Vladimir Putin compares Ukraine war to Battle of Stalingrad: A look back at the bloody fight in World War II

Attempting to drum up support for the ongoing Ukraine war, Vladimir Putin drew comparisons to the Battle of Stalingrad. Eighty years ago, the Soviet troops defeated the might of the nearly-invincible German army, marking a decisive moment in World War II

FP Explainers February 03, 2023 11:11:19 IST
Vladimir Putin compares Ukraine war to Battle of Stalingrad: A look back at the bloody fight in World War II

Tanks left by German army after they lost the Battle of Stalingrad. The Battle was fought during the winter of 1942 to 1943, and won by the Red Army over Germany. File image/AFP

A few more days and the Russia-Ukraine war will cross the one-year mark (today is Day 345). On Thursday, as the battle rages on — with a heavy casualty toll on both sides and untold destruction and chaos — Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Thursday levelled veiled nuclear threats in response to Germany’s decision to send battle tanks — the Leopard 2 — to Kyiv.

At an event to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, Russian president Vladimir Putin said, “It’s unbelievable but true. We are again being threatened by German Leopard tanks. Again and again we are forced to repel the aggression of the collective West.”

“We aren’t sending tanks to their borders but we have something to respond with, and it won’t be just about using armoured vehicles. Everyone should understand this,” 70-year-old Putin warned. “A modern war with Russia will be completely different.”

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov when asked to explain Putin’s comments, declined to elaborate, but said that “as new weapons are delivered by the collective West, Russia will make greater use of its potential to respond”.

The comments gained more significance as Putin said them at an event to commemorate Russia’s victory in the fierce and one of the deadliest World War II battles — The Battle of Stalingrad. Visiting the city of Stalingrad — it is today called Volgograd — the Russian leader drew parallels between the Soviet Union’s fight in World War II and Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine.

We take a closer look at the Battle of Stalingrad and how it is credited with turning the tide of the war.

The importance of Stalingrad

In the summer of 1942, Adolf Hitler launched a major offensive into southern Russia, seeking to destroy what was left of the Soviet Army and ultimately capture the Caucasus oilfields. The initial advance went well, and the German Sixth Army under General Friedrich von Paulus was ordered to capture the strategic industrial city of Stalingrad on the Volga River.

It was believed that whoever controlled Stalingrad would have access to the oil fields of the Caucasus and would gain control of the Volga. Capturing the city would cut Soviet transport links with southern Russia, and Stalingrad would then serve to anchor the northern flank of the larger German drive into the oil fields of the Caucasus.

Moreover, Hitler had set his sights on Stalingrad because it was named after the Soviet leader. Hitler had publicly announced that he would take the Soviet city and assumed he would do so with ease.

And the war begins…

On 23 August 1942, Hitler’s Sixth Army began their offensive under the lead of German general Friedrich Paulus. Initially, with aerial bombardment, the Germans tasted victory and managed to gain control of 90 per cent of the city.

Stalin gave his troops strict orders to stand their ground. “Not a single step back,” he had ordered, warning that troops who retreated would be shot.

The battle between Germany’s Sixth Army and the Soviets’ Red Army waged on, with the latter suffering heavy losses.

However, in November 1942, the Soviets launched Operation Uranus — a massive counterattack intended to surround the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad.

The objective of Operation Uranus was to destroy the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad. And though the attack was launched in mid-November 1942, its origins go back to September and Marshal Zhukov’s visit to the Stalingrad front. When he returned to the Kremlin he reported to Stalin that the situation in the city was dire – reinforcements were urgently needed. But Zhukov mentioned to Marshal Vasilevsky, who was also present at the meeting with the Soviet leader, that a ‘new solution’ needed to be found to the situation in Stalingrad.

Stalin overheard the remark and told Zhukov and Vasilevsky to work out a plan that would relieve Stalingrad. And that plan became Operation Uranus. The idea was not to attack the Sixth Army directly in Stalingrad, but rather to mount two pincer movements, one from the north and the other from the east. These separate thrusts would then meet up west of Stalingrad and trap the Germans in a giant encirclement. One of the strengths of the plan was that it meant that the Red Army would – initially at least – be fighting weaker units of Romanians, Hungarians and Italians who had been tasked by the Germans with protecting their flanks.

Vladimir Putin compares Ukraine war to Battle of Stalingrad A look back at the bloody fight in World War II

Soviet soldiers drive out the German army during the Battle of Stalingrad, a major turning-point in the Allied victory over Germany during World War II. File image/AFP

The Red Army moved forward and caught the Germans and their allies completely by surprise. The Red Army now had the initiative at Stalingrad.

The battle turned in the favour of Stalin’s troops; for the Germans, who were trying to defeat the last pockets of resistance, it now turned into a mad rush to rescue their personnel. Hitler ordered increasingly powerful but yet futile attacks on the Soviets in an attempt to relieve the Sixth Army.

Records show that Erich von Manstein, perhaps Germany’s greatest general of the war, was brought into orchestrate the Sixth Army’s relief, but to no avail. Every day the soldiers of the Sixth Army had to make due with less and less, until all realistic chance of victory, resupply or breakout had disappeared. Finally, on 2 February 1943, Germany surrendered to the Red Army.

A horrendous death toll

The war came at a very heavy price. Deutsche Welle reports that over half a million Soviets died in the Battle of Stalingrad, among them numerous civilians. On the German side, between 150,000 and 250,000 were estimated to have died in Stalingrad. Of the 100,000 Germans who were taken as Soviet prisoners of war, only about 6,000 returned to Germany up until 1956 — among them, General Paulus.

The Modern War Institute puts the death toll at approximately 1.2 million people.

For Germany, Stalingrad was not the battle that exacted the highest death toll, but it did have great psychological impact. Jochen Hellbeck, a historian at Rutgers University in New Jersey, speaking to DW said, “The psychological impact of Stalingrad was immense and in that sense, it played a decisive role in the war.”

Vladimir Putin compares Ukraine war to Battle of Stalingrad A look back at the bloody fight in World War II

The cemetery of German soldiers killed during the Battle of Stalingrad. File image/AFP

Significance of the battle

The Battle of Stalingrad, a Soviet victory, has today become a symbol of Russia’s might. Germany’s defeat shattered its reputation for invincibility and dealt a devastating blow to German morale.

And in the ongoing battle against Ukraine, Putin is serving up Stalingrad as a morale booster and as a justification. For months, the Russian leader has been calling the invasion of Ukraine as a fight against the ‘Nazis’.

With inputs from agencies

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