What the military history of Russia reveals

(CNN) — In Victory Park, west of central Moscow, stands a huge obelisk at the base of which is a statue of Saint George, the patron saint of Russia, thrusting his spear into a dragon adorned with the swastika, a symbol of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

The park is located on Kutuzov Avenue, one of the main arteries of Moscow, which runs to the west. It owes its name to Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, the commander of the Russian armies that faced – and eventually defeated – the invasion of the French Empire in 1812, commanded by Napoleon.

Moscow is full of references to the Second World War and the Napoleonic Wars, two of the historical episodes most remembered by the Russians, where the formidable military reputation of Russia was cemented, which now finds itself once again fighting a war after invading Ukraine two months ago.

The military history of Russia

But while Russia’s might is undeniable, the country’s military history is marked by disasters as well as triumphs. And even when Russia – or the USSR – triumphed, the destruction and death on all sides that intervened has been high.

Ukraine commemorates 60 days since the beginning of the Russian invasion 3:08

The Soviet Union lost more people, military and civilian, than any other country during World War II. But he resisted the invasion of a Germany that seemed unstoppable in 1941, fought back and finally reached the heart of the Reich, while the allies, led by the United States and the United Kingdom, advanced in the west.

The victory in this Great Patriotic War—as World War II was known in the USSR—and the development of nuclear weapons served as a new foundation for the fearsome Red Army of the Cold War.

And when the USSR fell in 1991, the Russian Federation – its legal descendant and heir to the Soviet atomic arsenal – also got that formidable military reputation.

It is the same Russian Federation—whose army is trained in the Soviet tradition and equipped mostly with weaponry designed or produced during the Cold War—that is now pressing Ukraine. And that it will soon celebrate, as it does every year, the Soviet victory in World War II with a parade in Moscow.

The “Great Patriotic War”

It is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century and a universally recognized symbol of Soviet military might: a group of Red Army soldiers hoist the USSR flag from the roof of the Reichstag, the German parliament in Berlin, signaling victory over Nazi Germany after six years of war and tens of millions dead.

Russian military history

A soldier waves the flag of the Soviet Union in Berlin on April 30, 1945.

The sacrifice of the USSR in the fight against Nazism is unquestionable: 7,500,000 of its soldiers died, and counting civilians the number rises to about 25 million.

The USSR also maintained an open land front against Germany for longer than any other country: from June 22, 1941 to May 9, 1945, and it was the one that caused the most casualties to the German army in now mythical battles for the scale of destruction, such as Stalingrad, Kursk, Kharkiv and Operation Bagration.

This has led the Soviet governments, and later the Russians, to maintain that the USSR had been primarily responsible for the victory against Nazi Germany.

In a 2020 article, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that it is “essential to pass on to future generations the memory that the Nazis were defeated first and foremost by the Soviet people and that the representatives of all the republics of the Soviet Union They fought together in that heroic battle, both at the front and in the rear.”

a shared victory

But the USSR was not solely responsible for the German collapse, and its efforts were made in the context of a grand alliance with Western countries, led by the United States and the United Kingdom.

Army cadets march during a Victory Day parade in Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II. (Credit: Ramil Sitdikov – Host Photo Agency via Getty Images)

In fact, the United States and the United Kingdom not only conducted their own military operations against Germany in North Africa, in Italy and then in France, but also provided the USSR with an enormous amount of military equipment and food in order to contain the German advance, through the “lend-lease” program (Lend-lease Act).

Much has been made of the real impact of this aid. In this regard, the former leader of the USSR, Nikita Khruschev, said in his memoirs that without the shipment of weapons and materials from the West, and without the pressure of the United States and United Kingdom aerial bombardments against Germany, the war would have been lost. .

“I would like to mention some comments that Stalin made and repeated several times when we talked freely with each other. He stated bluntly that if the United States had not helped us, we would not have won the war,” Khurschev noted. “When I heard his remarks, I totally agreed with him, and today I agree even more,” he added.

As for the weight of the direct military participation of the United States and the United Kingdom, it is true that it pales with that of the USSR in the European land campaign. But it was dominant in the naval and especially the air campaign, forcing Germany to divert a disproportionate amount of resources.

German tanks advance on a Soviet village on October 29, 1941. (Credit: Fotosearch/Getty Images)

The historian Philip O’Brien points out that in 1944 the aeronautical industry demanded 41% of Germany’s resources for the production of weapons, when the main front of the Luftwaffe (the German air force) was the one open in the German skies against the US and UK bombers. The production of tanks in Germany, one of the main inputs in the battles against the USSR, demanded the country 6%, according to the same source.

Two hundred years of military history of Russia

The Russian war machine has had problems in almost all the conflicts in which it participated in the last two hundred years, not only during the Second World War.

In 1812, he was unable to offer strong initial resistance to Napoleon’s army, and faced a retreat in the face of the advancing French. The armies finally clashed at Borodino, where Napoleon’s triumph opened the gates of Moscow to the French. But Napoleon would later be forced to retrace his advance by Russian resistance organized by Kutuzov, the weather, and logistical difficulties.

It is estimated that 200,000 Russian soldiers died during the campaign, compared to about 100,000 French and Allied soldiers.

A photo taken on May 3, 2017 shows a painting depicting Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov on the wall of a building in Moscow. (Credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia would finally have a victory against France in 1813, but only thanks to the help of her allies, Prussia and Austria, among others, at the Battle of Leipzig.

Decades later, Russia entered into conflict with France again, this time adding the Ottoman Empire and the United Kingdom, during the so-called Crimean War (1853-1856), which ended with a total defeat for Moscow, especially the siege of Sebsastopol. The conflict had started with a Russian aggression against Turkey.

From Tsushima to Ukraine

At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia faced Japan and suffered another heavy defeat: much of its fleet was sunk at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, and Moscow lost the Russo-Japanese War soon after.

Tsushima raised Japan to the status of a power and deeply shook Russia, which lost two-thirds of its Baltic fleet, sent to battle in the Pacific.

Russian military history

Russian and Japanese warships clash at the Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War, May 27-28, 1905. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Russia then had an important role in the crisis between Serbia and Austro-Hungary that started the First World War in 1914. And again its intervention began –in the battle of Tannenberg– it ended –with the failed Kerensky offensive- – in defeat, one of the most categorical in its history: the army was overwhelmed, mass protests began, the empire collapsed in the context of the Russian Revolution —eventually leading to the death of Tsar Nicholas II and the victory of the Bolsheviks— and from there would arise the USSR.

In the years of the Cold War, the USSR intervened directly in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and indirectly in Korea and Vietnam, but fought only one war against rebels in Afghanistan, between 1980 and 1989, which was also a defeat: the balance was 15,000 Soviet soldiers and one million Afghans dead.

Then, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Russian Federation waged wars in Chechnya (1994-1996) and Georgia (2008).

Some 120,000 Chechens and 3,000 Russians died in the two years of war in Chechnya, which culminated in a ceasefire.

While during the five days of the conflict in Georgia, 412 Georgians, 67 Russians and 365 soldiers from South Osesita, a region raised against Georgia and with the support of Russia, died.

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