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Victory Day in Moscow: Some thoughts about the wisdom of messing with Russia

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May 9, 2015, Moscow Victory Day Parade

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Today is Victory Day in Russia, celebrating, entirely appropriately, the unconditional surrender of Germany on May 9 (Moscow time), 1945.

There will be a great military parade in Moscow that will serve both as a commemoration of the incomprehensible losses suffered by the Soviet Union in the defeat of Nazi tyranny -- nine to 11 million Russian military casualties alone -- and also a warning to those who are tempted to provoke Russia 71 years later.

The great Allied victory over Nazi Germany -- whose leaders had such faith in the superiority of their fighting forces and their military technology -- was first marked as Victory in Europe Day 71 years ago yesterday in Britain, owing to the vagaries of time zones and the fact the Cold War was already in its formative stages.

That Cold War has never really ended, despite the fact the Soviet Union, the Cold War's proximate cause according to the narrative we have been taught and believe in Western Europe and North America, fell apart in 1991.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- set up in 1949 to, as we have been taught, counter the Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact, which was founded in 1955 -- continues to add member-states, edging ever closer to Russia's borders.

Moreover, recent news reports tell how NATO spy planes and warships now regularly dart within 80 kilometres of the Russian coast, their electronic identification systems often turned off. Western leaders then decry aggressive Russian responses as dangerous and unjustified. There is also talk of placing nuclear missiles closer to Moscow than the ones near Havana that sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962.

Last month, NATO announced a plan to place four battalions -- about 4,000 troops -- in Poland and the Baltic States to, as the Wall Street Journal put it, "reinforce its border with Russia as Moscow steps up military activity."

The Russian view -- which is more like ours when Russian bombers fly close to NATO-member Canada's airspace -- is that Russia is taking action to ensure its security. "NATO borders are getting closer to Russia, not the opposite," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last month.

Notwithstanding the change of government in Ottawa, Canada is in the thick of this. There is talk in Ottawa of the need for Canada to join the United States' "ballistic missile defence," a strategic weapon designed to enable a nuclear first strike more than to deliver a comprehensive defence against a nuclear attack. No surprise, I guess, the Fraser Institute has been lobbying for this since 2005.

A little history lesson, though, may help us put the impact of NATO's 4,000 troops in the Baltic Republics -- no matter the quality of these fighting men and women or the superiority of their military technology -- into a useful context.

When the Western Allies invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944, about 156,000 troops landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day alone. More than 21,000 of them were Canadians. By the time five days had passed, more than 326,000 soldiers had landed. Quite a few, more than 4,000, died on the first day they faced the formidable German war machine.

Yet that was the second front against Germany. The first was in the East. And it was in the East, as my military history professor taught his wide-eyed students, where the war was really won. Reginald H. Roy -- soldier, distinguished scholar and author of 1944: The Canadians in Normandy -- reminded us that if it hadn't been for the anvil of the Red Army in the East, the hammer of D-Day in the West would likely have amounted to very little.

"We'd still be in Normandy," was the way I recall Professor Roy putting it, and he didn’t mean as tourists like the political supernumeraries and high school students who show up from Canada for D-Day commemorations every year.

As terrible as the task at D-Day was, and as great the victory, it was the Russians who did the heavy lifting against Hitler's armies -- at Stalingrad, Kursk, Smolensk, in Crimea and East Prussia -- inflicting about 80 per cent of the Wehrmacht’s casualties and opening the road to Berlin.

This history suggests at least two things NATO and Canadian citizens alike should ponder carefully:

  • Just because you spend more on military technology doesn’t mean you are getting more. Consider the F-35 boondoggle, which Canada is still likely to buy into.
  • And, as Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery, victor of El Alamein, famously observed: "Rule 1, on Page 1 of the Book of War is: 'Do not march on Moscow.'"

It would be extremely foolish to imagine any war is easy, or that a favourable outcome is ever a sure thing. Even a simple little war against a weak enemy like Iraq or a primitive one like Afghanistan can bring many cruel surprises.

Given this, we can only hope the Western leaders, one of whom we are likely soon to be tied to whether we like it or not, Hillary R. Clinton or Donald J. Trump, are not fools.

The auguries are not promising.

This post also appears on David Climengaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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