Russia’s border with Europe is the bloodiest place in the world. Caught between the major powers of the West and the might of Russia, the region has seen some of the worst conflicts in history.
During World War II, roughly 17 million soldiers lost their lives in battles on the Eastern front. By way of comparison, in the West, fewer than four million soldiers died—including D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and all the other battles we hear about more often. And these figures don’t include the huge number of civilians who lost their lives in the Battle of Stalingrad or the Siege of Leningrad, and other horrific clashes.
The numbers for World War i are also appalling; rough estimates indicate that 5 million soldiers lost their lives fighting on the Eastern front.
Conflicts between Europe and Russia are bloody and frequent. This history gives the context necessary to appreciate what is happening in Ukraine, and how Europe will react.
Why Eastern Europe Is Shaken
The freedom Eastern Europe enjoys is unusual, even in terms of recent history. For most of the 20th century, the whole region was conquered by Russia. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland spent only 30 of those 100 years free and self-governing.
The countries of Central and Eastern Europe can exist only when the surrounding powers are weak. The last time this was the case for an extended period of time was in the region’s earlier history. In the 13th century, the Mongols conquered Russia from the East, keeping the country enthralled for over 200 years. Meanwhile Germany was yet to unite and become mainland Europe’s major power.
The vacuum allowed Poland to thrive in the form of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Sweden was also a major power in the area, while German knights ruled the region that is now Estonia and Latvia. Without a threat from the East, Poland was able to hold its own.
In the south, the vacuum was filled by the Ottoman Empire. Bulgaria, followed by Moldavia (as Moldova was then known) and Romania, fell to the Ottomans.
Once a strong Russia arrived, all this changed. Poland tried to take advantage of Russia’s weakness at the start of the 17th century, but soon its chance was gone. Territory in Ukraine began flowing out of Polish hands and into Russia’s. The area that is now Estonia and Latvia fell to Russia at the start of the 18th century, and Poland became a vassal state, dominated by Russia. By the end of the 1700s, it disappeared entirely, divided between Prussia, Austria and Russia.
Eastern Europe suffered terribly under Communist dominion. The most famous atrocity is the Holodomor from 1932-33—the deliberate starvation of peasants in Ukraine. The Black Book of Communism estimates that over 6 million people were murdered. And murder is the right word here. Russian authorities deliberately withheld and even exported food while they knew the peasants were starving. They also forcibly prevented the peasants from leaving their lands to buy food elsewhere.
The rest of the region also suffered. From 1940 to 1953, Russian authorities deported 200,000 people from the Baltic states; they imprisoned 75,000 others in the gulags. Ten percent of the entire adult population was either imprisoned or deported. In Moldavia, 120,000 were deported—7 percent of the population. During this time, 300,000 were deported from Ukraine.
When Russia conquered eastern Poland at the start of World War ii, it deported around one million Poles. One hundred thousand died in prison camps or on the way to their new destinations; 30,000 were shot.
Six hundred thousand people were deported from Hungary; around 750,000 were imprisoned. The numbers are equally horrifying for the other countries dominated by the Soviet Union. The Black Book of Communism estimates 1 million people died due to communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
It’s easy to let these numbers become mere statistics. But what they mean is that within living memory huge proportions of these countries were deported, locked up, or worse. Once-free countries were forced to live under this repressive regime. Soviet domination has left scars that have not healed today.
What Russia Fears
But Russia too has suffered horribly in recent memory. By 1953, under the Soviet Union, 14 million were locked in gulags. On the Eastern front in World War ii, around 14 million civilians died. Over 11 million were soviet civilians (based on pre-war borders). When military deaths are included, around 15 percent of the Soviet Union’s entire population died in World War ii.
This war was not the first time Russia played a vital role in defeating a European tyrant at a monumental cost. In 1812, Napoleon launched his disastrous invasion of Russia. He lost half a million men in the campaign, shattering his aura of invincibility. But Russia also took a major hit.
Russia also has learned an important lesson from this region’s history: European powers will periodically threaten to completely destroy Russia, and the only way it can defend itself is to keep these powers as far as way from the heart of Russia as possible.
Napoleon began his invasion 550 miles away from Moscow and 420 miles away from St. Petersburg. Hitler began his invasion from a similar distance. Would Russia have survived if these invasions had been launched from Ukraine, which is under 300 miles from Moscow, or Estonia, which is under 100 miles from St. Petersburg?
In Search of Allies
There are two possible sources for this help: the United States and the rest of Europe. In recent years, America has repeatedly shown itself unwilling to stand up for this region. However, with Russia’s latest push, these nations are once again trying to persuade America to support them.
Although the European option has shown little promise, the nations of Eastern Europe can influence it. They’re trying to forge the EU into the power they would like it to be, and making sure they are at the heart of that power.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk recently called for Europe to form a united energy market to break Russia’s “energy stranglehold” over the Continent. He has also said Poland should consider joining the euro. While Poland is wary of the economics of the euro, it is more worried about the nation’s defense.
“From a strategic perspective, eurozone membership would be another anchor grounding Poland in the group of the most important Western countries and improving our security,” Tusk said in an interview published in Polityka on April 9. “Sooner or later, we will have to return to this discussion.”
In fact, this region’s proximity to Russia is the biggest factor in euro membership. Estonia and Latvia, which border mainland Russia, have joined the euro. Lithuania, which doesn’t, has not.
But talk is cheap. The EU has done little beyond talk. nato has only deployed token forces into Eastern Europe. For nations like Germany, sending even a handful of planes into Eastern Europe is a big step. But for the East, it is nowhere near enough.
Today, the eastern leg has a strong desire for this European superpower—a will to create this power that we’ve never seen before. These Eastern European countries know their own history; they know this is a matter of life and death.
This history means we can expect a determined Eastern European response—not something that will peter out after a few months. Some may try to form a deal with Russia, but those who suffered the most under soviet rule will turn to Europe with renewed vigor.
What will Europe’s response be to these pleas for help? For the answer, read editor in chief Gerald Flurry’s cover article in the latest print edition of the Trumpet, “The Crimean Crisis Is Reshaping Europe!”
Full article: Why Russia Needs Eastern Europe — And why Eastern Europe needs to be rid of Russia (The Trumpet)