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#4 - JRL 7176
Commentary: Remembering Russia's victory
By Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, May 9 (UPI) -- The Russian people proudly celebrated the 58th anniversary of their amazing World War II victory over Nazi Germany Friday. As usual, the event got little notice in the U.S. press. That was a mistake.

For the Russian people's victory, as the major nationality in what was then the Soviet Union, under the brutal, murderous wasteful leadership of Josef Stalin in what Russians still call The Great Patriotic War holds important lessons for the world even in the 21st century.

First, that event still matters to Russians. It was solemnly commemorated and celebrated across what remains the largest country on earth. The Russian people fought a literal struggle for survival. They won it. But the cost was inconceivable -- almost 27 million dead, more than the United States might have suffered even in a first nuclear strike in the Cold War. Almost everyone in Russia lost a grandparent or friend in that struggle. No wonder they remember it.

Second, World War II would probably have been won by Nazi Germany but for the amazing struggle of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples and their allies even under the wasteful incompetence of Stalin's totalitarian communist regime. Even on the brink of D-Day, three times as many Nazi Wehrmacht divisions were committed to fighting the advancing Red Army in the East as were awaiting the Anglo-American invasion in France or holding back the Allied armies in Italy.

Third, as respected commentator Paul Goble wrote for United Press International two years ago, "Victory Day serves as a bittersweet occasion to recall Russia's lost power in the world. No country that has suffered the kind of decline Russians have experienced over the past two decades can view such a process with dispassion. Victory Day thus becomes the occasion for remembering a more glorious past."

Indeed it does. And that leads to the fourth and most important reason for non-Russians to note Victory Day too. As Goble observed in 2001, Russians had not fought for Stalin or communism, "They had fought for Russia and themselves. And because they could do so then, celebrations now suggest, they may be able to do so again."

When the late Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, Britain's greatest general of the 20th century, was asked to compile a list of military blunders and elementary disasters to avoid, he put at the very top of the list, "Invading Russia. It is always a bad idea."

On June 22, 1941, Nazi Fuhrer Adolf Hitler carried out that bad idea. He launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, and in doing so unleashed the greatest, most epic and easily the bloodiest war in the history of the world.

The Russian/Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War did more than annihilate the German army in the East. It also established the Soviet Union as the dominant Eurasian military power for almost half a century until its disintegration at the end of 1991.

Because of the Great Patriotic War, it was inevitable that all of Central Europe from Stettin in the Baltic to the borders of Greece would fall under Soviet control before the Anglo-American armies driving in on the Third Reich from the West could get there first.

Following the collapse of communism, all of that is history. But the celebration of Victory Day Friday teaches anew a crucial lesson on the strength, endurance and resilience of the Russian people that policymakers of the Bush administration would do well to ponder today.

In the nearly four years following June 22, 1941, 27 million Russians, Ukrainians and other Soviet nationalities died at the hands of the Nazi invaders. Not since the Mongol heirs of Genghis Khan conquered China in the 13th century, had so much loss of life been visited upon a single nation. Even a limited nuclear strike on Russia or the United States today would not produce such comparable casualties and human suffering.

Yet at Stalingrad in 1942, at Kursk in 1943 and in the June 1944 Battle of Belorussia, the Russians and the other Soviet subject peoples struck back. And, unlike the Germans, they won.

The devastation and suffering the Russian people suffered during those four hideous years from June 1941 to May 1945 dwarfed in scale even the impoverishment and national humiliation they have experienced over the past decade since the collapse of the Soviet system. Yet they surged back from the most nightmarish adversity to win the decisive battle of World War II and become one of the two dominant global superpowers thereafter. If they could come back and triumph in the face of all that, it would be a grave mistake to assume they will remain a marginal, let alone insignificant, power in the years ahead.

That is especially the case when their current president, Vladimir Putin, has been pushing ahead with remarkable success to reestablish a powerful, quasi-authoritarian, centralized governing structure and he has so far succeeded in stabilizing Russian living standards after their cataclysmic decline during the previous decade and a half.

Do not count Russia out. Do not assume she is a power that can be ignored or defied in imposing unilateral U.S. policies around the world in the years ahead. Those are two lessons that President George W. Bush and his advisers would do well to remember in the months and years ahead.

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