For over a decade Russia has been preparing for the dreaded four front war. How did it come to this? It wasn’t easy or preordained. It took a century of bad decisions, botched diplomacy and domestic misrule to make it happen. It’s one of those Russian traditions that has evolved into a curse.
A century ago, Russia only feared war on one front, the one facing West. The Western Front was where Russia fought Germany and Austria-Hungary for three years during World War I, before conceding defeat. Russia was forced to ask for a peace deal because it turned out Russia had severe internal problems and another revolution caused by the economic disruption and heavy casualties from the war. This was the second such crises of the 20th century and the primary demand was an end to the war, and the monarchy. Then things got worse as the second revolution escalated into a civil war that went on longer that Russian participation in World War I. The democratic government that won the first revolution, and signed the peace treaty that got Russia out of the world war, then lost to a smaller radical socialist (communist) faction that brought back stricter and bloodier autocratic rule than the monarchy ever imposed. By the 1930s Russia, now rebranded as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was again getting ready for war and facing a two-front conflict against Germany, also ruled by a radical-socialist dictatorship, and a modernized and enlarged Japanese military.
Russia had faced this new Japanese army and navy before, at the beginning of the 20th century when Russia tried to stop Japan from taking control of northeast China (Manchuria). The Japanese defeated the Russians on land and at sea. That humiliating defeat was the first suffered by a Western power against an East Asian opponent. This caused much internal anger and violence against the monarchy which led to the adoption of a constitutional monarchy in place of the absolute monarchy government. This injection of democracy was still working out the kinks when World War I came along and most Russians accepted the earlier mutual-defense treaty Russia had signed with France to support each other if Germany attacked either of them. Germans were a threat Russia and France had faced for centuries and it got worse in 1870 when Germany finally became a unified state and promptly went to war with France and won. Russians feared they were next.
In the late 1930s, to cope with the new German Nazi dictatorship and their growing military might, Russia signed a non-aggression treaty that included increased trade between Germany and Russia and secret clauses about who got what in eastern Europe in any future war. This was seen as an opportunity for Russia to complete its military buildup so they could attack the Germans while Germany was fighting the rest of Europe. Both Germany and Russia signed mutual-defense treaties with Japan. To further complicate matters details of these mutual defense treaties were kept secret. Then Germany invaded Russia in 1941 before Russia was ready to declare war on Germany. Before that happened, Russia and Japan fought an undeclared war in the far east that, to the surprise of the Japanese, the Russians won decisively. Japan was also planning for war against the United States and European nations with colonies in Asia and feared another war with Russia. Japan approached Germany with a proposal for a mutual defense pact. As a result, Germany declared war on the United States after Japan attacked at the end of 1941. After World War II began in late 1939 when Japan and Russia signed a five-year non-aggression pact. This treaty could end sooner of Germany was defeated. Japan expected the Germans to win and was convinced that Germany that Japan needed to concentrate on fighting the Americans, something that would help Germany. It didn’t and many German diplomats and military leaders believed, correctly, that anti-war sentiment in the United States would have kept the Americans out of the war in Europe for months at least if Germany had not gone ahead and declared on the nation with the largest economy in the world and, it turned out, eventually the most powerful military.
In 1945 Russian troops occupied half of Germany, including the capital Berlin. This was a first. But the cost to Russia was huge, leaving their economy devastated and 18 percent of population dead. Russia kept the true extent of the damage secret the 1990s when the Soviet era archives were briefly opened to Western researchers, and Russians. After celebrating their historic victory against Germany in what they called the Great Patriotic War, Russia went back to its pre-war plans for world domination. This included exporting the communist form of government anywhere they saw an opportunity. This approach succeeded in East European countries “liberated” by Russia troops at the end of World War II. Officially these nations were free to form whatever type of government they wanted and most chose democracy. The Russian occupation forces made it possible for these democracies to be taken over by locals loyal to Russia and that lasted, despite several bloody uprisings, until 1990. Russia tried to export communism to nations it did not have troops in and that generally failed. Communism remained popular in the west but never to the point where the communists could win an election and survive popular resistance. By 1990 Westerners learned what Russian meant when they often referred to their supporters in Western democracies as “useful idiots” and access to the Soviet archives documented that. Among themselves Russian communists suffered from growing doubts about the superiority and popularity of their revolutionary form of government.
