No Feet of Clay
How We Are Repeating a History of Underestimating Russia
The war between, on one side, Russia and, on the other, Ukraine and its Western supporters has many catastrophic consequences. Military casualties count in the hundreds of thousands, civilian ones in the tens of thousands at least. Millions have been displaced. Ukraine has been devastated demographically and economically. The risk of global war is greater than ever since the worst moments of the Cold War in 1962 and 1983.
The West’s strategies have not worked. Sanctions? The jury is no longer out: Economic warfare has failed to force Russia into retreat or produce regime change in Moscow. Supplying Ukraine with Western arms to defeat Russia on the battlefield? The bloody stalling of the much-hyped Ukrainian counter-offensive should bury that illusion. Betting on Russia getting exhausted first? Just recall the confident claims that Russia was out of missiles – a few thousand missiles ago. Or the stories about Russian soldiers allegedly storming ahead with nothing but sharpened shovels. Or the pie-in-the-sky idea that Putin could not mobilize more men without triggering a revolution.
Yet many find it hard to rethink, instead trying more of the same: Yet another round of sanctions, more financial support for Kyiv, or another weapons system. Such a recurring failure to learn from experience is a symptom of entrenched false assumptions. But losing touch with reality is never a good idea, whatever your view of how we all got into this war and how it should end.
History can help. We can spot patterns of how Russia has been underestimated going back centuries. Consider the long forgotten Great Northern War of the early 18th century. Russia’s most dangerous opponent then, the military wunderkind King of Sweden, mistook initial Russian blunders for signs of fundamental weakness. He also believed that he could isolate Russia and incite rebellions against the harsh rule of the Russian tsar. Yet Russia crushed him, not by luck but patience, organization, and smarts.
About a century later, it was the turn of another would-be conqueror. The best study we have of the war between Napoleon’s Empire and Alexander I’s Russia, by historian Dominic Lieven, shows that it was not “General Winter” that defeated the French emperor. Instead, Russia had excellent intelligence, grit, and – never mind Lev Tolstoi, a brilliant writer but lousy historian – the better strategy. And note: Dealing a deathblow to Napoleon meant doing what no one else had been able to do.
Before launching their almost 4-million-men attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Germans expected, in terms blasphemously loaned from the Bible, a colossus with feet of clay. And at first, it looked as if they were right. The first months of the war were a disaster for the Soviets. Yet, less than two years later, at Stalingrad, they turned the tables; a little over two years after that, they stormed Berlin. They beat the Wehrmacht not just by numbers but by learning to outdo the Germans in maneuver warfare and modern weapons.
Some of the reasons for this German hubris were distinctive to Nazi ideology: Germans caricatured the Soviet Union as a ramshackle edifice cobbled together from Slavic peasants they despised and a Jewish elite they hated. Moreover, had the 1939/40 Winter War between the Soviets and Finland not shown how weak the Red Army was? True, the Soviets had won, but only after embarrassing setbacks against a much smaller state.
Yet many of the misconceptions that led Nazi Germany to its doom were not specific to Nazism. Underestimating Russians as backward and incapable of sophisticated organization, sustained and smart effort, and making and using cutting-edge weapons well is a prejudice both lethally misleading and undying. So is the idea that Russians are always so unhappy with their leaders that all it takes to collapse their state is a little pressure and a lot of talk about regime change. Never mind that the key lesson of the best book we have about the Battle of Stalingrad, by historian Jochen Hellbeck, is that even under a regime as horrendously oppressive as Stalinism, most Russians still fought not out of terror (a silly old canard going back to Nazi wartime propaganda) but for the same reasons we tend to fight for: loyalty to comrades, anger at the enemy, and patriotism.
Russia can be beaten. It happened, for instance, in the Crimean War and in World War I. But even these cases hold sobering lessons. First, to beat Russia takes a lot of effort, which in World War One ended up self-defeating for its opponents; second, it produces only temporary results. In both cases, the country came back. Just as it has now come back from losing the Cold War.
Even the still popular if shaky tale of Russia’s allegedly inordinate power to interfere in the domestic politics of other countries is not a backhanded way of recognizing Moscow’s power. On the contrary, caricaturing Russia as a country that can only exert international influence by cheating is the flipside of underestimating its real abilities, from military oomph via allies to social cohesion and, yes, even in the economy.
Whatever we think about how the West and Russia should ideally relate to each other (or not), one thing is unforgivably foolish: To persist in underestimating a power that is showing us, once again, that such hubris gets punished.