Andrea Santangelo: Invincible Russia - How Peter the Great, Alexander I and Stalin defeated the invaders

Andrea Santangelo
Ed. Carocci, Rome 2022
pp. 286

“I cannot predict Russia's actions. He is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. So said Winston Churchill, in a speech given to the BBC on 1 October 1939. “Although Russia was evidently too big to fall, over the course of seven centuries there were about ten invaders who tried.”

The first invasion of Russia, by the Mongols, took place in 1236. The three invasion attempts which, however, are analyzed by the author, a military historian, in this essay, are: the Swedish one by Charles XII, the French one by Napoleon and the German one by Hitler.

Il first it is part of a conflict called the “Great Northern War”. Charles XII, who became king of Sweden in 1697, at just 15 years old, after the death of his father Charles Swedes “had possession of all the Baltic ports and controlled the river trade on the major German rivers in the area. There was no merchandise that traveled without the Swedes earning something from it.” Sweden, however, had “a valid army, an efficient navy and a state bureaucracy that effectively supplied them with men, supplies, money and weapons”, this fact allowed Charles XII to obtain, in November 1700, one of the greatest victories in all of Swedish military history, defeating the Russian army, which had invaded Estonia, in the battle of Narva.

The Swedish army was not large, “Nevertheless, he managed to win many battles against much larger armies thanks to training and an offensive spirit that soon became legendary, all based on the search for mobility and aggression”. Furthermore, it was also supported by the fatalistic Lutheran faith. Military chaplains, in fact, “they reminded the soldiers that no bullet can hit a man if God does not want it.” If, however, Charles XII, despite being an excellent tactician, completely lacked strategic vision, Peter the Great, who ascended the throne in 1689, however, was an excellent strategist. He was, in fact, the creator of the "scorched earth" doctrine.

Charles XII, when he decided to invade Russia, had not taken into account the fact that the army of Peter I “it was no longer that of the ignominious defeat at Narva”. […] Furthermore, after eight years of war, the Russians knew the Swedish tactics well, all centered on the attack and the continuous search for the decisive battle in the open field”. And so, on 8 July 1709, in Poltava, Peter the Great defeated, for the first time, his bitter enemy Charles XII, putting an end to the first invasion of Russia and starting the dissolution of the Swedish empire.

Il according to “It's kind of a David and Goliath match. Napoleon in 1812 is the God of war, the triumphant Mars who goes from victory to victory, while Tsar Alexander I is the irresolute and hesitant enemy who even admires his opponent and who has little or nothing to oppose against him. At least in appearance." The continental blockade, wanted by Napoleon, to put England in crisis, caused, however, the break with Alexander I, for whom “The Baltic ports absolutely had to be opened to trade with the British Empire. […] To strike his great enemy, Napoleon had lost his great ally”. He, however, “he didn't want to conquer Russia or even remove Alexander I: he was just looking for a position of strength to sit at the diplomatic table”. He simply wanted to defeat her, believing in an easy victory, “to punish Alexander I and the King of England George IV at the same time”. After the ultimatum sent by the Tsar to Napoleon on 8 April 1812, which required the French to renounce the idea of ​​creating a Duchy of Warsaw - under penalty of annulment of the Franco-Russian peace and alliance treaty - the situation worsened and Napoleon decided to enter Russia.

“Winter had to be avoided because his army was not equipped.” The Russians also adopted the "scorched earth" tactic on this occasion. “The French, meanwhile, continued on their journey through the nightmare: heat, disease, hunger and thirst gripped them, but their trust in the emperor and his military genius was still firm”. On September 7, 1812 there was the Battle of Borodino. The Russian army, commanded by General Kutuzov, retreated southwards in the middle of the night, while the French army advanced towards Moscow, which it entered on 14 September, finding the city in flames. On 19 October, after 35 days of staying in the city, Napoleon made the decision to retreat, starting a long march, punctuated by thousands of deaths due to the cold and Russian attacks. “On December 11th the remnants of what was one of the most impressive armies in history crossed the Niemen River: there were 10.000 men. […] The Russians stopped on the Niemen line: they too had been decimated by cold and disease and the fighting force did not exceed 40.000 units”. The Russian campaign, with the destruction by the Grande Armée, “it was the main cause of Napoleon's future fall”.

We arrive at the third attempted and last invasion attempt analyzed in this book. “While the first two invasions of Russia were a violent attempt to bring the then-throneted Tsar back to the diplomatic table, the third campaign under review was a test of actual conquest,” a clash between two totalitarian regimes, the Nazi one, led by Hitler and the Soviet one, led by Stalin.

With Operation Barbarossa, (the Wehrmacht leaders were convinced they could conquer Russia in five months) which began on 22 June 1941, “the Führer hoped to strike in the East to harm the West. That is, if he had conquered Russia in a short time and ousted Stalin and communism from the political scene, England would probably have sought peace with Nazi Germany. Or even, knowing Churchill's aversion to the Bolsheviks, she would have allied herself with Hitler for an anti-communist crusade." On the other side, “in the summer of 1941 the Red Army was in the midst of a material crisis, but its main problem remained another. Stalin's purges had produced a serious shortage of trained commanders and military personnel capable of developing rapid solutions to logistical and administrative problems."

These are the numbers involved in the operation: 4,1 million men on the German side versus 3,3 million on the Soviet side. Stalin, however, despite numerous warnings received from intelligence, did nothing to prepare the USSR for war, because “he was still convinced that Hitler would not dare to retrace the footsteps of Charles XII and Napoleon.” Then, “When at 3.15 am on 22 June 1941 the Germans invaded Russia, they found themselves against totally unprepared troops”. After the German attempts to conquer Leningrad, Moscow, Stalingrad, “the last important German offensive on the Russian front, which culminated in the battle of Kursk, shifted the balance of forces definitively in Stalin's favor”.

Meanwhile, it was the quality of the troops that had changed. “It almost seemed as if the roles had been reversed: the Germans were the Soviets of 1941, tactically limited by the poor quality of officers and troops, while the Russians had created a new generation of courageous and innovative junior officers on the battlefield.” Thus, “in the summer of 1944 the Soviet attacks had inflicted enormous damage on the German army which had had to withdraw from all the occupied territories in the USSR”.

"The defeat in the Russian campaign was the main reason for the fall of Nazism."

Gianlorenzo Capano