The latest in I-don’t-know-how-many Battles of Kyiv has ended in, thank heavens, Ukrainian victory. But, for Ukrainians, the joy of that triumph is mixed with profound sorrow and bitterness as Russian atrocities are exposed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed his (and it really can be called ‘his’) invasion of Ukraine was to ‘de-Nazify’ that country. Well, while calling modern Russia ‘Nazi’ would be going too far, a good intellectual argument can be made that, in terms of his political, economic, ideological and social policies, Putin’s Russia is a 21st century fascist state, very reminiscent of Mussolini’s regime in Italy during the first half of the 20th century.


This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.


History does not, Mark Twain observed, repeat itself, but it rhymes. And I certainly think we can see very strong rhyming between the war history of Fascist Italy and that of Putinist Russia. 

Today, Mussolini is often seen as a figure of fun, a pompous nincompoop, running a laughable regime. And that indeed was how he seemed, to the Allied powers, at the end of his rule. But for most of his time in power he was genuinely seen as a formidable figure, the head of a powerful state, and someone to be taken very seriously indeed. I very strongly recommend John Gooch’s Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy from Triumph to Collapse 1935-1943. The title is a misnomer: the book covers (although in varying detail) all Italian military campaigns following Mussolini’s seizure of power in 1922: crushing the resistance to Italian rule in Libya, the conquest of Ethiopia, Italian participation in the Spanish Civil War, the seizure of Albania, and then joining and participating in the Second World War. 

Like Putin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy built up a formidable military reputation by successfully defeating a string of weaker foes. The Libyan tribes were formidable fighters but were crushed in the end. With Putinist Russia, one thinks of Chechnya and the Chechens. Then Ethiopia was invaded and conquered. Everyone expected Ethiopia to fall, but no one, Gooch points out, expected it to fall so fast. The brief Russia-Georgia War of 2008 could be seen as Putin’s equivalent. Next came Spain (Gooch fascinatingly reveals that Mussolini did not want to get involved, but erroneous intelligence that France was going to intervene on the side of the Spanish Republic changed his mind.)

Today, the Italian involvement is remembered only for their defeat at the Battle of Guadalajara (1937), but that, as Gooch shows, was very much the exception. The Italians actually made a huge contribution to the victory of the Nationalists during the Civil War, a much bigger contribution than that made by Nazi Germany. The successful Russian intervention in Syria (although that is closer in scale to the German ‘Condor Legion’ in Spain) would perhaps be the modern Russian equivalent.

These very real Fascist Italian triumphs hid the actual fragility of the regime’s military power. On paper, the country had a most formidable order of battle on land, at sea and especially in the air. But numbers of aircraft, tanks, artillery, etc., had been prioritised over the acquisition of spare parts, so serviceability was low. Ammunition stocks were inadequate for sustained operations. Units sent to Ethiopia and Spain were properly supplied and supported with spares and ammunition by stripping the forces at home, rendering the latter even less effective. Except for elite units (who really were elite, and proved it during the Second World War), training was often poor. Officer quality in the army varied alarmingly, with too many senior officers appointed for reasons of political loyalty, not competence.

Too much Italian materiel, especially tanks, anti-tank guns, artillery and aircraft (particularly fighters) were, by 1939, of ‘old’ design and outdated. (Military technological progress was staggeringly fast in the 1930s: by 1940, a 1930 aircraft or tank design was obsolete.) And the country lacked the industrial base to rapidly produce modern replacement systems. (Throughout the 1940-1943 period, Italian Admirals were very aware that if they lost any major unit, it could not possibly be replaced until long after the war was over, and they were expecting the war to last for years. This naturally made them cautious. Britain could and did risk losing battleships and carriers, because the country could and did replace them with wartime construction; Italy could not.)     

In short, the Italian armed forces proved to be a fragile rapier, with a sharp point on a weak blade. Carefully wielded, they could do the job. But faced with better quality opposition, the Italian rapier shattered. That situation, that analogy, also seems to fit the Russian armed forces today.

What exposed the true weakness of Fascist Italy was the disastrous Italo-Greek War of 1940-1941. Nobody, least of all the Italians, expected the Greeks to fight so ferociously and effectively in defence of their homeland. In the end, Mussolini had to be rescued by Hitler. The analogy with the current Russo-Ukraine War is clear. However, we can be pretty certain that China will not intervene militarily to save Russia. 

