Even as Russian troops amassed along the Ukraine border late last fall, many experts and commentators suggested it was all a feint, that Russia would never invade Ukraine. How did they get it so wrong? They failed to take into account Russia’s history—and its future.
Let’s start with the history. Russia’s is quite tragic, and filled with regrettable decisions at every pivotal turn that has stunted the country’s political and economic development.
Scorched Earth Tactics
By burning every area it had to leave while retreating when Nazi Germany invaded, the Soviet Union ensured that no supplies would fall into the hands of the Nazis. It is easy to be blinded by the strategic brilliance of this strategy and ignore what it meant to the average Soviet citizen at the time: Civilians left behind enemy lines starved and froze to death as all food silos were destroyed by their own country’s soldiers, on orders from their own country’s leaders. Their homes were burned by the same soldiers. Much has been said about how Nazi Germany failed to account for the harsh Russian winter, but thanks to the scorched earth strategy, millions of ordinary Russians had no shelter from that very same winter.
While the tactic is widely associated with the Soviet Union, Russia has used it extensively and routinely for centuries. As far back as the early 1700s, Russia defeated the Swedish empire using the scorched earth strategy. Ironically, the decisive battle in that war took place in Poltava in what today is Ukraine. Carolus Rex, then-King of Sweden, had easily defeated his prior enemies Denmark-Norway, Lithuania, Poland and Saxony, using a strategy eerily reminiscent of the blitzkrieg used centuries later by Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, this blitzkrieg proved ineffective as supply lines were strained and reinforcements unable to keep up with the rapid military advance. The scorched earth strategy allowed the Russian empire to starve and freeze the Swedish army to death, without having to meet them in the open field. Those who survived the winter made a desperate attack at the fortress of Poltava, and were crushed by the Russian army that had long since gathered there, waiting for the Swedes to walk into the trap. While a military success, the story of the scorched earth strategy also demonstrates how, while ordinary citizens in general had few rights in Europe at the time, no country ever viewed its people as expendable quite like Russia did. Countless Russians would die just to prevent any resources or shelters from falling into Swedish hands.