THE success of Russia’s military intervention in Syria has surprised many observers. In just a few months Russian air and naval forces have changed the course of the Syrian civil war. Islamic fundamentalists have been pushed back on a number of fronts. The regime of Russia’s ally, President Assad, has stabilised, while his western-backed opponents have been forced to accept a ceasefire. Russia and the United States are no longer competitors in the Syrian crisis but partners in search of a durable peace that must marginalise the fundamentalists. Coordination with the ground forces provided by the Syrian army has been central to Russia’s success. Russia’s armed forces are under no illusion that air power alone can win wars. The boots on the ground have been provided by Assad while President Putin’s forces contribute advanced technology, firepower and intelligence.
Vital to Russia’s military effectiveness has been the reform and reorganisation of its armed forces carried, out after the border war with Georgia in August 2008. Russia won that war relatively easily but not very efficiently.
The 1990s were a period of steep decline for Russia’s armed forces as Moscow grappled with the sudden implosion of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But since Putin came into office, a significant military revival has been part of his project to reinstate Russia as a great power, capable of global influence and actions. The 2008 border war exposed the need to streamline and modernise the armed forces to make them a more flexible and responsive instrument of Putin’s projection of Russian power. The first success of these reforms came in the Ukrainian civil war when, in the summer of 2014, Russia’s covert support for rebels in the eastern Ukraine resulted in a resounding military defeat for the Kiev government.
Russia’s military performance in Syria and Ukraine belies the stereotype of its forces being crude and unsophisticated, compared to those of the west. Those beliefs have a long history, yet fail to recognise the traditions of creativity and innovation in the Russian and Soviet military. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union three-quarters of a century ago on June 22, 1941, he believed the Red Army would simply crumble under the might of the German onslaught. Akin to contemporary western advocates of a renewed cold war with Russia, Hitler’s perceptions were shaped by prejudices about the crude barbarian Slavic hordes in the east. The Nazis additionally believed those hordes were manipulated by their primary racial enemy — the Jews. Important, too, were German perceptions of Russian forces’ sorry performance in the 1939-1940 Winter War with Finland.
The spur for that war was Finland’s refusal to concede territory the Soviets considered vital to safeguard the security of Leningrad. Moscow expected an easy victory, but the initial Soviet attack on Finland in December 1939 went badly wrong and the Red Army lost tens of thousands of troops. After the Red Army regrouped, a second offensive forced the Finns to accept an unfavourable peace treaty in March 1940.
The Germans wrongly concluded from that weak performance against Finnish forces that the Red Army would be a pushover. Given the Wehrmacht took only three weeks to conquer Poland in September 1939 and subdued France in just six weeks in the summer of 1940, such hubris was understandable.
What the Germans did not appreciate was that after the Finnish war the Red Army undertook a far-reaching examination of its performance. The result was a series of military reforms, including reinstatement into the armed forces of thousands of “suspect” officers who had been purged by Stalin in the 1930s. So when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union he faced a more experienced and formidable military force than he had imagined.
Operation Barbarossa — the code name for the German invasion of Russia — co-ordinated the June 1941 attack by three million German and Nazi-allied troops (including the Finns) across a 1000-mile front. Its aim was to destroy the Red Army and to conquer European Russia in the course of a single Blitzkrieg — lightning strike — campaign. All went well at first for the German forces who, by September, had captured Kiev, surrounded Leningrad and were ready to advance on Moscow. By the end of the year the Red Army had lost 200 divisions in battle and taken more than four million casualties — losses that dwarfed even the bloody carnage of the First World War. German losses were high, too, with the Wehrmacht incurring nearly one million losses to death and wounding.
The Red Army did, indeed, buckle under the strain but it did not crumble. Crucially, its leadership and political masters modified their strategy and tactics to adopt a more defensive stance. This was distinct from the early weeks of the war when the Soviets had attempted to counter the invasion with massive counter-attacks which achieved little except to expose Soviet troops to defeat by German encirclement.
