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Can Russia be defeated?

As the conflict in Ukraine entered its seventh month and is widely seen as a war of attrition, many Western analysts started to repeat once and again that there’s a need for peace negotiations – because guess why – … Russia cannot be defeated.  Both left- and right- wing commentators using different arguments arrive to a similar conclusion: Russia is too powerful and strong to be crushed at the battlefield. Henry Kissinger says Ukraine should better cede some territories to Putin since Russia has never been defeated. Edward Luttwak mentions Russia’s 140-million strong population and territory that allows her to be economically self-sufficient, insisting that “total victory is the wrong strategy; do not pursue total victory against a power like Russia“. Jeffrey Sachs admits “it’s reckless to talk about defeating Russia”. Several farsighted authors even claimed that Russia’s defeat wouldn’t be “a clear victory to the West”. What is much more important is that these theses are shared by many Western policymakers who stay for helping Ukraine financially and militarily but exclude any chance to provide the struggling nation with weapons that can set targets in continental Russia.

I would argue that the very foundation of such a debate is false. Yes, as there is now early September, one may remember that on September 7, 1812, Bonaparte engaged in his grande bataille with the Russian imperial army at Borodino which he considered a major victory since a week later he entered Moscow. Or that on September 13, 1942 the German Wehrmacht broke the Soviet resistance and reached the banks of the Volga River to the north and south of Stalingrad while its avant-garde fought in the center of the almost destroyed city. And several years later all the perpetrators were defeated, and both French and Nazi empires ceased to exist. But, quite notably, all these cases (as the invasions of Crimean Tatars in the 16th, of the Poles in the 17th, and of the Swedes in the 18th century as well) can tell us nothing about the current situation. One knows that the Russian art of war presupposes any loss of people, assets, and land is acceptable for the sake of final victory, and that deeply enrooted patriotic feelings contribute to military success. It’s right that Russia hasn’t been defeated by any European power even while it has paid incredible price for its triumphs. But all these historical lessons that formally prove the arguments used by Western strategists mentioned above, arise from the cases when the Russians defended their own beloved motherland.

In most other cases, when Russia encountered an enemy other than a tribe or suppressed an internal revolt, it has been much less effective. Since mid-19th century, the Russians lost the Crimean war of 1854-55; suffered a humiliating defeat from the Japanese in 1905; were pushed to the brink of the national collapse by the Germans in 1917; lost their attempts to re-conquer Lithuania and Estonia in 1919; experienced a formidable humiliation at the outskirts of Warsaw in 1920 and were eventually almost destroyed by the Finns in 1939-1940; last but not least, the Soviet Union lost its final battle in Afghanistan as it withdraw its forces from the country in 1989. The only example of successful wars Russia waged outside its territory in the last 200 years, were Russo-Turkish encounters in which Russia prevailed almost constantly since the end of the 18th century. Therefore, I would argue, almost in any conflict aimed on capturing other’s lands or fighting abroad without being a part of a great power coalition (here I should remind the siege of Beijing in 1910 and quite successful part of the WWI till the February 1917 revolution erupted) the Russians tend to lose – and this might be explained through the fact that in most cases they didn’t mobilize for capturing foreign territories as they did  every time while defending their own.

If now one assesses Russia’s war in Ukraine, it looks as a Patriotic war of Ukraine’s side and as an imperialist and unjust assault from Russia’s one. Therefore, I would say that most of the arguments traditionally used for explaining Russia’s strengths, should nowadays be applied to Ukraine, making it unbeatable (which came as a surprise for many Western nations). At the same time, the very meaning of “defeating Russia” looks these days entirely different from what Dr. Kissinger or Prof. Sachs mean: no one even believes in a chance to expel the Russian troops just for developing the offence till the Moscow’s Kremlin is captured as Berlin’s Reichstag. Not at all – the true meaning of defeating Russia in its imperialistic as- sault is to through it out of lands it tries to capture as it has happened in 1855 as the Russian Empire tried to capture Wallachia, in 1920 as the Soviets attempted to reconquer Poland, or in 1940 as they attacked Finland. And all this, to my mind, looks perfectly achievable as the Russian troops lose their steam and the first as- saults at their positions in Crimea force the “new locals” to flee in panic. Turning from a defending country the Soviet Union has been during the WWII into an imperialist power trying to eradicate a free and brave sovereign people, Russia stepped on a path leading it to almost inescapable military failure, and no one should try to convince her or his audience in the opposite.

Of course, there is a factor that makes the current situation quite different from those of the past – Russia is a nuclear power, and many experts believe it can use  its  nukes if the Kremlin feels the war is lost. This may well be the case, but I cannot imagine any chance Russia opts for a full-scale nuclear confrontation with the West while a ‘limited’use of tactical nuclear warheads at the battlefield will turn Russia into an eternal outcast in global politics, so in any way this factor cannot change the result of a local warlike one that is underway in Ukraine. Once again, I would argue, that in the contemporary world nuclear weapons are securing national defence but cannot serve as a means of a successful advance.

All this, I would say, supports my vision that the most important – and rather achievable – the goal of the Western powers should be looking not for arguments proving Russia’s military superiority, but for the most effective means of annihilating it. Russian hordes can and must be defeated militarily on Ukraine’s soil – and only such a defeat may change Russia’s history as well as the fate of entire Eastern Europe. I would remind that either a defeat (as in 1855 and 1905), or a widespread sense of upcoming demise (as in1916-1917 and in the late 1980s) seems to become not so much the most effective, but rather one and only facilitator of profound political changes inside the Russian society. So, my rather paradoxical conclusion is that every Western effort that contributes to the Kremlin’s military humiliation in the current war would be beneficial for the West, for Ukraine, and even for Russia. Russian military victories through its entire history only consolidated the country’s dictatorial and anachronistic regimes while Russian military failures always opened the paths for change – both for Russia and for the world.

Vladislav Inozemtsev, Special Advisor to MEMRI’s Russian Media Studies Project, is the Founder and Director of Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies


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