British historian Antony Beevor sees Russia as a “prisoner of its past.” In an interview, the historian discusses why Putin’s invasion of Ukraine reminds him of Soviet military attacks from the past – and what mistakes the Russian army has made.
Interview Conducted by Peter Littger
https://www.spiegel.de/-Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting the Vostochny Cosmodrome spaceport.
Foto: Evgeny Biyatov / dpa
DER SPIEGEL: Do you see similarities between the Soviet Red Army in World War II and Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine?
Beevor: First of all, one needs to remember that Putin’s Russia is not an extension of the Soviet Union, and the Russian Army today is no longer the Red Army, which makes the comparison all the more interesting. Because both are profoundly influenced by the past. I would argue that no country is as much a prisoner of its past as Russia, as Putin’s distorted vision of history reveals. His obsession with the “Great Patriotic War” against Hitler’s Germany has indeed contributed to extraordinary blunders in its invasion of Ukraine and to a strange repetition of mistakes from the past.
DER SPIEGEL: For example?
Military historian and successful author Antony Beevor (born in 1946) served as an officer in the British army for a time and was stationed in Germany. He has written 12 history books and four novels since 1975. A number of his books have focused on Russian and Soviet military history. His next book, “Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917 – 1921” will be published in September.
Beevor: Putin’s obsession has not only skewed his political rhetoric with bizarre self-contradictions, it has also influenced his military approach. He evidently still saw the tank as the great symbol and weapon of strength from the days of Soviet victory, even though it had already proved to be acutely vulnerable to the drones and anti-tank weapons of today in Libya and even in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict back in 1988. Astonishingly, key lessons from the battles of Stalingrad and Berlin were also forgotten. In April 1945, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, under intense pressure from Stalin, sent his tank armies into Berlin without infantry support. Putin’s forces not only made the same error, they even copied the way the Guards Tank armies attached odd bits of iron, including bedsteads, to their turrets in the hope that this would detonate anti-tank weapons prematurely. This did not save Russian tank crews in the advance on Kyiv. It simply increased their profile and attracted Ukrainian tank-hunting parties, just like the groups of Hitler Youth and SS with Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons in Berlin.
DER SPIEGEL: You have described the Red Army that fought against Germany some 80 years ago as “modern and medieval.” How did it differ at that time – beyond the bedsteads – from Western armies and from the German Wehrmacht?
Beevor: The professionalism of Wehrmacht front-line units came from well-trained NCOs (non-commissioned officers) ready to take over if an officer was killed. The British Army relied heavily on its sergeants for organization and man management, but they had little preparation to take over on the battlefield. The Red Army, on the other hand, in a constant state of crisis since June 1941, simply made up for its lack of training through sheer numbers and a total recklessness with the lives of their men. Mass conscription, often carried out on the march seizing civilians at random, was closer to the press-gangs of the 18th century. Junior officer casualties were so high that any good NCO was promoted immediately, leaving a dangerous gap in the lower chain of command. This led to discipline swinging between lax or chaotic at one moment to one of summary executions the next.
DER SPIEGEL: You wrote in The Atlantic
about other factors that make Putin’s attack on Ukraine seem “atavistic,” – that is, primitive and backward-looking – such as the massive devastation of cities.
“Putin and his ideologues grotesquely depict the Ukrainians as born-again Nazis who need to be eliminated and re-educated.”
Beevor: Another pattern emerging in Ukraine is the Russian army’s reliance on heavy guns. In World War II, the Red Army bragged about the power of its artillery, which they called “the God of War.” In the Berlin operation, Zhukov’s artillery fired more than three million shells, destroying more of the city than the Allies’ strategic air offensive. The destruction of Grozny and Aleppo in Syria also revealed how little Russian urban conflict doctrine has evolved since World War II, in contrast Western armed forces. The reconquest of Mosul and Raqqa in 2016 and 2017 demonstrated a far more scientific approach, sealing off each city then clearing it sector by sector.
