Russian Military History of Yesterday and Today: “History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, but It Often Rhymes”
By Ariel Kirman
Few geopolitical conflicts feel more “current” than the most recent one between Russia and Ukraine. For months, the war has dominated news headlines, social media feeds, and dinner conversations alike. To be clear, this level of attention is absolutely merited — and perhaps even insufficient — for a war that has been rife with atrocities and human rights abuses from its imperialist inception. Yet in the search to decipher Russia’s motivations in catalyzing and perpetuating this war, perhaps it is wise to turn our attention away from the present and instead towards the past.
To better understand the conflict in Ukraine, we must analyze its similarities and differences with conflicts that came before it. Below I present a broad outline of recent Russian military history, and the ways that the Russian strategy of yesterday has influenced that of today.
World War II: 1939-1945
In the mid-20th century, the Soviet Union served as a crucial member of the Allied Powers in World War II. Though initially an ally of Germany, Russia joined forces with the United States and Britain after Germany invaded the USSR in 1941. Soviet resistance was crucial to an Allied victory – but it also took a toll on Russia. Russians suffered the loss of thousands of villages, factories, and railroads; however, perhaps the most devastating effect of the war was the human one. It is estimated that 20 to 27 million citizens of the USSR died, many of them civilians. Many millions more were critically wounded. Thus, it is no shock that for the USSR, the scars of World War II were lasting and deep. In remembrance of the many citizens they lost, Russia established traditions such as the “Day of Remembrance and Sorrow,” which takes place every year on June 22, the anniversary of the German invasion of the USSR. Still, there is a distinction to be made between remembrance of Russia’s role in the war and glorification of it.
Indeed, the latter has proven to be Vladimir Putin’s favorite if subtle tool in justifying the current war. Specifically, Putin has painted Ukraine as a damsel in distress – a nation in need of denazification. As reasoning for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in a February 2022 address Putin asserted that Ukrainians had been “subjected to bullying and genocide … for the last eight years. And for this we will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.” Similarly, Russian government officials asserted that the West’s “neglect” of Ukraine “encouraged the onset of neo-Nazism and Russophobia.” There is certainly some merit to a fear of nazification in Ukraine: for instance, the far-right Azov movement in Ukraine, which has played a role in the nation’s defense, has a history of antisemitism and neo-nazism. Yet the world can – and should – recognize the imperfections of Ukraine while simultaneously seeing Putin’s claims of nazism for the political pawn that they are.
In October, I had the privilege of sitting down with Professor Ted Wittenstein, Executive Director of International Security Studies at the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs, who comes from a background in diplomacy and intelligence. As Wittenstein put it, “there are white nationalists on both sides of the conflict. I don’t think that this is what the war is about. The war is about Putin’s vision for Eastern Europe.” In other words, although Ukraine certainly struggles with antisemitism and white supremacy, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has more to do with a desire for power and “reunification” than a concern for Ukrainian minorities. Putin’s “denazification” rhetoric thus makes reference to the past in order to justify invasions of the present.
The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was a highly formative event of Russian history, yet one which Putin has made fewer references to since the invasion of Ukraine. Perhaps the war in Afghanistan has played a smaller role in Putin’s rhetoric surrounding Ukraine because it fails to shed a positive light on Russia’s military strategy. In spite of its relatively minor role in current public discourse, the war in Afghanistan presents valuable lessons about Russia’s military values. In fact, one key similarity between Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan and Ukraine lies in Russia’s incorrect estimations of their own military and those of their enemies.
In the late 1970s, the USSR invaded Afghanistan in the hopes of instating a communist puppet leader. Though Moscow’s motivations for doing so were complex, central catalysts for the invasion included a fear of Afghanistan’s growing relationship with the West and a commitment to the 1968 “Brezhnev Doctrine,” which dictated that Soviets had a responsibility to uphold socialist governments across Europe. In spite of the vast resources that the USSR spent on the war in Afghanistan, its efforts proved to be largely unfruitful. The war killed 1 million civilians and an estimated 125,000 troops from both sides. How could an effort so ardently supported by Soviet ideology prove to be so harmful for the nation? Much of the answer relates to Russia’s underestimation of the Mujahideen, the rebel forces whom Russia was trying to oust. Griff Witte of The Washington Post writes that “in plotting to oust Amin, the Soviets had not counted on the fervor or resilience of Afghan rebels — known as Mujahideen — who launched a David vs. Goliath rebellion against what was then the world’s largest conventional army.”
Russia seems to underestimate Ukrainian defense in a similar manner. Instead of recognizing Ukraine’s power, Putin has repeatedly claimed that past Ukrainian military feats – including the Orange Revolution of 2004 – were products of Western intervention, not Ukrainian strength. Likewise, before invading in 2022, Putin’s rhetoric implied that Ukrainians would “be liberated” and “protected” by Russian troops, using patronizing language that implied that the Ukrainian army would not be able to defend its people. Weinstein mentioned that Putin was “hoping for a swift victory that would make this a fait accompli.” And yet, even the Russian-speaking cities like Kharkiv and Odessa, which Russia expected to surrender, proved to have a remarkably strong resistance. Russia has also underestimated the threat of civilian resistance, which has proven to be incredibly powerful – especially those in “Voznesensk who picked up hunting rifles and hurled bricks to help halt Russian soldiers along the southern coast.” As Wittenstein put it, “part of what Russia is underestimating is the willingness of Western powers to support these third parties that are not their formal alliances in order to resist Soviet Russian influence.”
Russia’s strategic follies in the first war against Chechnya also bears a striking resemblance to those of their army today. In 1994, Russia attempted to gain control over Chechnya in the name of slavic reunification. Although Russia had superior arms and vastly more soldiers than did Chechnya, the end of the war did not bring Russian victory. After costing the lives of thousands, the war ended with a ceasefire. As in Afghanistan, Russia’s superiority in arms and personnel proved insufficient to win them the war.
One similarity between the conflicts in Chechnya and Ukraine lies in Russia’s refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the wars – throughout the Chechen War’s entirety, Russia referred to it merely as a “contra-terror operation.” Then-President Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999) made a conscious effort to brand Chechens as terrorists, not soldiers fighting for their independence. When I spoke with him, Weinstein highlighted the importance of rhetoric for the Russian government both today and in past fights.
I would be remiss to argue that Russia’s military strategy is stagnant. Their strategy itself is certainly ever-evolving – the most advanced armies of the day are constantly assessing their past mistakes and successes. However, there are overarching themes that seem to run deeply through Russian military conquests past and present. For Putin, major problems include an underestimation of rival armies and support, and an overestimation of his own army. Perhaps future conflicts will hold a different fate for the Russian military. But until they do, it is hard to escape the rhymes of Russian military history.
Ariel Kirman is a first-year in Trumbull College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.