The 900 Day Siege: 75 Years Later - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The 900 Day Siege: 75 Years Later

The 900 Day Siege of Leningrad began on September 8, 1941 —75 years ago today — and ended on January 27, 1944. The Nazis cut off Leningrad in 1941 trying to force the city to surrender. Over 600,000 civilians died from starvation. Another 400,000 soldiers and civilians died fighting the blockade. The city never fell, but the casualties were enormous.

As I was reading Hillary Clinton’s book Hard Choices, I was struck by a conversation she had with Vladimir Putin regarding the 900-day Siege. Apparently Putin told Hillary that his father found his mother lying in the street. People thought she was dead, but his father didn’t give up. He picked his wife up and took her back to their apartment. He managed to nurse her back to health and they both lived for decades after the war.

As I was reading this story, it reminded me of the story of how my own grandfather had fallen in the streets of Leningrad during the Siege. When he fell, he was so weak from starvation, he couldn’t get up.

Thankfully someone came by that day to help him up. This was a very brave thing to do since most people walking in the street were so weak if they tried to help him someone they too would likely have fallen themselves.

My grandfather, Yakov Brusin, was lucky to have survived. He was 17 years old when the war started. In the first year, he lost his father from starvation and his older brother on the front. Like many in his generation, he joined the Army to defeat the Nazis. By the end of the war, he got all the way to Berlin.

My grandmother, Marina, donated so much blood for extra rations she almost died. She did it because those extra rations kept her mother alive. My Great Aunt Tatiana, who is still alive at 93, once told me that if we knew how long the Siege would last, we would not have made it. My mother, who was born after the war, told me that the Siege was so terrible that the survivors in our family remembered it every day for the rest of their lives.

Putin’s parents survived the Siege, but they would see their first two sons die young: one in infancy before the war, the other during the Siege. Like many survivors, the Putins would start over. Their third son, Vladimir, was born after the war.

The Siege continues to have a powerful impact on both the survivors and their descendents, including Vladimir Putin and myself. For years, I would listen to the stories of the survivors in my family.

Just a few months ago, I was talking to my grandmother first cousin, Kirill, who, like President Putin, lost his older brother during the war as well. He is still alive at 91 and has lived 75 years without his brother. Every family lost a number of relatives during the war.

More than any other event, the war continues to influence Russian attitudes towards national security. The more stories I hear, the more I believe that World War II, the Cold War, the turmoil of the 1990s, and the current tensions have only reinforced a Siege mentality within Vladimir Putin.

Putin is hardly the only Russian to think this way. For example, Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev, who was Chief of the General Staff of Soviet Armed Forces in the 1980s, believed that Soviet military planners must make sure that “1941 shall never be repeated.”

Akhromeyev’s unit was stationed only 35 miles from Leningrad during the war. Colin Powell wrote in his memoirs how he asked Akhromeyev, a fellow soldier, about his service during the war. The Soviet General said, “Eight of the ten boys my age died during the war. Only I and one other from my high school class of thirty-two survived.”

The war was so painful that Russians dedicated themselves to making sure that 1941 would never happen again. Akhromeyev committed suicide after the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev because he believed that “Everything I have worked for throughout my life is being destroyed.”

Gorbachev understood that the Russian people found it painful to have their troops withdraw from Eastern Europe. They felt that millions of Russians gave their lives to seize that territory. To withdraw was the equivalent of dishonoring the memory of the fallen soldiers. In the end, Gorbachev couldn’t afford to keep the Cold War going and he eventually came to believe that the Captive Nations had the right to determine their own affairs.

Putin on the other hand expressed a similar view to Akhromeyev when he described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Putin is not a communist, but he believes it was a tragedy in part because 25 million Russians, from the other Soviet republics, suddenly woke up one day and found themselves living in foreign countries.

In Putin’s view, Russia must have a dominant position over its neighbors for Russian people to be secure. That was why Ukraine joining the EU, or NATO, was unthinkable to him.

Putin would later give a speech providing his reasons for annexing Crimea. Among his reasons were that he simply couldn’t accept the loss of the Russian Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol. Putin implied in his speech if they hadn’t taken Crimea then it was possible that Ukraine would eventually join NATO and allow the U.S. Navy to use their former base.

Putin’s argument implies that if Ukrainians could force their president to flee — as they had done with Viktor Yanukovych — then it is unlikely they would honor the 2010 Kharkiv Accords, which allowed Russia to keep its naval base in Sevastopol until at least 2042.

