Soviet Doctrine Between World Wars

The Red Army Soviet

Russian military thought was much better developed before and during the Great War than most in the West realized. It is true that the Russian army often did not perform well at the tactical level (and the same could later be said of the Soviet army). Nevertheless, Russian troops often fought stubbornly, and at the highest strategic levels, Russian commanders were conversant with the military thinking of the day. During the Great War, the Russians crushed the Austrians in Galicia in the fall of 1914. They fought the Germans to a standstill around Warsaw during the winter. In 1916, the innovative Brusilov offensive threatened to take the Austro-Hungarian Empire out of the war. In fact, the Russians held more German prisoners in 1917 than the French and British combined. While the Russians technically left the war in March 1918 following the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, their conflict had, in fact, continued in the guise of a civil war that lasted into the 1920s.

The Russian experience differed markedly from that of the western front. Warfare in the open eastern theater was more mobile. Even cavalry played an important role. The Russians achieved their greatest successes—Lvov in 1914, the Brusilov offensive in 1916, and several campaigns during the civil war—on the offensive, whereas they suffered their greatest defeats on the defensive. Offensive operations allowed the Bolsheviks to reestablish their control over most of the former tsarist empire. They lost control of Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, parts of Poland, and the province of Bessarabia, but reconquered Byelorussia, the Ukraine, the Crimea, Georgia, and Kazakhstan.

After the civil war, the Bolsheviks ruled a state with virtually no natural borders that was surrounded by hostile neighbors. Their most likely enemy would be Poland, probably aided by France during the 1920s or by the Germans during the 1930s. Whatever the scenario, the best strategic course of action was to launch an offensive to knock Poland out before allies came to its aid. To implement that policy, the Soviets needed an army capable of offensive action.

Soviet military development during the interwar period took place within a larger internal political context. Revolutionary ideology motivated the Bolsheviks and spilled over into other areas, including the military. The concept of the relationship of war and diplomacy to the state differed within the Soviet context: since capitalism was the root cause of conflict, there could not be, and should not be, an end to warfare until capitalism could be destroyed. Wars, as the experience of Russia demonstrated quite well, could work to the advantage of socialism.

But how were these wars to be fought? Initially, most Bolsheviks expected to wage a revolutionary conflict with a people’s militia as a prelude to a wider global revolution. But during the civil war, the Soviets relied heavily on “specialists”—that is, former officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) from the imperial army. Because these potentially reactionary elements could not be trusted, the Bolsheviks established the practice of dual control—namely, the appointment of political commissars as co-commanders at all but the lowest levels of the command hierarchy. (While this practice was unconventional, it was nothing more than an established western concept—civilian control of the military—carried to the extreme.) By the end of the civil war, many leading Bolsheviks, most notably Lev Trotsky, had become convinced that war required more of a scientific approach than a revolutionary one. Russia needed to reestablish an army organized along more traditional lines. Since the state did not have the means to develop a large professional army, a philosophical “center” developed, around Mikhail Tukhachevsky, that favored a compromise: the development of an elite professional cadre backed by a system of territorial-based militia units. M. V. Frunze, who replaced Trotsky as commissar for military and naval affairs in January 1925, pushed successfully for one-man command—that is, the end of the commissar system. Frunze subsequently underwent a forced operation for an ulcer and died under mysterious circumstances. His wife promptly committed suicide.

Josef Stalin then became the leading figure in the Soviet political hierarchy. He recognized the international reality: socialism existed, and was likely only to exist for some time, in one country—the Soviet Union. To defend the socialist motherland, Stalin increasingly relied on a professional army rather than a militia. Following the adoption of the first five-year plan in 1928, Stalin expanded industrial production to provide for a larger professional military cadre. In 1935, the Soviet Union formally adopted a professional army and the following year passed a law for obligatory military service throughout the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics.

In the midst of these debates, Red Army commanders attempted to develop a coherent military doctrine. There is evidence of some foreign influence. As far back as the tsarist period, the Russian army had looked to the French for direction. After the Russo-German Treaty of Rapallo of 1922, which brought a formal and official end of differences dating back to 1918, German influences, along with German land and air units avoiding the strictures of Versailles, also found their way into Russia. Red Army leaders did review the work of foreign military writers. Nevertheless, Soviet military thought was far more original than derivative, and it reflected the Russian experience of open and mobile warfare.

