‘Battered bastards of Kharkiv’ — could this become Ukraine’s Bastogne?

In December 1944, the small town of Bastogne was situated at a strategic crossroad in southeastern Belgium in the Ardennes Forest bordering Luxembourg. Its capture was imperative to the success of a German offensive, code-named “Wacht am Rhein” — or in English, the “Watch on the Rhine.” 

Adolf Hitler’s objective was to break through the Allied front in the Ardennes region, splitting the Allied armies advancing toward the German border and thereby setting conditions for a future German assault to seize the strategic Allied port of Antwerp. 

Hitler also believed the Wehrmacht could encircle and destroy the Allied army, compelling the Western Allies to negotiate a peace. This would have made it possible for Germany to then concentrate its military efforts against Russia in the East.

Only someone forgot to inform Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe and the 101st Airborne. Exhausted, short on supplies, and outnumbered nearly five to one by Germany’s Fifth Panzer army, the Screaming Eagles held the embattled town against insurmountable odds, relentless assaults and an historic winter storm.

The bold, perhaps desperate, operation is known by most Americans as the Battle of the Bulge. It was the last major offensive launched by the German army.

In many ways, Kharkiv has now become the strategic city Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to secure in order to attempt a second assault on the capital city of Kyiv. If the Kremlin fails in this venture, it will back up and try elsewhere, believing that the massing of infantrymen and artillery will somehow win the day. 

Andrei Belousov’s appointment to the position of Russian Defense Minister made that clear. By tapping his chief economist, Putin is positioning Russia to fight a protracted war against Ukraine and NATO.

Kharkiv is the second largest city in Ukraine. It lies within 30 kilometers of the Russian border, yet Moscow failed to secure the city in the early days of the “special military operation” in February and March of 2022. 

The Kremlin is intent on creating a “sanitary zone” or ‘demilitarized buffer zone’ in Ukraine to “protect Russian territory from Ukrainian strikes.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserted that it begins with seizing the city of Kharkiv. 

Ethnic Russian anti-Putin forces, including the Russian Volunteer Corps and Freedom of Russia Legion, have launched cross border raids into the Russian Belgorod Oblast from the Kharkiv Oblast. The Russian ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, directly connected this “buffer zone” with intensified Russian offensive operations south of Belgorod Oblast.

To end the humiliation, Putin needs a decisive win in the Kharkiv region. Occupying abandoned villages and towns will no longer suffice.

Ukraine is stretched thin. Its military is looking more like George Koskimaki’s battered bastards of Bastogne. These battle-hardened warriors have valiantly fought off the Russian invaders, inflicting 485,430 Russian casualties, according to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Now, they are taking up defensive positions in Vovchansk, Sumy, and Chasiv Yar, to continue the fight, as they did before in Bakhmut and Avdiivka.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley famously gave Ukraine 72 hours. It has now endured 27 months. Ukraine is outmanned, outgunned and remains in desperate need of small arms and artillery ammo, despite the $61 billion military aid funding bill signed by President Biden on April 24. The sense of urgency in Washington and Brussels is lacking as Ukraine fights off seemingly endless assaults.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan announced the “U.S. will allocate a new aid package to Ukraine in the next few days.” State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller echoed this saying, the “U.S. will make more announcements on military aid to Ukraine in the next few weeks.”

Weeks? Why not hours? The U.S. Army’s 18th Airborne Corps can deploy an Immediate Response Force anywhere in the world in 18 hours, but the Biden Administration cannot get ammunition to forward units in Ukraine within three weeks?

Once again, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is telling Biden that the fight is here and that he needs ammunition right now. Zelensky is once again channeling McAuliffe’s incredulous, one-word, all-caps response to the Germans’ surrender demands at Bastogne — “NUTS!” — turning it into a rallying cry for the Ukrainian people.

The fifth stanza in the U.S. Army Ranger Creed states, “Surrender is not a Ranger word.” Nor does it exist in the Ukrainian fighting ethos. Ukraine continues to inflict devastating casualties in this close flight. According to the United Kingdom’s Defense Ministry Report, during the month of April, Russia averaged 899 killed and wounded in action per day. But even this appalling body count cannot bring this war to a conclusion — rather, it only exhausts Ukrainian ammunition and morale.

Yes, help is on the way, as Sullivan and Miller tell us. Petr Pavel, President of the Czech Republic, tells us the same thing, promising 500,000 155mm and 300,000 122mm artillery rounds, with the first 180,000 now set to arrive in June. Soon, F16s and additional Patriot Batteries will arrive. But Zelensky needs these weapons and ammunition now — not weeks from now.

Moscow’s assault on Kharkiv began last weekend. Roughly 50,000 Russian troops and equipment were able to mass along the border for the assault. Russian forces have pushed about five miles into Ukrainian territory and seized approximately 50 square miles of terrain. Moscow claims it has captured five villages.

Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, believes the Russian attacks are intended to stretch Ukraine’s already-thin reserves of soldiers and divert them from fighting elsewhere. In the spirit of a Bastogne 2.0, he assesses that Ukraine’s army will soon be able to shore up the lines and stabilize the front.

Instead of praying for the weather to break as the Allies did in Bastogne, Zelensky merely needs a modern version of the Red Ball Express to get weapons and ammunition flowing to the front. Furthermore, Ukraine must be authorized to utilize recently acquired ATACMS munitions to strike targets inside Russia — to stem the flow of Russian forces before they arrive on the battlefield. There must be no sanctuary for the invaders. The U.S. must enable Ukraine to successfully interdict Russian forces, striking missile and drone launch points, ammunition and fuel depots, command and control centers and troop assembly areas.

As former national security adviser and retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster urges, “It’s past time to provide Ukraine what they need.”

Anything less would be “nuts.”

Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweet served 30 years as a military intelligence officer and led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012 to 2014. Mark Toth writes on national security and foreign policy.

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