The Russian Bear on the Move Again

Do all in your power in approach closely Constantinople and India. Remember that he who rules over these countries is the real sovereign of the world. Keep up continued wars with Turkey and with Persia [modern day Iran]. Establish dockyards in the Black Sea. Gradually obtain the command of this sea, as well as of the Baltic. This is necessary for the entire success of our projects. Hasten the fall of Persia. Open for yourselves a route towards the Persian Gulf. Re-establish, as much as possible, by means of Syria, the ancient commerce of the Levant, and thus advance towards India. Once there, you will not require English gold.

Thus wrote the great Russian ruler Peter the Great  before his death in   1725. Today this  so called “will” of Peter the Great is regarded as bogus but ironically the history of the  Russian empire has closely followed the prescriptions contained within the  “will.” The more robust Russian expansionism  began in 1847 and never  ceased  until the Soviet empire crumbled. It has been adroitly instituted by President Putin against a backdrop of  inept American leadership.



As  The Russians pushed into Central Asia, initiating what is called the “Great Game, ” the competition between Great Britain and Russia,Lord Curzon, speaking of the  Russian push into central Asia,  wrote:

“In Central Asia the Russians are residents as well as rulers. In India the English are a relief band occupants, leaseholders of a 20 year term, hearing for the expiration of their contract, and for the ship that will bring them home.”

The Russians, always and historically using expulsion and resettlement of peoples brought large numbers of Russians and Ukrainians in to the lands of the Kazaks. Unlike the French they did not attempt to  impose their native Russian culture,  only to exercise control. The great dream of the Russians was a railroad linking the Russian lands  of East and West with those of the Middle East, along the Persian Gulf and to the Indian Ocean ports.

As one Russian official wrote: With Railways linking the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic and tentacles in the Bosphorous and the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean   with its inexhaustible bar rural wealth, could become a redoubtable industrial competitor  with the world powers.

As the Russians pushed into Central Asia their ambitions brought them into the Middle \East, especially Turkey and Iran.

The Russian Czarist government ambitions in the Middle East was enunciated by Governor General Turkestan, A. E. Kuropatkin who wrote;

Mastery of the Bosphorous and the outlet to the Mediterranean would enable us to act decisively in the Egyptian  Question ( then under British control) in order to make the Suez canal international. An outlet to the Indian Ocean will create a continual threat to India.

Map Dardanelles

The Russians pushed hard on the  Near Eastern rulers  to establish this railroad, which quite naturally was resisted by the British and Germans. who were planning their own Berlin to Baghdad Railroad. This was begun in 1903 and finished in 1940. In those days, quite rightly, railroads were seen as agents  of imperial expansion and economic  power.

One might have thought as many “Useful fools” in the West that with the advent of communism and the destruction of the old czarist imperial government that  Russian aggression would end. In fact it increased. The rulers of the new “imperial” Soviet Union realized that they had another and extremely useful tool in their toolbox to extend Russian interests. The supposed egalitarian anti colonialist tenets of marxism was seen as an extremely useful instrument to use against their old European adversaries and their new one –  the United States. They were able to go over the heads of rulers and appeal to the masses. This was true in the Middle East as well. According to the wisdom of  scholarly Islam 101., Islam and communism were antithetical to one another, which wrongly led many “experts”  ( and Arab rulers) to assume that promoting Islamist doctrine was a great way to stem the tide of communism.

In fact Communism and Islamism have much in common. In addition to its totalitarian appeal to those who look  for “an escape from freedom” as Hannah Arendt put it, it appealed to those suffering from impoverishment of the body as well as the soul.

Communism had found a strong foothold in Iraq and Iran in particular and in Turkey as well. But the Soviets did not desist from using military power to promote Russian interests. A prime example was the establishment of  the Soviet Persian Republic of Gilan assisted by the Soviet army.


It lived only two years but in the intervening years between WWI and WWII the Soviets  were able to attain a massive presence in Iran. For instance the first  Soviet Ambassador to Iran was Theodore  Rothstein who brought with him a staff of 100 Russians. The American writer Vincent Sheean, a long time and keen observer of Iranian affairs quoted the Russian ambassador as telling him….”Governments in Russia may change …but Russia will always remain Russia. That is a fact which it would do the Persians great good to remember.” As Sheean went on to report..” In Persia the Soviet Union interferes to an extent which would not be credible in  Western  Europe or America. Russian agents are everywhere. Russian money pays for the most incongruous assortment of political movements, popular upheavals,dynastic flurries, tribal agitations.”

