America's Wars with Russia- A Look Back to 1918 With an Eye Toward U.S.-Russia Relations in 2018

 

As Vladimir Putin's Russia flexes its muscle in Ukraine and Syria, and sends bombers and ships abroad to harass the Western powers, it is worthwhile to remember the one truly hot war fought between Russia and the United States.

While Russia (and the Soviet Union) allied with the U.S. on occasion, (during the Boxer Rebellion in China and most famously during World War Two), it is worth recalling those times that Americans and the Russians engaged in actual combat against each other.

Of, course, there has never been a 'declared war' between America and Russia, but a search in history turns up several actual conflicts. At the dawning of the era of Soviet Communism, as the First World War drew toward a conclusion, the Western Allies were particularly concerned with the coming to power of the Bolshevik (Marxist or Communist) regime of Vladimir Lenin in Russia. The West had a lot of reasons to distrust Lenin and his Marxist revolutionary philosophy. After taking power, Lenin made a separate peace with Germany and the Central Powers, while civil war raged across Russia as the Bolsheviks (the Reds), worked to consolidate their power against the non-communist and pro-monarchy forces (the Whites). Since the basic aim of the Communist doctrine was to overthrow the capitalist regimes of Europe and the world (i.e. Britain, France, Germany, America, etc.) the Allies saw the coming to power of the Reds in Russia as a threat.

Thus, the Allies (primarily Britain, France, Japan, and the U.S.) intervened in the Russian Civil War on several fronts. American troops landed in the far north of European Russia in the frozen port of Murmansk, as well as in the Siberian portion of Russia in the Asian port of Vladivostok.

In September, 1918, about 5,000 American troops landed in the Russian port of Archangel, and were put under British command. The British had arrived a bit earlier. This American force, while officially called American Expeditionary Force North Russia, would adopt the nickname of the Polar Bear Expedition. Over the next several months, the Americans and British fought the Russian Bolshevik forces in the frozen forests and along the equally frozen rivers of north Russia. When it became obvious that they were not going to be able to raise a local anti-Red force in that area, the decision was made to withdraw. The American forces withdrew in June of 1919, and headed home, over eight months after the conclusion of World War One, which was the war they signed on to fight.

 American casualties to the Polar Bear Expedition totaled 553: 109 killed in battle; 35 dead of wounds; 81 died from disease (mostly the Spanish Flu); 19 from accidents/other causes; 305 wounded and 4 POWS (who were eventually released by the Russians).

Over in eastern Russia, at the port of Vladivostok, the American Expeditionary Force Siberia, numbering almost 8,000 troops, landed in Russia in August, 1918, and were assigned to guard local railroads. One major goal of this Siberian expedition was to help facilitate the escape from Russia of the 40,000 man Czech Legion, a group of former POWs who, while they were originally a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's army, were actually from Czechoslovakia (until the end of the First World War, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), who were loyal to the Allied cause (and decidedly anti-Communist). Like the failed North Russia Expedition, the American forces in Siberia failed to make a real dent in the Russian Civil War, though the Czech Legion did manage to get out of Russia.

 

The last American troops left Vladivostok on April 1, 1920, having lost 189 men. For the troops of the Siberian expedition, they went home nearly 16 months after the Armistice ended the fighting of World War One.

While most Americans do not recall this strange little war at the tail end of the First World War, the Soviets used this invasion of their country as a lesson that the Western Powers were not to be trusted.

In later years, the U.S. and Russia cooperated during World War Two, not out of any sudden, mutual love, but to rid the world of a common foe. After World War Two, however, both America and Russia emerged as powerful adversaries, and right on the heels of the Second World War, the Cold War began and would prove to be the center of world conflict until 1991.

Without going into a full history of the Cold War, suffice it to say that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union poked and prodded each other and looked for ways to undermine each other. In several instances, actual war was considered a real possibility (see list below), and in many other cases, the two sides (aided by their allies and satellites), would engage in proxy wars against each other.

Instances where the U.S. and the Russians nearly went to war in the Cold War:

1948-the Berlin Crisis and Airlift-This crisis arose as the Soviets attempted to cut Berlin (which, as the capital of the defeated Germany, had been divided among the four occupying Powers), off from overland re-supply through Communist controlled East Germany. The U.S. led an Allied airlift of supplies to West Berlin.