Stalin took on the role of Supreme Commander but, unlike Hitler, the Soviet dictator did not seek to dominate his generals. Although he did not always take their advice, he learned from their military professionalism and strived to create a coherent and effective high command.
One of Stalin’s key decisions was to return his Chief of Staff — General Georgy Zhukov — to front-line operations. Zhukov helped to defend Leningrad and was then given command of the Soviet armies defending
Moscow. Crucially, Stalin decided to stay in the Soviet capital rather than flee the city and in early November 1941, on the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, he delivered stirring patriotic speeches designed to boost the morale of Moscow’s defenders.
Yet by the end of November advanced units of the German army could see the spires of Moscow’s Kremlin. However, the Soviets had been husbanding their reserves and in early December Zhukov was ready to launch a massive counter-offensive to drive the Germans back from Moscow. For a while Stalin even hoped to reverse Operation Barbarossa completely and chase the Germans out of Russia altogether, but that was beyond the capabilities of the Red Army in 1941-2.
Hitler’s inability to capture Moscow signalled the strategic failure of Operation Barbarossa. Instead of a quick victory, the Germans faced a long war of attrition on their eastern front — a war that they were doomed to lose now that the Soviet Union was allied with Great Britain and the United States.
In immediate response to Hitler’s June invasion of Russia, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared his support for the Soviet Union, while US President Roosevelt authorised American aid to the USSR, although the US did not enter the war officially until the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Then in 1942 Hitler launched another bold move designed to defeat the Soviet Union before the industrial might and human resources of the allied coalition could be deployed fully. His aim was to capture the Soviet oilfields at Baku and to cripple Stalin’s war effort by cutting off essential fuel supplies. Hitler’s war for oil in the summer of 1942 provoked what was arguably the most important battle of the Second World War — the fight for Stalingrad.
The Germans’ southern campaign towards Baku began at the end of June and advanced rapidly. But the Red Army fought a far more effective strategic retreat and suffered fewer losses than in 1941. Then, as the Germans reached Stalingrad, the Soviets demonstrated their mastery of military art by engaging them in a costly street-by-street urban battle whilst preparing a counter-strike to encircle 300,000 enemy troops in the city. The Red Army’s counter-offensive at Stalingrad in November 1942 was the beginning of the end for Hitler and the Nazis as the Soviets seized the strategic initiative and thereafter inflicted defeat after defeat on the Germans. As Winston Churchill acknowledged at the time, it was the Red Army that tore the guts out of the Nazi war machine. The final victory was delivered in May 1945 when Zhukov captured Berlin and forced the Germans to surrender unconditionally. Hitler was by then dead having committed suicide in his bunker on April 30,1945.
Surviving German generals claimed after the war, they had lost to the Red Army because it had more troops and resources and was better adapted to the weather and terrain of Russia. Hitler was also a convenient scapegoat for Nazi Germany’s defeat by a supposedly barbarian and backward nation. His generals declared Hitler to be a poor supreme commander whose strategic errors had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Conveniently, these same generals forgot the bad advice they gave to Hitler. In truth, the German-led forces lost to an army that was better as well a bigger: an army with superior arms, strategy and leadership. Stalin made as many mistakes as Hitler but he learned from them as did the Red Army as a whole. During the war the Red Army developed into a highly effective learning organisation. The experience and lessons of combat and command were assiduously collected, analysed and disseminated. The Soviets kept command structures, force organisation and military doctrine under constant review. Meanwhile, military technology improved steadily and the Soviets made good use of the thousands of tanks, planes and trucks supplied by their western allies.
The Red Army was traditionally offensive-minded and, by 1945, Soviet attack operations were highly sophisticated exercises in the mass deployment of air, artillery, tank and ground forces. When the Red Army invaded Germany in January 1945 it deployed 2.25 million troops, 6500 tanks, 4800 aircraft and 31,000 pieces of artillery.
