“Rule One, on page one of the book of war, is: ‘Do not march on Moscow,’” Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery told the House of Lords in 1962. “Various people have tried it, Napoleon and Hitler, and it is no good.”
The victor of El Alamein made an understatement. Napoleon’s invasion in June 1812 took him to Moscow but ended in a total rout of his Grande Armée. By the end of the year, 95 percent of its 600,000 men were dead or taken prisoner. Hitler’s repeat attempt in 1941 cost him the war, with over 80 percent of German military losses—close to 6 million men—occuring on the Eastern Front. “No good” indeed.
A student of history may add that the Polish-Lithuanian invasion during Russia’s “times of troubles” went well at first, with Moscow falling to King Sigismund’s forces in the fall of 1610. The venture ended in disaster two years later, however, with the besieged Polish garrison in the Kremlin resorting to cannibalism before surrendering to the Cossacks.
A century later, in 1708, Charles XII of Sweden invaded Russia, aiming to seize Moscow and install a puppet on the throne. He was decisively beaten by Tsar Peter I the following year, resulting in Sweden’s permanent collapse as a major power.
No natural barriers divide Russia from the rest of Europe. Its defence against all four invasions from the West over four centuries was, therefore, vitally dependent on its ability to trade space for time and to exploit enormous distances—as well as brutal climate—to wear down attackers. Having a solid buffer zone along the country’s western frontiers is still perceived by Russian leaders as strategically imperative.
This is the context in which the latest crisis over Ukraine must be seen. It is noteworthy that today’s Ukraine was the main battlefield in Peter’s war against the Swedes, including the final battle at Poltava, a thousand miles from Stockholm and five hundred from Moscow as the crow flies. It was also in Ukraine that Hitler arguably lost his only chance to reach Moscow before winter by deciding in August 1941 to weaken the thrust of Army Group Center by diverting two of its panzer groups south to capture Kiev.
Following the collapse of the USSR, Russia’s western borders were fixed well to the east from where they stood at the end of Peter’s reign, 300 years ago. In Moscow this was not seen as hugely problematic as long as the former Soviet republics remained neutral, and specifically for as long as they stayed outside the U.S.-led military and political structure embodied in NATO.
Everything changed with the decision of successive administrations in Washington—starting with Bill Clinton’s in the 1990’s—to expand NATO eastward and to turn it into a tool of its global strategy of full-spectrum dominance, as exemplified by the attack on Serbia in March 1999. That event was the turning point in Moscow’s assessment of American strategic intentions and a formative experience for Russia’s soon-to-be president, Vladimir Putin. Years later, when asked if the decline of Russo-American relations was due to Crimea or Syria, Putin replied, “You are mistaken. Think about Yugoslavia. This is when it started.”
NATO’s seemingly insatiable urge to expand eastward is the context of the latest crisis over Ukraine. In 2014, after a Western-instigated coup brought to power hard-line nationalists in Kiev, Putin was not ready for an all-out confrontation. Annexing Crimea was a forced, essentially defensive move, and the low-intensity conflict in the Donbas has been effectively frozen for years.
In recent months, however, the renewed prospect of Ukraine joining NATO and having Western missiles deployed along Russia’s southwestern border has created a new dynamic. Moscow has decided that a second Ukraine crisis in one year is one too many. Last December Putin frankly told a gathering of military officials that Russia had “no room to retreat.” He also deployed troops near the border while denying any plans to invade. It is still an even bet that Putin’s objective was not to attack and occupy Ukraine—a risky venture—but to draw the attention of the Biden administration to his demand for a binding set of security guarantees from the West.
Putin wants a pledge that there would be no further eastward expansion of NATO and that offensive missile systems would be removed from Russia’s borders. Their deployment would reduce the warning time on incoming missiles to Moscow to a mere 5 to 7 minutes. Russia would be certain to respond by stationing its new hypersonic missiles on ships just outside the U.S. territorial waters, thereby reducing to the same 5 to 7 minutes the time to Washington, D.C.
This is a mirror image of the Cuban missile crisis, almost six decades ago. Back then, however, it was the Soviet leader, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, who instigated the crisis. Today it is the Biden administration that is making equally destabilizing and geopolitically senseless moves.
The Russian plans for a neutral Ukraine suggest a plus-sum game: nobody should threaten anybody, and if one party feels threatened, a serious effort should be made in good faith to find a solution. If this is rejected, of course Russia will likely introduce countermeasures, thus making everyone less secure.
