The Daily Telegraph
History repeats itself
The downfall of the Russians at Kharkiv
The last time the Kremlin faced defeat of a similar scale was in 1943 – and it happened in the same area.
In March that year, the German field marshal Erich von Manstein launched a counter offensive against an overextended Red Army assault.
Manstein quickly encircled and destroyed a Soviet army south of Kharkiv, pushed north across the same battlefields being contested today and ultimately recaptured Ukraine’s battered second city.
And there are even closer parallels with another Second World War battle.
The previous year, the Germans pinned the Soviets against the Oskol river at Izyum in a manoeuvre that almost exactly foreshadowed the encirclement Ukraine’s Gen Valery Zaluzhniy is attempting this week.
President Vladimir Putin, a keen amateur historian, will likely remind himself that neither of those defeats proved fatal. Manstein’s counter offensive was a masterstroke, but it could not save the Third Reich.
After the failure of the Nazi offensive at Kursk three months later, the Soviets took the initiative, and they did not stop until Berlin.
That should be of little comfort, however.
Mr Putin used to be known as a war winner. In Chechnya, Georgia and Syria, and his first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, he presided over a string of convincing – and often brutally violent – Russian victories.
The Soviet Union, and later Russia, have suffered military setbacks since 1943, particularly in Afghanistan and the First Chechen War.
But no leader since Stalin has presided over a single battlefield disaster of the scale currently unfolding south of Kharkiv.