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Soviet Armed Forces
Coat of arms of the Soviet Union.svg

Red Army flag.svg
General Staff
Strategic Rocket Forces
Air Defence Forces
Air Forces
Ranks of the Soviet Military
Military ranks of the Soviet Union
History of the Soviet Military
Military history of the Soviet Union
History of Russian military ranks

The Soviet Armed Forces refers to the armed forces of the Russian SFSR (1917—1922), and Soviet Union (1922—1991) from their beginnings in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War to its dissolution in December 1991.

According to the all-union military service law of September 1925, the Soviet Armed Forces consisted of five components: the Ground Forces, the Air Forces, the Navy, the State Political Directorate (OGPU) (predecessor of the Committee for State Security)[1]. The OGPU was later made independent and amalgamated with the NKVD in 1934. NKWD's/MWD's Internal Troops and Border Troops also belonged to the Armed Forces of the USSR until 1991.[2] After World War II the Strategic Rocket Forces (1960), Air Defence Forces (1948) and troops of the Civil Defence were added, standing first, third and sixth in the official Soviet reckoning of comparative importance (with the Ground Forces being second, the Air Forces fourth, the Navy fifth, Border Troops seventh and Internal Troops eighth.)



The Council of People's Commissars set up the Red Army by decree on January 15 1918 (Old Style) (January 28, 1918), basing it on the already-existing Red Guard. The official Red Army Day of February 23, 1918 marked the day of the first mass draft of the Red Army in Petrograd and Moscow, and of the first combat action against the occupying Imperial German Army. February 23 became an important national holiday in the Soviet Union, later celebrated as "Soviet Army Day", and it continues as a day of celebration in present-day Russia as Defenders of the Motherland Day. Credit as the founder of the Red Army generally goes to Leon Trotsky, the People's Commissar for War from 1918 to 1924.

At the beginning of its existence, the Red Army functioned as a voluntary formation, without ranks or insignia. Democratic elections selected the officers. However, a decree of May 29, 1918 imposed obligatory military service for men of ages 18 to 40. To service the massive draft, the Bolsheviks formed regional military commissariats (военный комиссариат, военкомат (voenkomat)), which as of 2005 still exist in Russia in this function and under this name. (Note: do not confuse military commissariats with the institution of military political commissars.)

After General Aleksei Brusilov offered the Bolsheviks his professional services in 1920, they decided to permit the conscription of former officers of the Imperial Russian Army. The Bolshevik authorities set up a special commission under the chair of Lev Glezarov (Лев Маркович Глезаров), and by August 1920 had drafted about 315,000 ex-officers. Most often they held the position of military advisor (voyenspets: "военспец" an abbreviation of "военный специалист", i.e., "military specialist"). A number of prominent Soviet Army commanders had previously served as Imperial Russian generals. In fact, a number of former Imperial military men, notably a member of the Supreme Military Council, Mikhail Bonch-Bruevich, had joined the Bolsheviks earlier.

The Bolshevik authorities assigned to every unit of the Red Army a political commissar, or politruk, who had the authority to override unit commanders' decisions if they ran counter to the principles of the Communist Party. Although this sometimes resulted in inefficient command, the Party leadership considered political control over the military necessary, as the Army relied more and more on experienced officers from the pre-revolutionary Tsarist period.



Ranks and Titles

Lenin, Trotsky and soldiers of the Red Army in Petrograd

The early Red Army abandoned the institution of a professional officer corps as a "heritage of tsarism" in the course of the Revolution. In particular, the Bolsheviks condemned the use of the word "officer" and used the word "commander" instead. The Red Army abandoned epaulettes and ranks, using purely functional titles such as "Division Commander", "Corps Commander", and similar titles. In 1924 it supplemented this system with "service categories", from K-1 (lowest) to K-14 (highest). The service categories essentially operated as ranks in disguise: they indicated the experience and qualifications of a commander. The insignia now denoted the category, not the position of a commander. However, one still had to use functional titles to address commanders, which could become as awkward as "comrade deputy head-of-staff of corps". If one did not know a commander's position, one used one of the possible positions - for example: "Regiment Commander" for K-9.

