a last gasp, the Armed Forces of Southern Russia took Rostov yet again on February 20, but it was a futile move. The best of the White cavalry, under General Aleksandr Pavlov, were destroyed by a fierce snowstorm, in which many of the men and horses froze to death. Abandoning Ekaterinodar in mid-March, the White army began a final retreat, this time ignominious, Cossacks and refugees heading toward the sea. At Novorossiisk, on the Black Sea coast directly east of Crimea, the remaining British stores were thrown into the water; Cossacks shot their horses; civilians crammed into the few British ships waiting to take them away. The cavalry that reached Crimea arrived without their mounts. The Kuban Army, which had rejected Denikin, headed for the mountains, but the Georgians would not let them cross over, and some sixty thousand surrendered in April.

The indignity and disorder of the evacuation were echoed in the tensions between the White leaders, who fell out among themselves. In January Wrangel plotted to unseat Denikin, in February Denikin dismissed Wrangel, and in March Denikin’s chief of staff was assassinated, probably by another officer. On March 3, now in Crimea, Denikin resigned and Wrangel replaced him. A month later, Denikin left for Constantinople on a British destroyer. The broad southern front had been reduced to the nub of the Crimea, where the final act would play itself out.

After Constantinople, Denikin made his way first to England, then Belgium, spending a few years in Hungary before settling in Paris in 1926. In 1940, after the German occupation, he made his way to the south of France, where he lived undisturbed for the duration of the war. He left for the United States in 1945 and died of a heart attack while visiting Ann Arbor, Michigan, in August 1947. His remains were reburied in Donskoi Monastery in Moscow in 2005, when Patriarch Aleksei II hailed him as a champion of a united Great Russia.

It was one thing for the Reds to assert military superiority over forces organized from outside, which had used the Don and Kuban as staging grounds for their larger imperial ambitions. It was another thing to get a foothold among the population of this turbulent region. As they did everywhere else, the commissars struggled to impose their authority by means both of propaganda and repression: ideological saturation, plus systematically applied reprisals. The point was always to simplify the political landscape, to eliminate rivals on the left, discipline their popular followers, intimidate groups with a vested interest in opposing Bolshevik rule, and dramatize the high costs of noncooperation.

The Cossacks as a people persisted, however, in their complexity. Those who had abandoned General Kaledin in early 1918 later also resisted the Reds. In the region itself, the Bolshevik leaders of the Don Party Bureau and the Southern Front Revolutionary Military Council approached the Cossacks with caution. They had adopted a policy of targeted reprisals against men who had fought with Krasnov and local leaders (priests, atamans) who actively promoted the White cause. They rejected the generalized assault on anyone once connected to Krasnov’s army as sure to alienate the broad population. They recognized that many Cossacks had been recruited into the White army, or even joined up for various reasons, without ideological conviction. Of course, it was this very instability, captured in Mikhail Sholokhov’s Quiet Flows the Don (1928–1932), where Cossacks figure as the collective protagonists, that aroused suspicion.

On January 24, 1919, the Moscow party leadership announced a new, more aggressive approach. Referring to the “Cossack people” (kazachestvo) as a whole, the directive informed local officials “that the only correct approach is the merciless fight against all the Cossack elites by means of their complete annihilation. No compromises, no halfway measures can be accepted.” The circular called for “mass terror against wealthy Cossacks, exterminating every last one,” as well as “merciless mass terror against Cossacks of any kind who have participated directly or indirectly in the fight against Soviet power.” A category described as “middle Cossacks” was to be treated preemptively, in such a way as to discourage opposition. The policy was known as “de-Cossackization” (razkazachivanie), a concept earlier used in the context of abolishing the estate hierarchy and status privileges. Cossacks stood to forfeit both the burden of military obligation and their favorable access to land. In some areas of the Don, war-weary Cossack veterans preferred to give up their advantages, but most viewed the abolition of estate categories as a threat to their collective existence.

In January 1919, the term acquired a more ominous meaning. The purpose now was literally to decapitate Cossack society and intimidate everyone else. In applying the new decree, the Southern Front Revolutionary Military Council nevertheless continued to favor the execution of ringleaders over the slaughter of ill-defined “Cossack elites.” The policy, however construed, was implemented by extraordinary tribunals mounted in the occupied stanitsas. Despite the relative moderation of the Don-based commissars and local party leaders, Moscow pressured the tribunals for results. Their energetic decisions, over the course of a mere six weeks, resulted in the deaths of as many as ten thousand Cossacks in the Don territory, where groups of men were systematically rounded up and shot after perfunctory hearings. The military leadership of the Southern Front defined the categories to be executed, on the basis of thoroughgoing sweeps of the Cossack settlements. These included anyone holding any kind of public position; all Krasnov officers, in particular, and anyone associated with Krasnov, in general; figures associated with the old regime; and “all rich Cossacks without exception.” Property belonging to the victims was to be confiscated and redistributed. Many Cossack fighters who avoided execution were confined to prisons in conditions that encouraged epidemics.

The application of the January 24 circular has been called a Cossack genocide. The death toll was extreme, the purpose murderous, but the goal of wiping out the entire Cossack population “to the very last one,” was never explicitly stated and never achieved. The language of the circular targeted “elites,” though it was vague enough to give license to indiscriminate slaughter. If not literally genocidal, the policy was designed to tear apart the fabric of Cossack society and destroy its economic life. The Cossacks were both a fighting force and a community, but they were not now confronted on the battlefield; they were murdered in their homes. The January 24 circular made for excellent White propaganda, and its implementation naturally increased the hostility of the Cossack population as a whole, confirming the presumption that they were endemically hostile to the revolution. A case of terror substantiating its own fears.

Since the party apparatus had barely penetrated the Don, repression was implemented by outsiders with little understanding of the people they were sent to subdue. Their cultural distance no doubt made it easier to accomplish their ruthless task. Indeed, party leaders were explicit about the danger of trying to win over “the counterrevolution” by persuasion rather than crushing it by force. People from the inside were more likely to be soft; what was needed were “experienced, enterprising, energetic, and decisive Communists,” the Don Party Bureau advised, if possible from Moscow and Petrograd. The purpose of the campaign was clear both to those in Moscow who defined it and to those who put it into effect. It was not a matter of local comrades going overboard or getting out of hand. The January 24 circular was signed by Iakov Sverdlov, chair of the All-Russian Executive Committee, with the support of Lenin and Trotsky. Inside the Don Party Bureau, some questioned its wisdom, but the enthusiasts, local chair Sergei Syrtsov and Aron Frenkel’, were the ones who carried it out.