In the weeks to come, the situation will likely develop in one of two ways. The less likely scenario is that Washington does not take the Russian concerns seriously yet seeks to snag Putin in a new round of extended but pointless talks. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is said to hope that fresh talks may eventually lead to de-escalation, but without any meaningful concessions being made to Moscow. This would be fatal to Putin’s credibility at home and abroad. There are some Russian officials, especially in the diplomatic service and in financial institutions, who might be willing to throw in the towel and hope for business as usual, but they are weaker now than at any time since Boris Yeltsin’s flawed attempt to forge a partnership with the West, 30 years ago.
A consensus now exists in Moscow that if Putin does not get solid commitments about a NATO rollback but retreats, he will have only made Russia’s situation worse. This would invite more encroachment, almost ensuring that sooner or later either Russia runs up the white flag or, when the clash comes, it turns out to be far worse than what probably may happen now.
More likely, the U.S. and NATO will try to engage the Russians in a new round of talks without addressing their key concerns, and hope that they are bluffing, but that does not wash—this time the Russians may take real action. In stark contrast to the indecisive response to the Maidan crisis in 2013-2014, this time Putin has precisely weighed his options before spelling out his terms. Russia’s response could even include deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave, putting most European NATO countries within easy range.
A diplomatic game-changer would be the signing of a defensive alliance with China, possibly accompanied by a joint naval demonstration in the Caribbean. The termination of oil and gas contracts with all countries which join current or proposed future sanctions against Moscow would be a parallel demonstration of economic power. Last but not least, the Russians may be the ones to indefinitely suspend the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project rather than allow Germany’s aggressive new foreign minister to use it as a political trump card.
Russian countermeasures might allow some adults in Washington to reassert themselves. One of them is CIA Director William Burns, who served in Moscow as an ambassador and is reputedly skeptical of the administration’s current hard line. At the moment, however, the Beltway is dominated by hawkish ignoramuses. Worse still, there is the lunatic fringe, embodied by former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Evelyn Farkas, who wrote on Jan. 11 that the United States must ready itself for a war with Russia over Ukraine. There are also the GOP hawks, notably Sen. Ted Cruz, whose histrionics about “stopping Putin’s aggression” are primarily meant to score a few political points by accusing the administration of being insufficiently firm in its dealings with Moscow.
It is therefore fortunate that America’s NATO allies in Europe are proving notably reluctant to condone further escalation. On Jan. 22, Germany ruled out arms deliveries to Ukraine “for the time being.” More significantly, French President Emmanuel Macron called on the European Union to draw up a new security plan to help ease tensions with Russia, adding that there was “a vital need for Europe to affirm its sovereignty.” Such manifestations of European caution may at last prompt key U.S. policy makers to step back from the brink.
For more than 300 hundred years preceding the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the territory of today’s Ukraine had been an integral part of the Russian Empire and, after 1917, a constituent republic of the USSR. Her status did not make the slightest difference to the national security of the Unites States in its infancy or in any subsequent period, including the Cold War.
The tragedy of U.S.-Russian relations is that the two powers do not have incompatible interests of the kind that made war virtually inevitable between Athens and Sparta, Rome and Carthage, Ottomans and Greeks, or the Bourbons and the Habsburgs. From the neoconservative-neoliberal point of view, however, there is no better way to ensure lasting U.S. dominance in Europe than subverting the Russo-German rapprochement, which should be logical and can be mutually advantageous. Both the neolibs and neocons hate Russia as such, for reasons which are arguably more ideological than geopolitical. Both resentfully recognize Russia as the last major bulwark against the tide of cultural and moral self-immolation which has gripped America and much of the West.
By extending her protectorate deep inside Eastern Europe, America is wantonly diminishing, rather than enhancing, her security. This calls to mind previous Western experiments with security guarantees in the region—the carve-up of Czechoslovakia in the fall of 1938, or Poland’s destruction in September 1939. History teaches such guarantees that are not based on the provider’s complete resolve to fight a fullblown war to fulfill them are worse than no guarantees at all.
Washington’s urge to challenge and confront Russia is rationally inexplicable. The two can and should be natural allies in a true Northern Alliance extending from Juneau to Vladivostok. The current madness is contrary to the American people’s interests, and it has the potential to destroy the remnant of the common European civilization on both shores of the Atlantic. Such an outcome would please only the enemies of the West.
A Mikoyan fighter jet flies over Ukraine in January 2022. (Artur Voznenko / Unsplash)