That more fluid experience shaped the attempt to incorporate armor into the Soviet army. Some officers favored the defensive, a reflection of what could be termed the influence of the Russian “national school” dating back to the days of Mikhail Kutusov and the War of 1812. Tanks would be employed according to what could be considered the French method—armor supporting infantry, with tank battalions attached to individual infantry divisions. But Soviet success with cavalry during the civil war suggested the need for mobile, mechanized formations. In 1932, the Red Army began to form mechanized corps—mostly tank brigades, with an attached brigade of mechanized infantry—which were the largest units of their kind at that time. These were largely tank-heavy formations, organized somewhat along British lines.

Beginning in the late 1920s, the Soviet military began to focus on the problem of sustained operations. One of the lessons of the Great War and the civil war was that breakthrough forces rapidly lost their ability to sustain an offensive tempo. In 1928, Red Army commanders began considering what they termed “successive operations.” The concept was simple: to defeat a defense in depth, an attacker had to attack in depth—attack with successive waves of assault elements maintaining pressure on the defenders to prevent their recovery. Mechanized forces were best suited to perform such a role.

Subsequent development led to the establishment of a comprehensive doctrine that included the orchestration of armor, mechanized and leg infantry, motorized and self-propelled artillery, and close air support. The Red Army also pioneered the development of airborne paratroopers, who would also participate in the planned offensives. The Soviet goal was not only to break through an enemy position, but also to defeat its second and reserve echelons and shatter the front as a prelude to decisive battles of encirclement. As was the case with most things Russian, these operations would take place on a tremendous scale.

By the mid-1930s, the Soviets had developed a comprehensive military doctrine that was one of, if not the, most advanced in the world. The outlines of many of the concepts that would figure prominently in Soviet military operations in the latter years of World War II, and subsequently in the Cold War period (including deep battle and operational maneuver groups), were evident in the 1930s.

However, not all Russian political and military leaders were in accord. Many believed that the next war would be an attenuated struggle of attrition in which population, productive capacity, and the ability of a state to mobilize the will of the people would be paramount. In such a struggle, defensive operations would be crucial. Armored forces should not be concentrated, but dispersed to support the infantry. Nevertheless, the reformers survived these initial attacks. The increased output that accompanied industrialization permitted the formation of large mechanized forces and independent tank formations committed to infantry support.

Unfortunately for the people of the Soviet Union, as the world moved toward war, the paranoid Stalin came to distrust the commanders of his army. In May 1937, Stalin reinstituted the practice of appointing political commissars at all levels of command. That same year, he extended the series of purges that had swept other elements of Soviet society to the military. Tukhachevsky and his followers disappeared in the abyss along with a quarter to a third of the officer corps. While the purge gutted the army, the surviving officers struggled to decipher the lessons of the Spanish Civil War. The length of that struggle and the lack of mobile operations appeared to support the views of those commanders who believed in more a defensive posture for the army. As a result, on the eve of war, Soviet military doctrine was in a state of flux. An army designed and trained for one type of war was not prepared for employment in a very different posture. The confusion for a relatively young force was a recipe for disaster.

Despite the doctrinal and organizational confusion, in 1939, the Soviets possessed superb tanks. While it was true that Soviet doctrine for the employment of armored forces, thanks to Stalin, was well behind that of the Germans, the same cannot be said of Soviet tanks. The Russians designed several models to support infantry and other models to participate in more mobile “deep” operations.

The Russian motor industry lagged behind that of the West. Not until 1924 did the Russians manufacture their own trucks. Factories turned out the first tanks, modeled on French Renault types, in the late 1920s. Soviet tankers considered the French models unsatisfactory for service in Russian conditions and turned to British and American manufacturers for alternatives. The first heavy Russian tanks were based on British models, but for medium tanks the Soviets chose the American Christie design and developed the various BT types. Still in use into 1942, the BT-7, armed with a 47-mm antitank weapon, outgunned most of the Germans tanks in use in 1941. Soviet tanks generally had wider tracks and more evenly distributed weight than comparable western tanks (ideal for the muddy conditions in the east), were more heavily protected with thicker and sloped armor, and were powered by reliable diesel engines. Nevertheless, Soviet tanks were not without shortcomings. They had cramped turrets, poor optics, and unreliable transmissions, and the poor machining of tracks caused breakdowns. Except for command vehicles, Soviet tanks also lacked radios.