Saturday, April 26, 2014

American troop deployment in Latvia brings to mind U.S. military operation on Russian soil nearly a century ago

A “company size” deployment of U.S. Army paratroopers recently arrived in Latvia, following a similar deployment in Poland. This is clearly in response to the concerns of these countries in regard to Russia’s bald-faced annexation of the Crimea and attempts to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty in the eastern portion of its own country. Being members of NATO, an attack on Latvia and Poland by Russia will trigger Article 5 of the NATO treaty:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Unfortunately for the Ukraine, Russia worked immediately to forestall the possibility that its neighbor might also seek NATO alliance, following the overthrow of the pro-Russian puppet government. The Kremlin’s propaganda arm in the U.S., the cable “news” channel RT, recently allowed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to all but confirm future Russian military “intervention” in eastern  Ukraine, when everyone outside of Russia knows that Russian agents and military have already infiltrated the region to undermine Ukrainian authority. 

Yet Lavrov (like Vladimir Putin) continues to insult our intelligence by claiming that the U.S. is “running the show” in the Ukraine, as if that country has no right to protect its own sovereignty without being told, just as Russia alleges it is doing itself. The reality, of course, is that Russia would not be escalating matters unless it had a better reason than they are giving. In the Crimea, it was to regain control over the Sevastopol naval complex; in eastern Ukraine, it is to take control of its industrial areas. The cynicism of the Russians is quite remarkable.

At any rate, it has been a long time since U.S. forces have deployed in an adversarial posture so close to Russia itself in Latvia (Belarus—often regarded as Russia’s puppet—forms a “buffer” state between Poland and Russia). And longer still since the U.S. actually engaged Russian forces in direct combat. That occurred soon after the overthrow of the Czarist government in 1917, and lasted from the summer of 1918 to late winter 1920 in what would be called the “North Russian Intervention.” 

Very few  Americans even know about this, which is not surprising considering the fact that it was never mentioned in any American history book I’ve ever had to read. It went something like this: The provisional anti-Bolshevik Russian government that gained power after the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty agreed to continue the war against Germany, contingent upon receiving money and military aid from the Allies. To that purpose, the Americans and British landed significant stockpiles of military equipment at the ports of Archangel and Murmansk in northern Russia, and in the east in Vladivostok. 

But despite the aid, a subsequent Russian offensive against the Germans was crushed. With the armies in mutiny, and rioting in the streets, the Bolsheviks were able to overthrow the provisional government, and Lenin signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, for all practical purposes ending the eastern phase of World War I. More problems developed between the Bolsheviks and the Allies when the former broke a free passage agreement with the Czechoslovak Legion—originally fighting in the employ of the Russians against the Germans, in the hopes of gaining favor with the Allies and then independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire—and leaving them stranded in eastern Russia. 

The Allies, sensing the likelihood that their stockpiles of military hardware would fall into the hands of either the Germans (who had landed a small force in Finland) or the apparently hostile Bolsheviks with the war still raging in the West, decided to launch a military expedition to regain control of these stockpiles, revive White Russian resistance against the Bolsheviks, and together with the counter-revolutionaries and the Legion “strangle” the  Bolshevik revolution “at birth”—or so said Winston Churchill—and restore an active front in the east.

The northern intervention in the regions around Murmansk and Archangel included approximately 14,000 U.S., British and other Allied troops. The campaign was plagued from the start by the unwillingness of troops to fight in near Arctic conditions, for a cause few understood the necessity for when the main conflict was still in the West. Mini-mutinies among American and British troops was rampant. Greater Russian resourcefulness on their own ground also stymied Allied operational success. The Allies did manage a brief success along the Northern Dvina river, and a small U.S, contingent reached as far as Shenkursk (still far from anywhere, particularly in the vast expanses of Russia). The Bolsheviks under Leon Trotsky decided to make a “surprise” counterattack on the American-British forces hold-up in a village called Tulgas but were repulsed. But the U.S. force of less than fifty men in Shenkursk was attacked by 1,000 Red Army troops, and all but seven were eventually killed.

For the most part, both Allied and Bolshevik forces tended to remain on the defensive, but with White Russian forces deserting in droves and the Red Army holding its reserves in the ready, and Allied (particularly the British) soldiers angry and confused about why they were fighting in Russia even after the war in the West was over, there was no chance of “success” of overthrowing the Bolshevik regime; despite the fact that the new Russian regime was seen as a rogue and dangerous force that was increasingly anti-West in its rhetoric and actions, the West remained uncertain and divided on how to deal with them. 

Meanwhile, the American Expeditionary Force Siberia arrived in Vladivostok with 8,000 men around the same time, mainly to protect American property, and did little or no fighting despite pressure from other Allies. Most of the nearly 200 U.S. soldiers died during that “campaign did so from being unprepared for the Arctic conditions, and the rest would eventually leave by April, 1920.

In the end, as many as 120,000 foreign troops were in Russia—13,000 from the U.S.—supporting the supposedly democratic White Russian (or at least anti-Bolshevik) cause. They accomplished almost nothing, largely because there was no consensus on the practicality of military intervention, the narrow objectives of some intervening countries, the low morale of troops and the disintegration of White forces in the face of a more dedicated-to-their cause enemy. All that remains in the memory today from that “war” are “souvenir” photographs of American soldiers posing with dead Bolshevik soldiers as if from the Old West, while the Russians have their “trophies” of left behind British Mark V tanks.

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