Victory Day in Moscow: some thoughts about the wisdom of messing with Russia

Posted on May 09, 2016, 1:36 am
7 mins

PHOTOS: A scene for last year’s May 9 Victory Day Parade in Moscow. The red banner visible in the centre is one of the Soviet victory flags hoisted over the Reichstag in Berlin in May 1945. Below: My military history professor, Reginald H. Roy and British World War II Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, both of whom had some pertinent thoughts about messing with Russia; a Russian Su-24 aircraft displaying an electronics countermeasures pod sends a pointed message to the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, which was sailing less than 80 kilometres from the Russian Baltic coastline, on April 12, 2016.

Today is Victory Day in Russia, celebrating, entirely appropriately, the unconditional surrender of Germany on May 9 (Moscow time), 1945.

There will be a great military parade in Moscow that will serve both as a commemoration of the incomprehensible losses suffered by the Soviet Union in the defeat of Nazi tyranny – 9 to 11 million Russian military casualties alone – and also a warning to those who are tempted to provoke Russia 71 years later.

RegRoyThe great Allied victory over Nazi Germany – whose leaders had such faith in the superiority of their fighting forces and their military technology – was first marked as Victory in Europe Day 71 years ago yesterday in Britain, owing to the vagaries of time zones and the fact the Cold War was already in its formative stages.

That Cold War has never really ended, despite the fact the Soviet Union, the Cold War’s proximate cause according to the narrative we have been taught and believe in Western Europe and North America, fell apart in 1991.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization – set up in 1949 to, as we have been taught, counter the Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact, which was founded in 1955 – continues to add member-states, edging ever closer to Russia’s borders.

Moreover, recent news reports tell how NATO spy planes and warships now regularly dart within 80 kilometres of the Russian coast, their electronic identification systems often turned off. Western leaders then decry aggressive Russian responses as dangerous and unjustified. There is also talk of placing nuclear missiles closer to Moscow than the ones near Havana that sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962.

Last month, NATO announced a plan to place four battalions – about 4,000 troops – in Poland and the Baltic States to, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “reinforce its border with Russia as Moscow steps up military activity.”

MontgomeryThe Russian view – which is more like ours when Russian bombers fly close to NATO-member Canada’s airspace – is that Russia is taking action to ensure its security. “NATO borders are getting closer to Russia, not the opposite,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last month.

Notwithstanding the change of government in Ottawa, Canada is in the thick of this. There is talk in Ottawa of the need for Canada to join the United States’ “ballistic missile defence,” a strategic weapon designed to enable a nuclear first strike more than to deliver a comprehensive defence against a nuclear attack. No surprise, I guess, the Fraser Institute has been lobbying for this since 2005.

A little history lesson, though, may help us put the impact of NATO’s 4,000 troops in the Baltic Republics – no matter the quality of these fighting men and women or the superiority of their military technology – into a useful context.

When the Western Allies invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944, about 156,000 troops landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day alone. More than 21,000 of them were Canadians. By the time five days had passed, more than 326,000 soldiers had landed. Quite a few more than 4,000 died on the first day they faced the formidable German war machine.

Yet that was the second front against Germany. The first was in the East. And it was in the East, as my military history professor taught his wide-eyed students, where the war was really won. Reginald H. Roy – soldier, distinguished scholar and author of 1944: The Canadians in Normandy – reminded us that if it hadn’t been for the anvil of the Red Army in the East, the hammer of D-Day in the West would likely have amounted to very little.

Sukhoi“We’d still be in Normandy,” was the way I recall Professor Roy putting it, and he didn’t mean as tourists like the political supernumeraries and high school students who show up from Canada for D-Day commemorations every year.

As terrible as the task at D-Day was, and as great the victory, it was the Russians who did the heavy lifting against Hitler’s armies – at Stalingrad, Kursk, Smolensk, in Crimea and East Prussia – inflicting about 80 per cent of the Wehrmacht’s casualties and opening the road to Berlin.

This history suggests at least two things NATO and Canadian citizens alike should ponder carefully:

  • Just because you spend more on military technology doesn’t mean you are getting more. Consider the F-35 boondoggle, which Canada is still likely to buy into.
  • And, as Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery, victor of El Alamein, famously observed: “Rule 1, on Page 1 of the Book of War is: ‘Do not march on Moscow.’

It would be extremely foolish to imagine any war is easy, or that a favourable outcome is ever a sure thing. Even a simple little war against a weak enemy like Iraq or a primitive one like Afghanistan can bring many cruel surprises.

Given this, we can only hope the Western leaders, one of whom we are likely soon to be tied to whether we like it or not, Hillary R. Clinton or Donald J. Trump, are not fools.

