As the port city of Mariupol, sitting just spitting distance from the border of the rump Ukraine and the pro-Russian Donetsk Oblast prepares for war, striking photographs of the defences being laid recall images of another conflict fought on European soil, trench warfare during the Great War 1914-1918.
The industrial city of 500,000 people is now criss-crossed with trenches, road blocks and piles of sandbags protecting buildings. Photographs taken by locals and posted to social media reveal the somewhat haphazard construction of the fortifications, and the remarkable similarity to defences used in wars now long past.
One Twitter user, a supporter of the Donetsk Oblast, refers to what pro-Russian separatists believe is the Fascist government of the rump Ukraine when he comments of the pictures “Nazi construction skills have sunk pretty low since their heyday”.
The echoes of the Great War are not merely aesthetic. They reverberate in the present Mistral-class ship ordered by Russia from French ship builders before the collapse of cordiality between Russia and the West. Fearing the Russian government could use the modern assault carriers to further their aims against NATO and the Ukraine, the French government has placed an export ban on the two £600 million warships.
If the ban isn’t lifted, the French may have no choice but the scrap the ships as the cost of buying them, and then outfitting them to be compatible with new communications, electronic warfare, and navigation kit could run into the tens of millions, well beyond the budgets of any likely buyer.
The British found themselves in a similar situation in 1914 – having built two major warships for the Ottoman Empire, the contracts were suddenly torn up and the ships requisitioned for British use at the outbreak of war, for fear they could fall into the hands of the Central powers.
Speaking at the Great War Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris during a wreath-laying last week, French president Francois Hollande warned war was coming to Europe, and sooner than most believed. He said: “We didn’t experience the war, we see it as a far-off reality, sometimes abstract, even though it is not so far from us, in Ukraine, further still in the Middle East”.