1961-the erection of the Berlin Wall raised tensions

1962-the Cuban Missile Crisis

1983-Harsh anti-Soviet rhetoric from American President Reagan and British Prime Minister Thatcher, along with the Soviet shootdown of a South Korean airliner, combined with Soviet uncertainty about NATO military exercises created real fears in Moscow of a pre-emptive strike by the West.

Instances of Proxy Wars between Russia and America (partial list):

The Korean War (1950-1953)- While newly Communist China provided large numbers of troops to actively and publicly fight against the U.S-dominated UN forces in Korea, the Soviets quietly sent thousands of pilots and support personnel to aid the North Koreans. While this was known to the U.S. military and government at the time, this information was not known by the American public during the war.

 

The Vietnam War (1964-1975)- The Soviets provided massive amounts of military hardware and supplies to the North Vietnamese as the Hanoi regime and the Viet Cong battled American, South Vietnamese, and other allied forces.

 

Multiple Wars in Africa (1960s-1980s)

The Americans, British, French, and the Portuguese (i.e the Western powers in Africa) vied for influence in Africa against various rebel groups and regimes allied with the Soviets and the Chinese.

Among these many conflicts, several in particular involved the U.S.:

The Angolan Civil War (1975-2002)-American involvement against the Marxist regime in Angola (supported by the Soviets and Cuba) was supposed to be covert, but the presence of U.S. aid to anti-Communist forces in this war, plus the presence of American (CIA)-employed mercenaries caused public debate in the U.S. American involvement on the ground ended in 1976. U.S. covert aid to the anti-Communist rebels continued for some time.

The Shaba Invasions of 1977 and 1978-Marxist rebels, trained and supplied by Soviets, East Germans, and Cubans, invaded U.S. ally Zaire (the Zairian province of Shaba). In the 1977 conflict, the U.S. sent aid, but was not involved militarily. In the 1978 invasion, the U.S. Air Force flew in French and Belgian paratroopers who then fought the invaders on the ground.

Soviet War in Afghanistan (1979-1989)-With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States supplied the Afghan resistance forces with significant military aid with which to fight the Soviets.

 

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the dissolution of the USSR, Russia became a democracy (of sorts), and for a time, cooperation and the possible promise of friendship between Russia and the U.S. was on the horizon, for the first time since before the Bolshevik Revolution. Then came the U.S. and NATO war in Kosovo.

Kosovo was a mostly ethnic Albanian province of Serbia, which rose in rebellion as one part of the multi-faceted Yugoslav Wars (or the Third Balkan War). NATO came to the aid of the Kosovo rebels against Serbia, but Russia, which has long considered itself a protector of Serbia (which is one reason Russia entered World War One in 1914), became involved in the conflict in a manner that almost led to a military conflict between NATO forces (commanded by U.S. General Wesley Clark), and the Russian military, when Russian troops unexpectedly raced to the main airport in Kosovo. The peace deal that ended the Kosovo-Serb war called for NATO troops to enter Kosovo and take over control of major areas, including Pristina Airport. Russia sent a column of 250 troops into Kosovo with the intention of occupying the airport before NATO could do so. General Clark attempted to take an aggressive stance against the Russians, threatening to use force to kick them out of the airport, but he was overruled by civilian NATO leaders and other members of the NATO military. No actual conflict occurred in this incident, but it does show that the old Cold War tensions remained.

That was in 1999. Later that year, Vladimir Putin became the dominant political leader in Russia, and he then embarked on a campaign to restore Russian national pride and influence in the world. Since then, Russia has gone to war against U.S.-allied Georgia, annexed the Crimea, engaged in a semi-covert border war with Ukraine, intervened in the Syrian Civil War, engaged in nearly constant airborne probes at U.S., NATO and other allied nations' airspace, engaged in cyber-attacks against multiple nations, interfered with the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and sent operatives to kill Russian defectors in other nations, most recently in the United Kingdom.

It is clear that a new Cold War is upon us, and, while many in the West (barely) remember the old Cold War that began in the 1940s, even more forgotten now is the initial invasion/intervention that started the ill-feelings between the West and Russia, way back in 1918.

 

 

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