Russia’s current foreign policy is in a mess, as Russian leaders often underestimate the domestic forces that lend themselves to revolution. These three times Russia botched a war and had to pick up their arms again will be important lessons for any country considering engaging with Russia.
Russia has had a lot of wars in their history. There is one time when they lost and had a revolution. That was during the Napoleonic Wars, when Russia lost to France and Austria.
An solitary dictator in Moscow takes a crucial military choice based on optimistic assumptions that are rapidly debunked on the battlefield. The consequences are soon felt at home, with the economy in shambles and political upheaval on the increase.
Many battles in Russia’s and the Soviet Union’s history are echoed in today’s headlines. Undersupplied Russian conscript troops, excessive inflation and industrial malfunctions during conflict, and rulers surrounded by flatterers are all documented in history.
Previous battles have made it impossible to anticipate what will happen this time. Some of Moscow’s interventions were successful, such as when Red Army tanks invaded Hungary in 1956 and established a pro-Soviet administration that lasted for decades.
Nonetheless, history has shown that wars that begin outside of Russia’s boundaries or on its borders may occasionally wind up rocking the nation to its core. Here are three examples of this.
During the Russo-Japanese War, oil tankers caught fire in Port Arthur in Russia’s Far East.
GETTY IMAGES/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP/PICTURES FROM HISTORY
The Russo-Japanese War was fought between Russia and Japan (1904-05)
The battle between Russia and Japan for hegemony in Northeast Asia demonstrated the dangers of Moscow’s overconfidence while fighting a lesser adversary.
This conflict, unlike the one in Ukraine, was not launched by Russia. With a surprise strike on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in Russia’s Far East, Tokyo took the initiative. Japan, only a half-century after breaking from feudal seclusion, was no match for a European army, so Czar Nicholas II resolved to strike back with full might.
He misjudged his adversary. In a battle in what is now the Chinese city of Shenyang, about one-quarter of 340,000 Russian men were killed, as Japan committed practically its whole force to the war. After sailing around the world, Japan lost or captured the majority of the 45 ships of Russia’s Baltic Fleet.
At home, the czar was coping with significant discontent, including labor strikes and a deadly police-demonstrator fight. The turmoil exacerbated Russia’s military problems, and stories of humiliating combat losses harmed the czar’s reputation.
In a September 1905 peace settlement arranged by President Theodore Roosevelt, who earned the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, Russia agreed to give up land to Japan. The Russian Revolution of 1905 compelled the tsar to relinquish absolute authority, which he and his forefathers had held for over 300 years.
“Had the Revolution of 1905 not intervened, Russia would have crushed Japan down and conquered,” said David Wolff, a professor of Eurasian history at Hokkaido University in Japan. “Russian government change is also one of the few successful alternatives for Ukraine.”
In 1914, Russian gunners on the Eastern Front.
COLLECTION OF SLAVA KATAMIDZE/GETTY IMAGES
First World War (1914-18)
When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914, Nicholas II was still in power, igniting the pan-European crisis that led to World War I. Though many people remember World War I for trench fighting on the Western Front, historian Dominic Lieven says in “The End of Tsarist Russia” that “as much as anything, World War I hinged on the destiny of Ukraine.”
The tsar, like President Vladimir Putin now, desired to maintain a broad area of authority. Mr. Lieven argues, “Without Ukraine’s people, industry, and agriculture, Russia would have ceased to be a major force in the early twentieth century.”
The early patriotic zeal swiftly faded as the tsar led the Russian forces into the struggle against Germany on the Eastern Front. According to Peter Gatrell of the University of Manchester, it became evident that the Russian military was unprepared, with significant flaws in motorized vehicles and communications technology. As the conflict progressed, Russian industry became too weak to properly restock the troops, causing inflation to rise.
Prof. Gatrell, who has written books about the time period, including “A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia in World War I,” says one advantage for Mr. Putin is the lack of a serious refugee crisis within Russia, such as the one that occurred during World War I, when fighting forced millions of Russians to flee their homes. Despite this, he finds parallels with today.
“Despite the harsh punishments meted out to opponents of the war, opposition will persist, and economic forces may work against the existing leadership.” “There is suspicion about Putin’s generals’ views, just as there was in 1917,” he said in an email.
Nicholas II abdicated in March of 1917, and the Bolsheviks, under by Vladimir Lenin, took power in November. In a peace deal with Germany signed in March 1918 in Brest-Litovsk in what is now Belarus, close where Russia-Ukraine peace negotiations have recently taken place, Russia handed away enormous areas.
The Treaty of Versailles envisaged an autonomous Ukraine under German control, but with Germany’s loss on the Western Front, Ukraine became a Soviet Union republic.
In 1980, Afghan mujahedeen fought atop a crashed Soviet helicopter.
Photo credit: GETTY IMAGES/CHIP HIRES/GAMMA-RAPHO
Afghanistan’s Soviet War (1979-89)
Under the ailing leader Leonid Brezhnev, the Communist Soviet Union founded by Lenin had become sclerotic by 1979. Still concerned about spheres of influence, the Soviets were anxious that a purportedly Communist leader in Afghanistan was not sufficiently pro-Soviet.
The strategy for Afghanistan paralleled that of Mr. Putin’s generals for Ukraine: grab control in the city, depose the president, and replace him with a loyalist to Moscow. At least at initially, the Afghan plot succeeded, as Soviet soldiers killed the president in December 1979 and replaced him with a Moscow favorite.
The Soviets had not anticipated the protracted and deadly occupation that would follow. Intervening powers often believe mistakenly that everything will be great after they get rid of a leader they don’t like, according to Benjamin Denison, a nonresident fellow at the think tank Defense Priorities who is preparing a book about occupations.
“When you consider how much force is required to maintain a dictatorship in power, it’s really twice or treble the invasion force.” “This is the same problem the US had after toppling Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq,” Mr. Denison said.
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Afghan mujahedeen militants supported by the US tormented Soviet invaders with modern shoulder-launched rockets, similar to what happened in Ukraine today. Early in 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew.
The humiliating withdrawal of Soviet troops, as well as the cost in lives, fueled domestic resentment. According to Mr. Denison, bungled occupations “lead to considerably greater questioning of the foundation of the rule, particularly among authoritarian governments.” “Domestic dissatisfaction occurs: ‘Why is this taking so long?’ This was supposed to be a fast expedition,’ we were informed.’
Russia’s communist government came to an end in 1991, and the Soviet Union was dissolved. Ukraine became an independent country as a consequence of the de facto revolution. It is still fighting to maintain its independence today.
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