Many years ago now, or so it seems, at the height of the Cold War, my Commanding Officer had the foresight to enrol some of his junior officers on a Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst postgraduate Soviet Studies course under the country’s leading expert Professor Chris Donnelly.
As a logistics officer on the verge of promotion to field rank it was part of a project to widen army officer’s horizons and try to empathise with the Russian perspective. Up until that point I suppose I was guilty in seeing everything in black and white, we in NATO were the good guys with the white hats – the Reds – were bad guys who ate babies and raped the womenfolk.
By the end of the course I was beginning to understand why the Russians saw things the way they did: their attitudes were based on their country’s experience. To comprehend this view a knowledge of European history is important. French, German, British and Spanish attitudes are thus dominated by these experiences. Failure to acknowledge this can lead to a very serious danger of a shooting or economic war.
I was immensely privileged years later to be given the opportunity to study strategy at the Royal College of Defence Studies . My dissertation at the end of course was on ‘War Aims. A fundamental weakness in the thinking by those who are keen to commit to conflict in the western industrial democracies’.
I learned, if I did not already suspect, that to preserve peace one requires a large dollop of real politik. There are areas where it is legitimate to acknowledge spheres of influence. These concepts manifest themselves in different forms. Britain, as a maritime power and great trading nation in the 19th and early 20th century, insisted on naval supremacy. Most of the world powers vaguely resented but accepted this. In much the same way as the British accepted huge continental standing armies. British interests were different and very broadly not at odds with continental powers; a live and let live policy maintained peace for Britain for 100 years notwithstanding colonial wars, usually trade driven.
Readers of this site rarely need guidance on British history. But let me turn to the Russian perspective, my formal studies were of the Soviet Union, but that empire in itself was a manifestation of Russian fears and ambition. I would argue that Russian history has been driven more by fear than ambition.
It is difficult for Britons to conceive, as a small island race, the sheer enormity of the great land masses of the world. Russia is the largest country on the planet. Unless one has travelled across it the enormity is beyond the average Brit’s imagination. It was not until I had flown from New York to Los Angeles I realised just how big the USA was and how those Japanese diplomats must have felt after Pearl Harbour when they flew home.
A train journey reinforced this for me, years ago travelling from Vancouver to Toronto. These great spaces, the Steppes, rivers, Carpathian Mountains linked to an inhospitable climate have been the saviour of Russia in times gone by, but they are not seen as a defensive barrier in the same way as the British view the sea, or indeed the Americans view their land mass and the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans as pillars of the Munroe doctrine. They are perceived by Russians as entry points to their nation.
Return, if you will, to the Napoleonic wars. It was the French who tried to enforce a trade embargo between the British and the Russians and Napoleon was confident enough to invade Russia to enforce it. Only a totally new concept of warfare stymied the French, the scorched earth policy. Imagine mass destruction of your own country to thwart the invader, even burning your own capital. Millions killed by starvation, disease and combat. Again imagine if you can a complete repeat of these events again 100 years later, then unbelievably on a scale three fold again but 20 years later. These were all invasions from the west and were unprovoked. Now let us look at some numbers. During the First World War, Russia suffered 6.6 million casualties in the Army alone. During The Siege of Leningrad in the Second World War, the nation suffered 1,532,000 deaths from war and disease, the capture of Berlin 305,000 casualties, the German invasion ‘Barbarossa’ 4.5 million.
The concept of the buffer zone or country, alien to the British where the sea does the job, is natural to continental powers. Belgium was a British invention to keep the Germans and French apart. The Sovietisation of post war Eastern European countries was to provide this buffer. Indeed the Tsars or yesteryear adopted the same policy.
In no way am I justifying any of these historical regimes but we need to understand them. Russia has always been run by ruthless autocrats with the help of secret police and large standing armies. It is the nature of things, there is nothing we can do about it. Western leaders have a responsibility to their own people, to maintain peace unless the very heart of their own countries and way of life is threatened.
Look at this from a Russian point of view, if only for a moment or two. All the eastern and central European buffers have gone. Moreover, they have not gone to neutrality but to potential hostility. The Baltic States, Romania, Bulgaria and Poland, once Warsaw Pact members are now NATO , EU or both. From whence one might argue comes encroachment?
There has been no shortage of comment on The Ukraine, some informed some rather less so, but in no conceivable way can it be construed that the Eastern Ukraine is a legitimate sphere of influence for the west, least of all the United States. The relentless propaganda now being carried out by the western press , CIA and the usual industrial military coalition can only end in tears. It is time to re-appraise NATO and I would argue our whole geo-political strategic alliances with those led by politicians without the benefit of traditional educations.
Godfrey Bloom was a logistics officer with 4th Armoured Division BAOR and is an Associate of the Royal College of Defence Studies