Dragon Ball, the beloved manga by Japanese artist Akira Toriyama, features a type of powerful, violent extraterrestrial beings known as the Saiyans, who are sometimes referred to as “sendou minzoku” in Japanese, a term translated as “warrior nation”. In some Asian countries, particularly in China, to describe Russia. This is, however, far from being an accurate description of Russia. Such perception of Russia is, in fact, shaped by Russian movies, novels, and other cultural influences over time, and it reflects a kind of bottom-up admiration for Russia.
The last two centuries of history reveal that the Russian army does not possess an inherent warrior spirit, nor can it be seen as an unbeatable force. During the Napoleonic Wars of 1812, the Russian army suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the French Grande Armée. It was not the Russian army that ultimately defeated Napoleon, but the harsh Russian winter and logistical problems that ultimately led to the French army’s downfall. Similarly, in the Crimean War from 1853-1856, Russia struggled with poor military equipment, training, and transportation, ultimately leading to their defeat and the signing of a peace treaty.
During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, the Russian army achieved victory on land at the Battle of Port Arthur, due to their strong fortifications that inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese army. However, despite this success, the Russians ultimately lost Port Arthur to the Japanese.
Then in the First World War, the Russian army seized the opportunity to invade East Prussia in the battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes, as the German main force was entrenched on the Western Front. Despite the initial success and heavy casualties inflicted on the German army, the Russian forces were ultimately defeated, resulting in the almost complete annihilation of their army.
Although the Soviet army was the historical successor of the Tsarist army and represented the pinnacle of Russian military might, it was far from an invincible force. In 1941, the Soviet-German War broke out, and in most battles, regardless of victory or defeat, the Soviet army suffered more casualties. The Soviet-German War of 1941 saw the Soviet army sustain heavy casualties in most battles, despite the eventual victory. The Soviet Union’s vast territory and strategic depth, as well as its abundant human resources and Western assistance, played a significant role in its success. Similarly, in the Afghan War of 1979-1989 and the Chechen War of 1994-2000, the Russian army suffered significant losses. In the ongoing war in Ukraine since 2022, the performance of the Russian army speaks for itself. Indeed, an article published in The Economist in April last year carries a blunt title: Russia’s army is in a woeful state.
Russia’s foreign policy has been marked by a display of arrogance and haughtiness, resulting in limited global alliances. Its relationships with countries such as China, India, Vietnam, and North Korea can be regarded as close, yet there are few other major allies. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has led to severe economic sanctions being imposed on Russia by the United States-led international community, resulting in further isolation of Russia from the world stage.
Russia today bears little resemblance to the Russia of Queen Catherine the Great or the era of Alexander Pushkin, one that was characterized by a noble spirit. From both historical and contemporary perspectives, it is clear that Russia is anything but a “warrior nation”. It is, after all, a nation that appears strong on the outside but weak within.