Wars Collide: The Enduring Legacy of World War II in Ukraine


Clambering over boulders, past old tires and shellfish-encrusted scrap metal, Oleksandr Shkalikov ventured onto the dry bed of a vast reservoir.

Out in this wasteland rested a haunting reminder of long-ago battles on this same swath of southern Ukraine: a swastika, chipped into a rock, had emerged from the receding water. The year “1942’’ was written next to it.

“History is repeating itself,” Mr. Shkalikov, a tank driver on leave from the Ukrainian army, said of the World War II-era carving. He noted the timing: The Swastika had become visible because of a more recent act of war, the explosion at the Kakhovka dam in June that drained a reservoir the size of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

“We are fighting this war on the same landscape and with the same weapons” as those used in World War II, he said, evoking the heavy artillery and tanks that still shape the course of a land war.

World War II has been an ideological battlefield in today’s war in Ukraine, with Russia falsely calling Kyiv’s government neofascist and citing that as the rationale for its invasion. The country’s military history is cropping up on the actual battlefield as well, not just with artifacts in the soil but in the lessons Ukraine has learned from a war fought long ago.

Terrain and rivers have often channeled the armies of today into the sites of some of the fiercest fighting in World War II, when German and Soviet troops swept over the valleys and the expanses of wide-open plains.

Indeed, key battles have coincided so closely with the sites of World War II fighting, the Ukrainian military says, that soldiers have found themselves taking cover in 80-year-old concrete bunkers outside Kyiv. They have discovered the bones of German soldiers and Nazi bullet casings in the dirt they removed from trenches in the south.

World War II began in what is now Ukraine in 1939 with a Soviet invasion into territory then controlled by Poland in western Ukraine, at a time when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were in an alliance. When that pact broke down in 1941, Germany attacked and fought from west to east across Ukraine. The tide of war changed in 1943 with the German defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad, and the Red Army then fought the Nazis in Ukraine moving westward.

One of Germany’s successes early on came in the Battle of the Azov Sea in 1941, when its troops advanced from Zaporizhzhia to Melitopol. Over the course of three weeks, Nazi forces covered this ground to move into position to attack Crimea and surround Red Army soldiers in the Kherson region.

Ukraine is now echoing that World War II offensive, fighting at sites southeast of Zaporizhzhia in what the Ukrainian military calls the “Melitopol direction.” The strategic goal is the same as it was eight decades ago — to isolate enemy soldiers in the Kherson region and threaten Crimea — but Ukrainian troops are moving far more slowly, having gained only a few miles in more than a month.

“Historical parallels, unfortunately or happily, keep coming to the surface,” said Vasyl Pavlov, an adviser to Ukraine’s general headquarters who has closely studied the similarities of the two wars.

Strategically, he said, Ukraine’s generals most directly drew on World War II history in devising a defense of the capital, Kyiv, last year.

In the opening days of the war, the Russian army advanced from Belarus toward the floodplain of the Irpin River — only to find that the Ukrainians had blown up a dam and inundated a vast area of fields, blocking the advance. It was a reprisal of a Soviet trick in 1941, when Moscow blew up an Irpin River dam to block a German tank assault, Mr. Pavlov said.

“Generals always prepare to fight the last war,” he said. “But the Russian generals didn’t even prepare to fight the last war.”

German troops eventually captured Kyiv in 1941; the Russians fought for a month in the suburbs last spring and withdrew.

When the current war turned from Kyiv to the east, it similarly retraced the battles of the second world war. Then, as today, the looping course of the Siversky Donets River became a front line — with its high banks and swampy shores serving as natural barriers as rival armies fought over the cities and towns alongside them.

In World War II, the river formed a portion of the so-called Mius Line, a defensive position the Nazis built to slow Soviet counterattacks after the Battle of Stalingrad.

In the current war, various cities and villages along the Siversky Donets have come into play. Ukrainian forces used the river’s high bluffs and flood plains, for example, to attempt a defense of the city of Lysychansk, ultimately unsuccessful, and to prevent a Russian crossing near the town of Bilohorivka.