Lenin used somewhat different vocabulary but the old ideas were still there. In his own journal Lenin wrote;  “India is our principal objective. Persia is the only path open to India….. the precious key to the uprising of the  Orient must be in the hands of Bolshevism, cost what it may…..Persia must be ours.”

The cynicism and naked aspirations of the Soviet Union were laid bare in the infamous German-Russian non aggression treaty of 1939. The Soviet aspirations were summarized by the Germans  as follows. “ The Soviet Union  declares that its territorial  aspirations center south of the National territory of the Soviet Union in the direction of the Indian Ocean.” The  Soviets later made this more specific by adding that the German draft was acceptable …”provided that the area south of datum and Baku is the general direction of the Persian Gulf is recognized as the center of aspirations of the Soviet Union.”


The Soviet aspirations in plain language was aimed at Eastern Turkey and Iran to the Persian Gulf coast. According to the  German intelligence  reports, Russian was planning to invade Iran in the near future.

World War II  further accentuated the importance of Persia to Russia. The huge volume of lend lease equipment sent to the Soviets by the United States needed delivery routes.  There were only  two major  routes through which that equipment could be delivered to the Soviets. One was through Murmansk and another primary one was through the Persian Corridor.  Murmansk was icebound through part of the winter and the convoys sailing through arctic waters took a terrible beating from German aircraft stationed in Norway. Some convoys were almost completely wiped out. The Persian corridor was much safer.


Following  WWII,  the Soviets immediately reinitiated their aggression in the Middle East. In Iran they set up two communist regimes in northern Iran: The Azerbaijani Soviet Republic and the Mehabad ( Kurdish) Republic. Soviet armored advanced into Iran 1946. They were also short lived primarily because president Truman issued a strong warning to the Soviets, hinting that nuclear weapons was on the table. The Soviets, who historically always continually push until they meet  determined resistance , backed off.   Without Soviet support the new marxist states collapsed.They knew Truman was as good as his word. (Quite a contrast with today’s American leadership.)

The Soviets also pushed hard to realize their dream of controlling the  Dardanelles. Throughout WWII, the Soviets made it clear to the Roosevelt administration that they expected a revision of the Montreux Convention  of 1936 that awarded control of the Straits to Turkey. At the July 1945 Potsdam conference  Stalin demanded it. He also demanded that Turkey hand over to the Soviet Union the Turkish provinces of Kars, Artvin, and Ardahan. Actually a detailed analysis of the Convention reveals that the treaty as it stands gives Russian a decided advantage over powers such as the U.S.

An excellent book to read describing the blatant augressive attitude of the Soviet Union following WWII is the memoirs of our first Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, The Forrestal Dairies.  Avrell Harriman again and again warned the State Department of the truculent and   aggressive attitude of the Soviet leaders. He wrote in one cable that the “generous and considerate attitude” of the U.S was simply seen as weakness by the Soviet leaders….an attitude shared by all leaders of totalitarian  states and movements, but never understood by the liberal academics and politicians. This inability to understand the aggressive policies of the Soviets was partially the result of a famous analysis of Soviet policies  by a later U.S. Ambassador to Russia, George Kennan, who  picturesquely described the evil nature of Soviet  ideology, but ascribed it to Russian insecurity…a theory seized upon by a generations of leftists  urging a more  understanding view of Russian aggression. So the post – war domination of eastern Europe, the Balkans, and bellicose movements in the Middle East, including the invasion of Afghanistan,  and more lately in the Ukraine have all been attributed to this basic insecurity…as if to excuse it!

The Roosevelt administration, honeycombed with Soviet agents and marxist sympathizers, was loathe to confront the Soviet leadership and gave away the family farm at  Yalta. ( A very concise analysis of the communist penetration of the Roosevelt government is contained in the book,  Stalin’s Secret Agents: The Subversion of the Roosevelt’s Administration by M. Stanton Evans and Herbert Romerstein. Franklin Roosevelt, carried away with his personal powers of persuasion was positive that he could bring “Uncle Joe.” to see reason. Of course Churchill was far more astute, but was sidetracked by the Roosevelt-Stalin “friendship.”


After Stalin’s death, his successors, particularly Khrushchev, was more adroit and purist than Stalin. He directed a more broad based strategy that aligned communism with nationalist-anti colonialism,  and in this manner  the Russians were was able to “leap” over the northern  tier of alliances constructed by the United States with Iran and Turkey( eventually  the Shah turned down allowing US missiles based in Iran in exchange for a softening Soviet media assault on his reign).

