Small Wars Journal

Understanding Russia

Mon, 01/16/2023 - 12:23pm

Understanding Russia


By Yurij Holowinsky


On Saturday, January 14, 2023, Russia destroyed an apartment building in Dnipro, Ukraine with a KH-22 missile launched from a strategic bomber. 

The strike killed 36, injured 75, and hope of finding additional survivors among the wreckage is fading.

This latest atrocity, evil, insanity, war-crime, comes after nearly a year-long war initiated by Russia on February 24, 2022, with an unprovoked attack against Ukraine.  Why?  What did Russia intend to achieve? 
I would argue that the goal, as a first step, was total domination of Ukraine and her submission to the will of one man in Moscow.  Then, the next move would have been a push into Europe to bring the former vassal states of the Warsaw Pact back under Russian control.  After that, who knows.

This is not conjecture.  Putin did not mince words when in 2005 he stated that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century.  If one listened and analyzed and understood his message one may have deduced that he wanted to turn back the clock of history.  Two years later, in his speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, he criticized US dominance in world affairs and called for the end of a unipolar world.  He was telegraphing his intent to the world much as Hitler did in his Mein Kampf.  But, just as the world ignored the not so subtle hints from the Austrian corporal Schicklgruber, AKA Hitler, so once again in the first decade of the twenty-first century, it paid no attention to what the old mid-level former KGB officer Putin was saying.



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In early 2014 Putin made his move.  Troops poured into the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine and “little green men” with no identifying military insignia occupied Crimea.  Ukraine resisted in the east and achieved a military stalemate after Russia moved into the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.  A weak Ukraine prevented further Russian incursion at the time but lost Crimea.  In March of 2014 Russia boldly announced the annexation of the peninsula; an illegal act that has not been recognized by any normal country of the world other than Russia and a few rogue states.

Now, after eleven months of horrific suffering and unbelievable resistance by Ukraine and a people who just won’t quit, the world remains in awe of a nation that still stands when, in 2022, most pundits were advocating that Ukraine reach a compromise with Russia. What these well-meaning experts did not and still do not understand is that Russia is not like other countries and does not operate according to an internationally accepted code of conduct.  Russia throughout history has always relied on deceit, outrageous lies, and military might in the implementation of a policy of constant expansion and control of adjacent areas through force when all else fails.  Russia reached the peak of her expansion as an Empire in the early twentieth century.  Modern day Poland and Finland were at that time under Russian control and Tsar Nicholas II had no qualms about forcing Poles and Finns into the Russian Army and shipping the soldiers all the way across Asia to the Pacific to fight and die in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

So - what is Russia?  An entity that has existed for centuries and has been a participant in numerous world events still raises confusion among those who want to define, in simple terms, an enormous landmass stretching from Europe to the Pacific, with a current population of approximately 146 million.

Mikhail Epstein, a scholar of Russian culture at Emory University, claims that Russia suffers from a “territorial curse” wherein the state is doomed to expand for the sake of expansion and conquest alone.  Beginning as a minor outpost on the fringes of Eastern Europe, Russia’s history is indeed a pattern of ongoing wars of aggression against neighboring lands. On occasion there would be a pause for regrouping.  Then the armies would move again, expanding Russian holdings by subjugation of contiguous indigenous non-Russian peoples.  Currently, the Russian Federation stretches over 6,000 miles and covers eleven time zones.

You will note I have for the first time used the formal, official name of this large Eurasian landmass - the Russian Federation.

Most people erroneously refer to the Russian Federation by the singular term Russia.  This suits Moscow just fine, creating the impression that the Kremlin rules over one homogeneous state when, in reality, ethnic Russians account for only approximately 75% of the total population of the Russian Federation.  The remainder is comprised of well over 100 ethnic groups with distinct cultures and languages including Tatars, Buryats, Chechens, Bashkirs, Chuvash, a host of many others, and nearly two million Ukrainians.  Yes, Ukrainians inside the Russian Federation mainly in the Far East in a region known as “Zeleny Klyn” an area between the Amur River and Pacific Ocean. 

The various nationalities that comprise nearly a quarter of the total population of the Russian Federation did not willingly become members of the state.  There was no honest plebiscite wherein a certain group of people that just happened to be located in an area “visited” by the Russian military freely voted to become a member of Russia.  Lands would be occupied by Russian troops and once taken, said lands would henceforth and forever more belong to Russia.  The population of a region would now be used, relocated, drafted, and moved at will by the whim of Moscow.

Back to the question - what is Russia?

You may be aware that Winston Churchill referred to Russia as - “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”  Ronald Reagan viewed Russia, or rather the whole Soviet Union, as an “Evil Empire.”  Senator McCain quipped that Russia is a glorified gas station masquerading as a country.

Who is correct?

