Throughout Russian and Soviet history, autocratic incompetence has sabotaged invasions and subjected civilians to horrific war crimes. Jonathan Firbank recounts Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, then speaks with historian Simone Azzopardi about its place in Russia’s history of terror and incompetence. Part one of this article can be found here.
Part 2: The Russian Pattern
‘History does not repeat but it does rhyme.’
– Anon. Misattributed to Mark Twain.
‘Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.’
An Autocratic Millenium
It is now clear that Putin’s ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ was more than just ethnonationalist propaganda. His whitewashed narrative of Russo-Ukrainian interconnectivity was a pretext for conquest. The scale of this thousand-year narrative, beginning in the 9th century, is so vast that it overshadows the human cost of war. This is typical imperialism. Simone Azzorpardi is a historian at the University of Malta. Putin’s essay is largely disinformation, but a ‘historical account bearing no agendas helps us visualise not only the complex paths Russians and Ukrainians crossed, but also the long history of Russian expansionist ambitions, the unfinished business of Soviet neo-imperialism, and the hijacked Russian democracy (if there ever was one),’ she explains.
Putin’s essay begins in the 9th century, when the peoples known as the Rus occupied a territory with Kyiv at its centre. It then recounts the commonalities the various factions in the region have shared since. This is a flimsy pretext for annexing a country, as if you go deep enough into the past, you will find common origins for any groups (the Rus had Norse origins, but Denmark makes no claim on Ukraine). Putin selectively ignores evidence of Ukrainian identity, instead listing cultural links to Russia, another flimsy pretext for invasion. But it was actually the Mongols who first ‘united’ this region. Their rule was brutal, Russian words for torture, corruption, and deception originate from this period. The Mongols installed corrupt, kleptocratic tyrants, who set a pattern of autocracy that has lasted all the way to Vladimir Putin, only interrupted by the fleeting democratic experiment in the 90s (the 90s was also the brief period of Russia respecting Ukrainian sovereignty and identity).
The Ukrainian identity that Putin covers up was born in the period following the Mongol decline. Azzopardi elaborates, ‘we see in the 15th century the emergence of the Ukrainian Cossack, a new social group that guarded the southern frontier of what is now Poland from the raids of the Crimean Tatar Khanate. Who were these Cossacks? Mainly peasant serfs who had freed themselves by fleeing their masters. While the locals called themselves ‘Rusyns’, the concept that there was a ‘Ukraine’ started taking shape by the 17th century.’ This culture was suppressed, their lands declared ‘protectorates’ of powerful Moscow Tsardoms before being annexed completely, but a Ukrainian identity survived. Eventually, Stalin’s autocratic Soviet Union sought to annihilate this identity, subjecting Ukraine to the Holodomor, one of the most terrible genocides in human history.
Russia’s Failed Invasions
The Cold War was a period of brinkmanship. Fear of nuclear war gripped a global generation as two great powers engaged in an unprecedented arms race. This has impacted cultural psyches on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In Russia, it reinforced a fear of invasion that pre-dates the Mongols’ conquest of Russia’s hard-to-defend terrain. In the West, it built a spectre of Russian military might. Russians were the de-facto villains in news and fiction, always poised to invade or ‘press the nuclear button’. This perception survived the Soviet Union fragmenting into far weaker constituent parts. Entertainment media still needed its villain, Western military budgets still needed justification, and Russia still needed a strong image to foment nationalism at home and leverage abroad.
The Soviet Union was, of course, instrumental in ending World War 2, at vast cost to the Russian heartland. But purely offensive invasions against smaller neighbours were disastrous. The Soviet-Finnish Winter War of 1940 was so disastrous that it convinced Hitler to invade eastward. In a startling parallel with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Soviets embarked on a mission of total conquest, only to be fought to a standstill by a determined Finnish resistance. Eventually, identically to Ukraine, the Soviets changed their goals to smaller annexations of territory after staggering losses and international condemnation. According to Azzopardi, ‘the Russians suffered an initial setback in the face of formidable and determined Finnish military resistance. The strong sense of protection of Ukraine’s autonomy, land, families, children is also what surprised Putin and stunned the world. The extent to which this morale advantage will carry through, or founder through Russian intensified militarisation (as happened in the Finnish case), is moot. With sustained and intensified military support from the West, the continued imposition of sanctions, and with possible falling Russian morale in light especially of the domestic economic distress, the Ukrainian defensive may prove more successful than the Finnish counterpart had been.’
The invasion of a technologically inferior Afghanistan was even less successful. Azzopardi goes on to explain, ‘echoing the case of assisted Ukrainian resistance, Afghan mujahedeen insurgents supported by the US dragged Soviet military and morale into a politico-military quagmire for a whole decade. The Soviets withdrew in humiliation in 1989.’ The invasion of Afghanistan led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But this pattern of Russian warfare (which predates the Soviet Union) survived it. ‘Historical examples reminiscent of the war in Ukraine are, alas, numerous. This is the power-hunger factor. Be it under Tsarist, Soviet, or supposedly democratic Russian control, the lust for power and expansion is a leitmotif in Russian history. This is not exclusive to Russia, but this “Russian leitmotif” is scathingly glaring considering the rate at which it is manifested and its recurrence in contemporary times. History presents us with numerous, unforgiving examples of Russian military setbacks which changed the course of Russian history.’