While many Russians genuinely agree with Putin, this argument is wrong.

First, the United States cannot accept the Russian takeover of Crimea because appeasement will only encourage further aggression. In seizing Crimea Russia violated at least three separate agreements that it had signed recognizing Ukraine’s right to Crimea (the 1975 Helsinki Agreements, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, and the 1997 Russian-Ukrainian Treaty of Friendship).

Second, the Ukrainians gave up their nuclear weapons in 1994 in exchange for the United States and Russia supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine. If we don’t stand with Ukraine, our ability push for nonproliferation will greatly diminish.

Third, while there is no military option for Crimea, that doesn’t mean we can’t do more economically to isolate Russia and deter further aggression.

The irony is that only the seizure of Crimea would have forced Ukraine’s leaders to risk a withdrawal from the Kharkiv Accords. It was only because of the Russian invasion that a majority of Ukrainians began to back joining NATO. In October 2013, only 20 percent of Ukrainians wanted to join NATO while 66 percent were opposed. By October 2014, that number increased to 51 percent of Ukrainians supporting NATO membership.

Putin says that he did this in part because he thinks Crimea is an integral part of Russia and that Moscow had the right to protect Russians abroad. He mentioned how Prince Vladimir converted to Christianity in Crimea and how Russians gave their lives there in the Second World War and other wars. Sevastopol was declared a Hero City just as Moscow and Leningrad were.

In the second half of his speech, Putin spoke as though Russia is still under siege from the West. When Americans think of containment, they think of the Cold War (1945 to 1991).

But listen to Putin’s speech, and it’s clear he sees containment differently. In his mind the containment policy has never ended. He mentioned how the West had been pursuing a policy of containment toward Russia since the 18th century. He believes that, even before Crimea, America was still trying to contain Russia even if in a substantially reduced form since the Cold War ended.

He believes the containment policy has occurred throughout his tenure as President from missile defense, NATO expansion, opposition to the Eurasian Union, restrictions on the sale of Western technology, America’s support for “colored” revolutions in the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, and America’s use of force in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

Putin also used the speech to remind people that this action was very popular with the vast majority of Russia’s citizens. In the speech, he also equated any opposition to Crimea among a minority of Russians as traitors who prefer the West over Russia.

The 900 Day Siege of Leningrad has clearly influenced Putin. This tragedy also influenced my political views of Russia, but in a very different way. Beyond helping me understand Putin better, I think the Siege contains many useful lessons on how we can improve U.S.-Russia relations.

  1. Prepare for the Future

I think Putin and I would agree that the people who survived the Siege are heroes. It was the Russian people who endured the Siege and won the war and not the Soviet leaders. Where we likely disagree is that the Siege occurred because Stalin and the Soviet leadership failed to prepare for the future just as Putin is currently failing to prepare Russia for the future.

Stalin made several mistakes that cost the Soviets dearly. Before the war, Stalin executed over 40,000 of Red Army’s most experienced officers. The Soviet Air Force was purged of 6,000 of their most experienced pilots prior to the war.

Stalin had a relatively inexperienced air force fighting against the Luftwaffe. Despite numerical superiority in combat planes (10,451 to 3,297), Stalin left Soviet planes in forward positions. The Germans destroyed approximately 2,500 Soviet planes on the ground in the first day of the invasion at a loss of only 35 aircraft.

If Stalin had attacked Hitler first by striking Germany’s limited oil supplies in Romania, it might have crippled the German war effort. By 1944, without Romania, the Germans had an extreme oil shortage. They needed oil for their tanks and planes. Russia could have quickly knocked Germany out of the war in 1941 and saved millions of lives.

In contrast, Peter the Great was one of the most consequential Russian czars because he prepared Russia for the future. He insisted that Russians adopt European customs and military technology for Russia so that they could compete against other European powers. There were early slavophiles who objected to Russia becoming more European. These slavophiles were wrong and Peter helped Russia by reforming the country.

Today, Putin, like Peter the Great before him, needs to adopt Western methods. For Russia to compete economically in the 21st century, it needs rule of law. It can’t rely on high oil prices anymore. To modernize its economy, the United States could really help in this effort in exchange for better relations.

