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“Never attacked anyone”: A brief history of Russia's aggressive wars from Ivan the Terrible to the present

“Russia has never attacked anyone. It is amazing when a great and mighty country has never attacked anyone, it has only defended its borders,” the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Vladimir Gundyaev (Patriarch Kirill) said recently, echoing Maria Zakharova and other officials with their recently adopted phrase “Russia does not start wars, it ends them.” Although Russia does have problems with ending wars (Russia still hasn’t signed a peace treaty with Japan post-WWII), there are many examples of Russia starting wars against other states. Below are several examples of wars in which Russia was the aggressor.

  • Livonian War

  • Smolensk War

  • The Great Northern War

  • Wars with Turkey

  • USSR Wars

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Livonian War

We will not mention the wars the Principality of Moscow waged against other Russian principalities, where sometimes it was really difficult to understand who and when started the war. Let us begin with the first major European war started by the Tsardom of Moscow as a single centralized state. It is the Livonian War, which lasted from 1558 to 1583. The Moscow army began fighting on January 17, 1558. The question of the so-called «Yuryev tribute» was used as a pretext for the war. In 1481, after another war that Pskov and Novgorod aided by Moscow waged against Livonia, a treaty was concluded according to which the Dorpat bishopric had to pay annual tribute to Pskov in the amount of one hryvnia (equal to one German mark or six Hungarian gold pieces) per capita.

From 1503 an armistice between Livonia and the Tsardom of Moscow was in force, which lasted until 1557. The Livonian Order, transformed in the middle of the 15th century into the Livonian Confederation comprising the Archbishopric of Riga and the bishoprics of Dorpat, Ösel-Wiek, Reval and Courland as well as Livonian cities and estates, was tormented by internal turmoil and did not want war. In 1554-1557 an internecine war broke out between the political forces of the Livonian confederation, which was caused by a conflict between Wilhelm of Brandenburg-Ansbach, Archbishop of Riga, and the Livonian landmaster Heinrich von Galen.

Tsar Ivan the Terrible decided to seize the opportunity to get his hands on Livonia. At the end of 1557, the Livonian embassy that came to Moscow reached an agreement on the payment of the Yuryev tribute, but Livonia was not able to pay the whole amount at once, which was sued as a pretext for the invasion. When the war began, the Livonian Landtag decided to collect 60,000 thalers to settle accounts with Moscow in order to end the war. But by May 1558 only a half of the sum was collected, and the Russian tsar was not going to halt the invasion anyway.

The Livonian embassy agreed with Moscow on the payment of the Yuryev tribute, but Livonia was unable to pay it, which was used as a pretext for the invasion

Ivan the Terrible's goal was to conquer all of Livonia, that is, the territory of modern Latvia and Estonia. The Russian tsar created a puppet kingdom of Livonia in the lands occupied during the war. However, despite the initial successes of the Russian troops, the war ended in complete defeat of the Moscow Tsardom. Ivan the Terrible underestimated the ability of Poland, which during the war created a unified state with Lithuania, and Sweden to temporarily forget about the old feuds and unite against Moscow.

As a result, Livonia was divided between the Polish-Lithuanian state (Rzeczpospolita), Sweden and Denmark, and Russia lost the cities of Koporye, Yam, Ivangorod and the adjacent territory on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland, as well as the city of Velizh. In addition, the Tsardom of Moscow was extremely depleted economically.

Smolensk War

The next aggression of the Moscow Tsardom was the Smolensk War of 1632-1634. Tsar Alexei decided to take advantage of the kingless period in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before a new king would be elected after the death of Sigismund III in 1632. The purpose of the war was to conquer Smolensk. However, the Russian army, while besieging Smolensk, was itself surrounded and forced to surrender. According to the Peace of Polyanovo signed in June 1634, only one city, Serpeysk, was ceded to Russia.

After the rebellion of hetman Bohdan Khmelnitsky and the annexation of Ukraine by the Moscow Tsardom under the Pereyaslavl Agreement in January 1654 with the right to enjoy a broad autonomy, Moscow launched another war against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The goal was to conquer all of Ukraine and all of Belorussia. In the 1650s Russian troops were mostly victorious, in the 1660s they were mostly defeated. The goals of the war were achieved only partially. According to the 1667 Truce of Andrusovo, the Smolensk land, the Seversk land with Chernihiv and Starodub and the Left-bank Ukraine were ceded to the Moscow Tsardom; Kyiv on the right bank of the Dnieper was finally recognized as Russian under the 1686 “Eternal Peace.”