On September 22, 1935 the Red Army abandoned service categories and introduced personal ranks. These ranks, however, used a unique mix of functional titles and traditional ranks. For example, the ranks included "Lieutenant" and "Komdiv" (Комдив, Division Commander). Further complications ensued from the functional and categorical ranks for political officers (e.g., "Brigade Commissar", "Army Commissar 2nd Rank"), for technical corps (e.g., "Engineer 3rd Rank", "Division Engineer"), for administrative, medical and other non-combatant branches.

There were further modifications to the system. On May 7, 1940, the ranks of "General" or "Admiral" replaced the senior functional ranks of Kombrig, Komdiv, Komkor, Komandarm; the other senior functional ranks ("Division Commissar", "Division Engineer", etc) remained unaffected. On November 2, 1940, the system underwent further modification with the abolition of functional ranks for NCOs and the introduction of the Podpolkovnik (Lieutenant Colonel) rank. In early 1942 all the functional ranks in technical and administrative corps became regularised ranks (e.g., "Engineer Major", "Engineer Colonel", "Captain of the Intendant Service", etc.). On October 9, 1942 the authorities abolished the system of military commissars, together with the commissar ranks. The functional ranks remained only in medical, veterinary and legislative corps.

In early 1943 a unification of the system saw the abolition of all the remaining functional ranks. The word "officer" became officially endorsed, together with the epaulettes that superseded the previous rank insignia. The ranks and insignia of 1943 did not change much until the last days of the USSR; the contemporary Russian Army uses largely the same system. The old functional ranks of Kombat (Battalion or Battery Commander), Kombrig (Brigade Commander) and Komdiv (Division Commander) continue in informal use.

General Staff

On September 22, 1935, the authorities renamed the RKKA Staff as the General Staff, which essentially reincarnated the General Staff of the Russian Empire. Many of the former RKKA Staff officers had served as General Staff officers in the Russian Empire and became General Staff officers in the USSR. General Staff officers typically had extensive combat experience and solid academic training.

Military Education

During the Civil War the commander cadres received training at the General Staff Academy of the RKKA (Академия Генерального штаба РККА), an alias of the Nicholas General Staff Academy (Николаевская академия Генерального штаба) of the Russian Empire. On August 5, 1921 the Academy became the Military Academy of the RKKA (Военная академия РККА), and in 1925 the Frunze (М.В. Фрунзе) Military Academy of the RKKA. The senior and supreme commanders received training at the Higher Military Academic Courses (Высшие военно-академические курсы), renamed in 1925 as the Advanced Courses for Supreme Command (Курсы усовершенствования высшего начальствующего состава); in 1931, the establishment of an Operations Faculty at the Frunze Military Academy supplemented these courses. April 2, 1936 saw the re-instatement of the General Staff Academy; it would become a principal school for the senior and supreme commanders of the Red Army, as well as a centre for advanced military studies.

One should note that Red Army (and later Soviet Army) educational facilities called "academies" do not correspond to the military academies in Western countries. Those Soviet Academies were the post-graduate schools, mandatory for officers applying for senior ranks (e.g., the rank of Colonel since 1950s). While a basic officer education in the Red Army was provided by the facilities named военная школа or военное училище - which may be generally translated as "School" and compared to Western "academies" like West Point or Sandhurst.


The late 1930s saw the "Purges of the Red Army cadres", occurring against the historical background of the Great Purge. The Purges had the objective of cleansing the Red Army of "politically unreliable elements", mainly among the higher-ranking officers. This inevitably provided a convenient pretext for settling personal vendettas and eventually resulted in a witch-hunt. In 1937, the Red Army numbered around 1.3 million, and it grew to almost three times that number by June 1941. This necessitated quick promotion of junior officers, often despite their lack of experience or training, with obvious grave implications for the effectiveness of the Army in the coming war against Germany.

In the highest echelons of the Red Army the Purges removed 3 of the 5 marshals, 13 of 15 generals of the army, 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 army corps generals, 154 out of 186 division generals, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars.

Party Control of the Armed Forces

The Communist Party had a number of mechanisms of control over the country's armed forces. First, starting from a certain rank, only a Party member could be a military commander, and was thus subject to Party discipline. Second, the top military leaders had been systematically integrated into the highest echelons of the party. Third, the party placed a network of political officers throughout the armed forces to influence the activities of the military.

