The Ghosts of Kursk

President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and western leaders have expressed strong concern about possible concentrations of Russian troops on that nation's border with Ukraine. Andrew Roth of the New York Times went there to assess the state of mind of everyday people in the Russian border town of Belgorod. One of the citizens he spoke with was standing in front of the local museum, honoring the memory of the Red Army soldiers who died in the Battle of Kursk.

Prior to arriving in that small town, Roth had never heard of Kursk, writing cautiously that the battle "is considered one of the largest tank battles in history". It is a fully safe bet that virtually every Russian and every Ukrainian knows full well that Kursk was by far the largest in history, and the strategic pivot point of World War II.

The Battle of Kursk lasted nine days, from July 4 -12, 1943. The Nazi army, spearheaded by its fabled Panzer tank divisions, sought to eliminate "Kursk bulge" and break through into the Soviet interior, replicating the dramatic initial success of their 1941 invasion. Belgorod was the southern launching point for the final, massive Nazi offensive to try to regain the initiative after their defeat at Stalingrad at the end of 1942.

The "Bulge" was result of the Red Army's post-Stalingrad winter offensive, a westward "pocket" in the main front line, 100 miles deep and 100 miles north to south. The Germans attacked in pincers from north and south, planning to trap the Red Army.

As in much of the Soviet-Nazi war, villages, towns, and cities in the Bulge were laid waste, and civilians butchered.

Engaged were:

2.2 million men
30,000 artillery pieces
5,100 planes
6,100 tanks

On July 12, the critical battle of Prokhorovka took place, the final German tank charge to break through: As the sun rose, 700 Panzer tanks moved forward. Then, from brushy lowlands, hundreds of Soviet tanks raced forward, attacking the Panzers' flank at point blank range. For hours the battle raged cavalry-style amidst swirling clouds of dust, smoke and the growing wreckage of tanks. Each side lost more than half its fighting force. Stymied, the Germans pulled back. Next day, Hitler called off the offensive.

The best estimate of losses is:

1,500-2,000 Soviet tanks. The Germans lost roughly half of its attacking force of 2,200, effectively destroying the Panzers' offensive capacity for the rest of the war. Tens of thousands of troops on each side died. In comparison, approximately 4,400 U.S. Army tanks were destroyed in the entire war in western Europe.

As we assess recent developments in Russia and Ukraine we should keep in mind that to Ukrainian and Russian adults all this is living history -- profoundly shaping their perceptions of current reality.

To understand (as distinct from 'to agree with') the Russian viewpoint, one needs to remember that Ukrainian nationalists/fascists fought alongside the Nazi invaders. Today's Ukrainian "Right Sector" party is one their current incarnations. Though a minority in the Maidan Square uprising, they played a key organizational role in seizing government buildings. They, and members of the influential "Svoboda" (Freedom) party, consider Stepan Bandera, who collaborated with the Nazis. These two groups have been allocated four positions in the new government's cabinet. For the last several days "Right Sector" members have surrounded the Ukrainian parliament, causing formal expressions of concern from the EU and United States government.

With the whiff of war in the air, it is essential to keep very clearly in mind a simple human truth: How one honestly sees the facts is not necessarily how the other side honestly sees them. Understanding that does not assure a solution. But failing to understand it almost guarantees the inability to find one.

The Battle of Kursk was not familiar to reporter Andrew Roth. Let's hope that, among other things, Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama have heard of it.

© 2014