And one last point of comparison between Putinist Russia and Fascist Italy: the brutality of the regimes. Both murdered dangerous political opponents and exiled others. Both behaved with great brutality against the peoples they attacked (this did not apply to Italian conduct in Spain, but it did apply to Italian conduct in Yugoslavia). Italian atrocities were, however, to be totally overshadowed by the massively greater (both quantitatively and qualitatively) crimes of Nazi Germany. And Putin’s terrible crimes must not lead us to forget the terrible crimes of Xi Jinping’s regime in China, which indeed might be greater than Putin’s.   

Putin’s regime is controlling the bulk of the information flow to the Russian people (as, of course, did Mussolini in Italy). Just as with Fascist Italy, it will take the Russian people a long time to realise things have been going badly. Further, the Russo-Ukraine War is far from over. Russia could still secure parts of the east and south east of Ukraine, allowing Putin to declare victory (in 1940, the Italians overran British Somaliland – the tiny British force there was evacuated to avoid it being destroyed – and trumpeted it to the Italian people as a significant victory). 

And of course, Putinist Russia has nuclear weapons; lots of them. These constrain how far the West can go in dealing with Putin. So, at this point, the ‘rhyming’ of the histories of Fascist Italy and Putinist Russia comes to an end. This rhyming has been retrospective; it is not prospective. The Italian past does not, at this point, predict the Russian future. 

But, as was the case with Fascist Italy after the Greek fiasco, I think it can indeed be argued that Russia’s status as one of the world’s top three powers has been shattered. Given that the country is not only merely a shadow of the former Soviet Union, but also only a shadow of Tsarist Russia, in all aspects (geography, demography, economy, natural resources and military power) and given the effects of the wide-ranging Western sanctions (likely only to increase following the discovery of the scale of Russian atrocities in Ukraine), it is highly unlikely that Russia will ever be able to regain that status. 

If so, this would have very significant consequences for future British defence policy. Whitehall is correct not to rush-to-judgment about future defence spending, and foreign policy and defence policy.  

Trying to restore Russian power and greatness, Putin has probably smashed both beyond repair. Certainly, Russian prestige has been severely diminished, and the country will now be very much the junior partner in the China-Russia alliance/alignment. 

 

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Paul Christmas
Paul Christmas
1 month ago

Interesting historical comparison. In further comment I would suggest that Russian military thinking has not progressed beyond WW2. The Russian bear is old and crippled, if it was indeed an animal you would put it down. Putin and his inept military commanders have proved that no matter how big you are a flawed strategy (if there was one) will kill your soldiers more efficiently than any enemy.

Terry
Terry
1 month ago

There are some peoples/nations that are good at combat, and some that are generally not good at it. Every once in a while one of the latter will get cranked up, and go on a winning streak like a hot gambler. Napoleon’s France is an example of this. An attacked aggrieved Russia/Soviet Union of WW II is another example. Russia and Ukraine have a long, bloody history, and the Russians ignored this to their current peril.

John Hartley
John Hartley
1 month ago

Depends on what time scale you are talking about. I was in Whitehall (for one day for the 1998 SDR) & if you said Russia would be a threat in the future, brutally invading its neighbours, you would have been laughed at. Russia has lost its prestige, material, troops in this awful war. Sanctions will knock it back, but it is still a huge country, with huge resources in Siberia. Twenty five years from now, it may have picked itself up, learned its mistakes & rearmed accordingly. Any kit the UK MoD orders now, will still be in service then.… Read more »

Michael
Michael
1 month ago

Fine work. It tickles my inner WWII buff. The point about Mussolini’s limited industrial base and the need to conserve the best equipment I think resonates even more strongly than the author puts it. Russia, as we know, has stacks upon stacks of Soviet-era military hardware, but although many of these platforms are good and some very nicely upgradeable for modern-day service (the T-72 and Mig-29 spring to mind), this takes time and has never been carried out on all units. Furthermore, many of Russia’s 10,000+ stored tanks and IFVs have never been properly maintained, and if they needed to… Read more »

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
1 month ago
Reply to  Michael

Sadly, I would not totally write off the Russian Army in its camapign in Ukraine. It is partly withdrawing to regroup, re-supply and re-locate in greater size in the East of Ukraine. The ground will become firmer and more suited to fluid armoured warfare. Lessons will have been learned. WMD has not yet been unleashed. This is not over yet.

DFJ123
DFJ123
1 month ago

I think there’s two major dangers to consider with Russia. Russian political life could be one of those things where for years things happen very slowly, and then suddenly they then happen very fast. Russia has a neo-fascist regime and it’s had that for a decade or more. There’s been a lot of comparisons with early 30’s Germany or Italy that have been outright denied or resisted by so many people. The danger is that as we’ve only just accepted the reality of Putin’s neo-fascism, they suddenly descend into another level (e.g from Italian fascism into German Nazism). Either way,… Read more »

Michael
Michael
1 month ago
Reply to  DFJ123

Full technology sharing between Russia and China is a concerning thought. The Chinese are still partially dependent on Russian fighter engines (although they’re fixing that), and Russian missile technology is very well regarded. They could cooperate on shared equipment in the future, although it’s questionable how popular such a move would be inside Russia. Still, it may be Putin’s best bet to effectively rearm.

