Russia at War


The River Volga passing through what was once Stalingrad, now Volgograd. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

“How many divisions does the Pope have?”

—Joseph Stalin

Despite the impressive TikTok feeds showing the Russian phalanx heading in formations across the Ukrainian frontier and the missile extravaganza across the country, the success of the Russian army as an instrument of foreign policy is little better than average (perhaps not unlike the American army, which itself hasn’t won a war in seventy-seven years).

For all that the Russian President Vladimir Putin is staking his faith (if not his political survival) on the efficacy of his military’s combined arms to carry out his Soviet risorgimento, a recounting of Russia’s battles and wars in the last two hundred years would suggest that many of its campaigns have ended in ways not projected when earlier tsars and commissars unleashed the dogs of war.

The 1904 Russo-Japanese War

Take, for example, the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War that was intended to establish Russia as a Far Eastern power—with its Trans-Siberian railway reaching its terminus in the warm waters of Port Arthur on the far end of the Liaotung Peninsula.

That imperial foray, launched by Tsar Nicholas II, ended with the Japanese in Port Arthur, the Russian fleet at the bottom of the Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan, and Russian revolutionaries surrounding the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg—not exactly what the war gamers had mapped out.

My point isn’t that all Russian military interventions end in disaster. For every defeat on 203 Metre Hill (outside Port Arthur) there have been inspiring victories, such as those at Shipka Pass (in Bulgaria in 1877) or Stalingrad (1942-43).

But there have been enough Russian military blunders in the last 200 years that Putin might consider hedging his cruise-missile bets with a few economic stimulus packages or some rewired Sputnik satellites beaming out 5G internet connections as a way to win hearts and minds in occupied lands.

The Dark Knight

Part of the problem with the Russian army is that very often—as in Ukraine—it is sent into harm’s way as a representative of the forces of reaction.

In recent times, especially with all the talk of domino theories in Southeast Asia and the long reach of the Comintern (the Communist International), you might have the impression that Russia remains a Marxist revolutionary force, the heir of Lenin’s operatives, on the march to sweep capitalism into the dustbin of history.

Those revolutionary passions existed, however, a brief moment in time, and didn’t last long after Joseph Stalin paid his final respects to Lenin’s deathbed (with or without a few vials of poison).

Making the World Safe for Autocracy

For the most part, before and after the 1917 revolution, Russia has gone abroad —especially in Europe—to make the world safe for autocracy.

During the revolution of 1848, for example, Tsar Nicholas I did the bidding of the young Emperor Franz-Joseph in crushing the Hungarian revolt against Hapsburg rule.

The same impulses of reaction guided Tsar Alexander I in 1814, when he followed up Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign and occupied Paris with Russian lancers so that Europe’s ruling families could return to their dance floors in Vienna and Berlin.

In many ways these European interventions were the templates for 1956 and 1968, when Russia (by the instrument of the Warsaw Pact) crushed the hopes of young Hungarians and Czechs then rallying in the streets. Putin’s attack on Kiev can thus be understood as the last great jamboree of the Warsaw Pact.

Remember Stalingrad

Geopolitically, the reason that Putin has invaded Donbas isn’t so much to rescue oppressed Russians living under a Ukrainian yoke but to enlarge what in the 19th century would have been called its cordon sanitaire (a buffer zone) between eastern Ukraine (and possibly NATO one day) and the Volga River—although that doesn’t explain the invasions from Belarus or the amphibious assaults along the Black Sea.

The river—of Mississippi proportions—connects the region north of Moscow to the Caspian Sea and is Russia’s lifeline where in 1942 it mades its heroic stand at Stalingrad (Volgograd today), is only 200 miles to the east of the current border with Ukraine.

A succession of American presidents have failed to look at a map of Russia and see that NATO forces (however noble their charter or snappy their uniforms) in Donetsk or Luhansk would represent an existential threat to Russia, which if it were to lose control of the Volga could well splinter into the warlord duchies that Genghis Khan took such delight in overrunning during the 12th and 13th centuries.

Then there is this passage in Konstantine Simonov’s 1945 Stalingrad novel, Days and Nights, which reads:

The eternal bad luck…was that all the western banks of Russian rivers were steep, all the eastern banks sloping, and all the Russian cities stood without exception on the western banks: Kiev, Smolensk, Dnepropetrovsk, Moghilev, Rostov…. All of them were hard to defend because they were close to the rivers; and all of them would be hard to take back, because they would lie beyond their rivers.

What saved Stalingrad were its warehouses, which became fortifications; and Kiev itself has many similar warehouses.

Russia’s Open Western Borders

Ironically, for all that Russia drones on about threats to its nation, throughout history Russian leaders have been notoriously lax about defending its borders—or even defining them.

I own a collection of historical atlases, and some evenings in front of the fireplace I flip through them to make sense of where Russia’s true western border might lie.

