By Steven MacMillan/New Eastern Outlook: 18 July, 2015
As the Western empire continues to move the world closer to war with Russia, it is important for the hawks in Washington, London and Brussels to recognise the lessons that history has taught us about the success of empires trying to conquer the Russian motherland. From the Napoleonic French to the Third Reich, empires have been defeated by Russia time and time again down through history, with the US-dominated Western empire no exception to the rule.
The 24th of June 1812 marked the beginning of the French invasion of Russia led by one of the greatest military strategists in history, Napoleon Bonaparte. The French emperor marched approximately 600,000 soldiers across the Niemen River into Russia, hoping to expand on his previous conquests in Europe.
Despite relative success on the battlefield however, Napoleon’s Grande Armée was eventually forced to retreat due to the harsh Russian winter, rampant disease and food shortages, in addition to hit and run tactics by opposition forces. American author Stephan Talty blames the spread of a “war plague” in the form of typhus as a major reason why so few of the Grande Armée made it home.
The use of scorched earth tactics also played a significant role in the demise of Napoleon’s forces. Farmers burned their fields to ensure they couldn’t be used by French forces, whilst the Russian army set ablaze cities, bridges and military stores on their retreat from battles. As history professor at Princeton University and author of “The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It”, David A. Bell noted: “Certainly, the scorched earth tactics were incredibly important in denying the French army sustenance.”
When Napoleon reached Moscow in September hoping to find supplies and shelter for his starving troops, Russian patriots torched the city in a fire that would destroy around three-quarters of Moscow. After waiting a month in Moscow anticipating a Russian surrender that would never come, the French troops were forced to begin their retreat out of Russia.
Napoleon followed in the footsteps of the Swedish king Charles XII approximately 100 years earlier, who attempted to conquer Russia but was decisively defeated by ‘Peter the Great’ at the Battle of Poltava in 1709.
In June 1941 Adolf Hitler launched the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union which was code named ‘Operation Barbarossa’, after the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Many high-ranking German officers falsely believed the Red Army could be defeated in just two to three months, immensely underestimating the depth of the Soviet army.
Although estimates range, it is believed that Soviet civilian and military deaths in the Second World War were between 25 and 27 million, compared to the US losing approximately 420,000 people. It is clear that the Soviet forces and people played the largest role in the defeat of the Third Reich, as British historian Roger Bartlett remarked: “With all credit to British and American achievements, it is clear that Nazism was defeated in the Soviet Union”.
According to author Norman Davies, “the German army suffered 88% of its casualties on the Eastern Front. It was the Soviet troops who broke the will and capacity of the German army to carry out massive front offensives in 1943.” One notable battle in the Second World War was when Soviet forces successfully defended the city of Stalingrad against the Nazi war machine, at the Battle of Stalingrad. Widely regarded as one of the greatest battles in history in addition to being a major turning point in the war, the defense of the city was an important military and psychological victory for Soviet forces.
Despite the historical facts detailing the pivotal role the Soviet Union played in defeating the Third Reich, many people in the West falsely believe the US played the largest role. A YouGov poll conducted this year – which asked respondents from the US, Britain and a number of European countries which nation played the largest role in defeating Nazi Germany – found that the majority of people polled believed it was the US. This is a victory for US propaganda but it’s unfortunately not a victory for historical truth.
Today, Russia is the target of many belligerent powers around the world. The Russian President Vladimir Putin believes this trend will only continue into the future, as he recently stated: “We cannot expect a change in the hostile policies of some of our geopolitical opponents in the immediate future.” Just days after Putin’s comments, high-ranking US General Joseph Dunford made a ludicrous statement claiming “Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security,” adding to the plethora of bellicose rhetoric we have come to expect from US officials in recent years.
Before the US further antagonises the Russian Federation, the arrogant, hubris filled leaders in Washington should open the history books and take a lesson from the other empires that believed they could conquer the Russian motherland.