By Joe Anuga PhD
I have observed that since the upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, the movement of Russian armies westward into Europe is usually ultimately greeted as an important component of liberation of Europe from some form of looming oppression. For instance the retreat of the Grand Army from Moscow in 1812 pursued by the Russians in their westward march led to the battle of Dresden which the French won in August 1813 and the battle of Leipzig in October 1813 which the French lost. Russian forces played significant roles in these battles.
After the Battle Leipzig Russian armies as well as those of Austria and Prussia invaded France, captured Paris in March 1814 and forced Napoleon to abdicate and exiled him to the Mediterranean island of Elba. He escaped to Paris in March 1815 and placing himself at the head of an army of 72 thousand men, marched upon his enemies concentrating their forces in Belgium. Napoleon needed to defeat his enemies before they could combine their forces.
The ensuring encounter, the battle of Waterloo led to the comprehensive defeat of Napoleon. For all the heroism of the British under Wellington, the truth is that even if Napoleon had won at Waterloo he would then have had to confront a force of 200 thousand Russians marching westward.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars gave Europe a time of peace from the depredation of Great Power wars. This period of peace lasted virtually a hundred years. This period was punctuated by wars here and there across Europe but none of these conflicts reached the scale of the Napoleonic Wars. There were wars like the Austro-Prussian War (1866), the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the Crimean War (1853-1856) and others. Eventually the Great War (World War One) burst on the scene in 1914.
With the memory of their westward march a hundred years earlier in their heads the Russians again marched out their armies as allies of France and Great Britain. Fully mobilized the Russian Empire fielded an army of about 1.4 million men in 1914. This Russian host it was hoped would be enough to hand a comprehensive defeat to the German Empire and her allies the Austro-Hungarians and the Turkish Empire. At the Battle of Tannenburg in August 1914 however the Russians were defeated and checked by the Germans. They were ultimately forced to retreat. The Russians continued to fight while retreating against the Germans till 1917 when their Bolshevik rulers capitulated to the Germans and accepted defeat. With the Treaty of Brest Litovsk signed on the 3rd of March 1918, the German Empire took its pound of flesh from the Russian Empire and turned its attention to the Western Front.
By this time however it was too late for the Germans to achieve victory over the Western Powers. The westward march of the Russians in 1914 and their gradual retreat forced on them by the Germans had bought enough time for the British and French to hold out against the Germans till the USA entered the war on their side. The combined power of the USA, Great Britain and France was too much for Germany and she was forced to sign an armistice in November 1918 at Versailles and return the pond of flesh she took from Russia. Meanwhile in the West it was clear to the generality of people that if the Russians had not put the tenacious struggle against Germany that they did from 1914 to 1918, both France and Great Britain would have found it hard if not impossible to defeat Germany without Russian and US support.
The westward march of Russian armies in the next all European war (World War Two) was another matter. By this time the Russian Empire had been dissolved by the Bolsheviks. The Russians therefore fought this war as the Soviet Union. This was a fusion of all the provinces of the former Russian Empire as it stood in 1917 now united with the province of Russia itself as a single federation of independent states organized into Soviets ruled by a single Communist Party from Moscow. The other Soviet Socialist Republics of the USSR were dominated by ethnic Russians who constituted about 54% of the population of the USSR. For our purposes we shall refer to all armies of the USSR as Russians.
The first the westward march of the Russian forces at the beginning of WWII was their annexation of Eastern Poland. This was done as a part of the German-USSR Pact which Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler signed as each planned to deal with other problems before attacking the other. The Russian forces remained in Poland until Adolf Hitler’s equivalent of Napoleon’s Grand Army pressed its invasion of the USSR. Though the Grand Army of over 500,000 had been able to occupy Moscow the Russian Capital and burn it down before being driven off by the westward advance the Russians, the German and allied Axis armies assembled for what Adolf Hitler called Operation Barbarossa comprising of at least 5,000,000 men was unable to capture Moscow in 1941 not to talk of burning down the Russian capital.
In their defense of their homeland the Russians received massive aid and support from their allies: the USA and the UK. The German armies were checked before Moscow in the bitter cold of the Russian winter in December 1941. They suffered a comprehensive defeat at the battle of Stalingrad by January 1943. Thereafter the Russians began their slow, bloody and determined westward march. The Germans fought relying on strategic principles of a vicious fighting retreat. This was a very bloody affair. It is estimated by many scholars that the USSR lost not less than 26 million people in this war!
