Why is Russia so concerned about NATO’s expansion into their front yard?
Russia is highly concerned with NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe, particularly in the former Soviet Republics of the Baltics, the Ukraine and Georgia. One may wonder why Russia is so troubled by NATO’s expansion?
Well a political cartoon provides the answer. In a MEMRI article about Russia’s reaction to the recent NATO-Russia Council meeting there was a very revealing cartoon published by Ria.ru. In the cartoon (see the above image) the Russian Bear was seated reading a newspaper when it notices the encroachment of NATO on Russia’s borders, as represented by the spreading of tentacular roots emanating from the NATO symbol.
What is most revealing about the cartoon is the garden box to the left of the bear. In the box are the old dead roots of previous ‘weeds’ labelled with the years 1242, 1612, 1709, 1812 and 1945. To those ignorant of Russian history these years have no meaning, but they represent important dates to any educated Russian. The five weeds are years when Western invasions of Russia were repulsed.
In the year 1242 a battle occurred on the frozen lake of Peipus located on what is now the border of Estonia and Russia. The combatants were the Republic of Novgorod led by Alexander Nevsky and the Catholic Teutonic Knights. The latter were waging a Crusade against the pagans and Orthodox Christians of the Baltic region, hoping to bring the infidels to the faith and to bring the schismatics to heel. The Battle on the Ice was won by Nevsky and his forces. The victory effectively brought to an end the eastward expansion of the Teutonic Knights into Slavic lands. Russia was safe from the West for a while.
However, the advance of the Catholic West, this time led by the Poles and their Lithuanian allies, recommenced in 1605 with the Polish-Russian War which lasted until 1618. During this war the Russian capital of Moscow was captured by the Poles in 1610. The Russians were able in 1612, partly thanks to a victory during the Battle of Moscow, to evict the Poles from their capital. Although this victory did not end the Polish-Russian War it was a great boost to morale and even in modern Russia it is celebrated during National Unity Day.
The next Western incursion against Russia was in 1707 when Lutheran Sweden invaded. This action was apart of the Great Northern War (1700-1720). In 1709 the Battle of Poltava occurred in what is modern day Ukraine between the Russian forces of Peter the Great and the Swedish forces of Charles XII. Peter was victorious, and as a result the power of Sweden was ultimately broken, with Russia eventually taking its place as the Great Power of north-eastern Europe.
It is not overly surprising that the Teutonic Knights, Poland and Sweden, would have their eyes set on conquering Russia as they are nearby neighbors. However, it was very surprising when Napoleon decided to conquer Russia. For those unfamiliar with geography, Moscow is nearly 2,500 km away from Paris. But the daunting realities of logistics did not faze Napoleon, who although small of stature was large of ambition.
In 1812 Napoleon led his army of 680,000 troops into Russia. The expedition was an unmitigated disaster. The Russians employed the strategy of largely avoiding battle and scorching the earth before the advancing French. With Napoleon unable to secure a decisive victory, his withdrawing army was finished off by a lack of supplies and the bitter cold of the merciless Russian winter. When Napoleon’s army crossed out of Russian territory only 27,000 soldiers remained.
Hopefully the corresponding historical event of the last root is obvious to all. 1945 marks the end of the Second World War, with the allies, including Russia (the Soviet Union), finally defeating Hitler. Russians refer to this war as the Great Patriotic War. It appears that Hitler intended to annihilate or at the least enslave the Slavic race, so when he invaded Russia, he unleashed the full brutality of his powerful military. While Russia emerged victorious the cost of victory was horrendous. It is estimated that between 8.7 to over 10 million Soviet soldiers were killed, while 14 to 17 million Soviet civilians died.
With this brief lesson in Russian history, it should be clear why Russia is leery and defensive against the current advances of NATO into neighboring countries. The Russians have had numerous experiences with Western nations and empires–be they French, German, Polish or Swedish–that desired to conquer them for religious or geopolitical reasons. Some of these experiences were particularly devastating such as the butchery unleashed by Hitler’s invading armies.
The Russians have not forgotten these experiences. And neither are they stupid. They are more than capable of drawing lessons from their past experiences and applying them to current events, hence their suspicion of NATO.
Unfortunately those who are most hawkish towards Russia, such as the John McCains of the world, are either ignorant of Russia’s history or indifferent towards it. They seem unable to understand that a country like Russia would be bothered by NATO’s encroachment. In fact they almost seem to be indignant that Russia has the temerity to be bothered at all. If the hawks are indeed ignorant of Russian history then maybe they should begin studying Russian political cartoons. They might learn a thing or two.