On some atlas pages Russia’s western border is hard against Prussia and Austro-Hungary, with Poland wiped from the map. In other eras, Russia’s western border wanders from Riga down to Odessa, making detours around the Pripet Marshes and blurring the lines as they approach Crimea (which historically was more Tatar, aka Ottoman; only later did it become Russian).

Not only has Russia’s western border usually floated on air, but any number of tsars and commissars (Putin is just the latest of these autocrats) have failed to define who belongs to what in these borderlands—and then they to go to war when they feel cheated.

Wars of the Ottoman Succession

In the 19th century most Russian wars (leaving aside those that pushed the country east into Central Asia and Siberia) were fought with the Ottoman Empire for control of the Black Sea and access to the Straits.

Russia’s threats to Turkey in 1854 and 1877 led first to the Crimean War (although for that I would blame the Allies) and then to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 (to crush the Ottoman Empire), both of which ended with a coalition of western European nations lined up against Russia (much like today).

In 1877 Russia won the war against Turkey but lost the peace, as the 1878 Treaty of Berlin stripped Macedonia from Bulgaria (Russia’s proxy) and denied Constantinople to the tsar.

At the outbreak of World War I, Russia invaded Prussia and Galicia, just as in 1939 Stalin made a deal with Hitler to partition Poland and push his Soviet borders far to the west.

In this sense Putin—like Stalin before him—wants it both ways in Ukraine: he wants to project the image of Russia as vulnerable to western encroachment, while at the same time he’s not above the tsarist strategy of fabricating a crisis to occupy Bessarabia, Bukovina, eastern Poland, or the Baltic States.

“The blunders are all there on the board, waiting to be made.”

Although Russia is a chess culture (in Ukraine, Putin is portrayed as thinking brilliantly several moves ahead of the plodding, checker-playing Joe Biden), very often through its modern history Russia’s leaders have failed to understand the players opposite them on the board.

At Tilsit in 1807 (well, on a raft positioned in the middle of the River Niemen, which was on the frontier between central Europe and Russia), the Russian Tsar Alexander I thought he could appease Napoleon I by letting him have his way with Prussia and Austria. He could not, and less than five years later Napoleon was on the march to Borodino and Moscow, where he won the battles and lost the war.

In the run-up to the Crimean War (1853-56), Russia had ambitions to protect Christian communities in the Levant, take Constantinople, and liquidate the Ottoman Empire, but all it got was siege warfare and defeat in the Crimean hills between Balaklava and Sevastopol.

In the years before 1914, Russia failed to think through the consequences of its Balkan policies that hoped to secure a foothold in Macedonia between the receding empires of Austria and the Ottomans.

When to its surprise the Austrians invaded Serbia in August 1914, Russia launched its armies into Masuria, a marshy district in northeast Poland, where they were wiped out at the 1914 battle of Tannenberg (certainly a defeat that never needed to happen).

Stalin’s Miscalculations

Likewise, at the start of World War II, Joseph Stalin badly miscalculated Hitler’s intentions when the two of them agreed in August 1939 to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, pledging peace between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union so that both powers could carve up Poland and parts of what are now Ukraine.

Less than two years later, Hitler turned his armies against Stalin, who had used the interval to liquidate much of his senior officer corps and that of the captured Polish army.

In Ukraine today, keep in mind that the coterie of war planners around Putin are his KGB henchmen, and they will see the Russian army as a bunch of plodders, incapable of lightning black ops to solve a thorny political problem.

Note that Putin has tasked the FSB (the Federal Security Service and successor to the KGB) to liberate Kiev—an organizational rebuke to the Russian army.

You can be sure that Putin’s real enemy isn’t Ukraine’s President Zelensky but his Moscow army chiefs of staff, who will not want to fall on their embroidered swords to exonerate the planning errors of V.V. Putin. whom they will view as a political commissar attached to one of their rearguard units.

Leon Trotsky’s Excellent Adventure at Brest-Litovsk

Despite its pool-table geography of broad plains and an open steppe, Ukraine is a better place to lose a war than to win one.

In the 19th century, what we now call Ukraine was divided between Russia and Austria, although the novelist Joseph Conrad, who was born in Berdichev (two hours outside Kiev) considered himself Polish.

Ukraine in the 19th century was the location of Russia’s Pale of Settlement, which is where the Jews of the empire were consigned to live, mostly in ghettos.

At the start of World War I, as Russia attacked Germany and was defeated, Austria attacked Russia in eastern Galicia (in what is now western Ukraine) but got nowhere, at the cost more than a million casualties. Germany reinforced the wobbly Austrian army, and in 1917 Russia (under Lenin’s Bolshevik government) sued for peace.

In the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (Leon Trotsky was the chief Russian negotiator, and to drag out the settlement he turned the peace negotiations into a months-long debating society on such questions as the rights of man), Ukraine was given to the Germans, who held it for six months until the Western Front collapsed and the Russians moved in.