What is Russia?  From history we know of a region called Muscovy that survived the thirteenth century Mongol invasion of Europe in large measure by serving the Khan as tax collectors during the period of Mongol rule.  After 1480, with the Mongol Horde no longer in control of European lands, Muscovy embarked on a phase of never-ending wars of conquest against neighboring regions.  A uniquely Russian memorial commemorating one such military victory is the world famous onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square.  Built in the mid-sixteenth century by order of Ivan the Terrible, St. Basil’s commemorates the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. 

Wars continued.  No Congress or Parliament voted for Russia to embrace war.  It was simply the whim of one ruler, a prince and then a Tsar, and from the eighteenth century onward an autocrat, an Emperor, who would decide upon a course of action and the fate of the people.

In the early years of Russia, there was a small class of noblemen, the boyars, who dared challenge and could occasionally restrain the man on the throne.  But by the late seventeenth century, through violence, the boyars were effectively eliminated as a group capable of offering any challenge to the rule of the Russian Tsar. 

With the advent of Peter the Great to the throne, all power in Russia completely and undeniably became vested in only one person.  In 1721 Tsar Peter changed his title to that of Emperor.  He became the supreme authority over all the lands of Russia, an unchallenged autocrat ruling and dictating as he wished.   Russia defeated Sweden, gained control over Ukraine, and grew into a world power as the Romanov Empire lasted for three hundred years; until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  Then, in July 1918, with Lenin’s approval, the last Emperor and his family were executed as a civil war raged in Russia. Poland also fought the Bolshevik Army.  For a time it was uncertain whether Lenin’s government would survive.  The Treaty of Riga in 1921 ended the conflict, and a new phase of Russian history commenced, the Soviet period. 

Within two decades, as Hitler initiated his maniacal march across Europe, the Soviet Union signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact enabling the German dictator to have free reign in Europe.  It was only after Hitler turned the Wehrmacht against Russia that out of necessity Stalin allied himself with the West.  Once German armies were destroyed, however, the true Russian nature soon resurfaced as Soviet troops ensured that only Moscow would exercise control over Eastern Europe.  Soviet troops built the Berlin Wall and installed puppet governments on lands they liberated from the Germans.  When the people attempted to escape from Soviet rule, Moscow brutally crushed any attempt at freedom as they did in Hungary in 1956 and with the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed.  Moscow lost control over the lands it once ruled as Ukraine voted for independence.  The model conceived for replacing the Soviet Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), turned out to be a stillborn idea.

Today, in 2023, Putin wants to succeed in recreating an Empire that once was.  He knows no limits as evidenced by the horrors being inflicted on Ukraine.  Having failed to conquer Ukraine when he first launched the invasion he is settling in for the long haul.  Perhaps he views himself as a new Tsar, a new Emperor, an embodiment of Russia where he can do anything he wants. 

And now to answer the question.  What is Russia?  In my opinion, what the world calls Russia is best expressed by a short poem penned in the mid-nineteenth century by Fyodor Tyuchev, a Russian diplomat of the Foreign Service.  He wrote:

Умом - Россию не понять,
Аршином общим не измерить;
У ней особенная стать -
В Россию можно только верить.

My translation:

Unique -
One can only believe in Russia

Simply stated, Russia is an idea.  It is a force.  It cannot be understood, it cannot be measured or contained, and it is certainly unique.  As a force Russia can be a force of good or a force of evil.  Putin has chosen the latter.  Those launching missiles at civilian apartment buildings have also chosen to believe in the force of evil.   Putin and evil must not become the embodiment of Russia and a Russian legacy.  It is up to the people of Russia to reject the force of evil and choose to believe in Russia as an idea that can be an embodiment of civility, a force of good, and act accordingly.


About the Author(s)

1976 - B.A. Rutgers University, Phi Beta Kappa
1984 - Officer Training School, Commissioned Officer, US Air Force. Career in HUMINT, retiring with the rank of Major from the Reserves in 2006.
Mid-1990s - Contract Interpreter, Ukrainian language, US Department of State.
1997 - PhD in History, University of Virginia.
2001 - 2014, Intelligence Officer, Defense Intelligence Service. Retired as GS-15.

Numerous operational tours and deployments around the world throughout the course of a thirty-year government career including Russia, Ukraine, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Bosnia, Macedonia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Numerous military awards and decorations including Bronze Star with Valor for direct combat action in Afghanistan in November, 2001.



Wed, 01/18/2023 - 8:24am

Interesting article and some good points, but I believe that the use of overly emotional and highly emotive language throughout the paper detracts from the arguments. I vehemently oppose Putin's invasion of Ukraine, but using terms such as 'evil' and stating: 'Russia throughout history has always relied on deceit, outrageous lies, and military might in the implementation of a policy of constant expansion and control' is a generalisation that I believe is too broad and does not include nuance required for an analysis of Russia as a whole. By including a bit more nuance and avoiding emotionally charged phrases I think the article could be improved.