Unlike what happened in the Great War when the Russian government collapsed in defeat in March 1918, this time the westward moving Russian armies would prevail as they had during the Napoleonic Wars. The government in Moscow didn’t collapse and by 1945 a Soviet soldier raised the flag of the Soviet Union over the Reichstag in Berlin leaving the German armies crushed and countless millions freed from the shackles of Adolf Hitler’s German National Socialist Party.
Interestingly from the defeat of Napoleon’s Grand Army in 1812 in Moscow forcing it to retreat from Russian territory to the eventual fall of Napoleon in 1815 was a three year interval. From the defeat of the German Armies at Stalingrad to the eventual suicide of Adolf Hitler in 1945 covered a time of three years as well.
The mood in all free Europe in 1945 as far as the Russian armies were concerned was one of gratitude towards them. As in 1815, 1918 and now in 1945, people could see that they would never have escaped defeat and occupation if not for the westward moving Russians.
Looking at Russo-Western relations through the prism of the Cold War and its aftermath, this aspect of their relations will be hard to appreciate. It comes alive however if you study the literature from the period these conflagrations happened. In 1815 culturally all Europe was Christian. There was of course the broad historic divide between the Latin Catholic West (with the various Protestant denominations deriving from the historic Catholic Church) and the Greek Orthodox West (the mother Church of the various Eastern European and Slavic Patriarchates).
This division was based on the division of the Roman Empire into Eastern (culturally Greek speaking) and Western (culturally Latin speaking) halves just before its conversion to Christianity in the late fourth century. Despite these differences the Concert of Europe which was the arrangement used to reconfigure Europe after the Napoleonic Wars and also functioned as a framework for maintaining peaceful relations among the European Powers was careful to include the Russian Empire.
The reality that the Bolsheviks who seized power in Russia in 1917 were communists who were bent on exporting their revolution across the world made most Western leaders suspicious of the USSR. Many people who fled from the violence and disorder that arose as the Bolsheviks emerged as rulers of the Russian Empire ended up in the West.
The civil war that ensured between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks after the revolution of 1917 was a bloody affair and only ended with a Bolshevik victory in 1921. Lenin who led the revolution was replaced by Stalin who had a different approach to the question of spreading the revolution around the world. He favored the idea of consolidating the revolution in the USSR before focusing on exporting it.
With the creation of the USSR, the divide between Russia and the West was no longer in the historic separation of the Latin Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian cultures but Russian communist and Western free market economic models. This divide led to the Cold War which ended in 1991 with the collapse of the USSR.
The Russian Federation which has emerged as the successor state of the USSR appears to define itself as a society based on its traditional Christian foundations as these existed before the revolution of 1917. Meanwhile the West has moved away from its traditional Christian identity to a secular framework based on materialist philosophical foundations. This new reality is actively hostile to traditional Christianity and a moral chasm exists between these two cultural forms. As things stand the idea that a pan European community of peoples with Russia as friend and member does not seem to be on the horizon.
It is in these conditions of hostility and suspicion between Russia and the West that Russian armies are again apparently moving westward (even if they are confined to only a few provinces of eastern Ukraine for now). In 2014 the Russians occupied and annexed the Crimea. In 2022, they overran and have annexed the predominantly ethnic Russian populated regions of Zapparozia, Kherson, Lughansk and Donetsk. These regions had been part of Ukraine for decades having been ceded to the Ukrainian SSR by the Russian SSR when they were all part of the USSR.
Considering that Ukraine wants these territories back and is fighting for them while being fully backed by the West through NATO, the questions are: will the Russian forces prevail on the battlefield and impose their own conditions for peace on the Ukrainians and NATO? Or will NATO backed Ukraine so inflict defeats on Russian forces that the Putin government collapses? Or will this go on till Western armies confront the Russian Federation’s military thus creating the conditions that leave the world on the brink of a nuclear war? The final outcome is impossible to predict. The view from Africa however is that diplomacy ought to prevail. The issues that have led to this war aren’t beyond the capacity of Western and Russian diplomacy to overcome. The hope is that this will also be the view of the powers that be in the West and Russia.
Dr. Joseph Anuga, Ph.D. Political Scientist, Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Jos, Jos-Nigeria with scholarly lens on International Politics, Geopolitics, Global Governance & Regionalism, Regional Integration & International Development.