The news that some European leaders have vetoed a US proposal for NATO to provide direct military support to Ukraine in their border dispute with Russia reminds me of another important connection with Libya.
In Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners, I wrote that Ukraine’s geography made “the establishment of defence in depth almost impossible”. With its open countryside lending itself to “outflanking and turning movements”, I went on to explain how the new Polish army discovered this after it captured Kiev in May 1920. The Red Army was already very adept at the tactics which would defeat Hitler’s army and nearly surrounded the Poles by counter-attacking on the northern route from the Dvina to the Dnieper. The effect was recorded by the British Prime Minister’s envoy, Sir Maurice Hankey, who commented that: “The ill-advised advance to Kiev and the inevitable retreat have reacted disastrously on this young and inexperienced [Polish] army”.
The connection with Libya is that the desert area that witnessed the toing and froing of the Allied and Axis tank formations in World War II proved to be a similar battle ground to the vast steppe-like open plains in Ukraine. Some towns and cities in Cyrenaica exchanged hands five times between January 1941 and December 1942 because Eastern Libya needed either to be fully occupied or totally abandoned since it offered few natural defensive barriers.
NATO had to relearn this military reality during the Libyan revolution in 2011 and one hopes that it will not make the same mistake in Ukraine in 2022.