As an astute the observer of Communism in the Middle East wrote “they  (the new leadership in the Middle East after WWII) could  not help  but view the Soviet system with its foreign trade monopoly, state economic planning and breakneck industrialization program, all within the framework of a huge mass movement inspired by certain  mystique or ideology-as remarkably suited to their own situation.” He could have added the most important point of all – the  Middle Eastern rulers adaptation of the  Soviet state security systems which exist to this day.

Ultimately the Russians tired of the ingratitude of the  Arabs and emerging states they had spent billions on, including the massive arms supplies, and began to revert to the older more traditional means of  Soviet/Russian expansionism – brute force. This was held in check by the administration of Eisenhower but with Kennedy they felt empowered to once again test the resistance with the adventure in Cuba. He miscalculated  the reaction of the Kennedy administration, buttressed as it was by a number of cold  war warriors.  The comedown for Khrushchev was painful as he ordered the pull out of missiles from Cuba. He was irritated by his critics who  accused him of “adventurism” followed by “capitulationism” and fired back in his usual earthy way that he was not to be like “the czarist officer who farted at a ball and then shot himself.” The Russians were wary of Nixon and his dealings with China, but with the  presidency of Carter they were sure again that their expansion push would not be contested. They arrived at this conclusion because multiple provocations by Soviet military forces which went unanswered  by the Carter administration-  hence the invasion of Afghanistan.

I was in Europe commanding  an artillery battalion during the time of the Carter administration. It was no secret that the only thing that kept the Soviets out of Western Europe at that  time  was our nuclear capability. Our army was in terrible shape. Equipment was old, in poor shape and the morale was even worse.  The post Vietnam  army was a mess…. beset with racial problems, poor leadership, and many men who were in the army to avoid a prison sentence.

It was particularly sad for me because my artillery battalion in Vietnam was top notch with great soldiers and a will to win. That was  1965 and 66. The problems came later as the  leftist media   convinced Americans we were losing and the war was not worth fighting – much as the media has convinced Americans that Iraq was a mistake ( or worse)

My war, Vietnam 65-66. Won it on the battlefield, Lost it in the media.

There is also a messianic  facet to the Russian expansionism particularly toward Western Europe and Islamic Middle East. It was  the great writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky who articulated this important aspect of Russian expansionism  within  the context of  Pan-Slavism.

“Yes the Golden Horn and Constantinople – all this will be ours.Yes it must be ours, not only because it is a famous port, because of the Straits, the navel of the earth; not from the standpoint of the long-conceived necessity for a tremendous giant like Russia to emerge at last from his locked room, in which he has already grown up to the ceiling, into the open spaces where he may breathe the free air of the seas and oceans….our task is  deeper, immeasurably deeper. We, Russia, are really indispensable  and inevitable, both to eastern Christianity and to the whole future of Orthodoxy on earth.……….In brief Constantinople must be ours!”

Don’t ever believe anyone who tells you this is just archaic palaver. Russians believe in this, especially  those like Putin, a KGB operative who  worked his way to the top over the bodies of his rivals.  ( My Russian guest speaker  at the JFK Special Warfare Center attributed Putin’s rise to the fact “he has the dossier on everyone.” (One wonders what the file has on Mr Obama!….probably, a lot more than Americans have been allowed to know.)

Which brings us  to December 2015. Russia is again on the move with their usual strategy…push, test the reaction, if weak push harder. So when the  Russians pushed  in to the Crimea, the Obama team did nothing. When the Syrians used chemical warfare crossing the imaginary red lines the administration did nothing. When the Russians pushed further into the Ukraine,  the United States  sent blankets to the Ukrainian army. So now Putin has firmly established himself and Russia and become the power to reckon with. Leaders flock to Moscow, not Washington and while the US air force chaffs under rather stupid constraints on targeting  the Russians have no such limitations. Cries of human rights organizations are ignored because the Russians understand  that in the Middle East as in the rest of the world what matters is power and the will to use it not the niceties of gentlemanly combat. Now the Russians have put the arrogant  Turkish president Erdogan in his place, giving him notice that he is on short leash and are more recently they are working their way into Iraq, negotiating and buying the favor of Iraqi tribal leaders.

They have formed an alliance of the evil with Iran, Assad, and  won the respect of al Sisi of Egypt who realizes, as does the Israeli leadership ,which side of their bread is buttered.




Typical Russian propaganda  depicting the new balance of power and the glorification of their new Stalin.









About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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