Swedish Operations in the later Thirty Years War


The brief review of Swedish operations in the Thirty Years War after the death of Gustav Adolf would be incomplete without some mention of the lightning operations carried out by Field Marshal Lennart Torstensson (1603–1651). He took over operations in Germany after the death of Johan Banér on 10 May 1641, and his campaigns resulted in what might be called a period of Swedish revival based on mobility and iron discipline.

Torstensson was one of the last survivors of Gustav Adolf’s great lieutenants. Due largely to his year of imprisonment after being captured at Alte Veste, he had become a sickly, dissolute, and prematurely old man. He was so racked by gout that he could barely walk and sign his name. He had been in Sweden and left that war-weary and financially strapped country with 7,000 raw recruits. Upon arrival he was confronted with another mutiny among the mercenaries, which, despite his ailments, he managed to put down.

After a period of reorganization, in 1642 he began his fast-moving campaigns that are second only to Gustav Adolf’s in military achievement. The campaigns brought him to Saxony, Bohemia, Denmark, and Moravia. He won four notable victories that brought him to the very gates of Vienna. His fame as a successful military commander was marred, however, by destructiveness and brutality. He made no attempt to pay the troops, which comprised an open invitation for them to to plunder and which brought the worst thugs into his service. His method of enforcing discipline was little short of spreading terror as he routinely relied on the lash, the rack, and the gallows. He showed equal lack of pity for prisoners and noncombatants. In Saxony he left a trail of burning villages as he moved through the territory in 1642.

What characterized Torstensson’s military campaigns was relentless and rapid movement, and unpredictable maneuvers which left both friends and foes confused. The Saxon army was soundly defeated at Schweidnitz by a few speedy maneuvers followed by blows which staggered the opponents and put them to flight, minus their artillery. Having disposed of the Saxons, Torstensson moved into Moravia and laid the countryside waste. Olmütz was captured and the Swedish army advanced to within twenty-five miles of Vienna before falling back into Saxony when faced by a much stronger army under Archduke Leopold (1614–1662).


The Swedes had already begun a siege of Leipzig when the archduke caught up with them. This time Torstensson did not withdraw but faced his pursuers in what is known as the Second Battle of Breitenfeld, on 2 November 1642. The imperial forces were commanded by Archduke Leopold and Field Marshal Ottavio Piccolomini (1599–1656). The imperial army is said to have numbered 26,000 men when the Saxon contingent of about 1,700 is counted. The Swedish army was inferior in numbers, having about 19,000 men.

The two armies camped for the night, with the imperial forces on the east side of Seehausen facing west. Torstensson was at Breitenfeld. Both armies advanced on the morning of 2 November with Torstensson drawing up in battle order in front of the village of Linkwald. Piccolomini recommended to Leopold that sixteen cavalry regiments be sent north around the woods to turn the Swedish left flank. This was done.

Torstensson shifted his army to confront the attack against his left, and the action was underway by 1000 hours. While the imperial attack was hampered because of an extension of the woods that split their advance, they made some progress against the Swedish center. However, the decisive action was taking place on the Swedish right where Generals Avid Wittenberg (1606–1657) and Torsten Stalhansk (1594–1644) led a devastating cavalry attack against the imperial right under General Hans Puchheim (1605–1657). The Swedish advance was so rapid that Puchheim did not have time to properly deploy his troops.

Several regiments of the imperial first line broke and fled even before contact was made, and this led the Saxons in the second line to also flee. Stalhansk led the pursuit of the fleeing imperial cavalry and Saxons while Wittenberg led the rest of the Swedish cavalry back behind the Swedish battle-line to assist the Swedish left under Colonel Erik Slang (1600–1642). That wing, which had advanced in a more deliberate manner, was under heavy pressure after Slang was killed as Croat cavalry were in the process of turning the flank. General Johan Königsmarck (1600–1653), commanding the cavalry in the second line, was able to hold the flank long enough for Wittenberg to arrive around noon. The Swedes swept around the enemy flank and drove it back on the center.

Archduke Leopold and Piccolomini led their bodyguards in an unsuccessful and desperate counterattack to try to restore the situation. The archduke almost lost his life. The infantry south of the woods was trapped and surrendered after a short resistance.

The Swedes had won the battle through smashing cavalry charges. Leo -pold escaped, but only after losing half his army in killed or prisoners, who immediately took service with the victor. One source reports that Torstensson himself—virtually bound to his horse and reins—led the charge against the imperial left wing, separating it from the infantry.

The Swedish losses were 4,000 killed or wounded while the imperial losses were 8-10,000 dead and captured. They also lost all their artillery—46 guns—their field treasury, and supply train. Leipzig fell to the Swedes on 7 December 1642, and this time it remained in their hands until 1650. News of the defeat struck fear in Catholic Germany. However, like so many other battles, it did not lead to decisive strategic results.

Torstensson returned to Moravia but was then ordered against Denmark, which had begun to side with the Empire during the last years of the war. The reason for the Swedish surprise attack on Denmark and Norway was to punish Denmark for joining with the emperor and to insure that their attempts to mediate an end to the war ceased.

The emperor had sent an army north to help his new ally. Leaving a force to hold Denmark, Torstensson turned back south, eluding the imperial forces and spreading devastation through Hapsburg holdings in the north. The imperial forces finally caught up with Torstensson, but suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Juterborg.

Despite now enjoying naval superiority, the war did not initially go well for the Swedes in the Scandinavian Peninsula. Field Marshal Horn was recalled from retirement to lead an army of 10,600 men against Skåne, the Danish held part of southern Sweden. Horn captured Helsingborg and blockaded Malmö while another army occupied the Norwegian province of Jämtland. The local Skåne militia stopped Horn’s advance and began raiding Swedish territory. The Norwegian army blockaded Gothenburg from land while a Danish fleet was stationed outside the harbor.

The first Danish-Swedish naval engagement ended in a Danish victory over a Dutch mercenary fleet in Swedish service. A 41-ship Swedish fleet was trapped in Kiel Bay when it withdrew after a long-range bombardment by the Danish fleet. The Danes landed guns and bombarded the Swedish ships from the shore. The Swedish ships were now under command of General Karl Gustav Wrangel (field marshal from 1646) and he managed to slip out of the trap with lights extinguished. The emperor had meanwhile sent an army under Field Marshal Gallas to assist the Danes, although there was no formal alliance.

King Kristian IV prepared to ferry an army to Sweden to relieve Malmö and drive Horn out of the province. A Norwegian counterattack had already driven the Swedes out of Jämtland.

Meantime the Swedish fleet had been repaired and had linked up with the remnants of the Dutch mercenary fleet. With a combined force of 37 ships the Swedes found the Danish fleet under Admiral Mundt at Fehmarn Island on 23 October 1644. Half the Danish fleet had already been laid up for the winter, leaving them with only 17 undermanned ships. The surprise attack succeeded completely and only three of the Danish ships escaped, Admiral Mundt was killed.

The Swedish attack on Denmark did not make their French ally happy. They had reached agreement with the Dutch Republic in January 1644 to limit Swedish gains since they did not want Sweden in complete control of the entrance to the Baltic. Peace talks opened at the border town of Brömsebro in southern Sweden in February 1645 and the treaty was signed in August. Sweden gained virtually all her demands, despite not having had any spectacular results in the land war. She was awarded the Baltic islands of Ösel and Gotland, and Denmark had to relinquish the province of Halland on the western Swedish coast for 30 years as an assurance that the peace would be kept. The Norwegians lost the provinces of Jämtland and Här-jedalen.


After Juterborg, Torstensson invaded Bohemia where he met another army of imperial and Bavarian troops at Jankau, on 6 March 1645. The imperial and Bavarian troops that Torstensson faced at Jankau were of higher quality than any he had yet encountered. The two armies were evenly matched in number at 16,000 each, with Field Marshal Hatzfeldt holding a slight advantage in cavalry while Torstensson had a similar advantage in infantry. However, the Swedes had a substantial superiority in artillery—60 to 26 tubes.

The Swedes won the battle through superior and steadfast leadership at the same time as the other side made several errors and failed to coordinate actions. Torstensson’s maneuvers, shielded by woods, confused the imperial commander, allowing the Swedes to eliminate enemy detachments one by one. Torstensson reported that he lost only 600 men. The imperial troops lost half their army, including 4,000 prisoners. Field Marshal Johan Götz was killed along with five senior officers—two colonels and three lieutenant colonels. The imperial commander, Field Marshal Hatzfeldt, was captured along with five generals, eight colonels and fourteen lieutenant colonels.25 Nearly all of the veteran Bavarian cavalry perished.

The ransoming of captured senior officers had become commonplace at this stage of the Thirty Years War. The warring parties saw no advantage in keeping these prisoners, and their exchange had become a source of revenue. Field Marshal Torstensson allowed the whole imperial general staff captured at Jankau their freedom in return for 120,000 riks-dollars.

Transylvania entered into an alliance with Sweden in 1643, and agreed to invade Hungary and Silesia. The Swedish purpose in encouraging this was to divert the emperor’s attention while Torstensson dealt with Denmark. While Transylvania’s entry into the war caused considerable alarm, the Hungarian incursion ran into more resistance than had been expected. The Transylvanians were not ready to do anything further until they had active support from Sweden. In the meantime they accepted Ferdinand’s offer for negotiations.

