The Battle For Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- A battle fought near the Ukrainian town of Poltava on 28 June 1709 sealed the fates of three nations. And despite the key roles played by the three very different political-military leaders who took part, things wouldn't have turned out any different regardless of who was giving the orders.

Ukrainian national hero, Hetman Ivan Mazepa.

Representing Russia was Peter the Great, one of those rare historical figures who are credited with single-handedly changing the course of events.

The seven-foot-tall czar forced his country to embrace the technically advanced West, which he personally visited 'incognito' (a first for a Russian leader). Prior to Peter, who took control of the Kremlin at the age of 24, Russia was a backward mixture of high Byzantine culture and no-nonsense Mongol administration.

After him, it had become a centralized if not fully functional bureaucracy with a military capable of supporting the czars' imperial ambitions against Europe and the Turkish sultan.

Peter wasn't particularly concerned about the lot of the Russian peasants, who eventually became virtual slaves of the aristocracy. In addition to his boundless energy and desire for learning, he was also a crude and irreverent bully.

At the time of the battle of Poltava, he was 37 years old.

The Swedish king, Charles the Twelfth, was also a remarkable, although a thoroughly European, leader. Unlike Peter, whose rise to power was uncertain and full of bloody intrigues, the initially frail Charles was groomed for his position by his father.

Nevertheless, at the age of only 15, he asserted himself as monarch, gaining the reputation of a fearless, beloved and ingenious military leader before he was twenty.

While Peter was trying to open his window to the West, which required access to the Baltic and Black seas, Charles was attempting to hold together the much smaller Swedish empire.

The two men and their countries were bound to clash, but it wasn't the big clumsy bear that took the initiative. Instead, Charles was betrayed by a member of his own aristocracy, who brokered an alliance between the Danes, the King of Poland Frederick Augustus II and Peter - all of whom had territorial grievances against the Swedish throne.

But in the decade leading up to Poltava, the bold if impetuous Swede had neutralized all his enemies in brilliant military victories, except Russia, which continued to learn from its defeats in battle.

In short, although Peter is revered for making Russia great, while Sweden lost its status as a regional power under Charles, the victory was one of careful Russian defense over bold Swedish offense, eastern numerical superiority over western technical skill, and home advantage on the steppe over European arrogance.

In the middle of these two young demigods was an old but able Cossack playing a desperately weak hand of historical cards.

In some ways, Ivan Mazepa, almost seventy years old at the time of the battle of Poltava, represented a middle ground between Peter and Charles.

Born in an area controlled by the Polish Lithuanian Commonweath, he served in the Polish court and attended a Jesuit college in Warsaw. But he rose to power in Ukraine by faithfully serving the Russian Czar.

For centuries the Cossacks had been able to play off the Polish, the Turks and the Russians against each other, but following the Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654, Moscow gradually began exercise increasing influence n Ukraine.

Mazepa's decision to side with the Swedes against Moscow was probably the last serious attempt by the Cossacks to maintain their independence.

And it didn't work.

Like Napoleon and Hitler who followed in his footsteps, Charles was ultimately defeated by the vast and harsh Eurasian steppe.

He moved too deeply and too quickly into enemy territory, which was scorched behind the evasive and much more numerous Russian army.

Charles set off with 70,000 troops and ended up with around 1,000 - the victims of bad planning and personal hubris. The outstanding bravery and skill of the Swedes wasn't enough to secure victory.

Neither was the contribution to the campaign by Mazepa, who showed up on the battle scene with only a couple of thousand Cossacks.

Moreover, his decision to oppose the Czar, in which only a fraction of his fellow Ukrainians joined him, provoked the obliteration of Cossack military power by Peter's generals.

By convincing Charles that Ukraine could provide him with 30,000 additional troops and badly needed food and supplies, Mazepa also unintentionally betrayed the Swedes.

But his actions were definitely in the interest of an independent Ukraine, whose coming followed only 280 years later.

Moreover, under the reckless leadership of Charles, who overextended his supply lines, the Swedes were doomed to defeat anyway.

Just as Russia was bound to sooner or later, under one leader or another, take advantage of the waning Turkish and Polish-Lithuanian empires.

Mazepa, however, was no more bound by loyalty to the Czar than the Russians were bound to pay tribute to the Mongols.

Nevertheless, Mazepa remains in anathema from the Russian Orthodox Church, even as his face adorns Ukraine's five-hryvnia banknote.

And as President Yushchenko laid flowers on the old Cossack's grave last month, Russian and Ukrainian diplomats were arguing about how the 300-year anniversary should be commemorated next year.

For their part, the Swedes want to erect their own monument in Poltava, to Charles. Clearly, all three leaders - Mazepa, Charles and Peter, were exceptional men worthy of their respective countries' praise.

And looked at in the hind site of a history that includes the 13th century battle of Alexander Nevsky against the Livonian knights, and the Polish intrusion during the early 17th century time of troubles, the Battle of Poltava was just the latest episode of failed military campaigns by the West against Russia.

The only question now is whether Ukraine will be able to maintain the independence it has received in more recent times.

Source: The Ukrainian Observer


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