In 1918, briefly, the city that is now Lviv became the capital of the Western Ukraine’s People’s Republic. Before the war, Lviv was the Austrian city of Lemberg, and after that, depending on the invading army at the time, it was Polish, German, Soviet, and Ukrainian—and may now become Russian.

That quintessential Brooklynite, Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman), probably had some East European roots. No wonder he said, as if with Ukraine in mind: “I still feel—kind of temporary about myself.”

Winning Hearts and Minds with the Great Hunger

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles and the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921 retook western Ukraine and gave it to Poland. I recently bought a political map of Europe in 1930 (to understand the times in which I am living), and it shows the western border of Russia (there is no Ukraine), running down from Leningrad to the Romanian border (I am sure Putin has the same map).

In the early 1920s Lenin decided on a union of soviet socialists republics for his federal structure, in large part because he realized that Ukraine, with its distinct language, religions and ethnicities, would not merge harmoniously into Russia.

Unable to pacify Ukraine in the 1930s, Stalin delivered first the Great Hunger and then the Great Terror to its rural population, which explains why some Ukrainians celebrated the German invasion in June 1941. (Putin still nurses this grudge.)

Those welcome cheers were short-lived, as Hitler’s conquering legions rounded up Jews for extermination and other Ukrainians for work camps.

It took months for combined German and Romanian armies to capture Crimea, which they held, brutally, until 1944, when Ukraine’s territory was liberated.

Here’s an irony of history: at the 1945 Yalta Conference (in Crimea, of all places) Russia argued that Ukraine was an independent country and worthy of its own vote at the United Nations, while the United States and Britain argued that it was a region within Russia. I guess history isn’t what it used it be.

Ukraine Since 1991

With the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic voted for its independence, something Russia guaranteed in exchange for Ukraine giving up the nuclear weapons on its territory.

In 1992, in part to threaten both independent Moldova and Ukraine, Russia took possession of Transnistria (officially, it’s the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic and nothing more than a spur of land along the Dniester River—but still a wedge in the side of Ukraine), which along with the breakaway republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Artsakh (aka Nagorno-Karabakh) will be among the first, I am sure, to recognize the sovereignty of the people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, if not a puppet regime in Kiev.

In 2014 Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine and annexed the predominantly ethnically Russian territory, and I am sure Putin’s great regret is that at the same time he didn’t make a play for all of Ukraine, which would have been his for the asking.

Now Ukraine has had eight years to build up its military assets, leaving aside those that the Kremlin agitation propagandist (‘This is genius…’) Donald Trump refused to ship to President Zelensky until the Ukrainian head of state delivered some dirt on Hunter and/or Joe Biden. (Is it any wonder Putin came to the conclusion that the United States has a dysfunctional relationship with Ukraine?)

What Putin may be missing in his military assessments (slid under the door to his head-of-state bubble?) is that Ukraine is not your grandfather’s socialist republic but an evolving nation with its own (non-Russian) identity—despite all the inefficiencies and corruption that linger from the 1990s.

Online War Games

Much of the current conflict over Ukraine can be seen as an online war game, with Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden seated in front of their big screens, furiously deploying their formations.

Putin moves around his cruise missiles and armored brigades, while Biden positions his economic sanctions, as if they were knights moving in on oligarchic kings.

Eventually one side will concede the match, and the other side will move into Kiev (if Russia wins) or Kyiv (if Biden prevails). Then in six months Ukraina 6.0 will be released, and everyone can play again.

War Isn’t What It Used To Be

Starting wars, in Ukraine and elsewhere, has always been easy, much as they were in Iraq (remember the Bush sound-and-light shows over Baghdad?) and Vietnam (where the Marines landing at Red Beach in Danang were serenaded with garlands).

Getting what the invader set out to achieve is a harder proposition. For example, how did Pearl Harbor work out for the Japanese? What war in the last hundred years has gone according to plan?

In Ukraine, Russia would prefer to decapitate the Kyiv government and manage the country as a wholly-owned subsidiary with its own board of directors and security personnel to meet the incentive and sales goals. But as the Americans discovered in Afghanistan, an invasion force of 180,000, even with cruise missiles and cyber warriors, can take a capital but not hold it.

For the moment, the Pentagon’s great white hope is that the Ukrainians will fight a guerrilla war against the Russian invaders (here the template would be Chechnya), which explains why much of the military aid sent to Ukraine of late has been rifles, not Patriot missiles.

The United States invested some twenty years in the pacification of Iraq and in the end has nothing to show for it. The same is true in Afghanistan where, before the United States had its rendezvous with destiny, the Soviet Union had a go against the likes of the Taliban and came up empty. You would think that by now someone would have learned something about the invasion business.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.