In parallel with the Russo-Polish war, the Moscow Tsardom attacked Sweden in 1656, taking advantage of the fact that the latter, in turn, had attacked the Rzeczpospolita, to which the main Swedish forces had been diverted. Moscow again wanted to conquer Swedish Livonia. However Russian troops could not take the Swedish strongholds of Narva and Riga, and in 1658 the fighting ceased. The 1661 Treaty of Cardis confirmed the 1658 borders.

The Great Northern War

Russia's next aggressive war was the Great Northern War of 1700-1721. In this war Russia in alliance with Denmark, Saxony and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth attacked Sweden. As a pretext for declaring war Peter I mentioned «untruths and insults», especially the personal insult in 1697, when the tsar, during his European tour, was, in his opinion, received a cold welcome from the Swedes in Riga. The initial aim of the war was for Russia to conquer the mouth of the Neva and Estland. However, in the course of the war the weight of Russia in the coalition sharply increased.

Despite the initial successes of the Swedish king Charles XII, the coalition's preponderance of resources eventually manifested itself, and after the Russian army won the Battle of Poltava in 1709, Sweden's defeat was a foregone conclusion. The relative weakness of the Russian fleet was compensated by the strong Danish fleet, superior to the Swedish one. Under the Nystad Peace Treaty Sweden ceded to Russia Estonia, Livonia, Ingria, Vyborg county and the southern part of Kexholm county for 2 million thalers (56 tons of silver, about half the annual budget of Russia). In addition, Russia established a de facto protectorate over Courland, while maintaining Courland's formal vassality to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Russian Empire also began to exert a decisive influence on Warsaw's foreign policy.

During the Great Northern War, Russia also attacked Turkey during the Prut campaign of 1711. Peter hoped to establish a Russian protectorate over the Balkan Peninsula, conquering Constantinople and the Crimea. However, the Russian army was surrounded, and Peter, under the Prut Peace Treaty, had to return the fortress of Azov to the Turks and tear down the Russian fortress of Taganrog.

Wars with Turkey

The next war, in which Russia was the attacker, was the war with Turkey in 1735-1739. Petersburg took advantage of the turmoil that had begun in Turkey. The invasion of the Crimean Khan, a Turkish vassal, in Kabarda, Chechnya and Dagestan, as well as the conflict between Turkey and Persia, Russia's ally, was used as a formal pretext for the war. In 1736, the Austrian Empire was on the side of the Russian Empire. The plans of Empress Anna Ioannovna were to conquer the Crimean Khanate. Russian troops broke into the Crimean peninsula and seized the khanate's capital, Bakhchisaray, but eventually had to withdraw due to food and water shortages. As a result, Russia's acquisitions were quite modest. Russia was given Azov as an unfortified city, and was still forbidden to have a Black Sea fleet.

Russian troops stormed the Crimean Peninsula and seized the khanate capital of Bakhchisaray, but were forced to withdraw due to food and water shortages

In the Russian-Turkish war of 1806-1812, Russia was also the aggressor. The reason for the war was the resignation in August 1806 of the rulers of the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia without the consent of Russia, although such consent was required under the terms of the 1791 Treaty of Jassy. Russian troops were sent into Moldavia and Wallachia, after which Turkey declared war on Russia. The purpose of the Russian Empire was to conquer the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. Despite the success of the Russian troops, due to the threat of confrontation with Napoleonic France the Russian acquisitions were limited to Bessarabia at the conclusion of the Peace of Bucharest.

The Russo-Swedish war of 1808-1809 arose from the temporary alliance between France and Russia at Tilsit in 1807. Napoleon demanded that Sweden join the Continental blockade. After the refusal, on February 5, 1808, the French emperor told the Russian ambassador in Paris he agreed to Russia's taking all of Sweden, including Stockholm. On February 9 (21), Russian troops crossed the Russian-Swedish border without declaration of war. The stubborn resistance of the Swedes as well as the guerrilla war in Finland resulted in the emperor Alexander I limiting himself to the annexation of Finland.

