The 5 biggest blunders in Russian military history

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The might of the Russian military, as seen in its war in Ukraine, is not all it makes out to be. While the Russian armed forces have a considerable nuclear arsenal and the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Red Army is still a relatively recent memory, a lot of time has passed and today things are very different from the Russia 80 years ago.

Even in the days of the Soviet Union, the Russian military was more of a boogeyman than a capable fighting force. The West might have been more afraid of a nuclear war, rebuilding after World War III, having to kill so many Soviet troops, rather than being afraid of a complete Soviet takeover.

In truth, Russia has always been more intimidating on paper than it was in real life. Unless the Russian army intimidated one of its smaller and weaker neighbors, its army was never designed to win a fair fight. Here are five examples of Russia failing to defeat an enemy of the same level.

1. The Russo-Japanese War

It is a fight that Russia has lost, mainly because of its own racism. Due to the ease with which Western powers subdued China at the turn of the 20th century, all East Asian powers were looked upon with contempt. The Tsar believed that Imperial Japan would be child’s play and that Russia would easily take hot water ports in the Pacific and even extend its influence into Manchuria and Korea, traditional Japanese possessions.

Battlefields in the Russo-Japanese War.

Instead, the Japanese Navy completely destroyed almost the entire Russian Navy in a single battle, the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. It wasn’t just the Pacific Fleet either. Russia sent its Baltic Fleet across the planet just to get chewed up by the Japanese. Russia also lost what it had in China. For all time.

2. The Bolsheviks fail to take Warsaw

After the end of World War I, Russia was still locked in a struggle for communist revolution. While most countries would have been content to consolidate their gains after defeating Western attempts to overthrow the Bolshevik government, this was not Lenin’s style. Eager to spread Communism across Europe, he sent the Red Army west, where it began an invasion of Poland.

At first, the Red Army’s push was masterful, but stretched supply lines made it difficult to take Warsaw. Russian commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky asked Lenin for supplies and troops from the south, where a massive army was idle. Instead of reinforcing Tukhachevsky, Lenin did nothing. The Poles under Jozef Pilsudski surrounded the weakened Red Army near Warsaw and effectively destroyed it.

The 5 biggest blunders in Russian military history
Polish defenses at Miłosna, near Warsaw.

3. The Winter War

As Europe began to be divided among the totalitarian powers in the days leading up to World War II, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin looked north to Finland as a way to expand the USSR. It would be a huge mistake that weakened the Red Army days before Russia was invaded by Nazi Germany.

Although the USSR eventually won the grant of a piece of Finnish land, the Finns came into battle more than ready for the Russians. According to Finland’s tally, the Soviet invasion cost the Red Army 200,000 lives and caused Finland to ally with the Nazis in Operation Barbarossa to take back what was once theirs.

A Finnish Maxim M/09-21 machine gun crew during the Winter War.

4. The Crimean War

Just in case you thought the Russian military was better under Tsarist regimes, let’s not forget the disastrous Crimean War of 1853-1856. Tsar Nicholas I decided to take possession of what is now Romania from the Ottoman Empire to protect Orthodox Christianity there. He was surprised to learn that the Turks had formed an alliance with Britain, France and others against him.

Things quickly turned sour for the Russians, who lost the critical port city of Sevastopol on the Black Sea. Since the Russian army had obsolete weapons and infrastructure, there was no way to take it back. When Tsar Alexander II, he agreed to a peace treaty that not only gave up the territory it took to start the war, but also the Russian Black Sea Fleet. It was also the beginning of the end for the Empire itself.

The 5 biggest blunders in Russian military history
Detail of the panoramic painting by Franz Roubaud Headquarters Sevastopol (1904).

5. Invasion of Afghanistan

In 1979, the Soviet Union launched a coup after the assassination of the pro-Moscow Afghan communist leader. Fearing that Afghan leaders would soon ally with the United States during the Cold War, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev ordered the Red Army into Afghanistan and installed a friendly Soviet loyalist.

Instead of pacifying the Afghans, the invasion had the complete opposite effect, leading to a nine-year insurgency aided, funded, and armed not only by the United States, but by nearly every Islamic country in the world. Over 14,000 Soviet soldiers died in nearly a decade and the end result would have led to the total collapse of the USSR.


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