I was reading the editorial page in the Birmingham News recently when an op-ed titled “Why Can’t the US and Russia be Allies?” or something of that nature, appeared to my eye. Well, this seemed a curious question to me, as the US and Russia have been at loggerheads with each other since 1917, with a time-out in the 1940s that is also known as World War II and another time-out in the 1990s and very early 2000s. Well, the article offered no real reason for the two continent-spanning nations to be allies, but was instead a paean to the sacrifice and courage shown by the citizens of the Soviet Union during World War II.
Now, here’s the thing. That the citizens of the Soviet Union suffered tremendously during World War II and bore up magnificently under great hardship is undeniable. That many of those sacrifices were eminently avertable is also undeniable.
First, here’s something a lot of y’all probably don’t know. There were numerous places in the Soviet Union—particularly in the Ukraine—where the Nazis were greeted as liberators. Why is this, you may ask? Well, in the case of the Ukraine, let’s rewind a few years from Operation Barbarossa. During the early 1930s, there was a massive famine in the area, with the initial cause being a bad harvest, which would have been survivable had Josef Stalin, who had seized control of the Soviet Union after the death of Vladimir Lenin, not decided to shatter the kulaks, peasants who actually happened to own a little bit more property than their neighbors. He decided to do so by requisitioning all of their food. The result was millions of dead Ukrainians and the accomplishment of Stalin’s objective. It should be noted, by the way, that the Nazis quickly made themselves so odious to the locals that they had to deal with hundreds of thousands of partisans.
Second, another area that was not really sorry to see the Nazis come was the Baltic States—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. This was due to the Soviet takeover of those three countries the year before. This occurred because of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact that was signed in 1939, in which Hitler got most of Poland and Stalin got what was left of that country and the Baltic States. Admittedly, Stalin signed on with Hitler at least partially because Britain and France’s attempt to get him to join with them could at best be characterized as incompetent and at worst as downright insulting. That being said, just a quick look at a map should have pointed out to Stalin that Germany would be a bigger threat to the Soviet Union than Britain and France, and that such an agreement would be at best temporary.
Moving on, Stalin then, despite his own backstabbing political activities, refused to believe that Hitler was actually going to attack him until the assault actually happened, and even then, he took some convincing. While this could simply be a misjudgment of character, he believed this despite the fact that his best spies told him that Hitler was planning on attacking extremely soon.
However, all this was compounded by the purges. Beginning in 1937 and continuing until 1939, Stalin ordered the removal of almost all of the army’s top leadership due to questions regarding their loyalty—thirteen out of fifteen army commanders, 50 out of 57 corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, and three out of five field marshals, just to name the highest ranks affected. Among those field marshals removed and executed were Mikhail Tukhachevsky, one of the best military theorists the Soviet Union had, whose concept of “deep operations” was blitzkrieg-like in its emphasis on breaking through the enemy line and then smashing up their rear area. Among those field marshals retained was Semyon Budenny, a man who would have been a good cavalry commander in the 1700s or 1800s, but was utterly unfit for command in the 20th century, something he proved on numerous occasions. Unfortunately, Stalin liked having him around.
The purges and the resultant paralyzing of the officer corps and doctrinal regression caused numerous problems. The problems were so bad, in fact, that the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939, which lasted for about three months before the nations came to a negotiated peace, cost them four times as many casualties as were suffered by the Finns. Given the disparity in forces, that ratio should have been flipped.
Fortunately for the world, Stalin immediately set to reforming the Red Army. Unfortunately, due to the purges and other assorted problems, the army still wasn’t ready to defeat Barbarossa.
Now, here’s what I’m not trying to say. I’m not trying to say that Stalin’s psychosis obviates the sacrifice of the people of the former Soviet Union during World War II. What I am saying is that it was his psychosis that rendered many of those sacrifices necessary. Had the USSR been run in saner fashion, it is possible, perhaps even probable, that the Germans would not have made it to within artillery range of Moscow in 1941, with the accompanying killing and capturing of millions of Soviet troops and the loss of much of the USSR’s warfighting resources—iron, coal, wheat, people.
Now, what does all this have to with why the US and Russia aren’t allies? The answer is that Russia tends toward autocracy, albeit for quite historically justifiable reasons, and paranoid autocracy at that—see Vladimir Putin’s recent actions regarding his political opponents for a prime example. The United States doesn’t. Now, we are allied with autocracies—Saudi Arabia, for example. However, those alliances are most often with states whose behavior we think we can control, and no one thinks that you can control the Russian Bear. Also, throw in competition for domination of the Middle East and Europe, and you get even more reasons for the USA and USSR to not be allies.
The main point here is that history is kind of important. But if you want to remember it right, you have to remember all of it. And I do mean all of it.
‘Til next time.
Lowell Van Ness