Understanding the Russian Bear: Past Invasions from the West Shape Russia's Actions in Georgia

By McReynolds, David | National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 2008 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Russian Bear: Past Invasions from the West Shape Russia's Actions in Georgia


McReynolds, David, National Catholic Reporter


There are two aspects of Russia's recent intervention in Georgia that can't be debated. First, the initial military actions came from Georgia, led by the excitable President Mikheil Saakashvili who launched an attack on the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Second, the Russian intervention was much more than a "response" to Mr. Saakashvili's provocation. It was a successful effort to bring at least part of Georgia back into the Russian orbit.

The history of this area seems to escape the Bush administration. For Americans, the year 1812 almost certainly doesn't ring many bells, except perhaps for Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," written to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon's Grande Armee at the Battle of Borodino. I suspect some Americans don't realize that 1812 also marked the U.S. war with Great Britain, in which U.S. troops invaded Canada and burned Toronto and the British in turn burned our White House. This was a brief war, long in our past. The fact that the United States has undefended borders with both Canada and Mexico is proof that some treaties do last, and the military mind sometimes loses out to common sense.

But 1812 is burned in the Russian memory. Napoleon's army was defeated by the Russian winter, reduced to a tenth of its size as it straggled, starving and freezing, back to France. Before this happened, most of European Russia had been devastated and Moscow burned to the ground.

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In the Russian mind the devastation of that war was relived in 1914 when German forces moved into Russia. After a series of battles, the czar found his armies in a state of collapse, the troops lacking food, ammunition and in some cases even guns. It was the total collapse of the Russian armies that led directly to the Russian Revolution of 1917.

But neither Napoleon nor the Kaiser did the damage of Hitler's armies in World War II. Neither of the earlier invasions sought to murder the whole population, but the Nazi forces had targeted the Slavs for extermination. The Holocaust involved far more than the Jews--it involved millions of Poles and Ukrainians. This was a new kind of war, for both the Allies (think of the bombing of German and Japanese cities) and for the Nazis, civilians were a major target.

Before the Nazi advance was finally ended, Germany controlled virtually all of European Russia, from the besieged city of Leningrad in the north, through Moscow in the center (I remember that when I first visited Moscow in 1971, as our bus moved from the airport into the city, we could see the anti-tank barriers still in place on the outskirts of the city), to Stalingrad in the south. One can rename Leningrad (once more St. Petersburg) and Stalingrad (now Volgograd), but the Russians cannot forget that history.

In the Second World War the Russians lost between 20 million and 27 million people. They lost every rail station, every bridge, every dam, almost all their housing. Russia has no natural barriers--no vast river, no mountain range--to protect it from invasions coming from the West. Having suffered three major invasions in little more than a century, Russia will make efforts to build a "zone of security" along its western borders, no matter who is in control in Moscow.

After the end of World War II, the Soviets imposed a harsh rule over the countries that had been liberated by the Red Army. The poor souls of Eastern Europe had been liberated from one tyranny to find themselves under another. What the West forgets is that Eastern Europe-became part of the Soviet sphere because of the war itself. The United States held Western Europe much more benevolently, but until well into the early 1960s Western Europe tended to follow the U.S. political line without much question.

There were lost opportunities in the Cold War. The Soviet Union did not occupy Finland and accepted Austria as a neutral state. There is good reason to believe it would have accepted a neutralized Germany as well, but the United States was determined to make West Germany part of the militarized West. …

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