A political commander (zampolit) served as a political commissar of the armed forces. A zampolit supervised party organizations and conducted party political work within a military unit. He lectured troops on Marxism-Leninism, the Soviet view of international affairs, and the party's tasks for the armed forces. During World War II the zampolit lost veto authority over the commander's decisions but retained the power to report to the next highest political officer or organization on the political attitudes and performance of the unit's commander.

In 1989 over 20% of all armed forces personnel were party members or Komsomol members. Over 90% of all officers in the armed forces were party or Komsomol members.

Weapons and Equipment

The Soviet Union established an indigenous arms industry as part of Stalin's industrialization program in the 1920s and 1930s. The five round, magazine fed, bolt action Mosin-Nagant rifle remained the primary shoulder firearm of the Red Army through World War II. Over 17 million model 91/30 Mosin-Nagant rifles were manufactured from 1930 to 1945 by various Soviet arsenals. In 1943 design started on the M44, designed to replace the M91/30. Full production began in 1944, and remained in production until 1948, when it was replaced by the SKS semiautomatic rifle.[3]

The Red Army suffered from a shortage of adequate machine guns and semiautomatic firearms throughout WWII. The semiautomatic Tokarev SVT Model 38 and Model 40, chambered for the same 7.62x54R cartridge used by the Mosin-Nagants. The rifle, though of sound design, was never manufactured in the same numbers as the Mosin-Nagants and did not replace them. Soviet experimentation with small-arms began during the Second World War. In 1945 the Red Army adopted the Siminov SKS, a semi-automatic 7.62x39mm carbine. In 1949 production of the 7.62x39mm Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle began: planners envisaged troops using it in conjunction with the SKS, but it soon replaced the SKS completely. In 1978 the 5.45x39mm AK-74 assault rifle replaced the AK-47: it utilized no less than 51% of the AK-47's parts. Designers put together the new weapon as a counterpart to the American 5.56x45mm cartridge used in the M-16 assault rifle, and the Russian army continues to use it today.

Civil War

Polish-Soviet War

The Polish-Soviet War represented the first foreign campaign of the Red Army. The Soviet counter-offensive following the 1920 Polish invasion of Ukraine at first met with success, but Polish forces halted it at the disastrous (for the Soviets) Battle of Warsaw (1920).

Far East

In 1934, Mongolia and the USSR, recognising the threat from the mounting Japanese military presence in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, agreed to co-operate in the field of defence. On March 12, 1936, the co-operation increased with the ten-year Mongolian-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, which included a mutual defence protocol.

Red Army flag

In May 1939, a Mongolian cavalry unit clashed with Manchukuoan cavalry in the disputed territory east of the Halha River (also know in Russian as Халхин-Гол, Halhin Gol). There followed a clash with a Japanese detachment, which drove the Mongolians over the river. The Soviet troops quartered there in accordance with the mutual defence protocol intervened and obliterated the detachment. Escalation of the conflict appeared imminent, and both sides spent June amassing forces. On July 1 the Japanese force numbered 38,000 troops. The combined Soviet-Mongol force had 12,500 troops. The Japanese crossed the river, but after a three-day battle their opponents threw them back over the river. The Japanese kept probing the Soviet defences throughout July, without success.

On August 20 Georgy Zhukov opened a major offensive with heavy air attack and three hours of artillery bombardment, after which three infantry divisions and five armoured brigades, supported by a fighter regiment and masses of artillery (57 thousand troops in total), stormed the 75,000 Japanese force deeply entrenched in the area. On August 23 the entire Japanese force found itself encircled, and on August 31 largely destroyed. Artillery and air attacks wiped out those Japanese who refused to surrender. Japan requested a cease-fire, and the conflict concluded with an agreement between the USSR, Mongolia and Japan signed on September 15 in Moscow. In the conflict, the Red Army losses were 9,703 KIA and MIA and 15,952 wounded. The Japanese lost 25,000 KIA; the grand total was 61,000 killed, missing, wounded and taken prisoner.

Shortly after the cease-fire, the Japanese negotiated access to the battlefields to collect their dead. Finding thousands upon thousands of dead bodies came as a further shock to the already shaken morale of the Japanese soldiers. The scale of the defeat probably became a major factor in discouraging a Japanese attack on the USSR during World War II, which allowed the Red Army to switch a large number of its Far Eastern troops into the European Theatre in the desperate autumn of 1941.