DER SPIEGEL: Does the Russian ruthlessness possibly have its origin in the treatment of its own troops, who have traditionally endured contempt and humiliation?
Beevor: Yes. And here, too, the blunders that have been committed in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine are not just repeats from World War II. The way Putin’s troops were told that they would be greeted as liberators in Ukraine was reminiscent of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, when Warsaw Pact troops found that they had been lied to. They then ran out of food and fuel and morale collapsed. Putin’s control of domestic media can hide the truth from almost 80 percent of the Russian population, but his conscripts, forced now to sign new contracts to turn them into volunteers, are all too aware of the reality – as their mothers are now too.
DER SPIEGEL: Is Putin’s brutality in this regard similar to Stalin’s?
Beevor: Putin’s treatment of his own people is as pitiless as it is of his enemies, which is a chilling reminder of Stalin. The army even brought in a mobile crematorium* to dispose of casualties to reduce the body-bag count going home. In 1945, the Red Army faced a number of mutinies prompted by a similar disregard for their troops’ feelings and those of their families. Soldiers were ordered to venture into no-man’s-land at night – not to retrieve the bodies of fallen comrades, but to strip them of their uniforms for re-use by replacement troops. Such humiliation suffered by Red Army soldiers at the hands of their officers and commissars contributed to their rage and frustration. That frustration was taken out on civilians in Germany, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere, though the official explanation was that it was vengeance for the Nazi violation of the motherland.
“Isn’t it a great propaganda task to liberate the enemy of Nazism?”
DER SPIEGEL: As of 1941, German troops had invaded the Soviet Union, devastated large parts of Eastern Europe and perpetrated horrific massacres. Is the self-imposed task of fighting National Socialism – both the real manifestation in the past and the fictitious one in Ukraine – another parallel between Stalin and Putin? In your book “Berlin,” you concluded that because of that mission, the Red Army “could behave entirely as it liked, both personally and politically.”
Beevor: Putin’s distorted mindset, obsessed with the triumphant war against Nazism, has turned everything inside out. Isn’t it a great propaganda task to liberate the enemy of Nazism? Putin and his ideologues grotesquely depict the Ukrainians as born-again Nazis who need to be eliminated and re-educated, as the utterly manic article in RIA Novosti by Timofei Sergeitsev describes. The role of liberator from Nazism did indeed give the Red Army the idea that it could behave as it wanted both personally and politically. It was a notion of superiority. Rights of conquest meant not only imposing a Soviet regime on neighboring states. It also involved the comprehensive looting of the country as a form of reparation, and the idea that what Ilya Ehrenburg called “the blonde witch” – German women and girls – should pay for their menfolk’s crimes in the Russian motherland.
DER SPIEGEL: You are alluding to the mass rapes of 1945 and onward.
Beevor: Even if it is far too early to draw conclusions, there’s growing evidence of similar attacks in Ukraine. Though it will be some time before a more reliable picture can be assessed, such incidents appear to be taking place in revenge for the abject failure of Putin’s troops to crush Ukrainian patriotism.
DER SPIEGEL: In 1945, Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky ordered soldiers to “direct the feelings of hatred at fighting the enemy on the battlefield” and to punish “looting, violence, robbing, unnecessary arson and destruction.” Is there any sign of such a clear message to the troops today?
Beevor: None that I have heard of.
DER SPIEGEL: Has Putin possibly concluded from the history of the Red Army that an inhuman army is a better fighting force? There is much to suggest that the atrocities we have seen in Bucha and elsewhere are part of the plan.
Beevor: Putin wants to be feared – like Stalin and Hitler. He is determined that his legacy should be the rebuilding of the Russian empire as it was during Soviet times. Convinced that the liberal West is decadent and weak, he believed shock-and-awe would achieve his ends. It was exactly what Hitler thought in 1941 before invading the Soviet Union, when he said: “Kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will collapse.” That is the mistaken mindset of the dictator more than that of the professional general. In both cases, atrocities aroused a far fiercer resistance, not surrender.
