Russian History


Historical Background

Modern Russian military history begins with Peter the Great, who established the Imperial Russian Army (see Peter the Great and the Russian Empire, ch. 1). That force, conceived by Peter along the Western lines that he had studied, won its first great battle against the Swedish army of Charles XII at Poltava in 1709. The first great Russian naval victory, at the Hango Peninsula on the Baltic Sea in 1714, also came at the expense of the Swedes; Peter had modernized the Russian navy with the same diligence he applied to the army. The victories over Sweden made Russia the dominant power in the Baltic region.

For the first time, under Peter the armed forces were staffed by recruits from the peasantry, whose twenty-five-year obligation made them professional soldiers and sailors devoted to service because they had been liberated from serfdom--together with all their offspring--in the bargain. Officers were nobles called to an equally rigorous lifetime service. Under Peter, Russia had the largest standing army in Europe, and elements of the military system he introduced lasted until 1917.

Under Catherine II (the Great; r. 1762-96), the Russian Empire expanded to the west, the south, and the east, and wars were fought with the Ottoman Empire (1768-74 and 1787-92) and Poland (1794-95) (see Imperial Expansion and Maturation: Catherine II, ch. 1). The greatest Russian military leader of Catherine's time was Aleksandr Suvorov, who fought in the second Russo-Turkish War and the Polish campaign, then led a Russian and Austrian army against the revolutionary French in northern Italy in 1799. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Russian armies continued a long series of wars against the Ottoman Empire. They also met Napoleon's French forces at several points in Europe; the most famous encounter was the legendary defeat of Napoleon's 1812 invasion force by the Russians under Mikhail Kutuzov. That victory established the pattern of scorched-earth retreat that left Napoleon and succeeding invaders without material support, and it brought a Russian army to Paris in triumphant occupation.

Under Tsar Nicholas I (r. 1825- 55), Russia became known as the "gendarme of Europe," an archconservative defender of monarchies against the forces of liberation that had begun to sweep Europe in the previous century. In 1831 Nicholas quelled a Polish rebellion against his own empire, and in 1849 Russia sent 100,000 troops to suppress an uprising by Hungarian patriots against the Austrian Empire. The Crimean War (1853-56), the fruit of Europe's complex system of alliances and a series of diplomatic misunderstandings, centered on the British and French siege of the Russian port of Sevastopol', which was well defended for nearly a year before surrendering. However, the Russian defeat in that campaign revealed that Russian command and supply systems had fallen behind those of Western Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In the second half of the century, Russia waged a series of military campaigns to conquer the khanates of Central Asia, extending the empire and providing a domestic supply of cotton. With relatively little military resistance, the entire region had been incorporated into the empire by 1885. Russia's next military campaign, however, was not so reassuring. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 brought stunning defeats on land and at sea, capped by the naval Battle of Tsushima in which the Russian Baltic Fleet was decimated (see Imperialism in Asia and the Russo-Japanese War, ch. 1). Like the Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War was a signal that Russia's war machine was not keeping pace with the modern world. Ten years later, World War I would confirm that evaluation, as an inept defense administration and poorly equipped troops suffered heavy losses to the Germans.

Despite those failures, it was growing dissatisfaction on the home front that ultimately undermined Russia's military effort in World War I. Under the direct command of the tsar, the army actually performed quite well in 1916, but by 1917 the war effort had crippled civilian society and readied Russia for the overthrow of the tsar. As the home front faltered in its moral and material support of the military, the results of 1916 were reversed. The Provisional Government that followed the tsar in 1917 was determined to continue the war; that policy was a major factor in the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in toppling the Provisional Government only eight months after it took power.

The imperial army and navy disintegrated after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Although the Bolsheviks quickly signed a peace treaty with Germany, there was soon a need for a military force to defend the new state against the anticommunist Whites in what became a bloody, three-year civil war. In April 1918, the Red Army was established when the Soviet government announced compulsory military service for peasants and workers. The army's chief organizer was Leon Trotsky, the new nation's first commissar of war (1918-24); Trotsky's initial officer cadre was made up of about 50,000 former tsarist officers. Trotsky was able to mold his peasant and worker recruits into an effective force that eventually prevailed over five separate White armies, with the benefit of access to Russia's industrial heartland and concentrated lines of supply and communications. Under Trotsky, political officers were attached to all military units to ensure the loyalty of all individuals--a practice that persisted throughout the Soviet era.