Both wars left riverside towns and villages in ruins. The current fighting has also damaged with shrapnel pocks monuments erected to commemorate the World War II fighting.

The village of Staryi Saltiv in the Kharkiv region was touched by both wars, and was largely destroyed each time.

Lidiya Pechenizka, 92, who has lived in the village her entire life, recalled that in both conflicts the fighting was largely defined by the artillery shells flying over the river at enemy soldiers holing up in the village. For civilians, the experiences were similar: cowering in basements and root cellars.

“It was horrible,” Ms. Pechenizka said in an interview this spring.

With neither Russia nor Ukraine able to gain air superiority, the current fighting has hinged mostly on artillery and tanks, as the fighting did in World War II. Other than the addition of drones and sophisticated anti-tank missiles, the armies are fighting with similar weaponry.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive south of the city of Zaporizhzhia is, Mr. Pavlov said, “a direct analogy” to the German offensive in September 1941. The objectives were similar: to move across the plains, cut supply lines to Russian troops on the eastern bank of the Dnipro and move into position to threaten the isthmus of the Crimean Peninsula.

But the parallels go only so far.

In World War II, the Red Army did not have time to fortify defensive lines on the plains; the Germans quickly advanced to the Azov Sea, surrounding tens of thousands of Soviet troops in a pocket to the north.

This time, the Russian have had months to dig in. As a result, Ukraine’s counteroffensive has stalled in the face of formidable fortifications of minefields, trenches and bunkers.

In other ways, too, the fighting is distinct. The Nazi and Soviet armies fought across Ukraine moving perpendicular to the north-to-south flow of the main rivers. Ukraine in the counteroffensive is mostly moving parallel to the rivers, providing at least one military advantage; it does not have to undertake many perilous water crossings.

In the winter of 1943-44, the Soviet Union lost waves of soldiers in an east-to-west crossing of the Dnipro River.

Some of the bodies were found decades later by a Ukrainian nongovernmental group, Memory and Glory, which searched for World War II dead from both sides to provide dignified burials. Since its founding in 2007, it says, the group has found more than 500 remains of soldiers who fought in World War II in Ukraine.

Last year, Memory and Glory members joined the Ukrainian Army to search battlefields for soldiers reported missing in action. It has found more than 200 bodies from the current war — often in the same sites where World War II dead were found, said Leonid Ignatiev, the director.

“When you dig into a trench” looking for bodies of soldiers recently killed, he said, “you find a trench from World War II.”

Near the town of Novy Kamenki, in the Kherson region, the group recently searched for a Ukrainian soldier who had gone missing in action. Instead, they found the bones of a German soldier, Mr. Ignatiev said. The remains were sent for burial in a cemetery for German war dead in Ukraine.

“The high ground, the places for defense, they are all the same,” Mr. Ignatiev said.

Zaporizhzhia, a sprawling industrial city on the shore of the disappearing Kakhovka Reservoir, was occupied by Nazi forces in World War II and is a frontline city today where air sirens wail multiple times a day and Russian missiles occasionally streak in and explode.

But when the water receded from the city’s lakefront embankment after the dam burst, it was unexploded munitions from the past that posed the gravest danger. Ukraine’s emergency services said the sandbars and new islands emerging from the reservoir “turned out to be surprisingly cluttered with explosive objects from World War II.”

Demining crews have found and removed World War II aviation bombs, the service said.

Mr. Shkalikov, the tank driver, whose home is a short walk from the shore, fought in the opening days of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in fields to the southeast of the city.

After his tank hit a mine, he was given leave from his unit, returned home and began exploring the dry lake bed. Finding the swastika emerging from the water, he said, “didn’t surprise me at all.”

The wars are separated by decades, but “the landscape hasn’t changed,” he said.

Maria Varenikova and Yurii Shyvala contributed reporting from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.


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