China has plenty of manufacturing prowess, after all. They could build some T-14s for Putin under a lend-lease inspired deal if it really came to it.

Levi Goldsteinberg
Levi Goldsteinberg
1 month ago

This was a brilliant article

Val
Val
1 month ago

What ever, it shows how found out the UK is in missile defence, lack of ships and military in general. We’ve been getting away with it since the lie called the peace dividend. This was always a huge danger and mistake. I think our Country has always been worth more than the pathetic under two percent of gdp spent on our military. This is a wake up.

Jonno
Jonno
1 month ago
Reply to  Val

Yes that is for sure. We must fill the gaps in many areas. If one could count on Germany and France to field a defence in the East things would look up but both seem very wooly on defence. France wishes it wasnt a continental power and is shirking its responsibilities despite its WW2 experience when GB and USA had to bail them.

Val
Val
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonno

Yes. It was said on TV a few days ago that Germany and France will always do things for themselves first where as the UK have more of a history in doing things for others more so rather than GB first and sod everyone else I guess.

Klonkie
Klonkie
1 month ago

Rebecca, thank you for an interesting and detailed article. An interesting read.

Quentin D63
Quentin D63
1 month ago
Reply to  Klonkie

Here, here, a well written article.

Dwight O. Nacaytuna
Dwight O. Nacaytuna
1 month ago

One good analysis of despots (past and present) and the consequences of their their megalomaniac mistakes in the world!

Last edited 1 month ago by Dwight O. Nacaytuna
Yury Sukhomlin
Yury Sukhomlin
1 month ago

Very interesting comparison, thank you Rebecca! You are right absolutely in your conclusions.

Martin H-E
Martin H-E
1 month ago

Interesting article, thank you. You mention further sanctions; one wonders if there’s a risk of ‘historical rhyme’ here too. The punitive economic provisions of Versaille on Germany in the interwar period might be considered a significant factor in the outbreak of the second war. Might we (the West) be constructing a new Versaille in the shape of increasingly tight economic sanctions on Russia…and if so, perhaps a rod of inevitabilty for our own backs?

ChariotRider
ChariotRider
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin H-E

Hi Martin, That is a very interesting question to pose. The problem we now face is that if the sanctions create sufficient stress in Russia will it bring down Putin’s regime or will it bring the population in behind him, creating a seige mentality? I fear it will be the latter because the Russian’s have long had that kind of world view, “the West is out to get us”, and it is the line taken by the Russian media which is controlled by Putin of course. So are we creating a new Versaille? Possibly, but even if we are not… Read more »

David
David
1 month ago

Very interesting. Modern Russia is described as a shadow of Tsarist Russia in military terms, but remember that the Russo Japanese war revealed the weakness of that Russian empire, oarticularly at sea..

ChariotRider
ChariotRider
1 month ago

I would also like to suggest that there is another rhyme with the WW2 time period, one that focused on the performance of the Russian Army and is possibly more relevant to the campaign in Ukraine. The Russian Army has clearly performed very poorly and I am reminded of the Soviet Army’s performance against Finland in 1939 – 40 and of course their poor performance against the German invasion. Stalin needed a new commander and he found him in General Zhukov. Putin has just appointed a new General and of ourse the Russian’s are reorganising their forces to focus on… Read more »

John Hartley
John Hartley
1 month ago
Reply to  ChariotRider

I wonder if it is more like Suez 1956. The end of great power status & the end of empire?

andy reeves
andy reeves
7 days ago

Whatever the nation a dictator is a symbol of how power currupts he’ll already have people plotting behind his back to oust him Russia is broke, financially and morally its military is utterly discredited the west has, without firing a single shot brought the Russians to the brink of total collapse. The only thing that Putin has left is the nuclear options which for all the fear of global apocalypse. Need not overly worry the west, as they will know face annahilation themselves the British and French have a nuclear option so Russia has much to fear everywhere and from… Read more »

Max Bridges
Max Bridges
4 seconds ago

An interesting article
I worry that defence spending will suffer should Russia “lose” and we will be caught out in any future conflict
It must be considered that Russia after this conflict will be in a prime position to modernise both equipment and tactics to the most modern standards and that would bring them back to the top table again
More notable we must learn and apply the lessons of this conflict to our military to avoid sliding down the obsolete ladder ourselves