Climbing over rocks, past old tires and shellfish-encrusted scrap metal, Oleksandr Shkalikov ventured onto the dry bed of a vast reservoir.
Outside in this desert rested a haunting reminder of long-ago battles on this same swath of southern Ukraine: a swastika, carved in rock, emerged from the receding water. The year “1942” was written next to it.
“History repeats itself,” said Mr. Shkalikov, a tank driver on leave from the Ukrainian army, of the World War II carve-up. He noted the timing: The Swastika became visible because of a more recent act of war, the explosion at the Kakhovka dam in June that emptied a reservoir the size of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
“We are fighting this war on the same landscape and with the same weapons” as those used in World War II, he said, evoking the heavy artillery and tanks that still shape the course of land warfare.
World War II was an ideological battleground in today’s war in Ukraine, where Russia falsely calls the Kyiv government neo-fascist and cites that as the rationale for its invasion. The military history of the country also appears on the actual battlefield, not only with artifacts in the ground but in the lessons that Ukraine learned from a war fought long ago.
Terrain and rivers often funneled today’s armies into the sites of some of the fiercest fighting in World War II, when German and Soviet forces swept over the valleys and expanses of wide-open plains.
Indeed, key battles so closely coincided with the sites of World War II fighting, the Ukrainian military says, that soldiers found themselves hiding in 80-year-old concrete bunkers outside Kyiv. They discovered the bones of German soldiers and Nazi bullet holes in the dirt they removed from trenches in the south.
World War II reached what is now Ukraine in 1939 with a Soviet invasion of territory then controlled by Poland in western Ukraine, at a time when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were in a military alliance. When that pact broke in 1941, Germany attacked and fought from west to east through Ukraine. The tide of war changed in 1943 with the German defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad, and the Red Army then fought the Nazis in Ukraine moving westward.
One of Germany’s early successes came in the Battle of the Sea of Azov in 1941, when its soldiers advanced from Zaporizhzhia to Melitopol. For three weeks, Nazi troops covered this ground to move into position to attack the Crimea and surround Red Army soldiers in the Kherson region.
Ukraine is now echoing that World War II offensive, fighting at locations southeast of Zaporizhzhia in what the Ukrainian military calls the “Melitopol direction.” The strategic goal is the same as it was eight decades ago — to isolate enemy troops in the Kherson region and threaten Crimea — but Ukrainian forces are moving much more slowly, gaining only a few miles in more than a month.
“Historical parallels, unfortunately or fortunately, keep emerging,” said Vasyl Pavlov, an adviser to Ukraine’s general staff, who has closely studied the similarities between the two wars.
Strategically, he said, the generals of Ukraine most directly drew on the history of the Second World War in devising a defense of the capital, Kyiv, last year.
In the opening days of the war, the Russian army advanced from Belarus towards the floodplain of the Irpin River – only to find that the Ukrainians had blown up a dam and flooded a vast area of fields, blocking the advance. It was retaliation for a Soviet ruse in 1941, when Moscow blew up a dam on the Irpin River to block a German tank attack, Mr Pavlov said.
“Generals are always preparing to fight the last war,” he said. “But the Russian generals did not even prepare to fight the last war.”
German troops later captured Kiev in 1941; the Russians fought for a month in the suburbs last spring and retreated.
When the current war turned from Kyiv to the east, it similarly retraced the battles of World War II. Then, as today, the looping course of the Siversky Donets River became a front line – with its high banks and marshy shores acting as natural barriers as rival armies battled over the cities and towns beside them.
In World War II, the river formed part of the so-called Mius Line, a defensive position that the Nazis built to stop Soviet counterattacks after the Battle of Stalingrad.
In the current war, various towns and villages along the Siversky Donets came into play. Ukrainian forces used the high bluffs and floodplains of the river, for example, to attempt a defense of the city of Lysychansk, ultimately unsuccessful, and to prevent a Russian crossing near the town of Bilohorivka.
Both wars left riverside towns and villages in ruins. The current fighting also damaged with shrapnel places monuments erected to commemorate the World War II fighting.
The village of Staryi Saltiv in the Kharkiv region was affected by both wars, and was largely destroyed each time.
Lidiya Pechenizka, 92, who has lived in the village all her life, recalled that in both conflicts the fighting was largely defined by the artillery shells flying over the river at enemy soldiers hidden in the village. For civilians, the experiences were similar: squatting in basements and root cellars.
“It was terrible,” Ms. Pechenizka said in an interview this spring.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive south of the city of Zaporizhzhia is, Mr. Pavlov said, a “direct analogy” to the German offensive in September 1941. The goals were similar: to move across the plains, to cut supply lines to Russian troops on the eastern bank. of the Dnipro and move into position to threaten the isthmus of the Crimean Peninsula.
But the parallels only go so far.
In World War II, the Red Army did not have time to fortify defensive lines on the plains; the Germans quickly advanced to the Sea of Azov, surrounding tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers in a pocket in the north.
This time, the Russians had months to dig. As a result, Ukraine’s counter-offensive stopped short of enormous fortifications of minefields, trenches and bunkers.
In another way, the fighting is also clear. The Nazi and Soviet armies fought across Ukraine moving perpendicular to the north-to-south flow of the main rivers. Ukraine in the counteroffensive mostly moves parallel to the rivers, providing at least one military advantage; it does not have to undertake many dangerous water crossings.
In the winter of 1943-44, the Soviet Union lost waves of soldiers in an east-to-west crossing of the Dnipro River.
Some of the bodies were found decades later by a Ukrainian non-governmental group, Memory and Glory, which sought World War II dead from both sides to provide dignified burials. Since its founding in 2007, it says, the group has found more than 500 remains of soldiers who fought in World War II in Ukraine.
Last year, members of Memory and Glory joined the Ukrainian Army to search battlefields for soldiers reported missing in action. It found more than 200 bodies from the current war – often in the same places where the dead of the Second World War were found, said Leonid Ignatiev, the director.
“When you dig into a trench” looking for bodies of soldiers recently killed, he said, “you find a World War II trench.”
Near the city of Novy Kamenki, in the Kherson region, the group recently searched for a Ukrainian soldier who had gone missing in action. Instead, they found the bones of a German soldier, Mr. Ignatiev said. The remains were sent for burial in a cemetery for German war dead in Ukraine.
“The high ground, the places for defense, they are all the same,” Mr. Ignatiev said.
Zaporizhzhia, a sprawling industrial city on the shores of the disappearing Kakhovka Reservoir, was occupied by Nazi troops in World War II and is a front-line city today where air raid sirens wail several times a day and Russian missiles occasionally roll in and explode.
But when the water receded from the city’s lake embankment after the dam burst, it was unexploded ordnance from the past that posed the greatest danger. Ukraine’s emergency services said the sandbanks and new islands emerging from the reservoir “turned out to be surprisingly full of explosive objects from World War II.”
Demining crews found and removed World War II aviation bombs, the service said.
Mr. Shkalikov, the tank driver, whose home is a short walk from the shore, fought in the early days of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in fields southeast of the city.
After his tank hit a mine, he received leave from his unit, returned home and began exploring the dry lake bed. Finding the swastika emerging from the water, he said, “didn’t surprise me at all.”
The wars are decades apart, but “the landscape hasn’t changed,” he said.
Maria Varenikova and Yurii Shyvala contributed reporting from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.