World War II

The Scope of the War

As its name implies, World War II involved many countries and military theaters. It subsumed many different conflicts, which some historians may or may not consider part of the same war, depending on the perception and, alas, prejudice of the examiner. However, common usage accepts that World War II began on September 1 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and ended on August 15, 1945, when Japan announced its surrender. Consequently, we may regard all major military conflicts within this period as episodes of World War II. This method of analysis has special significance for the European theatre, where any “independent” use of military force within this period had the potential to affect the balance of power and thus directly influence the course of World War II. The Soviet Army played a major role in the war, with the greatest amount of casualties of all the nations that fought in it.

The Polish Campaign

On September 17, 1939 the Red Army marched its troops into the eastern territories of Poland (now part of Belarus and Ukraine) , using the official pretext of coming to the aid of the Ukrainians and the Belarusians threatened by Germany,[4] which had attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. The Soviet invasion opened a second front for the Poles and forced them to abandon plans for defense in the Romanian bridgehead area, thus hastening the Polish defeat. The Soviet and German advance halted roughly at the Curzon Line.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had included a secret protocol delimiting the “spheres of interest” of each party, set the scene for the remarkably smooth partition of Poland between Germany and the USSR. The defined Soviet sphere of interest matched the territory subsequently captured in the campaign. The territory became part of the Ukrainian and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republics.

Even though water barriers separated most of the spheres of interest, the Soviet and German troops met each other on a number of occasions. The most remarkable event of this kind happened in Brest-Litovsk on 22 September, 1939. The German 19th panzer corps under the command of Heinz Guderian had occupied Brest-Litovsk, which lay within the Soviet sphere of interest. When the Soviet 29th Tank Brigade under the command of S. M. Krivoshein approached Brest-Litovsk, the commanders negotiated that the German troops would withdraw and the Soviet troops enter the city saluting each other.[5] Just three days earlier, however, the parties had a more damaging encounter near Lviv, when the German 137th Gebirgsjägerregimenter (mountain infantry regiment) attacked a reconnaissance detachment of the Soviet 24th Tank Brigade; after a few casualties on both sides, the parties turned to negotiations, as a result of which the German troops left the area, and the Red Army troops entered L'viv on 22 September.

According to Soviet casualties and combat losses in the twentieth century edited by Colonel-General Krivosheev, the Red Army force in Poland numbered 466,516.[6] Polish sources give a number of over 800,000[7] The Red Army troops faced little resistance, mainly due to the entanglement of the majority of the Polish forces in fighting Germans along the Western border, but partly due to an official order by the Polish Supreme Command not to engage in combat with the Soviet troops, and also partly because many Polish citizens in the Kresy region - Ukrainians and Belarusians - viewed the advancing troops as liberators.[8] Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists rose against the Poles, and communist partisans organised local revolts, e.g. in Skidel, robbing and murdering Poles.[9] Nonetheless the Red Army sustained losses of 1,475 killed and missing and 2,383 wounded.[10] The losses of the opposing Polish troops are estimated at 6,000-7,000[11]; the Red Army reported that it had "disarmed" 452,536 men (Ibid.) but this figure probably included a large number not enrolled as regular Polish Army servicemen. The Polish PWN encyclopaedia gives the number of approximately 240,000 prisoners taken by the Red Army.[7]

The Finnish Campaigns

The Winter War (Finnish: talvisota, Russian: Зимняя война[12], Swedish: vinterkriget) or the Soviet-Finnish War (Russian: Советско-финская война) began when the Soviet Union attacked Finland on 30 November 1939, three months after the invasion of Poland by Germany that started World War II. Because the attack was judged as illegal, the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations on 14 December.[13]

The Continuation War (Finnish: jatkosota, Swedish: fortsättningskriget, Russian: Советско-финская война) (25 June 1941 – 19 September 1944) was the second of two wars fought between Finland and the Soviet Union during World War II. At the time the name was used to make clear its perceived relationship to the preceding Winter War of 30 November 1939 to 13 March 1940, the first of two wars fought between Finland and the Soviet Union during World War II. The Soviet Union, however, perceived the war merely as one of the fronts of the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany and its allies.[14] Similarly, Germany saw its own operations in the region as a part of its overall war efforts of World War II. Finland was a co-belligerent with Germany against the Soviet Union rather than an ally for the duration of the Continuation War.

