Putin Forever (artwork by BakeNecko [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons)

Dear Vlad – better read your history books

Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Vladimir Putin, who seems to be bucking for czar, evidently thinks Ukraine would be a pushover if he follows up his dispatch of troops into the two Russian-backed separatist Ukrainian territories with a full-scale invasion of the former Soviet state.

Before he goes all-out against Ukraine, wannabe Czar Vladimir I might crack a Russian history book about Nicholas II, the last czar.

Nicholas figured fighting Japan in 1904 would be a cakewalk. He was also gung-ho for Russia to throw in with the Allies in World War I. Those two big-time military misadventures led to the fall of the Russian empire and ultimately cost the czar and his whole family their lives.

Western military experts believe Russia can easily overwhelm Ukraine in a conventional war. But they warn that many Russian soldiers will go home in body bags. They also predict that Ukrainians will follow up defeat on the battlefield with a protracted guerrilla war against the invaders that will inevitably boost the Russian death toll and fuel domestic opposition to the corrupt and brutal Putin regime.

Here’s the history that Putin need to pay attention to.

Czar Nicholas: his mistakes and his ultimate end

Nicholas II came from a long line of autocratic, authoritarian Romanov rulers. The Russian empire had its “one percent” — the royals, the nobles, and rich Russian Orthodox clerics — all of whom lorded over one of the poorest countries in Europe. Likewise, Russia today is home to a few Putin-toadying billionaires and millions of citizens who are considerably less well-heeled.

In 1904, the czar, partly to quell growing unrest at home and boost his popularity among ordinary Russians, decided to expand Russia’s reach in the Far East. He knew the Japanese would fight, but was confident of quick and easy victory.

Nicholas calculated that a successful foreign war would cause Russian workers and peasants to forget their misery. By making short work of the Japanese military, he'd become a hero at home.

The best laid plans…

Japan lost no time humiliating Russia on land and sea, especially at sea. Japan’s navy paved the bottom of the briny with sunken Russian warships.

The czar’s popularity sank even lower after the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, which American President Teddy Roosevelt helped end in 1905 via a brokered peace treaty.

When Russians rose up in 1905, Nicholas II savagely suppressed the revolt, thus planting the seeds of his eventual doom.

Meanwhile, Nicholas did nothing to improve the lives of his poorest subjects. He ruthlessly continued to suppress pro-democracy and anti-monarchy elements.

In 1914, he took his country to war again, urging his people to fight anew for God and Mother Russia. The imperial German army humbled the czar’s army, beating the Russians in battle after battle and invading Russia.

While Russian casualties soared on the Eastern Front, hundreds, then thousands, of soldiers deserted. On the home front, anger and desperation increased exponentially; so did starvation. Urban workers rioted and struck. Peasants rebelled in the countryside.

Even the nobles and the bourgeoisie turned against Nicholas, who, in 1915, had taken command of his hard-pressed troops in the field. His military incompetence matched his ineptness as ruler of Russia.

Nicholas II was forced to abdicate in March, 1917. It was only a reprieve. The final sentence came in November, when the Bolsheviks, led by Nikolai Lenin, seized power from the fledgling Provisional Government and turned Russia into the Soviet Union, the world’s first communist state.

In 1918, Red Army soldiers, apparently acting on Lenin’s orders, killed the czar and his family.

And today ...

While many of the czar’s troops went over to the communists, Putin, the atheist and once loyal communist, has gone the other way. The former KGB guy has smoothly transitioned into a crooked, authoritarian, capitalist, Christian autocrat in the mold of Nicholas II.

Here's a history lesson Putin should know without perusing a book: when he was a proud KGB officer,  the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, certain that the small, impoverished county was easy prey.

In 1979, the Red Army roared in, but became mired in a bloody guerrilla war that lasted until 1989 when the Soviets gave up and went home. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed, due in no small part, to its Afghanistan debacle.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” writer and philosopher George Santayana famously said. Substitute “willfully ignore” for “cannot remember” and the immortal admonition is just as true.

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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

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