After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 Russia became a democracy again and, unlike 1917, this democracy survived, sort of. Russians still favored “strong leadership” and were paranoid about what their neighbors. By the end of the 1990s that led to Russia gaining a strong leader (a former KGB officer), who quietly made himself president-for-life and did so by stoking Russian fears of foreign aggression. This was first directed against the West, when NATO was accused of seeking to take over Russia, or at least take Russian territory. This came as a surprise to most Westerners, but not to East European nations that had lived under Russian occupation and control for decades. These East European nations were eager to join NATO for the same reason the original NATO members did; for mutual defense against Russian aggression. The new semi-democratic Russia interpreted this as offensive and an act of aggression. Russians have long thought that way.
The new, much depleted post-Soviet Russia tried to rearm to deal with the imaginary NATO threat. Meanwhile more Russians were noting that China, for the first time had a larger and more modern military than Russia. The mighty Soviet era Red Army had lost 80 percent of its manpower in the 1990s and nearly as much of its budget. That meant the 1990s Russian army was also smaller than the peacetime American army for the first time.
Many Russians instinctively see military weakness as an invitation to foreign invaders. While the NATO countries had no such beliefs, China did. When the Soviet archives were briefly opened lots of interesting, and ominous, details about China emerged. For example, Chinese communists, when they finally secured control of mainland China in 1949, pointedly refused to renounce the centuries-old Chinese claims on Russian territory on the Pacific coast. This area, more so than the South China Sea and portions of the Indian border, had long been considered Chinese. The communist Chinese were not going to surrender that.
The Chinese did owe the Russians for going to war with Japan in mid-1945 and defeating many of the Japanese troops who were still a problem for the Chinese communists. Russia had provided military aid to the Chinese communists throughout the 1930s and only backed off during World War II so as not to offend the Japanese. China, as far as the Chinese were concerned, repaid its debt to Russia by complying with a Russian request to send troops into North Korea in 1950, after the Russian created North Korean army was ordered by Russia to invade South Korea and unify Korea. This led to a more vigorous response than Russia, North Korea or China expected. China sent in several million troops and lost about 20 percent of them, while North Korea suffered even heavier losses. This saved North Korea, as the 1953 ceasefire deal left a border nearly identical to the pre-invasion one. The Chinese never forgot that, especially since a democratic South Korea went on to be one of the most economically successful nations in the world while North Korea regularly competes for last place.
There was an undeclared border war between China and Russia and during the 1960s that ended because of mutual realization that neither side would prevail, yet. Now Russians, if not the current Russian government, openly discuss the growing threat from the east. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. Russia was back to a two front threat which was actually a four front threat because Russia was facing more aggression in the south from radical Moslems and nations, like Iran, eager to reclaim territory seized by Russia in the 19th century.
Little known outside Russia is a perceived threat on its northern front. Russia has a 5,600 kilometers northern shoreline stretching from Norway to Alaska. This border has become more economically valuable to Russia as more offshore oil and natural gas deposits were discovered. Russia had to close many air and naval bases on the northern coast in the 1990s because there were not enough troops or money to maintain them. In the last two decades that changed as Russia realized the growing economic wealth found off the north coast needed protecting and the naval bases had to be opened and supported by a new generation of icebreakers. The Cold War icebreaker fleet was the largest in the world needed replacing for economic as well as military reasons. Russia also sees new economic opportunities in the as the expanding “ice-free” season along the northern coast has made it possible to maintain a safe shipping route, part of the year, for traffic carrying goods between Europe and East Asia and North America. The new shipping lanes are still a work-in-progress but Russia needs the access right now to support its growing offshore oil and natural gas production up there. Russia sees these northern assets being threatened by someone eventually and Russia has now militarized its northern coast more than any time in the past.
Add it all up, using Russian geopolitical math, and you have the potential for the dreaded four front war.