  1. Punishing Germany in World War I led to World War II.

One reason the Siege occurred was because the West punished Germany harshly after World War I. The hyperinflation and the Versailles Treaty led to the rise of the Nazis. It was only after World War II that many American and European leaders saw the wisdom to help build a free and prosperous Germany anchored in the West.

Today, Europe and Asia are more peaceful because America helped turn Germany and Japan into friends. After the Soviet Union collapsed, we tried to help Yeltsin, but the pro-Western Russians were discredited in the public because of the bad economy. From 1991 to 1998, the Russian economy contracted by 40 percent. It wasn’t until 2007 that the economy returned to the levels of the early 1990s.

The economic growth during the Putin years has reinforced this image of a strong leader and the belief that only a strong central government can protect Russia. During the Medvedev years (2008-2012), there was serious push to reset relations with the United States and modernize the economy. By the 2011 elections, Putin refused to continue the process of modernization because he knew that he couldn’t control his people without controlling the economy.

In order to stay in power, Putin allied with the Neo-Eurasianists, like Aleksandr Dugin, who are the Slavophiles of today. Neo-Eurasianists believe that Russian culture is closer to Asia than it is to Europe. These people oppose closer relations with the West and believe modernization could lead to the Westernization of Russia.

After the 2011 protests over fraudulent parliamentary elections, Putin shifted in a more hostile and Neo-Eurasianist direction. With growth slowing, seizing Crimea has helped Putin keep his popularity high.

My principle objection to Vladimir Putin is that he is ruining Russia’s future. In the past, American politicians have rightly attacked Putin as a KGB thug. Instead of attacking him about his past, we should criticize him more for failing to prepare Russia for the future. The Russians won’t care what Americans think about Putin until they think we care about them.

As long as most of the Russian public supports Putin’s belligerent policies, he will remain confrontational. We may not be able to end Putin’s Siege mentality anytime soon, but we can still appeal to the Russian people directly.

Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War, “Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.” If we can show the Russians we care about them, they might begin to realize that they their lives can improve dramatically with better relations with the West.

They will not leave Crimea anytime soon, but we can certainly ask Russia to return Edward Snowden and demand that this conflict in Eastern Ukraine will not spread any further. The Millennials in Russia love their iPhones as much as their American counterparts to. Most Russians do not want to live without the West.

  1. Make Russia a Partner or China Will

Regarding triangular diplomacy between Washington, Moscow and Beijing, Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoirs that, “Our relations to possible opponents should be such, I considered, that our options toward both of them were always greater than their options toward each other.”

Kissinger believed that agility was important to make the policy sustainable. He wrote, “We had somehow not to flex our own muscles but, as in judo, to use the weight of an adversary to propel him in a desired position; there was always the risk of also antagonizing both sides.”

Today, U.S.-Russia relations are worse than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Even before the crisis in Ukraine, Russia had been moving toward China. Russia-China trade grew from $15.8 billion in 2003 to $95.3 billion in 2014.

Although Russia-China trade plummeted in 2015 to $64.2 billion, mostly due to falling oil prices, Russia’s trade with the United States was only $23.7 billion in 2015. In the same year, U.S.-China trade reached a record $598 billion.

The reason China is building islands in the South China Sea is that it knows the U.S. has to devote a considerable amount of its resources to help defend Europe against Russia. This gives China more flexibility in Asia. If Russians and Americans don’t find a way to work together, this will only push Russia further into the Chinese orbit. Russia will increasingly be a junior member of such an axis.

  1. Improving Human Rights Is in Russia’s Interest

President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz were able to include human rights on their agenda with Gorbachev because they convinced him that it was in the Soviet national interest. With oil prices low for the foreseeable future, we can argue to the Russian people that the economy will no longer grow without improvements in human rights.

Eventually, Russia will have to modernize its economy. I think we can win this argument in Russian public opinion that the United States and the European Union can help Russia in this transition far better than China ever could. Much like the 900 Day Siege, Russia must prepare for the future. If oil prices do not improve, it could also lead to chaos inside the country.

Improved relations could eventually make Russia an invaluable ally in the war on terror. Russia has already helped us in Afghanistan because Islamic terrorism is a threat to both countries.

The rise of China’s military may bring the United States and Russia much closer together. Perhaps in 20 years, we might see Russia as member of NATO helping us contain the Chinese military.

As long as Russia is dependent on oil prices, and feels outside of European institutions, the Russian people will always feel under siege. We need to remind them that Putin’s policies are not fighting the Siege, they are only continuing it.

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