Transylvania became more active in the wake of Jankau and the receipt of French subsidies. News of the imperial debacle Jankau caused considerable alarm in Vienna. Most forces were withdrawn behind the Danube, and the militia, consisting of 5,500 citizens and students, was called up to reinforce the 1,500 man garrison.

Torstensson encountered problems when he reached the Danube. His Finnish engineers were accustomed to securing boats to build bridges, but all the local boats had been moved to the southern bank of the river. The 14,200 Transylvanian troops which had joined him were proving unreliable, and he was worried about the link to his base. It was decided to capture Brün while he waited for reinforcements. An outbreak of plague resulted in the loss of 8,000 Swedes and Transylvanians during the siege.

Negotiations between the Empire and Transylvania had meanwhile resumed, and the Emperor’s offer for peace was accepted in August 1645. This forced the Swedes to lift the siege of Brün but, encouraged by the peace treaty between Sweden and Denmark, Torstensson decided to try once more to take Vienna. The imperial forces south of the Danube had now grown to over 20,000 while Torstensson, now seriously ill, had about 10,000. He cancelled his attempt and moved his forces north through Saxony and into Thuringia. Here he turned over command of the Swedish army in Germany to Field Marshal Karl Gustav Wrangel (1613–1676).

The Thirty Years War was beginning to wind down. The cautious French Marshal Turenne combined with Field Marshal Wrangel to devastate Bavaria, forcing the 73-year-old Maximilian to sue for a truce. Fearing that such a truce would lead to a French withdrawal from the war, Wrangel opposed granting a truce but finally relented. The Truce of Ulm was agreed to on 14 March 1647.

Brandenburg and Saxony had already been forced to conclude truces with the Swedes—Brandenburg, now under Elector Friedrich Wilhelm, in 1641 and Saxony in 1645 after its isolation following the Battle of Jankau. The terms were rather lenient. Sweden accepted Saxon neutrality in return for a payment of 11,000 thalers a month for the Swedish garrison in Leipzig and freedom of movement through Saxony. In return Sweden agreed to lift their siege of the Saxon garrison of Magdeburg.

Field Marshal Wrangel’s doubts about the wisdom of the Ulm Truce proved to be correct, since the French stood to benefit most from it. Swedish-French relations were also soured by the defection of six French cavalry regiments during a “lack-of-pay mutiny.” These regiments took service with the Swedes! The Emperor was able to bribe Maximilian to break the Ulm Truce on 7 September 1647.

Maximilian’s breach of the truce had the effect of improving Swedish-French relations to the point where Marshal Turenne and Field Marshal Wrangel united to invade Bavaria. The imperial troops were under the command of Field Marshal Peter Melander (1589–1648), a very capable officer. He was now commanding the last Hapsburg army left in Germany, a force of less than 16,000 with only enough horses for about one third of his cavalry. The allies, who had a clear superiority with 22,000 troops, caught up with the imperial army in heavily wooded terrain near the village of Zusmarshau sen. General Raimond Montecuccoli (1609–1680) commanded the rear guard of the withdrawing imperial army and carried out his task in a spirited manner. Pursued by six Swedish and three French cavalry regiments, he was finally outflanked. Melander turned around with part of his force to extricate his rear guard, but was mortally wounded in the chest. The action of the rear guard had bought the time needed to get the demoralized remnants of the imperial army behind prepared entrenchments, from which they continued their withdrawal after darkness, abandoning their guns and trains.

Although the allies had failed to destroy the imperial forces at Zusmars -hausen, the end was inevitable. The imperial remnants repelled several allied attempts to cross the Lech River until Field Marshal Wrangel, in an attempt to repeat Gustav Adolf’s success, had his cavalry swim the river. Luck was on his side as the imperial outposts reported that the allies were across the Lech in force. General Jobst Gronsfeld (1598–1662), now in command of the imperial forces, withdrew to Ingolstadt, abandoning southern Bavaria to the allies. The imperial army dissolved during the retreat, dropping to 5,000 effectives.

In a sure sign of an empire in trouble, Gronsfeld was fired and he was followed by a number of successors until Field Marshal Piccolomini was settled on. Meanwhile the allies devastated Bavaria, sparing only Munich, in order to force Maximilian to terms. He and his court had already fled to Salzburg.

The imperials and Bavarians were eventually able to recover somewhat to a combined strength of 24,000. Turenne and Wrangel retired slowly to avoid a possible reverse that would complicate peace negotiations. The Swedes were still besieging Prague.


The emperor finally agreed to sign what became known as the Treaties of Westphalia, documents that had been negotiated over several years. There were actually two treaties, with the empire settling with Sweden in the Peace of Osnabrück and with France in the Peace of Münster. The treaties were formally sworn and signed on 24 October 1648.

However, almost six years passed before the last foreign garrison left, since the countryside now swarmed with unemployed and lawless mercenaries. And despite the end of the Thirty Years War, peace did not return to Europe. England and Scotland were in the middle of a rebellion, and France became embroiled in the civil war of the Fronde. In addition, waves of Swedes, Russians, and Cossacks invaded Poland and Lithuania between 1648 and 1656. As much as one third of the population was left dead in their wake. Poles remember the period as the Deluge and consider it the worst catastrophe in their tragic history of calamities.

Sweden received several important territories in north Germany by the Treaties of Westphalia, primarily in Pomerania. The acquisition of Bremen gave Sweden a base on the North Sea. The treaties also assured that the Baltic had become a Swedish lake, at least temporarily, as hoped for by Gustav Adolf. The Swedish forces in Germany numbered about 70,000 in 1648. Almost half were scattered in 127 garrisons or strongpoints, strategically located.30 The localities where the troops were located were required to pay maintenance fees as long as the troops were present. Germany and the Empire had to pay huge sums for their withdrawal or disbandment—15 million thalers from the Empire and 5 million more from the local German communities. Accelerated withdrawals called for additional payments.

The only power to totally reject the Peace of Westphalia, not surprisingly, was the Papacy. Pope Innocent X denounced it as null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damniable, reprobate, insane and empty of and effect for all time. He was politely ignored by the Catholic powers.

Pagden writes that it was defeat on the battlefield that forced the Christian churches in Europe to relinquish their hold over individual judgment. It can be argued that we have now, in the 21st century, returned to a period where organized religion is very active in influencing the political leanings of individual believers, with the rise of Islam being a case in point.


Trojan Tank

In 1974 after several periods of violence between the ethnically split inhabitants of Cyprus, two NATO countries went to war with each other.  Today I’ll be looking at some of the armour actions of that conflict on the small Mediterranean island.

In the early hours of July 20th 1974, a fleet of Turkish ships appeared off of the coast of northern Cyprus. Originally they were attempting to land and create a bridgehead at Glykiotissa, however, finding this landing site unusable they switched to Pentemilli and began landing.  In the first waves there were about 3000 men and 20 M113’s.  Two days later the first Turkish armour landed, 15 M47 Pattons were brought ashore.

Facing them was the Greek Cypriot National Guard, most of its heavy weapons were of Second World War British origin, such as 6 and 25 pounder guns, although it did have some more modern weapons.

The GCNG had an armoured branch on the island but these were T-34/85 tanks brought from the Soviet Union and shipped via Egypt in 1964.  They were a mash up of models and parts, but had been fitted with US made M2 .50 calibre heavy machine guns.  Old when they were delivered, after a decade of use they were utterly worn out.

The first clash of armour came at 10:00 on the first day of the invasion.  A handful of T-34’s supported by their infantry attacked the bridgehead, destroying two M113’s.  In return in a separate engagement two T-34’s were destroyed by Turkish handheld anti-tank rockets.  Already the strain on the tanks was beginning to show, several tanks had broken down and were abandoned.  Another attempted counterattack that night and two more T-34’s broke down, while a third got stuck in a dried up river bed.

The next morning The Turkish Air Force destroyed the two broken down tanks, while the one stuck in the riverbed was captured and freed by the approaching Turkish forces.  Three days into the fighting and the Turkish force launched a breakout.  The last local T-34’s had run out of ammunition and were abandoned in place.

With a secure beachhead the Turkish forces were comfortable with a ceasefire, to see if a diplomatic solution could be found.  Meanwhile both forces prepared for another clash.  The Turks brought in more forces, while the GCNG dug in.

While the diplomats talked, there were still several clashes and outbreaks of fighting.  The most important to our story is the Battle of Kornos Hill (Hill 1024), located near to Mount Pentadaktylos.  In the morning of the 2nd of August, the hill was attacked by a Turkish force.  The defenders threw the attack back.  In the afternoon a much larger force was brought up and smashed the defenders aside.  The Turkish armour pushed on.  Leading the column was a pair of M47 tanks, followed closely by two M113’s.

The armour wound its way along a narrow road cut into the hillside.  The road itself was only a few inches wider than the M47 tanks with a sheer cliff face on one side, and a wooded drop on the other.  The lead tank hit a mine, which blew its track off.

