MY Talk at ASMEA Conference. The Russian Middle Eastern Tar Baby in the Middle East

I gave a presentation at the  Association for the Studies of Middle eastern and Africa on Monday & Nov at The Georgetown Marriott in Washington DC. It was mostly a gathering of scholars and their interest  military affairs is always somewhat less than enthusiastic but I made my points I think. The summation of the paper follows.

“The Russian traditional view of their army was that the Russian soldiers were blessed with compensatory moral qualities that allowed them to fight with inferior equipment yet to prevail nonetheless. They were considered to be capable of outlasting and eventually outfighting militaries of other nations.

My father, Russian born, the son of an officer in the Imperial Russian army, always believed that no soldier in the world could fight so fanatically as the Russian soldier, despite his perpetual incompetent commanders, poor training, inadequate equipment, and despotic political leadership. According to the German generals interviewed after WWII, the Russian soldier had no initiative, no ability to think on his own, and his/her discipline was obtained by fear. But nevertheless, the Russian soldier was feared more than the Western soldier. His stoic endurance was phenomenal.

 Many observers of the Russian army in WWII   wrote about the “soul” of the Russian army.  One wrote, “Materiel explanations of the Soviet victory (WWII) are never quite convincing. It is difficult to write the history of the war without recognizing some idea of the Russian soul or spirit that mattered too much to ordinary people to be written off as mere sentimentality…….”

So what has happened to produce the Russian debacle in the Ukraine and the “Soul” of the Russian soldier? My answer is the Middle East happened.  Since WWII, the Russians have been intensively involved in the greater Middle East beginning with invasions into Iran, to using local communist and anti-colonialist organizations to secure their presence.

Battle of Borodin 1812. tactical French victory. Strategic defeat

The conventional view sees the Russian   interests centering on Europe, but the intensity of the Russian interest in the Greater Middle East has been surfaced more recently by historians using new information. They have concluded that the Soviets were willing to risk nuclear war to support Egypt in their war against Israel.  In Fact, the great Russian thinkers have always evidenced a fascination with the Islamic world from Tolstoy to the present.


Pushkin The symbol of the Russian “soul.”

One factor usually missed in assessing the Russian interest in the Middle East are the congruities in Russian and Middle eastern culture. The one that stands out is the historical animosity and /or indifference to the West. Bernard Lewis in the Crisis of Islam captured the Middle Eastern ignorance of the West, by an indifferent Islamic civilization, and Isaiah Berlin described  the  Russian xenophobia, writing, “with the possible exception of Turgenev, there is no great Russian writer, who did not suffer from Xenophobia, amounting at times to acute hatred of the West.”  Tolstoy believed the West was in rapid decline and rotting.  Pushkin , the father of the Russian soul   was adamantly anti -Western in his writings. I believe this factor played out in the general reluctance of Islamic Middle Eastern nations  to condemn the invasion of Ukraine.  As always, The secular West’s ignorance of the power of religion and culture in world events is intrinsic to many our miscalculations.

Bernard Lewis. Author of many books including the”Crisis of Islam” and “What Went Wrong.” While most academic with their heads in the clouds ( or more honestly up their collective asses), always how the West misunderstands the East…the major problem is that the East has never understood the West and because of the buffoonery of many Western academics they persist in their beliefs of cultural superiority.

In the paper I identify a number of other cultural congruities, particularly fatalism, that affect, or in fact afflict, both Russian and Arab militaries,  such as the absence of a professional Non Commissioned officer corps, and a mediocre junior officer corps. Like the Middle Eastern armies, The Russian senior officers are largely politically vetted for regime loyalty with widely varying degrees of competence. Both Middle Eastern and Russian armies are guardians of the regime but at the same time pose a  threat.  This requires top heavy centralized command  resulting in a loss of individual initiative at division or corps training levels.

Sergei Shoigu Minister of defense since 2012. Mostly incompetent but loyal to Putin and that its what matters

My purpose in this paper was not to review the Russian counter-insurgency doctrine, a doctrine  which  I discovered the Russians did not have. Nor is my paper to detail the incompetence in which they pursued operations in Chechnya and Afghanistan, but rather to surface the rot which affected the martial qualities of the Russian army and basically destroyed its fighting abilities.

It began in Afghanistan with a superbly orchestrated take over from the  Amin regime, in  1979 and ended with an orderly evacuation 1989. In between however, was a miasma of incompetent   military and political leadership, with the slow disintegration of the soldiers’ willingness to fight a losing war.

Troops in Afghanistan

The glittering objectives  of the Russian leadership to create a socialist and secular Afghanistan  was duly accompanied by huge armies of advisors, both military and civilian,  but building a new Afghanistan soon turned  sour. And with that reality came inevitable corruption at all levels of the Russian administration and military command. From private soldier to senior officers, the basic desire was to survive and bring home Consumer goods unavailable in Russia but sold at village suqs.

The Afghan rebels were a brutal enemy and their brutality was matched by those of the Russian soldiers. They grew to hate the Afghans, the people  they came to save from the evils of tribalism and primitive religious customs. As one Russian soldier wrote“they made boys into murderers.”  Long periods of boredom punctuated by short periods of terror, a common element of insurgency wars created an environment of drunkenness and drug use. Attacks on commanding officers were  not uncommon.

