Updated: Oct 20, 2022
Facing mounting troubles in his ill-advised invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists this week. The action is one step removed from a full mobilization impacting all of Russian society, which would likely disrupt the up to now mainly passive acceptance of the war, and Putin's support, within the country. The mobilization, however, is clearly escalatory and increases the potential risk of further widening the active participants beyond Russia and Ukraine. The additional 300,000 reservists will have little short-term impact on the battlefield. Still, they could be decisive if Russia properly equips and trains them, tipping the balance back in Russia's favor as the conflict drags on. This fact might require the U.S. and its allies to strengthen their support beyond money and military equipment to include American and NATO forces. The result would be an international conflict not seen since 1945.
Russia's actions have historically contributed to the start of several international conflicts. In the 1850s, Russia's intransigence and desire for imperial expansion escalated from a dispute over religious minority rights into a global conflict concerning Crimea. Russia faced off against the Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey), supported by Britain and France, which wanted to prevent Russia from expanding into the Mediterranean region. The churches involved settled their disagreement, and Britain brokered an agreement addressing the remaining concerns of the French and Russian rulers. Russian Tsar Nicolas I, however, refused to accept an Ottoman proposed change. Russia deployed its armed forces into the region, which prompted the other powers to respond. The three-year-long Crimean War resulted in a defeat for Russia, which suffered from severe personnel and logistical problems (sound familiar?). The defeat was a significant blow to Russia, both financially and politically. The war bankrupted the Tsarist regime, and the loss of prestige among European countries led to several key reforms, such as the abolishment of serfdom, changes to the court system, and a push to catch up with European improvements in industry and social norms.
With Europe on the edge of war after the assassination of the Austrian Empire's Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914, it can be argued that it was Tsar Nicholas II's decision to announce Russia's mobilization that provided Germany with the green-light to declare war and initiate World War I. In response to the assassination, Austro-Hungary issued a scathing ultimatum to Serbia, which it held responsible for the attack. Serbia refused to abide by the ultimatum which Austro-Hungary had expected. In July, the Austrian army began to shell Serbia's capital, Belgrade, in an attempt to punish the Serbs. Russia, which saw itself as the historical protector of fellow Slavs, came under increasing pressure to aid Serbia. Beyond fraternal considerations, however, Russia also had designs on expanding its influence in the Balkans, which Austro-Hungary dominated. Russia considered it had the military might to defeat Austro-Hungary but was wary of Vienna's alliance with more powerful Germany. It was believed that German Kaiser Wilhelm II gave his approval to Vienna before the Austrians started shelling Belgrade and that Germany would support its southern neighbor in a conflict against Russia. Russia's confidence was boosted via its alliance with France, which, in the event of war, Russia expected, would open a second front against Germany.
Throughout July 1914, numerous communications traveled between St. Petersburg and Berlin in an attempt, genuine or feigned, to avoid escalation of the hostilities. Tsar Nicholas II, an indecisive decision-maker, was informed that in case of war, due to the country's poor logistics infrastructure, it would take more than a month to mobilize the Russian army, which stood at just under 1.5 million men. Fearing Russia would not be ready in time if Germany decided to support Austro-Hungary, Nicholas ordered the Russian army "on alert" on July 25th. The action prompted Germany to put activate its pre-mobilization plans. Austro-Hungary's formal declaration of war against Serbia on July 28th added pressure on Russia to react. Five days later, on July 30th, Tsar Nicholas II approved the full mobilization of the Russian army. The announcement was accompanied by a statement indicating that Russia would not attack if peace talks were opened. Germany, on the other hand, submitted to Russia an ultimatum demanding that Russia cancel its full mobilization within 12 hours or face war. Having received no response from St. Petersburg, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, followed several days later by Austro-Hungary. World War I had commenced. Despite early success, Russia's lack of competent military leadership combined with poorly trained and equipped troops eventually led to massive losses. These defeats played a significant role in Tsar Nicholas II's decision to abdicate the Russian throne in 1917, opening the way for the Bolshevik Revolution and the founding of the Communist state.
The Soviet Union played a vital role in the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. The Russian Federation continues to enjoy the well-deserved praise for the USSR's contribution to that victory. Often overlooked, however, are the Soviet Union's actions leading up to the start of the war. In the interwar period, Soviet Russia under Stalin maintained warm military and economic ties with Germany. Stalin permitted the German army to use Russian territory to conduct training exercises prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was able to reconstruct the Luftwaffe so quickly in the 1930s, largely due to its ability to train pilots using Russian territory. Aware of Hitler's hatred of Communism, Stalin chose to try to appease the Nazi Fuhrer by supplying the raw materials needed to rebuild Germany's industry. Stalin, consumed by his internal purges in the 1930s that decimated much of the professional officer corps, realized that his country was unprepared to oppose a German military strike. Stalin hoped to delay German aggression until he could rebuild his military might, which was expected by the late 1940s. Hitler's ambitions, however, would not wait.
The Munich Agreement, signed in 1938, was intended to end Germany's other territorial desires and prevent an all-out European conflict. The agreement concluded primarily between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler did little to reassure Stalin. In the summer of 1939, the Soviet leader began a series of communications with the French and British governments concerning a possible alliance against Nazi Germany. The discussions dragged on over the summer, with the western powers wary of the Soviet Union and not wanting to risk antagonizing Hitler to break the deal reached in Munich. In late August, Stalin's patience ran out, concluding that striking a deal with Germany could buy him time to prepare for Hitler's eventual attack. After two days of talks, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany stunned the world by announcing on the 23rd of August that the two nations had concluded a non-aggression pact. The pact secured the continued supply of raw materials from Russia and freed Hitler from any lingering hesitation about fighting a two-front war, which had been disastrous for Germany in the First World War. Hitler invaded Poland a little more than a week later, on September 1st, initiating a second global conflict. Per a secret clause in the pact, Soviet forces invaded Poland from the East, meeting up with Nazi forces near Warsaw several weeks later. Stalin's gamble did not pay off long when on June 22, 1941, Hitler, now controlling most of Europe, turned his sights on the Soviet Union and sent his troops into Soviet territory. By early winter, German forces stood less than 20 miles from Moscow. Only a severe miscalculation on Hitler's part saved the USSR from defeat.
Will Putin's partial mobilization have similar consequences? The hope is that history will not repeat itself. Russia's military performance in the war in Ukraine, hampered by historical problems of poorly equipped and trained troops coupled with inadequate logistical capabilities, should give Russia pause before potentially broadening the conflict. The risk of escalation to a nuclear level may also have a dampening effect. Unlike in past conflicts, Russia no longer has the hordes of available men to send to the front and overwhelm an opponent. Russia is a declining power demographically, which may partially explain Putin's decision to want to win now. The future is not on Russia's side.
Kenneth Maher earned an M.A. in Russian Area Studies and served as a U.S. Army military intelligence officer. He is also the author of "Wind of Change: An American Journey in Post-Soviet Russia". To learn more, follow Kenneth's blog at www.kennethmaherauthorbooks.com.