This was the cue for the defending GCNG infantry battalion to open fire with its ambush.  The infantry was armed with M40A1 106mm recoilless rifles.  Their first shot hit the 4th vehicle in the column, one of the M113’s.  The 106mm HEAT warhead burned through the fragile light weight armour which was only intended to stop shrapnel and caused it to go up in flames.  The other M47 and M113 were trapped and unable to move, with the M47 barely able to rotate its turret due to the closeness of the cliff face.  The Turkish forces were forced to retreat.

The following morning a recovery team from the GCNG’s Mechanized Battalion arrived at the site of the battle.  They managed to free the two trapped vehicles, and both were returned to their depot for repairs.

At the depot the M47 was found to have a broken hydraulic turret traverse, in fact all the Turkish M47’s had had that system disabled. The GCNG soon had the tank fully operational. In a stroke of luck the M47 was not repainted.

Meanwhile the diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful situation were going badly, and soon failed.

The Turks launched a new phase of offensives on August the 14th.  Although they had lost some tanks, the Turkish armour managed to drive 80 km’s in the first day, smashing aside the defenders.

North West of Nicosia lies the village of Skylloura.  The Turks attacked on the 15th with about 30 tanks reinforced with two battalions of paratroopers.  The defenders consisted of five companies of infantry, and one tank, the previously captured and now fully operational M47.

Early in the battle the infantry used a 106mm recoilless rifle to knock out one of the attackers.  The Turks encircled the village and thats when the Greek M47 struck.  In an audacious move she moved through the confusion and joined the back of one of the Turkish tank columns.  The Turks just saw a friendly tank joining their attack.

With total and utter surprise the M47 was able to attack the Turkish tanks.  For two hours she roamed amongst the confusion of the battle using her superior gun traverse to out manoeuvre the Turkish tanks.  Often disappearing then reappearing, the Turks didn’t know if it was a friendly tank or not.

They found out the hard way as the 90mm gun suddenly and with frightening speed swung in their direction before sending a shell roaring towards them, followed closely by the loud clash of the shell striking armour.

After two hours the Greek M47 escaped from the battle back to friendly lines.  Behind her seven Turkish tanks lay destroyed and burning.

That M47 remained in service with the Greek Cypriot National Guard until 1993.

David Lister

Siege to Fort Saybrook

Fort Saybrook-The English planned the building of a fort in the region during 1635 to offset the Dutch, who had also coveted the area. The region in Connecticut had been inhabited by the Algonquin and Nehantic Indians, but the Pequot Indians had eliminated them and were a powerful tribe when the English moved into the area. The construction of Fort Saybrook was authorized by John Winthrop Jr. (appointed first governor of the River Connecticut by the Warwick Patentees). Winthrop selected Lieutenant Lion Gar- diner of Massachusetts for the project, which also called for a town to be built in the vicinity of the fort. Actual construction of Fort Say- brook, the initial military fort to be constructed in Connecticut, began during March of 1636. By April, the settlement of Saybrook, named after Lord Saye and Sele and Lord Brooke, was also underway.

The Pequot War War broke out in 1636, the first major Indian-white conflict in New England. The death of a coastal trader, John Oldham, in July of that year caused the outbreak of violence. Another coastal trader, John Gallup, discovered Oldham’s hijacked boat off Block Island, skirmished with the Pequot on board, then reported the incident to colonial officials.

Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered out an expedition under John Endecott. His force attacked Indians on Block Island and burned their villages. But many of those killed were Narragansett, not Pequot. The soldiers did not bother to distinguish among the various Algonquian peoples.

Endecott’s army then sailed to the Connecticut mainland in search of Pequot. The settlers at Fort Saybrook tried to talk Endecott out of further attacks because they feared Indian reprisals. But Endecott was intent on revenge and burned several Pequot villages, killing one man.

Sassacus now sought revenge. During the winter of 1636-37, his warriors laid siege to Fort Saybrook and raided isolated settlements. The Pequots attacked Fort Saybrook in September 1636 and kept it in a state of siege until April 1637, picking off anyone outside the fortifications. And they killed, captured, and tortured men who ventured from the fort to harvest crops. In April, the fort received reinforcements from Massachusetts, and the Pequots shifted their attacks to more vulnerable areas. The Pequots continued to harass the garrison, however, paddling past the fort and taunting the occupants by displaying clothing taken from English victims.

Acknowledging his weakness, Sassacus initially sought to ally himself with the powerful Narragansetts and make a concerted effort against the Europeans. However, his diplomacy was thwarted by Roger Williams of Rhode Island, long viewed by that tribe as a benefactor, and they remained neutral. Sassacus remained unperturbed by this setback, and in the spring of 1637 his warriors ravaged the settlement of Wethersfield, on the Connecticut River, killing nine colonials. The colonies mounted a large army under Captains John Mason and John Underhill. The force sailed west- ward along the Connecticut coast, then circled back, overland, from Narragansett Bay. Despite the attack on their people on Block Island, Narragansett joined the colonial force against their enemies the Pequot, as did Mohegan and Niantic.

At dawn on May 25, 1637, the invading army attacked Sassacus’s village. Fighting from behind their palisades, the Pequot repelled the first attack. But the colonists managed to set the wigwams on fire. Those who fled the flames were cut down in the surrounding countryside. Those who stayed behind, mostly women and children, burned to death. From 600 to 1,000 Pequot died that morning. Sassacus and others escaped. His group was attacked in a swamp west of New Haven the following July, but he managed to escape again, seeking refuge in MOHAWK territory. To prove that they had no part in the Pequot uprising, the Mohawk beheaded the Pequot grand sachem.

Pequot captives were sold into slavery in the Caribbean or given as slaves to the Mohegan, Narragansett, and Niantic as payment for their help in the war. The colonists no longer permitted the use of the Pequot tribal name or the use of Pequot place-names. Some Pequot escaped to Long Island and Massachusetts, where they settled with other Algonquians. In 1655, the colonists freed Pequot slaves in New England and resettled them on the Mystic River.

Saybrook Fort & the Pequot War

Operation Attila

Turkey was among the largest recipients of American MAP aid, receiving 1,347 M47s from the USA and from Germany, 1,849 M48s and 350 M48A1s. Some of the M47s saw combat action against T-34/85s and Marmon-Herrington armoured cars in the hands of Cypriot forces during Operation ‘Attila’, the invasion of Cyprus, in August 1974. The Germans provided modification kits for about 200 M48s in the 1980s, and the USA sold 348 kits to them to bring M48A1s up to M48A5 standards.

Location of Turkish forces during the late hours of 20 July 1974.

Turkish troops on the road to Famagusta

8/16/1974-Famagusta, Cyprus-Heavily armed Turkish troops waving and smiling drive into Famagusta as they occupied the city.

Turkish troops enter Famagusta.

The Turkish invasion of Cyprus, 1974. Greeks and Turks have co-existed uneasily on the island of Cyprus since Classical times. In 1974  a coup d’etat by “EOKA-B”, a violent organization seeking unity with Greece, overthrew the Cypriot government and was the trigger for the Turkish military to intervene on the island, ostensibly to guarantee the safety of Turkish Cypriots living in small enclaves across the island. The invasion, codenamed Operation ATTILA, saw two distinct bursts of action: first, on 20-23 July when Turkish forces established a beachhead then drove a narrow corridor to the capital of Nicosia; and second, when peace talks and world opinion seemed to be swinging against Turkey, a second invasion on 14 August which ended several days later with Turkish control of about 40% of Cyprus.

In 1974 Turkish and Greek factions took up arms on the island nation of Cyprus, sparking a divisive conflict with lasting ramifications.

His black clerical robes flapping behind him, Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios III (born Michael Christodoulou Mouskos) fled his office in Nicosia on the morning of July 15, 1974. The Cypriot National Guard, under the command of Greek officers loyal to Athens, was attacking the Presidential Palace and would largely burn it down. The “Regime of Colonels”—a junta of military officers that had overthrown King Constantine II and taken control of Greece in 1967—had sponsored the coup. It suspected Makarios of communist sympathies and was angry he had rejected enosis, the proposed political union of Cyprus into Greece, in favor of Cypriot independence. Eluding the rebelling guardsmen, the Eastern Orthodox prelate-politician made his way to his native Paphos District, on the west end of the island. The next day a Royal Air Force transport evacuated him to Malta. The exiled president flew on to London, and on July 19 he addressed the United Nations Security Council in New York regarding the coup. Meanwhile, his supporters back home refused to bow to the new regime, sparking infighting across the island.

Cyprus’ problems were only beginning.

Turkey, concerned about the population of Turks on the island and determined not to allow Cypriots to join Greece as Cretans had earlier that century, invaded on July 20. It was a short war, but one whose effects are felt to this day.

From 1878 Cyprus had been a British protectorate and colony, until gaining its independence in 1960. But by 1974 the island was a growing problem for NATO, to which both Greece and Turkey belonged. For decades the majority Greek Cypriots had pressed for enosis—the political union of Cyprus and Greece. Turkish Cypriots were understandably opposed to such a union and instead pressed for taksim—political partition of the island. Intercommunal violence had persisted since the mid-’50s.

