The Wars of the Soviet Union

Soviet Tanks in Afghanistan

Soviet Armored Vehicles in Afghanistan


The Soviet Union was one of the most powerful and most feared nations in the world from the end of World War Two until it literally fell apart in the early 1990s. The term "Soviet Union" was the shortened phrase for the official name of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The Soviet Union was ruled by the Soviet Commuist Party, which took power in the bloody Russian Revolution during World War One. The Communists were then known as the Bolsheviks. The early Bolsheviks were led by the revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin.

Lenin's Bolsheviks consolidated their power over most of the old Czarist Russian Empire in the Russian Civil War, which lasted from 1917 to 1923. Several regions broke away from Russia in the chaos of the Revolution, and several new nations achieved independence from the Russians and Bolsheviks. These nations included Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Other regions attempted to achieve independence, but failed under pressure from the Bolshevik "Red" Army of the new Communist government. These areas included Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, and the Muslim regions of Central Asia.

The new Communist government of Vladimir Lenin renamed the country the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This was often shortened to USSR, or the Soviet Union. In the years following World War One and the Russian Revolution, the Soviets attempted to export Communist revolutions to nearby nations, including Germany, Finland, Hungary, and Mongolia. These attempts to spread revolution helped cause severe hostility between most of Europe and the Soviets.

Following World War Two, with the Soviet Union on the side of the victorious Allies, the Soviet armies occupied most of Eastern Europe, and effectively controlled over half of Europe until the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Communism fell in Eastern Europe and eventually in the Soviet Union itself.

From 1945 to the fall of the Soviet state, the Soviet Union, its allies and satellite states engaged in a very dangerous conflict with the United States and the other Western allies called "The Cold War."

Russian Revolution (1917) The revolution that brought the Bolshevik (Marxist/Communist) Party to power under the leadership of a professional revolutinary named Vladimir Lenin.  Opposition to Bolshevik rule by followers of the old monachy, and other conservative elements led to a long and very bloody civil war.  The Bolsheviks eventually won the war and consolidated power.

Russian Civil War (1917-1923) Following the Bolshevik takeover of the Russian government, civil war broke out as non-Communist Russian elements, with aid from the World War One Western Allies (U.S., Britain, France, Japan) sought to destroy the Bolsheviks.  Also, many non-Russian regions in the old Russian Empire, attempted to break away and form new, independent nations, including the Baltic States, Finland, Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia.

Soviet-Ukraine War ( Dec. 1917-Nov. 1921) In the confusion and chaos of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, Ukraine broke away and declared independence.  This first real attempt at nationhood did not last long, as, with the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War, the Red Army turned on Ukraine, reabsorbing it into the new Soviet Union.  Ukraine would achieve independence again in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart.

Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921)--Major war between Poland and Russia/The Soviet Union.

Soviet-Georgian War (Feb. 15 – March 17 1921) Similar to other attempts at breaking away from Russian rule, Georgia declared independence, but soon fell to the advancing Red Army of the new Soviet Union.

Soviet Invasion of Armenia (1921) Like neighboring Georgia, Armenia had tried her hand at indpendence (also from Turkish rule over the border), but  breaking away from Russian rule was easier to begin, but harder to keep.  Armenia, like other nations that sought freedom from Moscow, also fell to the advancing Red Army of the new Soviet Union.

Soviet Invasion of Manchuria (1929) -Border clash with Chinese Warlords in Manchuria.

Soviet Invasion of Xinjiang (1934)--Soviet troops intervened in the Chinese Civil War to aid a pro-Soviet Chinese Warlord under attack by Chinese Nationalist forces.

Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) -The Soviet Union provided extensive material support and sent military advisors to aid the Spanish Republican forces in their civil war with the Spanish Nationalists. This was a proxy war between the Soviets on the one hand and Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, who supported the Nationalists.

Soviet-Japanese Border Wars (1938-1939)

Battle of Lake Khasan (July 29, 1938 – August 11, 1938)-- Also known as the Changkufeng Incident. Japanese forces moved into Soviet-controlled territory on the border of Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Both sides suffered several hundred casualties.

Battle of Khalkhin Gol (1939) also known as the Nomonhan Incident. Very large and bloody battle (Soviet casualties: at least 7,974 killed and 15,251 wounded. Japanese casualties: 8,440 killed, with 8,766 wounded.) Some historians consider this battle very significant given that Stalin now knew his troops could handle the Japanese, and the Soviet victory at Khalkhin Gol ensured that Japan would not intervene when the Soviet Union joined the new European war in Poland on September 17, 1939.

The Winter War: The Soviet Attack on Finland (Nov. 30, 1939-March 1, 1940)-The Soviets sought territory from Finland, and the right to establish military bases on Finnish islands, as well as on the Finnish mainland. Finland rejected the Soviet demand for Finnish land, and, on November 30, 1939, without a formal declaration of war, the Soviet air force launched aerial bombardment of the Finnish capital of Helsinki as well as the city of Viipuri. That same day, Soviet armies totaling nearly a 1,000,000 men invaded Finland. After a ferocious defense, the Finns fell under the weight of the superior Soviet numbers.

Soviet Occupation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina (1940)--After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which effectively divided Eastern Europe between them, the Soviets issued an ultimatum to Romania to surrender the regions of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina. Faced with the threat of a Soviet invasion, Romania surrendered the regions to the Soviets without a fight.

German (and Soviet) Invasion of Poland (September 1, 1939-October 6, 1939)--Germany invaded Poland on September 1, and Britain, France, and Canada, declared war on Germany on September 3. The Soviet Union joined the war on Germany's side on September 17, with the Soviet Invasion of Poland from the east. The German Invasion of Poland (called Operation Case White/Unternehmen Fall Weiss by the Germans), marks the beginning of World War Two in Europe.

Polish Uprising (1956)--Polish uprising against Soviet domination. The Poles were crushed by the Soviets.

Hungarian Revolution (1956)--Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination. The Hungarians were crushed by the Soviets.

Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968)--Reformist Czech government overthrown by Warsaw Pact invasion led by the Soviets.

Soviet Invasion and Occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989)--Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan to prop up the Communist Afghan government in its war against Islamic rebels.


R. Ernest, Dupuy, and Dupuy Trevor N. The Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 B.C. To The Present.New York: Harper & Row, 1970.

Kohn, George C. Dictionary of Wars. New York: Facts On File Publications, 1999.

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