"The Russians. Don’t forget about the Russians." Col. Charles R. Codman, USA, whispered the warning to Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr., USA, as the Third Army commander rolled through some extemporaneous remarks to about 60 of the good folks of tiny Knutsford, England, on April 25, 1944. Local volunteers had opened a welcome club for Gen. Patton's soldiers, and the tough general came to offer his thanks. As he did, he observed that in his opinion, it was the "evident destiny of the British and Americans" to "rule the world," so "the better we know each other, the better job we will do." Although the event was supposed to be off the record, journalists wrote it all down. They knew well that Gen. Patton was always good for a colorful quote. In this case, the general received attention for what he did not say. Despite Col. Codman’s prompt, the general ignored the Russians, a scene faithfully recreated in the 1970 film "Patton." Needless to say, the Russians were not amused, and the general’s intemperate views nearly cost him his command.
The Russians had good reason to take offense. They were fighting two-thirds of the Nazi forces and had done so largely on Russian soil, with consequent wanton destruction. More than 20 million Russians died. Yet those sacrifices could not hide the odious, treacherous nature of the regime they served. Until double-crossed and attacked, Russia had been Germany’s willing ally for almost two years, snapping up eastern Poland, the Baltic countries and parts of Romania in the bargain. And Josef Stalin’s pitiless Communist garrison state mirrored Adolf Hitler’s brutal Nazi regime, complete with pervasive one-party rule, repressive secret police and mass murders in the millions. The Allies could not have won World War II without the Russians. But winning with them was not a good deal either.
From the end of World War II in 1945 until the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, Moscow’s implacable legions squatted on captive nations, killed thousands and threatened the United States and the world with a massive nuclear arsenal. Today we are grateful that the Cold War never erupted in a thermonuclear apocalypse, and some like to claim the United States won “without firing a shot.” That would have been news to the tens of thousands of Americans killed in Korea, Vietnam and on the periphery of the Soviet empire in air, sea and land clashes that often grew very hot indeed. The Communist Russians were worthy foes and deadly enemies. Their abrupt demise in 1991 was a welcome miracle for us and a humiliating reversal for them.
Now, after nearly a quarter century of stumbling, the Russian bear is back on his feet. Boorish lout Boris Yeltsin, perennially one shot glass ahead of his troubles, gave way to shrewd, decisive Vladimir Putin, a product of the KGB and an unabashed admirer of the former Soviet Union. Riding on a wave of oil revenue and natural gas wealth, Putin has been getting the band back together. He is not shy about it either: Anyone who watched the opening ceremony at the recent Sochi Winter Olympics saw a pageant of Russian triumphalism reminiscent of Hitler in Berlin at the 1936 games or the Moscow Olympics of 1980 at the height of the Cold War. We were spared the endless motoring ranks of tanks, but only barely. Those can be seen in Moscow every year. People in Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine have seen them up close, and those Russian tanks were not there for parades, either.
We like to pretend Russia is a democratic republic, but it is not. Putin has been in effective sole control since 1999, with the written constitution trampled in the process. Human rights, rule of law, property ownership, freedom of speech and electoral procedures have become optional, subject to the whims of Putin and his ruling clique. Under the rubric of countering “terrorists” and “hooligans,” thousands of people have been jailed, and many shot, by aggressive domestic security forces. It is not quite the repression of the high Communist era, but any Romanov tsar certainly would recognize the setup.
If Putin were content to exercise his power inside his borders, that would be bad enough. But Russia has revitalized its large armed forces, from nuclear-tipped rockets, to tank forces, to long-range bombers to atomic submarines. While the West cuts, Russia builds. Putin’s Russia has been quite willing to push into the “near abroad” former Soviet republics, starting with parts of Georgia in 2008. Belarus and Kazakhstan are effectively Russian satrapies, with Crimea just forced into the fold, punctuated by a rigged plebiscite akin to the worst charades of the Stalin period. Eastern Ukraine is likely to follow. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania may be next. These three are NATO members, protected by the alliance under Article 5. If Russia tries to grab them, then what?
We are not sure. Our military is getting smaller, and we have reduced our forces in and around Europe even faster than the rest of our ranks. We keep telling ourselves the Cold War is over, trusting in diplomacy and rhetoric. All the while, key air and ground supply lines to U.S. troops in Afghanistan run through Putin’s Russia. Our astronauts pay extortionist rates to go to and from our space station aboard Russian rockets. The Russians think we are weak. We are still much stronger than they are, but resolute action must match bold talk. It is past time to wake up.
Seventy years ago, Gen. Patton learned the hard way what we are relearning today. Don’t forget about the Russians. The bear is still out there. And he’s hungry.
Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, USA (Ret.), is a former troop commander in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author of seven books and numerous articles, he currently teaches at North Carolina State University.