When the Civil War ended in 1921, General Mikhail Tukhachevskiy led an extensive program of reorganization and equipment modernization; he also established several military schools. In the first fifteen years of the Red Army, communist party membership increased rapidly among the enlisted ranks and, especially, among the officer corps. By the mid-1930s, training schools and academies had turned out a generation of young officers and noncommissioned officers with strong political indoctrination, thus ensuring the ideological loyalty of the entire armed forces. Beginning in 1931, Tukhachevskiy began a large-scale rearmament program based on the industrial development of the five-year plans (see Glossary), and the armed forces and their supplies of equipment were enlarged greatly as the shadow of war began falling over Europe in the mid-1930s.

In 1937 the purges instigated by Joseph V. Stalin (in office 1927-53) reached the army. Tukhachevskiy, now first deputy commissar of war, was executed for treason together with seven top generals. As many as 30,000 other officers were imprisoned or dismissed, leaving the Red Army without experienced commanders at the end of the 1930s. The first campaign that revealed this weakness was the so-called Winter War against Finland (1939-40), in which an estimated 100,000 troops of the Red Army died while defeating a small Finnish army.

Although the Nazi invasion of 1941 drove far into the Russian interior to threaten Leningrad and Moscow, a new generation of officers gradually asserted themselves as the Germans were driven from Russian territory in 1943 and 1944 after the climactic Battle of Stalingrad. A crucial event in that turnaround was Stalin's removal of political officers having parallel command authority, allowing his top officers to exercise military judgment independent of ideological concerns.

The most important Russian military leader of World War II was Marshal Georgiy Zhukov, who was instrumental at four key points of Soviet resistance: the siege of Leningrad; the defense of Moscow, the first point at which the German advance was stopped; the Battle of Stalingrad (February 1943); and the Battle of Kursk (July 1943), in which the last strong German counteroffensive was defeated. Zhukov also commanded the final push against the German armies across Belorussia, Ukraine, and Poland. In April 1945, Zhukov led the Red Army's final assault on Berlin that ended what Russians called the Great Patriotic War.

By the end of World War II, the Soviet armed forces had swelled to about 11.4 million officers and soldiers, and the military had suffered about 7 million deaths. At that point, this force was recognized as the most powerful military in the world. In 1946 the Red Army was redesignated as the Soviet army, and by 1950 demobilization had reduced the total active armed forces to about 3 million troops. From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, the Soviet armed forces focused on adapting to the changed nature of warfare in the era of nuclear arms and on achieving parity with the United States in strategic nuclear weapons. Conventional military power showed its continued importance, however, when the Soviet Union used its troops to invade Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to keep those countries within the Soviet alliance system.

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union began to modernize its conventional warfare and power projection capabilities. At the same time, it became more involved than ever before in regional conflicts and local wars. The Soviet Union sent arms and military advisers to a variety of Third World allies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Soviet generals planned military operations against rebels in Angola and Ethiopia. However, Soviet troops saw little combat in such assignments until the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. There, they fought a counterinsurgency campaign against Afghan rebels for nearly eight and one-half years. An estimated 15,000 Soviet soldiers had been killed and 35,000 wounded in the conflict by the time Soviet forces began to withdraw from Afghanistan in May 1988. By early 1989, all of the roughly 110,000 Soviet troops who had been deployed had left Afghanistan.

After incurring the heavy blow of failure in the Afghanistan campaign, the Soviet armed forces faced an even larger, albeit nonviolent setback as the Soviet sphere of influence in Europe began to crumble in 1989. It disappeared entirely by 1991, when the Warsaw Pact (see Glossary) alliance dissolved. As a result, by 1994 all Soviet/Russian troops had been withdrawn from territory west of Ukraine and Belarus, as well as from the three Baltic states, which achieved independence in 1991. Together with the end of the Soviet Union as a state, the events of that period set the military on a bewildering search for a new identity and a new doctrine.