The auguries are not promising.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

29 Comments to: Victory Day in Moscow: some thoughts about the wisdom of messing with Russia

    • David Climenhaga

      May 9th, 2016

      We should accept it, of course.

      Reply
      • May 9th, 2016

        Ditto – and it gives us an opportunity to get serious about building solidarity with Russia on things like protecting countries in the middle east from genocide. There has been no excuse leaving Russia to have to stabilize Syria single handedly.

        Reply
        • Hester Prynne

          May 9th, 2016

          Of course, our brave Western flyboys and special forces have been doing everything they can to DESTABILIZE Syria, working in alliance with the Turks, the Israelis, Al Qaeda and, yes, ISIS. As in the Balkans a generation ago, we are on the WRONG SIDE. Only Russia is protecting Christians in the Middle East from genocide.

          Reply
          • May 9th, 2016

            That is an all too true fact, Hester…It doesn’t take long to find out that the minorities and shop keeper class are looking to Assad for protection. It is tragic that NATO countries let things get so destabilized that the Syrian commanders developed a scorched Earth policy on destroying the terror groups.

      • Val Jobson

        May 9th, 2016

        No, refused because of logistics problems; eg language problems may cause misunderstandings, don’t have the same plane parts for repairs, most Russian planes are not certified for Canadian fire fighting, etc. I’m seeing this on twitter from people who seem to know what they are talking about.

        Reply
    • Athabascan

      May 9th, 2016

      Graciously accept the money. Now that’s a no brainer.

      I don’t give a shit if the money comes from North Korea, Israel, Syria, or anywhere else – take it and use it to do good things.

      Reply
      • May 9th, 2016

        Your priorities are sound Athabascan. I feel that Val ought to look at the optics of refusing help – the geopolitical cost in getting Russia offended are a lot more than the cost of setting up a technical adaptation program. This would have long term benefits – if Canada and Russia are able to develop the kind of close collaboration needed to deal with the looming ecological threats.

        Reply
        • Val Jobson

          May 10th, 2016

          Accepting Russian planes we don’t need so they could collide in the smoke because of confusion in communication would not be sensible.

          And why should Russia be offended?

          Reply
          • Athabascan

            May 10th, 2016

            But that is the point isn’t it?

            The fire is out of control, and we do need those water bombers. The more of them that are used the better it is.

            Anyone says we don’t need the additional help if lying.

          • Athabascan

            May 10th, 2016

            Point to the lake, make a flying motion with your hand, then make a dropping motion while pointing toward the fire.

            Even Russians understand that. Oh, and have lots of yummy Alberta Vodka for when the shift ends and watch the Stanley Cup on TV.

            Voila! Communication problem solved.

    • May 13th, 2016

      Trudeau was right to refuse Russia’s help with Fort Mac fire
      – by David Bercuson, The Globe & Mail

      “The Trudeau government has politely declined to accept Russia’s offer to send water bombers to help control the wildfire that is blazing across central Alberta. It was the right call. And although some Canadians think the Prime Minister is being narrow-minded, or too eager to cozy up to Washington in refusing Russian help, the decision actually shows a growing sophistication on the part of the Prime Minister and his advisers about Canada’s place in the world and who is – and who is not – aligned with our national interests.

      A water bomber may just be a water bomber to some Canadians. But in the complex world of international diplomacy, a water bomber is also highly symbolic – and in this case, symbolic of Canada accepting help from a Russia that has been playing fast and loose with the international order lately and has been very ready to use military force to back its political ambitions. Our new government has handled Russia’s advances with firmness and sophistication, a promise of better things to come from Canadian diplomacy.”

      http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/trudeau-was-right-to-refuse-russias-fort-mac-offer/article29973766/

      Reply
      • Athabascan

        May 13th, 2016

        David Bercuson of the “Calgary School” agrees with Trudeau? Do his masters know that?

        Reply
  1. ronmac

    May 9th, 2016

    Another reason why peaceniks should cross their fingers and hope the Donald (as in Trump) pulls off a victory in November, hereby thwarting the plans of that serial warmonger Hillary Clinton and her backers.

    Trump may say and do a lot of things but he has been consistent in his belief the US needs to take a more isolationist approach and pull back from its many entanglements around the world. Trump says he wants to improve relations with Putin because making Putin our enemy is not in our interest. There may be some cynics who think Trump wants to avoid a nuclear war because it’s bad for business. That’s good enough for me.

    Last week Mother Jones was dumping on Trump for being too soft on Putin. Jesus H. Christ! I thought Mother Jones was supposed to be one of the pillars of liberal progressive left. Who would have thought that the push for peace and detente is coming from the “right” while the “left” is going all Sieg Heil!

