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Gallipoli: A cautionary tale for Odesa

British and Australian schoolchildren are taught early on that the spectacularly disastrous Gallipoli campaign of World War I was a madcap scheme orchestrated by the buccaneering Winston Churchill, aimed at breaking the stalemate of trench warfare in France and Belgium.

Seize the Turkish straits, which the Ottomans had closed to shipping, bombard the capital, knock the dying empire out of the war, and the Kaiser’s Germany would be weakened — that’s the simple version.

But the ill-conceived and badly executed campaign ended in ignominy, making “Gallipoli” a byword for military calamity. And after eight months of fighting and a horrendous death toll, the allies abandoned their bid to force open the Turkish straits.

Though much of the blame fell on Churchill at the time, historians since have also largely neglected the overall strategic rationale that drove the campaign in the first place — something that bears major relevance today, as Western policymakers wrestle over how to get grain out of Ukraine, both to help Kyiv and to ease the global food crisis.

Shining a light on the political genesis of the Dardanelles campaign in the recent book “The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster,” historian Nicholas Lambert writes: “The question of whether or not to approve Churchill’s operation became entwined with two parallel and pressing policy matters: the first was political and concerned the necessity to contain a brewing domestic crisis over the price of food; the second was diplomatic and involved a looming international row over British reluctance to fulfill a Russian request for massive financial assistance.”

Britain’s War Council thought there was an easy solution to both problems — open the Dardanelles so Russia could export its wheat to foreign markets. Food prices would fall; Russia would profit. But it turned out to be anything but easy and, as noted by Lambert, demonstrated “the entanglement between the forces of economic globalization and the conduct of war.”

Similarly, with soaring food prices now shaking Western countries and the rising risk of famine in the Middle East and North Africa, which could fuel another migration crisis, policymakers are grappling with these same entanglements and weighing their options.

Climate change, the pandemic and energy price inflation have all been key drivers of the current food crisis, but the war in Ukraine is expanding into a grain war testing Western resolve and cohesion. Russia and Ukraine are crucial grain suppliers for countries such as Libya, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia, and some estimates suggest that in the coming months, 50 million people, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, will face acute hunger unless Ukrainian grain is released.

Ukrainians are desperate to get 25 million metric tons of stored grain to market — both to receive much-needed income and to make way for this season’s winter wheat, which will be harvested next month. And as the Black Sea has been effectively blockaded by Russia, the Western focus so far has been on how to expand road and rail routes.

Russian officials say if they lift the blockade, Ukraine will buy weapons with proceeds from grain sales. American and European Union diplomats accuse the Kremlin of weaponizing food and seeing famine as a way to provoke a tsunami of migration to roil Europe, much as their indiscriminate bombing in northern Syria contributed to one half-a-decade ago.

However, many experts say that even with expanded road and rail links, enough grain to make a difference can’t be transported to ports in Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltics. And so, thoughts are slowly turning to the blockade of the Black Sea, which is becoming an urgent matter “because of the effect on Ukraine’s battered economy but also on supplies of essential agricultural products to the rest of the world,” according to Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London.

Lifting the naval blockade isn’t simple, however, and while the players may be different, Britain’s Dardanelles naval campaign flashes a warning about allowing globalized trade to shape the conduct of war rather than allowing military strategy to take the lead.

One possibility would be to engage Moscow in negotiations, using Russia’s difficulties in exporting its own grain — an indirect consequence of Western sanctions — as leverage. But if the Kremlin wants to exacerbate the world’s food catastrophe in an act of hybrid warfare, then that diplomatic tactic is likely to go nowhere.

Retired United States Admiral James Foggo has argued that Ukraine could contest command of the Black Sea by pursuing a tactic of sea denial, focusing on imposing “enough attrition on Russian fleet assets that the blockade becomes unsustainable.” In short, repeat the success of Ukraine’s sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva — the pride of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

Along these lines, high-ranking Ukrainian official Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, tweeted on Friday that the U.S. is preparing a plan “to destroy” Russia’s Black Sea fleet with powerful missiles in order to unblock Odesa. “Deliveries of powerful anti-ship weapons (Harpoon and Naval Strike Missile with a range of 250-300 km) are being discussed,” he followed.

But other naval experts say breaking the blockade would likely have to involve Western warships protecting convoys of grain-laden freighters navigating the Black Sea, risking attack from Russia’s Crimea-based anti-ship missiles, as well as braving mines. 

A military solution is full of hazards — much as a Western no-fly zone over Ukraine would have been, as it could have quickly led to a direct confrontation between NATO and Russian warplanes.

And just as Lambert plots how domestic political and economic considerations overtook military decisions in his examination of the Gallipoli debacle, military plans must be clear and the adage “anything that can go wrong will go wrong” shouldn’t be ignored.

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