DER SPIEGEL: The Kremlin has insisted that it “cares about civilians.” How, then, can it be that looting, torture and rape are so widespread?
Beevor: Of course such practices are all banned officially, but that is rather like the Soviet constitution listing freedoms which were never available. Every aspect of law is at the whim of the authorities and their incumbents, as is the case in every dictatorship.
DER SPIEGEL: You have described in your books numerous historical misconceptions about Russians weaknesses. Could we fall into a similar trap in the Ukraine conflict?
Beevor: No. I think we have a far clearer picture today of Putin’s army than German intelligence had of the Red Army in January 1945. In fact, American and British intelligence has been outstandingly accurate, while French President Emmanuel Macron has sacked his own military intelligence chief for the failure to believe that Putin was going to invade.
“Putin knows only too well that a successful and free Ukraine is a threat to his regime too.”
DER SPIEGEL: What is your overall impression of the state of the Russian army?
Beevor: With the exception of Spetsnaz and paratrooper formations, the army is not professional, as it is based largely on a vast number of reluctant, hazed conscripts. In some years, that treatment has led to thousands of suicides. Although Putin has thrown money at the armed forces to improve them ever since the chaotic invasion of Georgia in 2008, the result has not been impressive. The new Era battlefield communications system, for example, has proved to be a disaster. This has forced Russian officers to communicate by cell phone instead, and the Ukrainian forces have profited greatly as a result. Many other systems have also proved ineffective, in many cases due to the endemic corruption in the whole arms procurement system. And supply and logistics have been ignored as a priority while money was diverted to prestige projects such as the supposedly hi-tech T-14 Armata tank, which can do little beyond trundling impressively across Red Square on 9 May.
DER SPIEGEL: In your research into World War II, you went so far as to speak of “strengths and weaknesses” of the Russian national character, quoting an infantryman who noted in his diary that soldiers were irritable when no officers were around, submissive and inarticulate when they were and that they died quietly as if it was part of their job.
Beevor: That was just one observation, not a universal truth. The more one studies World War II, the more you see that national character does not truly exist except perhaps as an ironic or idealized self-image.
DER SPIEGEL: Was there ever a reckoning with wrongdoings and grievances of the Soviet army?
Beevor: There was no reckoning: neither a reappraisal nor tribunals for atrocities committed against civilians or prisoners. The Soviet secret police NKVD were working full time dealing with so-called “traitors” who had surrendered to the Germans and sending them to the Gulag, while the Soviet counterintelligence SMERSH was arresting officers and soldiers who had criticized the Soviet leadership, the collective farms, or the need for a dictatorship now that fascism had been defeated. More Red Army personnel were arrested in the first five months of 1945 than in the whole of the rest of the war, partly because of the fear that as in the Decembrist revolt of 1825, troops who had witnessed far better living conditions in western Europe were likely to bring back dissatisfaction with the regime. Putin knows only too well that a successful and free Ukraine is a threat to his regime too.
DER SPIEGEL: The Russian writer Vasily Grossman, who you have written about, once wrote: “The extreme violence of totalitarian systems proved able to paralyze the human spirit throughout whole continents.” Do you recognize a similar threat today?
Beevor: Having assumed complacently after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the threat of totalitarianism had become unthinkable, especially with the spread of economic and cultural globalism, the liberal West is now facing a decline, and even possibly a collapse, in confidence in parliamentary democracy. The heroic resistance of Ukraine is perhaps the only hope that we will recognize in time the dangers of the general slide towards authoritarianism in an increasingly Manichaean world – that is to say, a new dualism of two power blocs confronting each other: one with a free and liberal stance, and one without.
*Editor’s note: The mobile crematoriums mentioned by Beevor do, in fact, exist. It has not yet been verified whether they are actually being used currently in Ukraine.