Before the 1960 grant of independence, Greece, Turkey, Britain and members of the opposing Cypriot factions had signed agreements preventing the island nation from joining another country and dictating much of the machinery of its government. It also made Athens, Ankara and London guarantors of the accord, while also providing them a diplomatic excuse to intervene in Cypriot affairs if the treaty were abrogated. The Greek Cypriots loathed the agreements for two main reasons—they felt the accords disproportionately favored the minority Turkish Cypriots (who accounted for scarcely 20 percent of the population), and they worried the terms essentially gave Turkey a green light for military intervention.

The Greek Cypriots’ fears about a Turkish invasion were wholly warranted, for Ankara had been working on a contingency plan for landings on Cyprus since 1967. Code-named Attila, the operation foresaw landing Turkish troops on the north end of the island, then expanding the beachhead toward the largest enclave of Turkish Cypriots, near the capital city of Nicosia. The Greek Cypriots, for their part, had been planning a defense of the island for at least as long. Their operation to counter such an invasion—code-named Aphrodite—aimed to secure the Turkish Cypriot enclaves, deny the Turks supply bases and maintain a full Greek division on the island.

However, under the terms of the 1960 accords Greece had withdrawn virtually all of its troops, thus the Greek Cypriots developed a revised defense plan, Aphrodite 2, with the same basic objectives but involving a smaller body of troops drawn from the Cypriot National Guard (CNG).

The plans on either side might have remained theoretical had it not been for the Greek overthrow of Makarios III. While the exiled president’s address to the U.N. had damaged the international legitimacy of the Regime of Colonels, with the cleric temporarily out of play, the junta could more easily sway the political current on Cyprus. Athens began speaking openly of uniting Cyprus with Greece, which alarmed Ankara and the Turkish Cypriots. A few days after the coup, having failed to get London’s support in opposing the junta, Turkey invoked its guarantor status to justify an invasion. Ankara simultaneously issued an ultimatum demanding Cyprus observe the terms of the 1960 accords and permit Turkish forces on the island to protect the Turkish Cypriots while removing the few Greek troops still there.

Turkey’s posturing was no idle threat, as it had received modern U.S. military equipment in its role as a NATO bulwark against the Soviet Union. Over the course of the coming conflict, Ankara would commit those assets to the invasion of Cyprus, including M47 and M48 Patton tanks and North American F-100 Super Sabre and Lockheed F-104 Starfighter aircraft. By contrast, the 1960 accords had severely restricted Cyprus’ own military capabilities. Available forces included the CNG and a scattering of militias and paramilitary groups the Cypriots had used to agitate for independence. The sole Greek military unit on the island was the well-trained but comparatively ill-equipped Hellenic Force in Cyprus (ELDYK). The Greek Cypriots could muster perhaps 14,000 active-duty troops, but they lacked both a navy and an air force—two enormous disadvantages in a modern war—and their armored force comprised poorly maintained World War II–era Russian T-34/85 tanks. Making matters worse, at the time of the Turkish invasion Greek Cypriot forces were widely dispersed across the island, either suppressing resistance to the coup or resisting it.

On July 20 an amphibious force of 3,000 Turkish troops came ashore at Five-Mile Beach in Pentemili, west of the northern port of Kyrenia. The Turks had complete air superiority, and the only opposition they encountered on approach came from two Greek Cypriot torpedo boats. Turkish shipboard gunners sank both vessels before they could engage the flotilla.

The first Greek Cypriot troops to arrive at the Pentemili beachhead were two companies of the 251st Infantry Battalion, supported by five T-34/85 tanks. Their attack knocked out two Turkish armored personnel carriers and inflicted casualties, but the Greek Cypriots could not dislodge the Turks, and in trying lost all five of its tanks.

Simultaneously with the amphibious invasion, the Turks dropped paratroopers near Nicosia to unsettle the Greek Cypriots and secure control of the roads for the advancing main invasion force. The operation backfired, as many of the best Greek Cypriot units were in the area battling Turkish Cypriots in the Geunyeli enclave. Although unable to capture Geunyeli, the Greek Cypriots did defeat the Turkish paratroopers, capturing many and driving the rest northward. Recognizing the paratroopers would not achieve their objectives, Turkey launched heavy air attacks against CNG units in the area, inflicting substantial casualties.

Early the next morning the Turks began landing their second wave of invasion forces, including mechanized infantry and a squadron of 15 M-47 tanks. The CNG continued, with little success, its assault on Geunyeli. The Turks also continued their heavy air assaults, one of which fell victim to deception tactics. By transmitting false radio signals, the Greek Cypriot Naval Command tricked Turkish pilots into thinking a trio of its own destroyers were Greek ships coming to reinforce Cyprus. Kocatepe was sunk with the loss of 54 crewmen, while Adatepe and Tinaztepe were damaged and forced to return to port in Turkey.

That same night Athens experienced its own debacle as it sought to airlift in a battalion of Greek commandos from Crete. Greek Cypriot anti-aircraft gunners at Nicosia airport misidentified the arriving aircraft and opened fire on them. Although they shot down one transport and damaged two others, most of the commandos landed safely and were available for the defense of the airport.

Elsewhere on the island Greek Cypriots captured several small Turkish Cypriot towns, notably the Marxist enclave of Limassol, which they evacuated and promptly torched.

On July 22 the reinforced Turkish forces broke out of the bridgehead. Led by Brig. Gen. Hakki Boratas, the Bora Task Force wrested control of Kyrenia, connecting it and its harbor to the Pentemili beachhead. The Turks also pushed south, opening a corridor to Geunyeli. That prompted intense combat around the airport, and the Greek forces in Cyprus (the commandos, under Colonel Konstantinos Kombokis, and the ELDYK, under Colonel Nikolaos Nikolaidis) gave a good account of themselves. Turkish forces were nonetheless able to achieve most of their objectives by that evening, albeit hours after a U.N.-mandated cease-fire was to have started. By the time the fighting finally stopped, Turkey controlled a small but militarily useful portion of the island from Kyrenia to Geunyeli, just north of Nicosia—roughly 7 percent of Cyprus’ land area.

On July 23 the junta in Athens collapsed, in large part due to the conflict on Cyprus, and exiled political leaders began returning to the mainland the following day. That happenstance engendered a hopeful atmosphere for the peace talks being held in Geneva, thus there was little military activity on Cyprus between July 24 and August 13. The returning Greek prime minister, Konstantinos Karamanlis, opted to keep Greece out of the war, leaving Cyprus to fend for itself against Turkey should the peace talks fail. At the end of the second set of talks Turkey, feeling its position would only grow weaker, demanded Cyprus accept its plan to geographically separate Greek and Turkish Cypriots but govern them under a common federal state. The acting president of Cyprus requested time to consult with Athens and Greek Cypriot leaders, but Ankara refused, and on August 14 Turkish forces on Cyprus, which had been steadily building up, launched Operation Attila 2.

Athens’ decision to remain on the sidelines deprived the Greek Cypriots of any possible reinforcement from the mainland, though the commandos and ELDYK remained in the fight. The Turks boasted numerical superiority in nearly every respect, as control of the harbor had allowed them to bring to the island two full infantry divisions as well as armor, mechanized infantry and artillery. With that in mind the Greek Cypriots established two main defensive lines. The first faced the Turks and would be quickly overrun, so the defenders planned to inflict maximum casualties and then fall back to the Troodos line—named for the mountain range spanning the heart of the island from east to west—where they would stand and fight. While they lacked numbers, the Greek Cypriots had gained one notable advantage. Public opinion, originally with the Turks, had swung to their favor. To the world at large the underdog Greek Cypriots were far more sympathetic figures, thus the Turks had only a short operational window before they could expect outside intervention.

The Greek Cypriots had divided their first defensive line into three sectors: western, central and eastern. The central line—the shortest of the three—ran east from Nicosia airport through town to the Mia Milia suburb. The western line ran north from the airport to the coast, and the eastern from Mia Milia to the coast. The eastern line was the strongest, as the defenders expected the weight of the Turkish attack to fall there.

As expected, that attack began on the morning of the 14th with naval, air and artillery bombardment of Greek Cypriot positions along the eastern line. The Greeks responded with counterbattery fire, but not enough to deter elements of the Turkish 39th Division from advancing shortly thereafter. Though the defenders repelled the infantry assaults, the Turks quickly followed up with armored attacks that skirted the Greek minefields and broke through the sector defended by the 399th Infantry Battalion. Lacking antitank weapons, the men of the 399th fell back toward the Troodos line. To prevent a rout, CNG commanders ordered the 341st and 226th battalions to assemble a secondary defensive line, but that evening the 226th was compelled to retreat south, leaving the 341st isolated. In the central sector, after a preliminary bombardment by artillery and aircraft, Turkish units launched successive attacks against CNG and ELDYK positions around Mia Milia using a reinforced Turkish Cypriot regiment and a squadron of 17 M-48 tanks. The Turks captured a hilltop at Elissaios but gained little else, while sustaining heavy casualties.

