Two and a half weeks ago the nations of Europe, the United States, and Canada joined together in commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, which initiated the Great Crusade—the liberation of western Europe from Hitler’s grip. This week marks the anniversary of another major event in World War II that, though it will be little noticed outside of Russia, was just as important a piece in the mosaic of Allied victory as was D-Day. Operation Bagration, the Red Army offensive into Byelorussia from June 23 to August 19, 1944, resulted in the destruction of 28 of 34 divisions of the German Third Panzer, Fourth, and Ninth Armies of Army Group Center. The gutting of German forces in the East liberated the last parts of the Soviet Union and positioned the Red Army on the Vistula River, just across from Warsaw and within striking distance of Berlin.
Named after General Pyotr Bagration, who died defending Russia on the battlefield of Borodino in 1812, the operation fulfilled Joseph Stalin’s promise to Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt at Tehran to launch an offensive in support of the opening of a western front in France. The Red Army carefully planned the operation, massing armor and troops across from Army Group Center while using maskirovka, or deception, to convince the Germans that its summer offensive would come further south in Ukraine, where the previous year’s offensives had left off. The Wehrmacht fell for the ruse hook, line, and sinker, positioning its operational reserves in the south and leaving Army Group Center vulnerable to a 7:1 Soviet superiority in armor. The Red Army offensive achieved complete surprise, leading to a devastating German defeat. The various battles encompassing Operation Bagration eliminated a quarter of the German Army’s strength in the East, losses from which it would never recover.
The cost of what is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War was truly horrendous. Operation Bagration alone cost the Germans 400,000 casualties, while the Red Army suffered 180,000 killed and missing and more than a half million wounded and non-battle casualties—in just two months of combat. By comparison, the U.S. killed and wounded from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would equal about three weeks’ worth of losses on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1944. Such history is worth considering as the world order created by American hegemony unravels and great power competition once again intensifies.