    Reply
    • Expat Albertan

      May 9th, 2016

      While your evaluation of Clinton is likely correct, I don’t think that The Donald can be trusted on anything he says, given that he appears to make up most of his platform on the fly. God knows what is going to happen to that country after November – I just hope that our exposure to the madness here in Canada can be limited.

      Reply
      • ronmac

        May 10th, 2016

        You could be right. Who knows? Many of the prominent rw commentators are echoing Donald’s statements on foreign policy, etc. so he’s not alone. Six months go the choice was Clinton vs. Jeb Bush, no questions asked. The unexpected rise of Donald Trump represents a giant monkey wrench thrown into the mix

        Reply
  2. May 9th, 2016

    With all due respect to Donald F. Trump, I believe it is, in fact, Donald J. Trump who is the presumptive Republican nominee.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      May 9th, 2016

      Thank you, Brian. As always, I am grateful to my readers for catching errors like this quickly. I actually, I confess, went back to check that … and then forgot what I was checking. It’s an age thing. I was thinking of Donald F. Donald, a character in an extremely bad movie filmed in the newsroom of the Globe and Mail when I worked there many years ago. I am still bitter about this, but that was where and how I ended up as just another pretty face on the cutting room floor.

      Reply
  3. Bloozguy

    May 9th, 2016

    ” There is also talk of placing nuclear missiles closer to Moscow than the ones near Havana that sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962″…… At the time the U.S. had missiles in Turkey.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      May 9th, 2016

      True, but there’s only so many things one can mention and still keep it under 10,000 words.

      Reply
  4. Dave

    May 9th, 2016

    The US promoted the terrorists and encouraged them to fight in Syria from the beginning of the terrlr in Syria in 2011.

    And to think that Canada is bombing Assads forces and assisting them. Canada has no reason to fight Assad. He was our ally when Canada sat back doing nothing whdn the US wanted Assad’s secret police to torture Maher Arar a Canadian citizen.

    Reply
    • Blah blah

      May 9th, 2016

      The memory hole is deep. The intelligence hole is wide. The wisdom hole is mysterious.

      Reply
    • May 10th, 2016

      Your point is totally valid Dave – Syria was the only party in the Arar case that showed any respect for the principle of rule of law. Canada and the US ought to have been prosecuted for malicious prosecution.

      Reply
  5. TC

    May 10th, 2016

    I’ve often ponder this issue when viewing international relations during the Cold War, as well as contemporary times… As we don’t have the luxury of living in an ideal world, is the interest of your country (whichever one it may be) best serve by siding with the United States or Soviet Union/Russia? I think the actions of some former Soviet states and Warsaw Pact countries are answering this question with their actions. One needs to wonder why are there countries are willing to join NATO and allow missiles to be placed there?

    More importantly, the West isn’t “marching on Moscow”, it’s stopping at the Russia’s border with Ukraine. I compare Russia’s annexation of Crimea to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia.

    Reply
  6. David

    May 10th, 2016

    Russia is a world power in part due to its huge physical size and location on the edge of Europe. However, its power and influence have ebbed greatly since the days it was regularly referred to as a superpower. Mr. Putin’s initiatives to restore it to past greatness often seem to be be more talk than action. I suppose at least it all serves a useful distraction from the dismal economic plight many Russians are now facing.

    I am sure it must greatly irritate Putin to have NATO almost on his doorstep now, but these countries joined NATO in large part due to their fears of Russia. Some in Ukraine also wanted to join NATO and perhaps Ukraine also would have joined, if we had let it.

    Right now Russia is more a world power in name than in fact. Of course, we would be wise not to provoke the still wounded bear too much. History taught difficult lessons to those like Napoleon who thought Russia was a very weak country ready for the taking. It is not so weak, but while it still has some sphere of influence, it is not so strong either.

    Reply
    • TC

      May 12th, 2016

      Where I take issue with is that, the author thinks that just because Russia/Soviet Union had the will (and the winter) to defeat Napoleon and Hitler, doesn’t mean that the international community shouldn’t do anything if it acts recklessly.

      It’s also worth mentioning that Russia had been on the losing side of a few wars too, including the Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War, and more recently, its invasion of Afghanistan from 1979-89.

      Reply
  7. Ernie

    May 11th, 2016

    The oppression of the Soviet Union pales by comparison to what is now happening by Notley in Alberta. Time to overthrow our oppressors and once again have a free province!

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      May 11th, 2016

      “Ernie”: You’re sort of on probation here for using too many fake names and making too many comments unrelated to the post, but this one was just too funny. Just so’s ya know, it was me that killed your “Thomas” comment. DJC

      Reply
      • Athabascan

        May 13th, 2016

        Thank you for posting that. It frightens me that we have people like that walking around in Alberta.

        Fascism is alive and well in Alberta I guess. Thank goodness there aren’t too many of them.

        Reply

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