The prolific British historian Niall Ferguson, writing in Bloomberg News, concludes that the Biden administration “is making a colossal mistake thinking that it can protract the war in Ukraine, bleed Russia dry, topple Putin and signal to China to keep its hands off Taiwan.” If this in fact is the administration’s policy — and Ferguson relies on apparently well-sourced New York Times stories by David Sanger and unnamed senior administration officials — then Ferguson is right. It is a colossal mistake and a misreading of Russian history.
According to Ferguson, the Biden administration envisions Putin’s regime collapsing if the war in Ukraine drags on without Russia achieving victory. New reports have portrayed the Russian invasion as a quagmire — a sort of rerun of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And while Ukrainians suffer, so the argument goes, Russians are suffering, too — both soldiers as a result of the Ukrainian resistance and civilians as a result of Western economic sanctions. Revolution is in the air. And there is some historical justification for the notion that an inconclusive war can lead to revolution — the Russo-Japanese War led to a revolution in Russia in 1905, and the colossal losses and shortages caused by the First World War led to the Romanov dynasty’s collapse in March 1917.
But there is another side to Russian history — one that glories in the heroic fighting of its brave soldiers and civilians in the face of hardship and the drudgery and horror of war. In 2017, Gregory Carleton, a professor of Russian Studies at Tufts University, wrote a book that Biden administration policymakers should read: Russia: The Story of War. Carleton’s book provides a cultural history of what he calls Russia’s “civic religion” and a “grand narrative of war” that goes back to Russia’s experience of war — against the Mongols in the 13th through 15th centuries, during the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century, and against Napoleon and Hitler.
Russia’s grand narrative of war — which is partly myth — includes references to invasions, stout resistance, self-reliance, and incredible self-sacrifice. And the most evocative of these historical experiences are the Battle of Borodino against Napoleon’s Grand Armée in 1812 and the Battle of Brest against the German Army in 1941.
At Borodino on the third day of the battle, Russia suffered more than 50,000 casualties in an unsuccessful effort to prevent Napoleon’s forces from reaching Moscow. French losses were estimated at 35,000. It was the bloodiest day of the Napoleonic Wars. Twenty-nine Russian generals died at Borodino. Carleton described the suffering and tragedy there as the nation’s “Golgotha,” which was forever seared into the Russian soul by Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Borodino, Carleton explained, was an example of defiance, resilience, and courage among Russian troops and civilians.
The World War II battle at Brest is less well known, but it is similarly evocative of Russian courage, defiance, and resistance. Hitler’s troops attacked the fortress there in June 1941, and about 4,000 Russian soldiers, Carleton noted, “held out for weeks against overwhelming German forces.” The garrison at Brest refused to surrender despite being weakened by hunger and thirst. “Outgunned, out-teched, and outnumbered,” Carleton wrote, “Red Army soldiers fought like superhumans.” The heroic fight was memorialized by Russian historian Sergei Smirnov in Brest Fortress, published in 1965 and still in print in Putin’s Russia. The battle at Brest is also the subject of movies and documentaries, and a portion of the fortress’s actual walls has been preserved as an historic site.
Carleton noted that Vladimir Putin appeals to Russia’s historic grand narrative of war. In doing so, Carleton explains, he touches feelings and emotions that “lie deep in the soil of Russian history.” It doesn’t matter that in the Ukraine war Russia is the aggressor and invader. The Brest myth, for example, lives on despite the fact that Stalin was Hitler’s accomplice in starting the European phase of World War II and despite the facts that Stalin gobbled up the Baltic states and invaded Finland in the war’s early years. In Russia, as in many other countries, myth and history become one. And leaders like Putin use mythical history to their advantage.
According to early surveys — conducted by Russian and non-Russian pollsters — recently analyzed by scholars at the London School of Economics, ordinary Russians in February and March “expressed support for the Ukrainian war and for President Putin.” There have been protests within Russia, and Russian police have detained thousands of protesters across Russia. But Putin’s regime puts out pro-war propaganda and censors news reports about the war, and that undoubtedly has an impact on ordinary Russians’ views about the war. Meanwhile the Guardian reports instances of low morale among Russian troops based on statements made by soldiers captured by Ukrainian forces — who, reports note, made those statements under obvious duress. The Daily Mail reported that intercepted radio messages among invading Russian troops similarly showed instances of low morale. These reports, however, are anecdotal. Most Russian troops are obeying orders. The invasion, shellings, and bombings continue. There are no signs of a general mutiny among Russian forces.
The Biden administration would be well-advised not to protract this war in the hope that Russian defeats and casualties and hardships at home will topple Putin. The longer the war lasts, the more Ukrainian soldiers and civilians will die. The United States should be encouraging both sides to negotiate an end to the fighting. As Ferguson says, it would be “wonderful” if the war’s drudgery and tragedy led to Putin’s downfall. But, he writes, “Prolonging the war runs the risk not just of leaving tens of thousands of Ukrainians dead and millions homeless, but also of handing Putin something he can plausibly present at home as victory.” And prolonging the war could also lead to escalation and World War III if the U.S. and NATO become field belligerents. As Ferguson writes, “History talks in the corridors of power.”