Respecting Russia: Only Fools Rush In
“Whoever will come to us with a sword, by a sword will perish.”
– Aleksandr Nevsky, 13th-century Russian prince and saint of the Russian Orthodox Church
According to multiple news outlets (including The Daily Mail, RT, and The Huffington Post), NATO is amassing troops along the Russian border. The tension between the United States and Russia has not been this intense since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
By this point, we’ve all heard the sour grapes issuing from the Obama camp concerning Russia’s alleged electronic interference with our recent election. According to them, Russia is at least partially responsible for Mr. Trump’s forthcoming presidency.
But if Russia tried to hack the election for Mr. Trump’s benefit, its efforts fail to impress—Mrs. Clinton’s vote count outpaced Trump’s by a margin of three million. And if we’re expelling Russia’s diplomats because they hacked into some other facet of our national security apparatus, why haven’t we done the same to China’s diplomats?
Simply put, all of this hacking-accusation hoopla is a red-herring sideshow put on to distract, incite, and inflame the American public. Why is Obama actually stirring up a war with Russia? Who can explain the whys and wherefores of that man’s inexplicable choices? Precious little of what he has done over the course of his two terms has been logical or far-sighted.
Of true concern is not so much why this is happening, but what the consequences will likely be. And we have plenty of been-there, done-that testimony to reference if we wish to learn what happens to armies foolish enough to rush in to Russia.
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The sagas of ill-fated invasions inscribed upon the pages of recent Russian history are impressively intimidating, and ought to give pause to anyone contemplating a military mash-up with the Muscovites.
First let’s consider Charles XII of Sweden’s 1708 endeavor. Charles XII’s military strategy relied upon the swift movement of armies over unexpected terrain. This initially served him well; he scored many early victories and rapidly moved deep into Russian territory. However, Charles was foiled, in large part, by the scorched earth tactics employed by Peter the Great; in spite of suffering multiple defeats, Peter merely retreated further and further into the endless expanses of Russia, destroying anything the pursuing Swedish army might use to sustain itself, thereby decimating it. The Russian winter took care of the rest.
The next epic fail began on June 24, 1812 when little Napoleon crossed into enormous Russia. His goal was quick victory via massive onslaught. His strategy initially served him well; he scored many early victories, and rapidly moved deep into Russian territory. However, Napoleon was foiled, in large part, by the scorched earth tactics employed by Russian soldiers and civilians; in spite of suffering multiple defeats, Tsar Alexander I’s armies merely retreated further and further into the endless expanses of Russia, destroying anything the pursuing French army might use to sustain itself, thereby effectively chipping away at it, as the French could not maintain their ridiculously long supply lines. An early winter more or less took care of the rest.
And, finally, we come to the most recent example—Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the USSR. It began on June 22, 1941; note the similarity to the date of Napoleon’s invasion. The parallels pile on from there.
Hitler’s goal was quick victory via massive onslaught. His strategy relied upon the swift movement of armies over unexpected terrain. This initially served him well; he scored many early victories, and rapidly moved deep into Soviet territory. However, Hitler was foiled, to a great degree, by the scorched earth tactics employed by Stalin’s armies; in spite of suffering multiple defeats, the Soviets merely retreated further and further into the endless expanses of the USSR, destroying anything the pursuing German army might use to sustain itself, thereby effectively chipping away at it, as the Germans could not maintain their ridiculously long supply lines. An early winter helped take care of the rest.
If you’ve failed to see the pattern here, you’re clearly not the first. Although these are obviously oversimplifications of complex operations, they are accurate broad-strokes synopses, and even a child should be able to extract the moral of the overall story, which is something akin to: fool me once, shame on you, fool me repeatedly in the exact same way, shame, shame, shame on me.
It’s worth noting the exception to the rule—there has been one significant successful invasion of Russia, carried out by the Mongols nearly 800 years ago. However, if Obama is taking his cue from this isolated bit of history, he ought to step in front of a mirror and reassess his reflection; he resembles Genghis Khan about as much as Hillary Clinton resembles Mother Teresa.