It was the Red Army that finally defeated Japan in August 1945 when the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, combined with the Americans’ atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, shocked the Japanese into surrender. The rapid Soviet defeat of the million-strong Japanese Kwantung Army in an operation that ranged over 100s of miles is still studied in military academies across the world.
After the war, Soviet military innovation continued, so that by 1949 the Soviet Union had developed its own atomic bomb and in the 1950s became the first state to develop intercontinental ballistic missile capability. Although the USSR was not overtly involved in the Korean War of 1950-53, Soviet jets and pilots were more than a match for their US counterparts. During the prolonged war in Vietnam Soviet-supplied missile defence systems were used to defend against American bombing raids. The Soviet AK47 automatic rifle was to become a weapon of choice for both regular and irregular armies.
The Soviet army did not conduct major combat operations until the Afghanistan war in the 1980s but it did police the communist bloc countries with military interventions in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The 1981 threat of a Soviet invasion of Poland to safeguard communist rule prompted the Polish government to introduce martial law and to clampdown on the Solidarity movement’s challenge to the communist system.
The Afghanistan campaign has been portrayed as the Soviet Union’s ‘Vietnam’: a costly losing war against Islamicist insurgents that began in 1979 and ended in failure when the Soviets withdrew in 1988. But that is not how the Russian military views the conflict. Soviet armed forces suffered 15,000 fatalities but suppressed the insurgency more thoroughly than their western counterparts managed in their Afghanistan war of the early 21st century. When the Soviets withdrew they bequeathed a stable and secular — if authoritarian — regime which only fell to the Taliban when Moscow withdrew financial aid to Afghanistan following the 1991 collapse of the USSR.
The Russians nevertheless chose to learn lessons from the conflict. Above all they noted the dangers of engaging in complex battles from which it is difficult to later withdraw and of “mission creep” — the broadening or expansion of original military goals after initial successes without sufficient analysis of the likely outcomes. Hence the limited nature of Russia’s mission in Syria and its relative restraint in Ukraine.
None of Russia’s wars were wars fought by choice. In each case Moscow’s preferred option was to secure a political solution that would achieve its goals. Initially this was true even when confronting Hitler. While Stalin doubted that the non-aggression pact he had signed with Hitler in August 1939 would last, he was prepared to co-exist with Nazi Germany. Hitler initiated hostilities because he feared Soviet power and wanted to liquidate Stalin’s ‘Jewish-Bolshevik’ regime. The war unleashed in Russia by the Nazis was no ordinary military conflict. Rather it was an ideological and racist war, a war of destruction and extermination that aimed to kill Jews, enslave the Slavic peoples and destroy communism. This resulted in the death of 25 million Soviet citizens, including a million Jews as the first victims of the Holocaust. Equally horrifying was that three million out of the five million Soviet POWs captured by German forces died in prison. In total the Red Army lost 8 million soldiers and another 16 million were wounded.
On the German side, there were 10 million military casualties including three million dead. This represented 75% of their total losses during the Second World War. The Red Army destroyed 600 enemy divisions — Finnish, Rumanian, Hungarian, Spanish and Italian as well as German. Among the Axis losses were 48,000 tanks, 167,000 artillery pieces and 77,000 aircraft. Meanwhile the Germans destroyed 70,000 Soviet cities, towns and villages together with 98,000 collective farms, tens of thousands of factories and thousands of miles of road and railway track. This was war on a scale unprecedented and unsurpassed.
Some have argued that the Soviet victory over Nazi German was pyrrhic — a victory won at too great a cost. But the alternative prospect of a triumphant Nazi empire ruling Europe would have been far worse. As Russia never tires of reminding the west, the Red Army saved European civilisation as well as the Soviet Union from the Nazis.
The Soviets did not, of course, win the war on their own but in a grand alliance with the western allies of the US, Great Britain and other states — an alliance that, with the addition of China, Vladimir Putin would dearly love to re-create to defeat common enemies in Syria and elsewhere.