You Can Trust the Russians to Be Russians

You Can Trust the Russians to Be Russians

In their own way, the Russians are trustworthy: You can always trust them to remind you as to what kind of people they are, and what kind of political system they create. As we shall see, Americans got a bitter lesson about Russian behavior seven decades ago, during World War II–although we were painfully slow to learn that lesson.

We can further say that if the Russians today were interested in being civilized, they wouldn’t have given Ukrainian separatists the surface-to-air missile (SAM) that was possibly used to shoot down the Malaysian Airlines jet on Thursday. Or, perhaps, the Russians wouldn’t have been operating that SAM themselves–while masquerading as Ukrainian separatists.

And if the Russians were operating that SAM, it wouldn’t be the first time that they had fought under assumed identities–and killed Americans. We now know, for example, that Russian pilots flew for both the North Koreans and the North Vietnamese in the Korean War and in the Vietnam War. Even the Russians now admit it. In fact, there’s a long list of American airplanes shot down by the Russians–okay, they called themselves Soviets at the time–during the Cold War.

Three decades ago, on September 1, 1983, the Russians shot down a Korean Air Lines 747 over the North Pacific; all of the 269 passengers and crew were killed. Among the dead was a US Congressman, Larry McDonald of Georgia. The Russians, always mindful of the propaganda angle, went on the offensive; they said that the KAL flight was a spy plane, and they never cooperated with the investigation and never apologized. Many years later, in the 90s, the post-Soviet Russian government did express some regret. Although, of course, one wonders if the current Russian government, under Vladimir Putin, feels any remorse. Probably not.

Indeed, if we want a good historical look at Russian behavior toward the United States, it’s worth going back to Glenn B. Infield’s 1974 book, The Poltava Affair: A Russian Warning: An American Tragedy. That book details the efforts of the American Army Air Force to team up with the Red Army during World War II; that is, we were trying to help the Russians defeat our common enemy, Hitler’s Germany.

The specific mission, dubbed Operation Frantic, was to fly American B-17s and B-24s from England, bomb targets deep inside Nazi-held territory, and then land safely in Russia. The idea was that American bombers could refuel and reload inside Russia and then bomb Germany again on the way back to England. It was called “shuttle bombing,” and from a military logistical point of view, it made a lot of sense. The problem was the politics–dealing the Russians.

As Infield explains, through some combination of paranoia and blockheadedness, Stalin and his minions just weren’t interested in cooperating. The Americans first proposed shuttle bombing in October 1943, but the Russians did not permit the operation for eight months until June 1944. And when they did, they imposed strict limits on the number of Americans who could be on the ground in Russia, manning airfields in Poltava and Mirgorod. In addition, the Russians insisted that they would provide the air defense for the US bombers when they were on the ground in Russia.

The first shuttle-bombing mission, in early June, went off well, but by the time of the second, on June 21, 1944, the Germans had figured out the American plan. So on the night of the 21st, the Luftwaffe attacked the Poltava airfield–and no Russian planes rose up to intercept them. Nor did the Russians have any plan for anti-aircraft fire. So for nearly two hours, German planes circled overhead, completely unimpeded: Virtually all of the 73 American bombers on the ground were destroyed or badly damaged. Two Americans were killed. German losses were zero.

What, exactly, had happened? Were the Russians simply careless? Or were they actually happy to see the Americans get a black eye? To this day, the final truth remains hidden in Kremlin archives, but the answer to both questions is probably “yes.”

Still, as Infield explains, Americans were slow to pick up the lesson of Poltava–that is, they were slow to realize that the Russians had no desire to truly cooperate with the Americans, even when they were on the same side in a big war.

And why were the Americans so slow to realize the truth about their “ally”? Perhaps the Yanks just couldn’t believe that the Russians wouldn’t want to do everything possible to defeat Hitler. Perhaps, too, the American government was rife with Soviet fellow travelers, dupes, and even outright spies.

A few Americans did get the message. One such, as Infield records, was Maj. Gen. John R. Deane, the head of the US Military Mission in Moscow during the war. Two years after the war ended, in 1947, Deane wrote a whistle-blowing book, Strange Alliance: The Story of Our Efforts at Wartime Cooperation with Russia. As Deane documented, the Poltava disaster wasn’t the half of it: Even on something as simple as returning American POWs to America, the Russians were as much of an enemy as an ally. 

Still, as Infield explains, most Americans of that era didn’t see the handwriting on the wall: 

Operation Frantic was, mistakenly, considered a “minor” secret operation by American military and political leaders. Consequently, these same individuals, who had the responsibility of guiding the United States through the difficult years after World War II, overlooked the lessons learned at Poltava and Moscow during the project.

In other words, it would take a few years for Americans to realize that the Cold War was real.

As Infield writes, “The disaster at Poltava was a disaster for the entire free world… but no realized it was until it was too late.” 

Poltava was in 1944. Infield wrote those words in 1974. And in 2014, nothing much has changed.

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