On August 15 Greek troops in the eastern sector continued to retreat, all except the 341st Infantry Battalion, which had been reinforced by six 6-pounder guns and three T-34 tanks. Late in the day, however, its commander, given his unit’s isolated position and the approach of the Turkish 14th Infantry Regiment, ordered a retreat, covered by the T-34s. In its haste the unit left behind the tanks and 6-pounders. Meanwhile, lead Turkish units along the western line advanced nearly 4 miles, prompting Greek Cypriots in that sector to withdraw to the Troodos line.

The next day, August 16, there was little fighting in either the eastern or western sector, as Turkish units consolidated their gains of the previous two days and slowly advanced against minimal resistance. In the central sector the Turks resumed their infantry-armor push against CNG and ELDYK forces near the latter’s camp. There were heavy casualties on both sides, but by early afternoon the Turks’ numerical superiority helped them seize control of the camp. They then continued their attack into Nicosia, but were stopped by Greek Cypriot antitank and infantry fire, as well as fire from a few T-34s being used as mobile artillery.

At 6 p.m. that evening another U.N. brokered cease-fire went into effect. But as the Turks had not yet reached the Troodos line in most places, both Greek Cypriot and Turkish forces spent the next day maneuvering for position, though little fighting took place. The Greeks, conscious of their military inferiority, were not about to give up the advantages afforded them by a cease-fire, while the Turks seemingly appreciated increasing international disapproval enough to honor the cease-fire despite their military superiority. Both sides fortified their lines with trenches, mines, barbed wire and other obstacles. There were no further actions after August 18, by which point the Turks controlled just under 40 percent of the island.

By modern standards the 1974 conflict on Cyprus was short and relatively bloodless. Fewer than 80,000 troops had participated, and there was only significant fighting on six days—July 20–22 and August 14–16, though the time between July 23 and August 14 did see low-intensity combat. Total casualties were also relatively low, with fewer than 2,000 killed.

Yet the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus has cast long shadows. The island remains divided between the predominately Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The war has also been a sticking point between Turkey and Greece (and much of Europe) since the end of the conflict—a solution to the “Cyprus problem” was made a condition of Turkey’s accession to the European Union when it sought to join in the early 2000s. As it remains unrecognized by the international community at large, the Republic of Northern Cyprus relies heavily on support from Ankara. The status of Cyprus has dogged NATO, too, as the unresolved conflict between member nations only serves to weaken the alliance.

The 1974 invasion was unlike many small-scale wars in that it drew in players beyond the two main combatants, Turkey and Cyprus. The Greek junta, fearing Cypriot President Makarios was getting too cozy with the Soviets, sponsored the coup that precipitated the war. Similarly, the conflict ended not with a decisive military outcome or a truce arranged by the combatants, but because outside powers—notably the U.N. and the United States—stopped it. They trusted in politics and statesmanship to resolve the Cyprus problem—but tensions remain high on the divided island.

David Harris wrote “Father of the Navy” (January 2018), a profile of Commodore John Barry, the first commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy. For further reading he recommends Cyprus 1974: “This Ain’t No Picnic, It’s War,” by Al Gaudet, and The History and Politics of the Cyprus Conflict, by Clement Dodd.

Roman Defence in Depth Against the Pictish Threat

Rome’s strategy in dealing with the Pictish threat after c.340 was essentially defensive and reactive. Retaliatory strikes deep into the Highlands were no longer part of the plan. Instead, the prime objective was maintenance of a static frontier supplemented by covert military operations between the two walls and in the wild lands further north. In an effort to maintain the integrity of Hadrian’s Wall the Romans were helped by Britons living in the lands beyond. The native population of this region between the Hadrianic line and the disused Antonine ramparts became a first line of defence. Such an arrangement suited the economic constraints and political uncertainties facing Rome at that time. It allowed a dwindling number of imperial troops to be redeployed elsewhere. At the hub of the new defensive network lay Hadrian’s Wall with its forts and crossing-points. Behind the great barrier stretched an infrastructure of roads, forts and watchtowers providing both an early warning system and a capability for rapid response. In theory at least, this strategy of ‘defence in depth’ shielded the people of Britannia from hostile attacks by Picts, Saxons, Irish and other predators. North of Hadrian’s Wall the four outpost forts garrisoned in the third century were still occupied at the dawn of the fourth. Although situated outside the Empire’s boundary, none of the quartet lay more than twenty miles from the Wall. Their garrisons supervised the natives of the intervallate zone, a population whose status vis-à-vis the imperial authorities after 300 remains a matter of debate. In this region four large amalgamations of Britons already existed in the second century: the previously mentioned Damnonii, Votadini, Selgovae and Novantae. Whether these groups owed their origin to Rome’s onslaught in the first century or were formed in spite of it we are unable to say. By c.300, they may have been in existence for two hundred years or more, but how much longer they endured is unknown. Ptolemy’s map shows their positions relative to one another and identifies their chief centres of power. Although the map shows a snapshot of political geography as perceived by Roman geographers in the second century, the distribution of peoples in the intervallate region may have remained largely unchanged two hundred years later.

On Ptolemy’s map we see the Novantae inhabiting the northern shorelands of the Solway Firth, in territory corresponding to present-day Dumfriesshire and Galloway. Although their lands were vulnerable to raids from Ireland and the Hebridean seaways, their main centres of power were sited on the western coast, in the vicinity of Loch Ryan and modern Stranraer. Here, the long peninsula of the Rhinns of Galloway, marked on the map as Novantarum Chersonesus, protrudes into the Irish Sea. The key settlements were Rerigonium (possibly Innermessan) and Loucopibia (possibly Gatehouse of Fleet). Directly north, in what is now the county of Ayrshire, lay territory associated with either the Novantae or with a people called Damnonii (or Dumnonii). Damnonian lands included the lower valley and estuary of the River Clyde, together with parts of what later became the medieval earldom of Lennox. An important centre of power in this area was the imposing mass of Dumbarton Rock, a volcanic ‘plug’ jutting into the Firth of Clyde and dominating the surrounding area. Traces of elite occupation on the summit indicate that it was used by high-status Britons as far back as pre-Roman times. Later, when local native leaders were apparently co-operating with Rome, the great Rock may have guarded imperial interests in the north-western seaways. Through the Damnonian heartlands ran the western extremity of the Antonine Wall, its turf ramparts and abandoned forts already falling into dereliction by c.300. Further east, in Stirlingshire and Lothian, the redundant barrier meandered through the northern borderlands of the Votadini, another of the four intervallate groupings. Votadinian territory extended south of the Firth of Forth to the River Tweed and perhaps even as far as Hadrian’s Wall. Its hub was evidently the Castle Rock at Edinburgh, but other hilltop strongholds, such as a probable oppidum on Traprain Law, were also used in Roman times. The northern borderlands of the Votadini faced the Maeatae of Stirlingshire and the Picts of Fife. On the south-western flank lay the Selgovae (‘Hunters’), another large amalgamation of peoples. Selgovan territory included the central and upper vales of Tweed together with vast tracts of uncharted forest. Unlike their neighbours, the Selgovan elites of the third and fourth centuries were closely supervised by Rome. Within their territory lay the last of the outpost forts: Bewcastle and Netherby in the valleys north of Carlisle, and Risingham on the strategic Dere Street highway.

The nature of the relationship between the Empire and the intervallate Britons in Late Roman times is difficult to ascertain. It may have been sustained by regular payments from the imperial coffers to purchase the continuing goodwill of the four groups described above. One theory imagines their kings and chiefs as foederati, ‘federates’, of Rome, their domains constituting a buffer-zone between Hadrian’s Wall and the northern barbarians. If these Britons did indeed serve as allies of Rome, they would have been expected to bear the brunt of raids on the imperial frontier. Thus, while nominally independent, they may have pledged to protect Roman interests against the Pictish menace. Nevertheless, to all but the most trusting Roman officials, the intervallate Britons would have represented a potential threat. Keeping an eye on them was arguably the main function of the exploratores, ‘scouts’, a class of troops whom we can envisage patrolling beyond the outpost forts. These men were perhaps similar to the colonial rangers of eighteenth-century North America, using local knowledge to gather intelligence and launching punitive raids on troublemakers. The outpost fort at Netherby became so closely associated with these ‘special forces’ that it was known along the frontier as Castra Exploratorum (‘Fort of the Scouts’). Operating alongside the exploratores were the shadowy areani or arcani, members of a secret service responsible for covert operations, whose agents spied on the Picts and other barbarians. Historians sometimes regard them as a kind of ‘Roman CIA’ and the analogy may be broadly accurate.

Little is known of the kings and chieftains who ruled the intervallate Britons during the fourth century. Some appear to be named in genealogical texts preserved in medieval Wales but possibly drawing data from much older northern sources. The Welsh genealogies or ‘pedigrees’ show the lineages of a number of North British kings who lived in the sixth and seventh centuries. Each pedigree uses a sequence of patronyms (‘X son of Y son of Z’) to extend a royal ancestry back to the Late Roman period and, in some cases, to an even more remote time. Any hope of gleaning genuine fourth-century history is hindered by the stark fact that the texts containing the pedigrees were written no earlier than the ninth century. Most survive only in manuscripts of the twelfth century or later and none can be shown to be original creations by North Britons rather than by Welshmen. The pedigrees cannot therefore be regarded as storehouses of reliable information, especially for any period before the time of the historical North British kings. As repositories of genealogical data relating to the fourth century their value is even more limited. They require very careful handling if they are to be used at all.