Furthermore, one might argue that this example doesn’t really count, since a united Russia as such did not exist at the time. In fact, it could be argued that the consolidation and expansion of a defined Russian state was the key factor that eventually allowed for the reclamation of their sovereignty over not only their own territories, but several Mongol successor states to boot. It may have taken them 200 years to pull it off, but this only serves to illustrate my next point: Russian tenacity should not be underrated.
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In one of my many former occupational lives, I was once an online English as a Second Language instructor. I had students scattered all over the globe, including several in Russia. Hands down, they worked harder, and progressed more quickly, than anyone anywhere else in the world.
The nature of the lessons readily engendered the formation of a personal relationship, and I got to know my pupils well. As a whole, my Russian students impressed me as an incredibly tough and determined bunch. Most of them had endured remarkable hardships; they were experts at stretching meager provisions into multiple meals, working long hours on little or no sleep, and cracking jokes in lieu of cracking up.
Alexey is a perfect example. When I first began working with him about five years ago, he was a penniless early twenty-something living on his parents’ couch. He had few legitimate prospects, but dreams the size of Siberia—he wanted to be a chef on a cruise ship so he could see the world. Over the course of the years I’ve known him, I’ve watched with wonder while he’s clawed and scratched his way out of poverty and into this precise occupation. He’s overcome impossible odds and repeated setbacks—obstacles and disappointments that would’ve caused every American I know to give up and walk away.
This kid lived in an uninsulated basement and worked sixteen-hour days at a job he despised for two years to pay his way through a degree program in Norway—a country in which he knew no one, and was profoundly lonely. Over the course of his studies, he was forced to drop out of his program not once, not twice, but three times due to circumstances outside his control, including illness and ultimately death in his family. Each time, he devised a way to resume his education. When he’d finally obtained his degree, he waited another two years for an opening in his field, toiling away in the meantime as a barista—a job well below his qualifications—in order to pay the bills.
But now he’s sailing around the world doing what he loves, and considers his long period of struggle to have been entirely worth it.
And this type of tenacity is the characteristic Russian trait everyone who invades that land forgets to take into account. When Russians really care about something—something like defending their homeland, for example—they will gladly suffer every form of deprivation and degradation in order to achieve their aim. Because suffering is nothing new to them—indeed, they’re old pros at it. You can bomb them, starve them, poison them, and beat them black and blue, and all of it will be in vain, because they’ll keep fighting until they come out on top.
But don’t take my word for it. Hitler’s eastern-front officers—a group perhaps better qualified to speak on this subject than anyone else in modern history—made some far more relevant observations.
For example, in volume III of his Kriegstagebuch, General Halder said: “It is becoming ever clearer that we have underestimated the Russian colossus … [Their] divisions are certainly not armed and equipped in our sense of the words, and tactically they are often poorly led. But there they are. And when a dozen of them have been destroyed, then the Russians put up another dozen” (170).
In his The Third Reich at War, Evans writes that General Gotthard Heinrici “returned again and again in his letters [to his wife] to express his amazement at the Russians’ ‘astonishing strength to resist … Their units are all half-destroyed, but they just fill them again with new people and they attack again. How the Russians manage it is beyond me’” (199). Evans also quotes a letter from a German officer to his brother: “The Russians are defending themselves with a courage and tenacity that Dr. Goebbels characterizes as ‘animal’” (403).
But Field Marshal Fedor von Bock probably put it best, and most simply, when he stated in Zwischen Pflicht und Verweigerung: “The Russians are unbelievably tough!” (229)
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So these are the people waiting on the other side of the border from our gathering NATO troops—troops that we say are being placed there in response to the buildup of Russian forces, which Russia describes as a response to the buildup of NATO forces.
Which side is “right?” Does it really matter when nuclear war looms as a legitimate possibility? In such a case, it would seem that what is truly right is the prevailing of cooler heads. Really, oughtn’t we to know better than to toy with worldwide annihilation?
Of course, Napoleon really ought to have known better, and certainly Hitler, too. Alas, they both seemed convinced of their own personal exceptionalism. One might argue that Mr. Obama suffers from similar delusions. Will Mr. Trump fall into the same trap? Only time will tell.
In the end, the overused, but never-disproven adage will almost certainly hold true yet again: Those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it.