History Wars Cold War

The 5 biggest blunders in Russian military history

Team Mighty Avatar
winter war Russian military history

A Finnish Maxim M/09-21 machine gun crew during the Winter War.

The power of the Russian military, as can be seen in its war in Ukraine, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While the Russian armed forces have a considerable nuclear arsenal and the Red Army’s defeat of Nazi Germany is still a relatively fresh memory, a lot of time has passed and today things look very different from the Russia of 80 years ago.

Even during the days of the Soviet Union, the Russian military was more of a boogeyman than a capable fighting force. The West might have been more fearful of a nuclear war, rebuilding after World War III, having to kill so many Soviet troops, rather than being fearful of a complete Soviet takeover. 

In truth Russia has always been more daunting on paper than it was in real life. Unless the Russian military is bullying one of its smaller, weaker neighbors, its military was never designed to win a fair fight.

Here are five examples of Russian military history where they failed to take down an equally-matched enemy. 

1. The Russo-Japanese War

This is a fight that Russia lost, essentially because of its own racism. Because of the ease in which Western powers subdued China at the turn of the 20th Century, all East Asian powers were viewed with contempt. The Tsar thought Imperial Japan would be an easy pushover and Russia would easily take warm water ports in the Pacific and even expand its influence into Manchuria and Korea, traditional Japanese holdings. 

Battlefields in the Russo-Japanese War
Battlefields in the Russo-Japanese War.

Instead, the Japanese Navy completely destroyed almost the entire Russian Navy in a single battle, the 1905 Battle of Tsushima. It wasn’t just the Pacific Fleet, either. Russia sent its Baltic Fleet across the planet just to get chewed up by the Japanese. Russia also lost what it did have in China. Forever. 

2. The Bolsheviks Fail to Take Warsaw

After the end of World War I, Russia was still locked in a struggle for Communist revolution. While most countries would have been content to consolidate their gains after defeating Western attempts to topple the Bolshevik government, that wasn’t Lenin’s style. Eager to spread Communism across Europe, he sent the Red Army west, where it began an invasion of Poland. 

At first the Red Army’s push was masterful, but the stretched out supply lines made it difficult for it to take Warsaw. Russian commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky asked Lenin for supplies and troops from the south, where a massive army sat idle. Instead of reinforcing Tukhachevsky, Lenin did nothing. The Poles under Jozef Pilsudski encircled the weakened Red Army near Warsaw and effectively destroyed it. 

polish defenses in Russian military history
Polish defences at Miłosna, near Warsaw.

3. The Winter War 

As Europe began to be carved up among totalitarian powers in the days leading up to World War II, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin looked northward to Finland as a means of expanding the USSR. It would prove to be a huge mistake that weakened the Red Army in days before Russia was invaded by Nazi Germany.

Although the USSR eventually got a concession of a parcel of Finnish land, the Finns came to the fight more than ready for the Russians. By Finland’s count, the Soviet invasion cost the Red Army 200,000 lives and drove Finland to ally itself with the Nazis during Operation Barbarossa to retake what was once theirs. 

4. The Crimean War

Just in case you were thinking that the Russian military was better under the Tsarist regimes, let’s not forget the disastrous 1853-1856 Crimean War. Tsar Nicholas I decided to take possession of what is today Romania from the Ottoman Empire to protect Orthodox Christianity there. He was surprised to find out the Turks formed an alliance with Britain, France and others against him.

Things quickly went bad for the Russians, who lost the critical port city of Sevastopol on the Black Sea. Since the Russian Army had obsolete weapons and infrastructure, there was no way to retake it. When Tsar Alexander II, he agreed to a peace treaty that not only gave up the territory that it took to start the war, but also the Russian Black Sea Fleet. It was also the beginning of the end for the Empire itself.

siege of sevastopol Russian military history
Detail of Franz Roubaud’s panoramic painting Siege of Sevastopol (1904).

5. Invasion of Afghanistan

In 1979, the Soviet Union initiated a coup after Afghanistan’s pro-Moscow Communist leader was assassinated. Fearing Afghanistan’s leaders would soon ally with the U.S. in the Cold War, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev ordered the Red Army into Afghanistan and installed a friendly Soviet loyalist. 

Instead of pacifying the Afghans, the invasion had the complete opposite effect, leading to a nine-year insurgency aided, financed, and armed by not only the United States, but also nearly every Islamic country in the world. More than 14,000 Soviet troops died in nearly a decade and the end result is believed to have led to total collapse of the USSR.