Several pedigrees include figures whose chronological contexts seem to coincide with the final phase of Roman rule in Britain. Cinhil and Cluim, for instance, are two individuals listed as ancestors of a ninth-century king who ruled on the Clyde. We cannot be certain that these two are anything more than fictitious ‘ghosts’ inserted into the pedigree to give it a longer and more impressive lineage. If they existed, they probably belong to the second half of the fourth century and may have been members of the Damnonian elite. Another example is Padarn, apparently a Votadinian, to whom the genealogists gave the epithet or nickname Pesrut (‘Red Tunic’). Alongside Cinhil and Cluim, Padarn Pesrut is often regarded as a Briton of the intervallate zone in Late Roman times. It has been suggested that all three sprang from Romanised or pro-Roman families, their names being seen as medieval Welsh renderings of Quintilius, Clemens and Paternus. Upon this a more or less plausible scenario of loyal native foederati defending the Empire’s northern frontier has been constructed, with Padarn’s red tunic being interpreted as a Roman military garment, a gift from an imperial official to a trusted ally. Such theories are imaginative but need not be taken seriously. Regardless of whether or not the later Welsh names derive from Latin-sounding originals, we have no reason to believe that such naming was exclusive to the imperial authorities or to foederati in their service. Many non-Romans, friends and foes of the Empire alike, arguably bestowed Roman-sounding names on their children if it pleased them to do so. A young North Briton bearing a name such as Quintilius or Clemens was just as likely to develop anti-Roman sentiments as a compatriot who bore a non-Latin name. Nor is there anything uniquely Roman about the colour of Padarn’s tunic, which could have been obtained from any competent tailor whose skills included the extraction of red dye from plants such as madder. There were no doubt many red tunics among Rome’s friends in the lands north of Hadrian’s Wall, but probably just as many blue or green ones. Indeed, it is easy to imagine the nickname Pesrut being bestowed on any Pictish warrior in the hostile country beyond the Firth of Forth who chose to wear a bright red garment on military expeditions.

The Crisis of 367

The effectiveness of security arrangements on the northern frontier was put to the test in the second half of the fourth century when barbarian attacks increased. As well as the ever-hostile Picts the imperial garrison also endured raids by Gaelic-speaking groups in the western seaways – the Irish and the ‘Scots’. At this time the name Scotti seems to have been borne by, or bestowed upon, any marauding band from Ireland or Argyll. Indeed, it is likely that Roman observers regarded all the Gaels as one people. Like the Picts, these raiders from the West had taunted Rome since the time of Agricola. Three more groups now joined them: the Franks, whose descendants in the following century would leave their mark on Roman Gaul by turning it into France; the Saxons, who were soon to play a similarly important role in Britain; and a mysterious people called Attacotti who were perhaps of Irish or Hebridean origin. Eventually, the leaders of these hostile nations devised a barbarica conspiratio, a ‘barbarian conspiracy’, to co-ordinate their attacks on Roman Britain. Their plans came to fruition after crucial information was provided by traitors on the Roman side: corrupt officials, army deserters and rogue agents among the arcani. In 367, a huge barbarian assault was unleashed, its impact sweeping away the imperial defences. Seaborne raids from east and west drove far inland into the rich countryside of southern Britain, bringing death and destruction to the bewildered citizens. Towns were ransacked and villas were looted. Down from the north came the Picts, some to overwhelm the garrisons of Hadrian’s Wall while others swarmed along the eastern coast in flotillas of boats. The outpost forts north of the Wall were either bypassed or overwhelmed. In a battle between the frontier army and Pictish marauders, Fullofaudes, the senior Roman general in Britain, was taken prisoner. Leaderless and demoralised, the entire imperial garrison was thrown into chaos. Some soldiers cast off their uniforms and deserted their posts, while others roamed the land in lawless gangs. Fearing the total loss of Britain, the emperor Valentinian despatched a strike force of elite regiments led by the renowned Count Theodosius. Two years of hard fighting eventually led to the expulsion of the barbarians and, after Theodosius issued an amnesty for deserters, stability was gradually restored. The soldiers returned to their forts and Hadrian’s Wall was reinstated as the boundary of the Empire. In the wake of the crisis, however, the outposts beyond the Wall were finally abandoned. Theodosius redeployed what remained of their garrisons, disbanded the treacherous arcani and withdrew all Roman forces behind the Tyne–Solway line.

After the disaster of 367, the Britons beyond Hadrian’s Wall were effectively cut off from their countrymen south of it. Both groups had suffered grievously during the barbarian onslaught, but there is no record of Theodosius driving Pictish raiders from the lands of the Damnonii or Votadini. The natives of the intervallate zone were presumably left to fend for themselves. One medieval Welsh legend tells of a Votadinian prince or chieftain called Cunedda who led a warband to North Wales to expel a colony of Irish pirates from Gwynedd. Cunedda’s position in the genealogies makes him a figure of the late fourth to mid-fifth century and this chronology has led some historians to see him as a Roman federate transferred from Lothian during the Theodosian reorganisation. Much detailed speculation about Rome’s relationship with the Votadini has been woven around this scenario, but the data is too fragile to support it. A more sceptical, more objective view sees the story of Cunedda as a later Welsh attempt to create a fictional link between the kings of Gwynedd and their fellow-Britons of the North.

Among the repercussions of the barbarian conspiracy the most ominous development, at least for the native population of Roman Britain, was the recruitment of Germanic foederati to guard the southern towns. These were mostly Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians from the North Sea coastlands of what are now Denmark and Germany. In northern Britain there were fewer towns and villas than in the south, but one area where Romanisation had taken root was the fertile Vale of York. There are archaeological hints that German warriors were settled in this district in the late fourth century, either by Theodosius after 367 or by the imperial usurper Magnus Maximus in 383. Serving Rome as mercenaries, the Germans initially performed a useful gatekeeping role against seaborne attacks by Pictish and Saxon pirates. Like all hirelings their services were not given freely, but were bought with regular gifts of cash from the imperial treasury. Any disruption to these payments was likely to turn friendship and service to ill-feeling and hostility.

In the 370s, the lands south of Hadrian’s Wall returned to a position of watchfulness. The northern frontier remained on a high state of alert, as did the lines of forts and signal-towers along the western and eastern coasts. North of the Wall the independent Britons, almost certainly without Roman help, repelled marauding bands of Picts and regained control of their own borders. But the barbarians were not so easily cowed and their raids continued to gnaw Britannia from all sides. With the situation deteriorating once more, the conspirators of 367 may have watched in gleeful disbelief as parts of the imperial garrison began to leave the island in the period after 380. The first big troop-withdrawal came in 383 when Magnus Maximus, a high-ranking officer in Britain, resolved to make himself emperor. Ironically, he had previously inflicted heavy defeats on the Picts and Scots, but now he poured his energies into his personal ambitions. Supported and encouraged by other officers, he led a substantial army across the sea to Gaul, thereby depleting Britain of forces essential for her protection. The barbarians are likely to have taken full advantage of his departure, but this time there was no Theodosius to confront them. Troubles elsewhere in the Empire made it impossible to send reinforcements to Britain. Another famous general, the half-Vandal Flavius Stilicho, is depicted in a contemporary Latin poem leading an expedition against the Picts at the end of the fourth century. It seems, however, that this campaign existed only in the imagination of the poet Claudian who used it as a literary device to illustrate the far-reaching extent of Stilicho’s fame. In reality, the Empire lacked the will to rescue Britain from the brink of catastrophe. To compound the situation, the Roman authorities now faced a peril much closer to home.

On the last night of the year 405, the imperial frontier in Germany was overwhelmed by a host of Vandals, Alans and other barbarians who crossed the Rhine to begin the dismemberment of Roman Gaul. In Britain the garrison reacted by rallying around Constantine, an ambitious officer with an auspicious name, and proclaimed him emperor. Leading a large force, Constantine sailed over to Gaul to assert his claim against forces loyal to the legitimate emperor Honorius. The loyalists were victorious and the usurper was executed. By 410, his henchmen in Britain were rooted out, but they bequeathed a desperate situation. With the depleted imperial troops struggling to stand firm against barbarian raids, the native elites of the southern towns seized control of the imperial administration. Taking the initiative, these Romanised Britons restored a semblance of order before appealing to the emperor for aid. But Honorius was grappling with the problems of a disintegrating Empire and had no help to offer to beleaguered subjects in a faraway land. Instead, he sent a letter urging the anxious Britons to organise their own defence. This had profound consequences for the remaining Roman troops, all of whom relied on wages issued by the imperial treasury. Their pay had probably been arriving erratically for some time, but now it ceased altogether. Without it the soldiers had no incentive or obligation to defend the Empire. On the northern frontier, groups of disillusioned men gradually abandoned their forts, taking their families with them and vanishing into the countryside. In the lands to the south, the last vestiges of imperial bureaucracy were swept away as power was seized by native leaders. By c.420, the Roman occupation of Britain was over.

