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#17 - JRL 7238
Analysis: Remembering Russia's victory
By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, June 23 (UPI) -- Two war anniversaries were celebrated in Russia Sunday. The first is well known in the West, the second not at all.

But the second was a consequence of the first, and has profound lessons for U.S. foreign policy and the great issues of war and peace in the 21st century.

When the late Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery 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 and in doing so unleashed the greatest, most epic and easily the bloodiest war in the history of the world.

In just under four years, 27 million Russian soldiers and civilians and around 5 million German soldiers died, along with at least a million European troops allied to the Nazis, in a single campaign on the flanks of the city of Stalingrad in 1942. The 62nd anniversary of that conflict, still little appreciated or understood in the West, was noted by Western military history buffs this past weekend though outside Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, by few others.

What was even more overlooked were the events that began on June 22, 1944. On that date, 59 years ago, and three years to the day after Hitler unleashed Barbarossa, the Red Army launched the most-crucial single military campaign of its revenge.

Named Operation Bagration, after the great military hero of the 1812 war against Napoleon Bonaparte, it has gone down in history as the Battle of Belorussia. And more than Stalingrad, more than Kursk, it was the battle that broke the back of the German army in the East.

Wehrmacht staff officers at their operational headquarters in Minsk watched in disbelief as the Russians used the very tactical concepts they had used with such effectiveness from June 22, 1941, for 15 months to conquer vast swathes of European Russia.

In the space of a month, Army Group Center, the great center of gravity and hard strategic rock on which German domination of Russia's heartland had rested for three years, was annihilated. Sweeping Red Army tank columns surrounded 100,000 of the best troops Nazi Germany still had. In all, the Germans lost 350,000 men. It was a cataclysmic defeat on an even bigger scale than Stalingrad.

In German military history, the campaign was named "The Destruction of Army Group Center." It came at the same time, and in large part made possible, the great Allied victory in the West at the Battle of Normandy. The scale of destruction visited upon Army Group Center dwarfed that visited within the Falaise Pocket upon Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt's formations in the West.

The military achievement of the Soviet armies was far greater, too. When Gen. Dwight Eisenhower gave the green light for Operation Overlord, the climactic Allied operation of World War II in the West, some 53 or so Wehrmacht divisions were assembled throughout Western Europe to meet it. But at the same time, Hitler had to keep more than 180 Wehrmacht divisions of much greater operational strength simultaneously fully engaged against the Red Army alone in the East.

The Battle of Belorussia 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 right down to the disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.

Because of the Battle of Belorussia, 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. That was why the American Republican criticisms of the dying Franklin Roosevelt for "selling out" Central Europe at the 1945 Yalta conference were so unfair. There was nothing in practical terms FDR could have done otherwise.

And in any case, FDR did not make the key concessions to Soviet leader Josef Stalin on Central Europe at all. It was Winston Churchill, the British statesman who has become the icon-hero of American internationalist conservatives, who made them.

For it was Churchill, at his meeting in Moscow with Stalin many months before Yalta, who initialed the famous agreement on the back of a scrap of paper that acknowledged the Soviet dominant role in all of the Balkans except Greece. By then, Churchill knew that Poland, Hungary and most of the rest of Central Europe would fall to the Soviet armies, too. The Battle of Belorussia had ensured that.

Following the collapse of communism, all of that is history. But the Battle of Belorussia also holds 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 three years following June 22, 1941, more than 25 million Russians 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 upon Russia or the United States today would not produce such comparable casualties and human suffering.

Yet on June 22, 1944 -- a date very pointedly chosen for the third anniversary of the terrible invasion -- the Russians struck back. And, unlike the Germans, they won.

The devastation the Russian people suffered during those three years from June 1941 to June 1944 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 adversity to win the decisive battle of World War II and became one of the two dominant global superpowers thereafter.

If the Russian people could come back so spectacularly from the catastrophes inflicted on them by the Nazis in Barbarossa, 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 present president, Vladimir Putin, has been pushing ahead with remarkable success to re-establish a powerful, authoritarian centralized governing structure, and has so far succeeded in stabilizing Russian living standards after their cataclysmic decline during most of the past decade. Russia today runs a hefty balance of payments surplus and its oil exports are soaring. Anyone who predicted these developments as recently as four years ago within the Washington Beltway would have been laughed at.

"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.

So far they have not.

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