February 23, 2022

As Russia’s military was surrounding Ukraine and threatening to invade, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman gave an interview in which he denied that Russia had ever invaded any other country.

“We remind you that Russia has never attacked anyone throughout its history,” Dmitry Peskov said in an interview on the Russia-1 television channel, according to the Russian news service TASS. “And Russia, which has survived so many wars, is the last country in Europe that even wants to utter the word ‘war.’”

When asked about this assertion, historians agreed that Peskov’s statement was untrue. “It’s blatantly false,” said David Silbey, a military historian at Cornell University.

“How do you think the Russian Empire acquired most of its territory?” said Dan Nexon, a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University.

Faith Hillis, a historian at the University of Chicago, agreed that the statement is “baseless,” and yet “also very familiar, because it was repeated frequently in Soviet-era textbooks. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Russia attacked and subjugated numerous populations, almost always with the rationale that the aggression was mandated by Russians’ needs to protect themselves or others.”

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to an inquiry for this article.

Here is a list of examples, stretching over more than 450 years, of Russia or the Soviet Union going on the offensive militarily, excluding cases of direct self-defense. We’ve left off the list murkier examples of Russia attacking as part of formal alliances, such as the events that precipitated World War I.

Pre-1917 examples

  • The Livonian War. In 1558, Tsar Ivan IV of Russia (sometimes called Ivan the Terrible) invaded Livonia, an area that included much of modern-day Estonia. This precipitated three decades of war that involved Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and Sweden.
  • The Great Northern War. In 1700, Russia, under Tsar Peter I (known as Peter the Great) joined with its allies in challenging the regional hegemony of Sweden. At the outset of the 20-year war, Russian troops laid siege to the Estonian city of Narva.
  • The annexation of Crimea. During the 1770s, the Black Sea region of Crimea had nominal independence but with Russian control of key ports. Empress Catherine II (known as Catherine the Great) refused mediation offered by other European powers and eventually took control of the entire peninsula. Russia formally annexed Crimea in 1783.
  • The partition of Poland. In 1791, Poland enacted a new, liberal constitution. Conservative elements known as the Confederation of Targowica asked Russia to intervene and reimpose the previous constitution. Russia agreed and eventually ended up absorbing Lithuanian Belorussia and western Ukraine.
  • The Crimean War. The war, which stretched from 1853 to 1856, stemmed from a great powers conflict in the Middle East involving Russia, Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. Russia demanded protections for Orthodox populations subject to Ottoman rule. In 1853, at the outset of the war, Russia occupied portions of modern Romania along its border with Turkey.

Examples from the Soviet era

Russian troops were involved in multiple campaigns in the early days of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, but historians say the chronology and circumstances are too muddled to be included on this list. Later examples are clearer, however, they said.

  • The invasion of Poland. On the eve of World War II, Russia and Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a nonaggression agreement between Hitler and Stalin that enabled the two powers to carve up and occupy Poland. The two dictators carried out their dual invasions of Poland in September 1939.
  • The Russo-Finnish War. In November 1939, shortly after the invasion of Poland, the Soviet Union sought to expand its reach to portions of Finland. The Finnish government rejected a Soviet proposal to control several islands and secure a lease for a naval facility in exchange for a portion of Soviet territory. The Soviets proceeded to attack, and after more than three months of combat, the two sides signed a treaty favorable to the USSR in March 1940.
  • The Soviet takeover of the Baltics. In 1940, the Soviet Union presented ultimatums to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, requiring them to admit an unlimited number of Soviet troops and install pro-Soviet governments. All three countries refused, and the Soviet Union proceeded to take control of the countries. Puppet governments agreed to be absorbed into the Soviet Union.
  • War against Japan. In the closing days of World War II, the Soviet Union jettisoned its neutrality pact with Japan and invaded Japanese-held Manchuria from the east, west and north, as well as landing on Japanese-held Sakhalin Island.
  • The Invasion of Hungary. A revolutionary moment occurred in 1956 in Soviet-aligned Hungary, amid some easing following the death of Josef Stalin. In November 1956, the Soviets invaded and crushed the efforts to liberalize, including executing former premier Imre Nagy.
  • Ending the Prague Spring. In 1968, Czechoslovakia enacted liberalizing reforms. In August, Soviet forces invaded and occupied the country and took back key government positions.
  • The Invasion of Afghanistan. In December 1979, the Soviet military invaded Afghanistan to support a Soviet-aligned government facing opposition from Muslim guerillas. Soviet troops remained in the country until 1989.

Post-Soviet examples

Some of Russia’s military campaigns in the post-Soviet era don’t make this list for technical reasons. (Russian military activity in Chechnya, for instance, was arguably an internal matter.)

However, in 2014, Russia took control of Crimea from Ukraine, and later formally annexed the region. The annexation was never accepted by most other nations.

Experts said that Peskov’s framing leans heavily on the idea that a military attack is not an attack as long as there is some justification, however tenuous or archaic.

“Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union both have expansionary histories, but in Russian history-writing, these expansions are ‘liberations,’ not hostile annexations or attacks,” said Susanne Wengle, a University of Notre Dame political scientist.

Typically, Russia, as well as other states, claim to have “intervened” on behalf of the “good guys,” or were invited in by a government, or reacted to an attack by another state, Herrera said. “This is how Russia would explain its previous wars.”

While the uncertainties of history sometimes allow justifications for attacks on other countries to be somewhat plausible, the more important point for the current situation, Herrera said, is that “the statement by Peskov is part of Russian propaganda to make it seem like Russia is not the aggressor today.”

“What is different about 2022,” Herrera said, “is that Russia is engaging in astonishingly belligerent and dangerous action on the border with Ukraine, and an invasion would be a clear choice by Russia to ‘attack’ unprovoked, with little question of who is the attacker, in comparison to other, more complicated historical examples.”

Our ruling

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov speaks to journalists prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Peskov said, “Russia has never attacked anyone throughout its history.”

Historians cite upwards of a dozen examples dating back to the 1500s in which Russia or the Soviet Union attacked another country without being militarily attacked first.

Russia may offer various justifications for why it attacked another country in these instances, but contrary to Peskov’s statement, each of these examples did involve militarily unprovoked actions by Russia or the Soviet Union.

We rate the statement Pants on Fire.

This fact check was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for this fact check here and more of their fact checks here.

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Louis Jacobson has been with PolitiFact since 2009, currently as senior correspondent. Previously, he served as deputy editor of Roll Call and as founding editor…
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  • For a howler like that, “Pants on Fire” is almost too mild.