Helping the Western Front – Russian Front 1916

A posed photo showing an Austro-Hungarian bombing party cutting its way through enemy wire. The soldier on the right has wire cutters and, like the others, is carrying grenades in his belt. They are carrying the Steyr-Mannlicher M1895 rifle, nicknamed the “Ruck-Zuck” (“right now” or “very quick”).

Pioneers crossing the Narotsch River in Belarussia. German army pioneers were regarded as a separate combat arm trained in construction and demolition of fortifications, but they were often used as emergency infantry. One battalion was assigned to each Corps.

General von Pflanzer-Baltin with his staff. In the autumn of 1914, when Romania appeared to be turning against the Central Powers, he was charged with the defence of Transylvania. When the Russians crossed the Carpathians, and there was immediate danger of their driving onto the plains of Hungary, Pflanzer-Baltin, with an improvised division conducted a defence by taking the offensive. After fighting with varying success in the southern part of Eastern Galicia and in the Bukovina, the VII. Army under his command, was driven back by the Brusilov offensive in June 1916, and he was relieved of his command.

A German map of the southern sector of the Russian front to show gains between December 1915 and January 1916.

A German map of the northern part of the Russian front in 1916.

‘Over Christmas 1915, Falkenhayn had submitted a memorandum on the state of the war and prospects for the coming year to the scrutiny of his All-Highest War-Lord. He was opposed to further offensive action on the blank plains of Russia.’ Falkenhayn expected the Russian state’s problems to cause it to collapse in the near future but Hindenburg was not so complacent. He knew the German extended line was inadequately held and needed more troops.

Pointing to the summer successes, Falkenhayn told Hindenburg and Ludendorff there would be no major initiatives on their front. He also denied them any reinforcements and withdrew all German troops from Galicia, leaving its defence to the Austrians who were more occupied ‘with defeating Serbia and planning an offensive against Italy’. For Falkenhayn the west was where the war could be won: Verdun was chosen as the place to bleed France to death. Stavka chose to break this complacency with a major attack in March.

Winter passed with only minor activity by both sides on the Northern Front. Each army now dug-in to strengthen their positions. The German trenches were ‘strongly built in concrete, equipped with light railways and often their own generating plants, they included bomb-proof shelters. Recreation areas had been established not far behind the lines’. On the other side of the wire, the Russians were producing trenches that were comfortable. Walls were planked and stoves provided heating. There were even opportunities for relaxation.

The object of the three-pronged Russian attack was to throw the German northern wing back to the Baltic coast. When the build-up of forces had been completed, the Russians were to have numerical manpower superiority of 5:1 supported by artillery on an unprecedented scale. Captured soldiers in peasant dress and observed troop concentrations led the Germans to conclude an attack was likely.

The spring thaw began the day before the start of the offensive. After an eight-hour bombardment, the Russians launched their attack. Everywhere it failed. The next day the attack was resumed and although the situation was critical at times the German lines held: ‘the barbed wire in front of the German trenches was hung with the corpses of Russian attackers as far as the eye could see’. The same happened the next day, but when winter returned during the night the Russians were able to advance through relatively unprotected swamps. Little progress was made on day five until early evening when the Germans were threatened with disaster.

As the temperature rose, so did the water level. Everywhere turned to mud. Leutnant Stegemann wrote home describing the sudden change in his sector on the Dvina. ‘The river suddenly rose during the night of April 2nd with overwhelming force and rapidity. The previous afternoon the water in the flooded meadows had already risen so considerably that I had to send rations to posts about a mile away…in a boat’. The men in the boat were caught in the flood and its accompanying ice floes. ‘The water rose five feet in an hour. The floating masses of ice…capsized the boat’. In the pitch-dark night his men had to vacate ‘seven block-houses in a twinkling’. His own dug-out disappeared under the water.

The men held onto the capsized boat while efforts were made to establish telephonic contact with troops in the rear. Eventually a boat was found but all the time the water was rising, making it more difficult to get to the men. Then it was realised that thirty men were trapped in houses near the river bank; fortunately a bigger boat had been called for as well. Frozen and done in, all Stegemann could do was wait. While doing so, he changed his clothes, and smoked a cigar while drinking five glasses of brandy in an attempt to warm himself up.

During the wait, the boat from the rear area had managed to pick up three of the men in the river. Frozen through, they were sent off to hospital. By first light all his men had been rescued, except a sixteen-year-old corporal whose body was never recovered. His company now had new positions overlooking a two-mile broad lake. Other units were not as lucky as Stegemann’s: many men were drowned by the flood.

The rising water level and the mud made movement difficult and the dense fogs caused units to lose contact. As the front turned into a lake, the Russians called off their attacks and withdrew troops. Any Russian success was short-lived. On 28 April, after a high explosive barrage followed by gas, against which the Russians were unprotected, the German infantry reclaimed their lost positions in just one day.

Much concern had been expressed about the loyalty of some of the ethnic groups that made up the Habsburg forces. While there was no concern over German troops deserting, many of the ethnic groups in the Russian Army were happy to cross over to the Germans. Oskar Greulich was serving near Świniuchy during the April thaw. As on the Western Front, there was some degree of live-and-let-live in the east and religious festivals were often observed. ‘For some time not a shot has been fired on either side, although everybody is calmly walking about on the top, and even taking an afternoon nap up there!’

Whilst wary, both sides felt it foolish to disturb each other by shooting. ‘When the Russian sentry goes on duty, he thinks it necessary to inform his vis-à-vis of the fact. “Morning, Auyoosht!” he calls across the lake.’ Initially they did not respond or just sent an occasional bullet across, which was met by cries of ‘Germanski damn! Shoot nix!’ Greulich and his men then realised that their opponents were Lithuanians and Poles: ‘It is a good thing that there is a lake between us,’ he wrote, ‘otherwise many of these men would certainly have deserted to us.’

Both sides were religious, especially Bavarian soldiers. ‘On Easter Eve they (the Russians) called out: “Germanski shoot nix. Tomorrow peace!”’ The Russians then treated the Germans to a concert with mandolins and violins, ‘as beautiful as any one could hear at Easter in Eichelburg. In the evening the male voice choir strikes up, and solemn chants – no doubt Easter hymns – ring out into the night in three parts and sung by very good voices.’

Across the front many units witnessed similar events but only in the front line. In the rear, headquarters staff kept on planning. At the Austrian HQ, the Italian problem was paramount. They were not expecting a Russian offensive, had become obsessed with Italy, and had dedicated most of their staff energies to planning a south Tyrol offensive. To give the offensive every chance of success, they moved six infantry divisions from Galicia. Unknown to them, Brusilov had four armies, ready to strike consecutive blows along a nineteen-mile front. Careful shepherding of reserves had given the Russians a superiority of 125,000 men. Fortunately for the Russians, their postponed attack coincided with the birthday of the Fourth Army commander, so many key officers were not in place when the attack came.

The offensive began on 4 June with a hurricane bombardment (using two weeks’ supply of ammunition) that destroyed, except for some deep bunkers, the first three lines of the Austrian positions in Galicia. Part of the success was due to the Russian use of aircraft equipped with radio to direct the gunfire accurately. ‘The barrage continued throughout the day and well into the night to prevent the enemy repairing his barbed wire under cover of darkness, but was temporarily halted between midnight and 2.30 a.m. so that scouts could inspect the damage.’

The Austrian Fourth Army front collapsed. Against minimal resistance, the Russians were able to push a wedge between Fourth Army and Böhm-Ermolli’s Army Group. By the following day 40,000 prisoners had been taken, a number that swelled as the offensive spread along the line.

As Fourth Army collapsed, its neighbour, Seventh Army, retreated south. In turn First Army withdrew, putting the whole Austro-Hungarian position in considerable danger. Whole units melted away with some joining the Russian forces. ‘By the third day of the offensive, the severity of the situation was plain for all to see. The Russians had torn open a sizeable hole 32Km (20 miles) wide in the Austro-Hungarian front. Hundreds of thousands of Austro-Hungarian troops were prisoners of war or had simply fled from the battlefield.’

After four days of fighting Fourth Army had shrunk from 110,000 to just 18,000 men under arms. As many as sixty per cent of the casualties were actually deserters.

‘Only in the centre was there little progress. Here Sakharov’s Eleventh (Army) had met Bothmer’s German-Austrian South Army which repulsed all assaults upon it.’ However, even here there was success. On 15 July, warned by his intelligence about a forthcoming attack on 18 July by Südarmee, Sakharov launched his own pre-emptive assault which took 1,300 prisoners and captured much of the ammunition stockpiled for the German attack.

Even though some Russian commanders did not attack until the due date and the northern end of the South West Front was pinned down, the advance moved rapidly. ‘By 17 June Czernowitz was taken and, on the 21st, the entire province of Bukovina. By the 23rd, the Russians were in Kimpolung and once more threatened the Carpathian foothills.’

Austro-Hungarian units were in retreat on a 250 mile front from the Pripet marshes to the Carpathians. German help would be forthcoming but only with strings. The South Tyrol campaign was to be closed, and troops moved from that front to Russia were to be under German control.