The Crimean War of 1853-1856 was started by Emperor Nicholas I with the goal of seizing Constantinople and establishing Russian control over the Balkan Peninsula. The pretext for the war was a dispute over control of the holy sites in Palestine. Russia demanded that the rights of the Hellenic Orthodox Church over those sites be recognized and that Russia be given the rights of the protector of 12 million Christians in the Ottoman Empire. After Turkey refused to satisfy those demands, Russia broke off diplomatic relations with it and occupied the Danubian principalities. Following the refusal of St. Petersburg to withdraw its troops, Turkey declared war on Russia on October 4 (16), 1853, after which Russia also declared war on Turkey on October 20 (November 1).

After the destruction of the Turkish fleet in the Battle of Sinop, England and France declared war on Russia, led their fleets into the Black Sea and deployed an expeditionary corps in Crimea, which besieged Sevastopol. Virtually all land battles involving British and French troops were lost by the Russian army, and Sevastopol was eventually taken by the Allies. Under the Paris Treaty of 1856 Russia lost South Bessarabia, which was returned to Turkey, and was deprived of the right to have a Black Sea fleet.

In the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, Russia, taking advantage of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, decided to achieve the goals it had failed to achieve in the Crimean War. The pretext for the war was the defeat of Serbia in the war with Turkey and Constantinople's refusal to grant autonomy to Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina, upon which all the great powers insisted. On April 12 (24), 1877 Russia declared war on Turkey.

The Russian army defeated the Turks and reached Constantinople. According to the Treaty of San Stefano the independence of Serbia, Montenegro, Romania was recognized, and Bosnia and Herzegovina became an autonomous region. Bulgaria was proclaimed a de facto independent state, which had to pay only symbolic tribute to Turkey. Bulgaria's territory spanned most of the Balkan Peninsula and remained under the occupation of Russian troops for two years. Russia also received Southern Bessarabia and Ardahan, Kars, Batum and Bajazet.

However, under pressure from the European powers, primarily England and Austria-Hungary, the terms of the Peace of San Stefano were revised at the Berlin Congress. The territory of Bulgaria was reduced threefold, but until the 1885 uprising it remained a de facto Russian protectorate.


The Soviet Union also waged aggressive wars. The largest of those were the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-1940 and the Afghan War of 1979-1989. The aim of the Soviet-Finnish war was to capture all of Finland and incorporate it into the USSR. To invent a pretext for the war, NKVD officers, on Stalin's orders, organized a provocation by hitting Soviet troops with artillery fire on November 26, 1939. 4 Red Army men were allegedly killed and 9 wounded (in reality there were no dead or wounded). After that, Russia broke off diplomatic relations with Finland, and four days later Soviet troops invaded Finland without declaring war.

The Soviet-Finnish War
The Soviet-Finnish War

A puppet government of the Democratic Republic of Finland was established, which received no support in Finland. However, despite heavy losses (according to some estimates, up to 200,000 dead), the Red Army failed to overcome the resistance of the Finns, although it managed to break through the Mannerheim Line on the Karelian Isthmus.

Fearing that an Anglo-French expeditionary corps would be sent to Finland and with the intent to rapidly move the troops to the German borders to stab Hitler in the back after the Wehrmacht's spring offensive in France, Stalin had to sign the compromise Moscow peace on March 12, 1940. Finland retained its independence but lost the Karelian Isthmus with Vyborg and some territories north of Lake Ladoga. In addition, a Soviet military base was established on the Hanko Peninsula, near Helsinki.

The Afghan war was launched by the USSR in order to preserve the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan, against which the majority of the population rebelled, and to install Soviet military bases in the country. The pretext for the invasion was a request from the Afghan government for help in the fight against Islamic insurgents. But the head of the Afghan government, Hafizullah Amin, was killed by Soviet commandos and replaced by a puppet, Babrak Karmal, who had been brought into the country as part of the interventionists' convoy. During the 9.5 years of war the Soviet troops could not break the resistance of the rebels, although the Russians suffered considerable losses: about 15,000 dead according to official numbers, and twice as many, according to independent estimates. After the Soviet withdrawal, the Communist government in Kabul lasted only three years.

The pretext for the invasion was a request from the Afghan government for help in the fight against Islamic insurgents

As we have seen, both Russia and the USSR waged at least 12 wars between the end of the 16th century and the end of the 20th century, which can be described as offensive and aggressive. In two of these wars proxy governments were established, but they were not successful. And only in one of those wars, the Great Northern War against Sweden, did Russia succeed in achieving all of its planned objectives and even surpassing them.

Putin's aggression against Ukraine not only continues the tradition of aggression against Syria, but also falls within a much older tradition of aggressive wars of conquest waged over four centuries by the Moscow Tsardom, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union.

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