Russia’s Tsardoms were marked by three examples of this. Russian adventurism in the 1853-1856 Crimean War resulted in defeat, draining Russia’s military and treasury. This ‘precipitated Emperor Alexander II’s reformations to modernise the Russian state and society. Half a century later, the last Tsar in the 300-year-long Romanov rule, Tsar Nicholas II, would twice over suffer the consequences of miscalculating Russian might,’ says Azzopardi. The first of these was the Russo-Japanese War, precipitated by a familiar tale: Russia catastrophically underestimated Japan while overestimating itself, then doubled down in the face of initial failure. ‘Military advisors had not anticipated Japan being able to strike, let alone force Russia into defeat in 1905.’ The final miscalculation of Russia’s Tsardoms was entering the First World War. ‘The glorifying victory that Tsar Nicholas II hoped for — and needed — was instead replaced by a succession of humiliations, the Tsar’s own downfall, his murder, and a Russian civil war. The catastrophic sequence featured the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of a system based on a new ideology, but uncannily cast in the “expansionist” mould of old.’
Russian Imperialism survived the Bolshevik Revolution, then survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. The chaos and corruption of the 90s soured perceptions of democracy in Russia, re-priming the country for autocracy. Once Vladimir Putin had shielded himself from accountability and removed his rivals, he was free to indulge geopolitical ambitions of redrawing Russia’s map.
Under the spotlight of modern media, the true cost of these incompetent wars of aggression becomes clear: horrific war crimes, inflicted incidentally by undisciplined troops and intentionally to crush resistance. Azzopardi points to the similarities between the Second Chechen war and the Ukrainian debacle: ‘Russia intervened in Chechnya on the pretext of the need to purge the country of terrorists (“special operation of de-Nazification” in the case of Ukraine). Russia in 1999 declared the democratic Chechen elections of 1997 as illegitimate (Putin contests the legally and democratically elected President of Ukraine, supporting instead the deposed Yanukovych). Russia had transplanted pro-Russians in Chechnya to be dictated by Moscow (in the same way Russian separatist forces in the Donbas region have been acting on Putin’s order). Russia utilised alienating, useless negotiations to demotivate the Chechens and then the Ukrainians. The other striking similarity is Putin’s use of unspeakable brutality and war crimes committed against Chechen civilians: kidnapping, torture, murder, looting, rape, decapitation, hostage-taking, indiscriminate bombing.’
Russia’s war in Ukraine is no outlier; instead it is part of Putin’s pattern of invading neighbouring lands ‘that used to belong to the Russian and later, Soviet Empire. The downward spiral of Putin’s rise started with Chechnya, continued with Georgia, and is now falling heavily on Ukraine.’ Putin himself is no outlier. He is just the modern face of a brutal, millenia-long succession of autocrats who have used lofty imperialism to justify human suffering. Tsar Nicholas I believed Russia had a duty to impose and safeguard Russian civilisation. But civilisation took precedence over civilians, who were sacrificed because (in the Tsar’s words) ‘a little warfare in the border regions is needed to maintain a patriotic spirit.’ How appropriate for Putin, who secured his popularity with the lives of Chechen civilians.
Alexander Nevzarov is a Russian journalist currently under investigation for not regurgitating state propaganda (at the time of writing). As Russia’s armies massed, he predicted invasion with haunting accuracy: ‘Whatever happens will end in horrible defeat and tragedy for Russia’ regardless of whether Russia ‘grows a new hump of shame’ in trampling their smaller neighbour, or becomes a ‘Goliath’ to Ukraine’s ‘David’. Nevzarov predicted that Russia’s military analysts would not account for Ukraine’s resistance or Russia’s incompetence. Russia’s front lines would be plagued with the corrupt and conscripted, unmotivated and unready, whose deaths would reach 5,000 in the first week. The world would turn against Russia as the horrors of Russia’s war were revealed, and the deluge of information from the West would ‘further shackle the movements of an already barely standing army’.
Observers of historical parallels like Azzopardi and Nevzarov see the ‘rhymes’ of Russia’s history clearly. Why can’t Russia? For centuries, Russia’s autocrats have shown the ‘insanity of repeating the same mistakes’. This is because autocracy is an insane system: insane in that it is divorced from reality. Autocracies are dishonest, creating narratives that fall apart when tested. Autocrats micromanage, creating armies with hierarchies so rigid that they cannot adapt or take the initiative. Autocrats are paranoid and vengeful, creating enemies where there need be none and punishing the innocent, which creates yet more enemies. And autocrats are corrupt, draining their resources and replacing the competent with the sycophantic. Vladimir Putin accuses the West of being the ‘empire of lies’ but this is a psychopathic projection of his own propagandist imperialism. He is just another isolated autocrat, provided with misleading information by intelligence services terrified of offending him. In Azzopardi’s words, ‘Putin ranks high among the Russian rulers across time in his quest to enhance his image at home through aggression or the threat thereof.’ But Putin, like all the Russian autocrats before him, has constructed a paper bear that can only prey on innocent civilians. Against a competent military, it folds.
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