However, the Russians did not have it all their own way. Falkenhayn was concerned about the Lutsk salient and managed to build up an eight division force (mixed Austrian and German units), without much opposition from the Russians. Commanded by General von der Marwitz, the force struck in the Kovel area. In four days of fierce fighting, they recovered a few miles of ground.

The Russian gains so far included 350,000 Austrian prisoners, 400 artillery pieces and 1,300 machine guns. Many defenders had been killed and wounded along a 200 mile-long front that had been penetrated, in places, to a depth of forty miles. On the Russian side, losses had also been heavy with over 300,000 casualties. Ammunition for the artillery was also very short. A great deal had been achieved by an offensive designed to pin down forces before the principal attack.

Brusilov’s men rested and waited for their supply columns. Without support from other armies the offensive would stall. None came, and, while the Russian commanders fought among themselves, the Germans moved four divisions from France and five from East Front reserves. The Austro-Hungarians also moved four divisions from the South Tyrol Front and the Turks sent troops to help.

No second Russian attack materialised. This gave the Germans time ‘to set up solid defensive lines, restore discipline and assume command of Austro-Hungarian units as small as companies’. The control by the German Army was confirmed when on 27 July, Hindenburg was made Supreme Commander of the Eastern Front with control of all military operations in the east. This was followed by the Kaiser becoming titular head of the United Supreme Command. The Habsburg army now had little say in its role.

The appointment of Hindenburg gave rise to great rejoicing among many of the troops, mainly because he had never lost a battle. Leutnant Stegemann described the men’s reactions: ‘I was quite astonished at my Hanseatickers, Mechlinburgers and Holsteiners, they were so wild with joy at the news.’ He was now the Company Commander and enjoying the responsibility.

Ordered to renew the offensive, Brusilov’s forces attacked on 27 July, routing the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian First Army. A pivotal point between Brusilov and Evert’s fronts was Kovel. With the offensive losing impetus, its capture became very important. The Tsar, as commander-in-chief, decided that this task should be undertaken by his Guards Army. The plan was for the infantry to break through and the cavalry to attack, routing the Germans. The attack was launched without artillery support and with insufficient preparation: the troops had to cut through the barbed wire before they could move. On the left the Russians were successful, taking 11,000 prisoners, forty-six guns and sixty-five machine guns, but losses were heavy.

They were especially heavy in some units of First Corps, whose commander felt that a flank attack was beneath his troops. He sent two of the finest Russian Regiments – the Preobrazhensky Guards and the Imperial Rifle Regiment – in a frontal attack along a causeway. Casualties were so heavy ‘many preferred to wade waist-deep through the bog’ even though their slow progress made them excellent targets for the German machine gunners and for the planes that bombed them. To make matters worse, their commander had forgotten to tell the artillery of the changed plan so they were shelled by their own side. With seventy per cent casualties, they took their objective, but the supporting cavalry withdrew and they were forced to abandon their gains.

A further attempt to take Kovel, as part of the re-opened offensive, appeared to be achieving results. Then the flanks failed and the impossible happened – the Guards withdrew. The reason was clear the next day. An army, classed by Major-General Knox as “‘physically the finest human animals in Europe” had lost 55,000 men. Throughout the army and the country there was an almost speechless fury at the whole catastrophic and futile episode’.

The advance continued. On 28 July Brody fell, Monstryska was occupied on 7 August, Nadworna fell on 12 August. Russian troops were across Südarmee’s lines of communication. There was no option but to pull back to the Zlota Lipa line to defend Lemberg.

As the offensive moved forward, it met German units that offered stiffer resistance. The advance slowed down and became costlier. Other fronts were stripped of men and equipment to keep up the pressure but this created bottlenecks and funnelled troops into positions where the Germans were at their strongest. Despite desperate attacks in August and September, the front eventually solidified.

It had been a bad period for the Central Powers. Between 4 June and mid-August, they had lost 400,000 men as prisoners and 15,000 square miles of territory. Their total losses were probably around 750,000 men. But many Russians had also been taken prisoner, sometimes gladly, as Adolf Stürmer, a law student who had volunteered in 1914, found out. He had volunteered for a patrol that was to blow up a bridge to slow down the Russian advance. Crossing the river they surprised a Russian post. There was no fight. The biggest Russian, immediately ‘made the sign of the cross and then put up his hands. Then they were all full of joy; kissed our hands and coats; tore the cockades out of their caps, and threw down their arms’.

It was a decisive victory, arguably the greatest achievement of the war but it had been won at a high cost. ‘Brusilov’s losses were 450,000 and his reserves reduced from 400,000 to 100,000. Total Russian war losses were now 5½ million. It had been a spectacular but Pyrrhic victory that weakened and destabilised the Romanov Empire, and gained little of strategic importance.’ All eyes then turned to Romania.

Romania’s entry into the war meant that Brusilov had to make a fresh effort in support of Russia’s new ally. On 29 August, Bothmer’s Südarmee was attacked at Brzezany and the town of Potutory taken. While the offensive failed in its main purpose of removing a German salient because of stubborn German resistance, Niziov on the Dniester fell and the Austrians were forced back to Halicz. Continued fighting brought the Russians some local successes, but the continual reinforcement of Bothmer’s men meant that there was no chance of a serious Russian success. And with the Romanians quickly needing help, the Russian focus moved further south.

The Romanian retreat after their defeat at Kronstadt meant a further change in Russian plans. Although twenty-seven Russian divisions moved to help, a further Romanian retreat meant that the Russian front had to be extended 400 kilometres. This new responsibility was paid for at the expense of Brusilov’s offensive.

Russian officers blamed the Romanians for their situation, but in truth, their offensive effort had been slacking because of a shortage of men and arms. They were now fighting against positions where reinforcements could be made available. The balance of strength had also shifted. ‘At the beginning of the battle 39 Russian infantry divisions opposed 37 Austrian and one German division. By 12 August, reinforcements from other fronts had increased the South West Front to 61, but they were opposed by 72 enemy divisions of which 24 were German – 18 having been sent from the west.’

Writing home on 3 September, Leutnant Stegemann described the fighting his company had been through. ‘Fierce but victorious battles. I have been through some ghastly times. On the 31st August the Company lost three officers and 50 men, mostly in hand-to-hand fighting…The Russians attack every day, but are always repulsed with terrific loss’. Three days later he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class by Excellenz Litzmann, Hindenburg’s second-in-command and a Stegemann family friend. Litzmann sent his greetings to the family and told him to ‘write this: I congratulate you on the success of your son, who, through his smartness and courage, with the assistance of his splendid Company, has by his counter-attacks driven back the already demoralized Russians, and by storming Hill 259 averted what was a grave menace to my army-group.’ Two weeks later he was killed in action. General Litzmann wrote to his parents when he heard the news. ‘I wish to express my deep sympathy with you and your wife. You may both feel proud of your son, and may say to yourselves that you have offered up a sacrifice to the Fatherland the influence of which will be of lasting value to the brave 165th Regiment. Our heroes do not die in vain and they live on for us through their shining example. Leutnant Stegemann, who held the recaptured Hill 259 for 5½ hours against overwhelming odds with the greatest gallantry, and only after the last cartridge had been fired fought his way, with his little handful of men, back through the Russian ranks, will never be forgotten.’

Brusilov had been ordered to stop the attacks but insisted on a few days longer. On 16-17 October fifteen divisions attacked towards Vladimir-Volhynskyi and its railway lines. German artillery caused heavy casualties among the attacking troops but without spotter planes the Russian artillery could do nothing to affect the outcome. After two days the Russians abandoned the battle. The last campaign of the Russian Army had been mounted on behalf of Italy and, the Russians believed, destroyed by Romania.

In Russia there were food and fuel shortages. The number of strikes was increasing and the dissatisfaction was spreading to the armed forces. Military rioters were shot as were soldiers who fired on the police during a strike at the Renault factory in Petrograd. There was discontent in the navy and merchant marine: during 1915 there had been mutinies aboard two ships. ‘Amidst these manifestations of unrest, the government remained paralysed by internal upheaval.’

Some realised that ‘the long-awaited revolution was moving closer’ and began to plan their programmes for when it arrived. Only one of the many plots and conspiracies hatched in the last month of the year came to fruition: Rasputin, a court favourite and confidant of the Tsarina, was murdered by a trio that included a Prince. One of his predictions would come true before the war ended. ‘If he died at the hands of any member of the royal family the dynasty would fall within a year, and that its principal members would suffer violent deaths.’

However, the discontent was in the rear. At the front the troops were outwardly untouched. Reinforcements had arrived and morale was good. Heavy artillery was arriving from Britain and supplies were at a high level, putting them on a parity with the Germans. Although fraternisation was not allowed, from the messages exchanged by both sides it was clear that the Austro-Germans were war-weary. The British naval blockade was working and they were hungry: at times they crossed the lines to beg for food from the Russians. They were also aware of the growing Russian strength, realised that there was no breakdown of authority among the front-line soldiers, and knew that they could not leave the Habsburgs to look after the front themselves.


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.