One of the most egregious problems of the Russian army was dedovoshina…hazing but having no relation whatsoever to the college fraternity type. New arrivals into units were often beaten to a pulp, and having senior enlisted rank did not preclude this. Sgt Majors along with privates were beaten by those who had been in the units longer. The officers turned a blind eye.

Over time the government claim of idealism evolved into inevitable cynicism and resulting indiscipline.  Not only were the tactics poorly executed but even the individual equipment of the Russian infantryman was in many cases inferior to that of the Fedayeen. The Russian soldiers often sold their equipment, including small arms, to the Afghans for decent food,  drugs, and consumer goods.  .

However the horrors of the Afghan war for the ordinary Russian soldier was dwarfed by the savagery and cunning of the Chechen rebels, spurred by nationalist fervor, radical Islam, and a hatred of the Russians founded on hundred  years of war as captured by Tolstoy in his book the Raid.


Chechens fighting for RUSSIANS IN UKRAINE

The Chechens decapitated soldiers leaving their heads on the curbs of the main streets of the cities. They took videos of the crucifixion of Russian soldiers.  The Chechens regularly baited ambushes with wounded Russian soldiers, springing the trap on would – be rescuers and then killing the wounded. The fear of the Chechens     was a counterpoise to the fear of the senior soldiers in the barracks. One soldier wrote.

“Short-haired boys, sometimes morose, sometimes laughing, beaten up in our barracks, with broken jaws and ruptured lungs, we were herded in to this war and killed by the hundred. We didn’t even know how to shoot: we couldn’t kill anybody; we didn’t know how.”  Of Course Chechen brutality was not only reciprocated but sanctioned  by the Russian chain of command.

 The Russians entered Chechnya, confident that a show of force similar to Afghanistan would be sufficient. The result was a humiliating beating that turned the domestic Russian population against the war.  Yeltsin gave way to Putin, who promised to make Russia a world power again.  Using greater violence, less infantry involvement, a lot more artillery and missile strikes, and better use of elite troops and pro -Russian Chechen tribes, the Russians devastated Grozny for the third time and gradually subdued the Chechens.

With the bloodless and efficient takeover of Crimea in 2014  the Reenergized Russians Moved  back into the Middle East with expeditionary forces sent to Syria and Libya, making use of their newly organized Wagner units of professional contract forces.

Syria offered Russian redemption of their military prowess. Most Western analysts were highly laudatory of the Russians seemingly regaining military competence with emphasis on command and control, and technical improvements in organization and war fighting capabilities.  however the depiction  of a more  modernized and reformed  Russian Military  proved to be illusionary.  In my estimation the Russian military experience in Syria was akin to a military sand table exercise with added realism of human blood. As in Afghanistan and Chechnya, the Russians used airpower and artillery firepower to   devastate urban areas.  Civilian casualties were unlamented.

Russians in Crimea

Over all the Syrian adventure added little to Russian proficiency in military terms. Although the Russians rotated many battalion commanders through Syria for three-month tours, for the most part they tended to be long on tourism and short on military lessons learned. In the end The Russian deployment in Syria was a political success but a military failure. The soldiers, NCO’s, the so called – strategic corporals and junior officers, with exception of perhaps a few in the logistics and technical services, got nothing out of Syria, as we see in Ukraine.

Overall, the Russian military advisory efforts, including 60000 advisors in the Middle East, with the exception of Egypt, achieved little success in military terms. They failed to create professional regime protection forces. In Egypt, the Russians with far more hands-on involvement than previously thought did enable to Egyptians to cross the Canal, surprising most of the world’s intelligence agencies.

So in summing up. Three points

The greater Middle Eastern involvement of the Russians have adversely affected their military ethos in several ways: first of all, the long involvement fighting or assisting the third world societies of the region engrained an unsavory criminal duplicity, using surrogates to do the dirty work, and immersion into a culture rent apart by corruption, sectarianism, and fanaticism. The accompanying aspects of a war of attrition, in a quasi-counterinsurgency mode lends itself to malfeasance and cynicism. Part of this is dealing with the environment of an outwardly friendly or submissive people who by day  cut your hair but by night your throat.; it ingrains a certain cynicism toward human nature, breeding a casual brutality that carries over to the next war.

Secondly, Secondly, the nature of fighting low intensity conflicts, particularly in the Islamic world creates a mindset and way of war that is not easily erased for the next conventional war. I witnessed the gradual destruction of the American army in Vietnam, and the waste and the debilitating effects of  second Iraqi war. In the Middle East the Russians suffered the same fate.  Moreover the Russian high command succumbed to the American malady of technophilia…dictating a Panglossian  view that wars  can be won cheaply and ultimately creating institutional oblomovism.

Thirdly, these wars in the Middle East were unheroic wars, the heroes are few and quickly forgotten. Veterans of combat duty in Africa, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Chechnya, often went unrecognized, not only by the higher command but the general population as well.   Bodies were sent home in zinc coffins, never to be opened, casualties were lied about, the wounded returned to an ungrateful and uncaring nation. Soldiers often preferred death to amputations because seriously wounded or disfigured soldiers were simply warehoused by the regime. Missing soldiers were never found and there were no governmental attempts to find them.

The Islamic culture and society of the Middle Eastern have always had a pernicious effect on outside armies dating from the Persian expedition of Xenophon, Napoleon’s army, the many British campaigns to preserve their Middle East empire, now the Russians.  I do not believe we have  escaped that curse.

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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