The Great Patriotic War, 1941 - 1945

By the autumn of 1940 a new world order had emerged. Nazi Germany and its allies dominated most of the European continent. Only the United Kingdom (in the West) and the Soviet Union (in the East) could challenge fascist hegemony. Nazi Germany and Britain had no common land border, but a state of war existed between them; the Germans had an extensive land border with the Soviet Union, but the latter remained neutral, bound by a non-aggression pact and by numerous trade agreements.

For Hitler, no dilemma ever existed in this situation. Drang nach Osten (German for "Drive towards the East") remained the order of the day. This culminated, on December 18, in the issuing of ‘Directive No. 21 – Case Barbarossa’, which opened by saying “the German Armed Forces must be prepared to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign before the end of the war against England”. Even before the issuing of the directive, the German General Staff had developed detailed plans for an anti-Soviet campaign. On February 3, 1941, the final plan of Operation Barbarossa gained approval, and the attack was scheduled for the middle of May, 1941. However, the events in Greece and Yugoslavia necessitated a delay — to the second half of June.

At the time of the Nazi assault on the USSR in June 1941, the Red Army had 303 divisions and 22 brigades (4.8 million troops), including 166 divisions and 9 brigades (2.9 million troops) stationed in the western military districts. Their Axis opponents deployed on the Eastern Front 181 divisions and 18 brigades (5.5 million troops). The first weeks of the war saw the annihilation of virtually the entire Soviet Air Force on the ground, the loss of major equipment, tanks, artillery, and major Soviet defeats as German forces trapped hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers in vast pockets.

Soviet forces suffered heavy damage in the field as a result of poor levels of preparedness, which was primarily caused by a reluctant, half-hearted and ultimately belated decision by the Soviet Government and High Command to mobilize the army. Equally important was a general tactical superiority of the German army, which was conducting the kind of warfare that it had been combat-testing and fine-tuning for two years. The hasty pre-war growth and over-promotion of the Red Army cadres as well as the removal of experienced officers caused by the Purges offset the balance even more favourably for the Germans. Finally, the sheer numeric superiority of the Axis cannot be underestimated.

A generation of brilliant Soviet commanders (most notably Zhukov) learned from the defeats, and Soviet victories in the Battle of Moscow, at Stalingrad, Kursk and later in Operation Bagration proved decisive in what became known to the Soviets as the Great Patriotic War.

The Soviet government adopted a number of measures to improve the state and morale of the retreating Red Army in 1941. Soviet propaganda turned away from political notions of class struggle, and instead invoked the deeper-rooted patriotic feelings of the population, embracing pre-revolutionary Russian history. Propagandists proclaimed the War against the German aggressors as the "Great Patriotic War", in allusion to the Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon. References to ancient Russian military heroes such as Alexander Nevski and Mikhail Kutuzov appeared. Repressions against the Russian Orthodox Church stopped, and priests revived the tradition of blessing arms before battle. The Communist Party abolished the institution of political commissars — although it soon restored them. The Red Army re-introduced military ranks and adopted many additional individual distinctions such as medals and orders. The concept of a Guard re-appeared: units which had shown exceptional heroism in combat gained the names of "Guards Regiment", "Guards Army", etc.

During the Great Patriotic War, the Red Army drafted a staggering 29,574,900 in addition to the 4,826,907 in service at the beginning of the war. Of these it lost 6,329,600 KIA, 555,400 deaths by disease and 4,559,000 MIA (most captured). Of these 11,444,100, however, 939,700 re-joined the ranks in the subsequently-liberated Soviet territory, and a further 1,836,000 returned from German captivity. Thus the grand total of losses amounted to 8,668,400. The majority of the losses comprised ethnic Russians (5,756,000), followed by ethnic Ukrainians (1,377,400).[15]

The German losses on the Eastern Front comprised an estimated 3,604,800 KIA/MIA (most killed) and 3,576,300 captured (total 7,181,100); the losses of the German satellites on the Eastern Front approximated 668,163 KIA/MIA and 799,982 captured (total 1,468,145). Of these 8,649,300, the Soviets released 3,572,600 from captivity after the war, thus the grand total of the Axis losses came to an estimated 5,076,700.

A comparison of the losses demonstrates the cruel treatment of the Soviet POWs by the Nazis. The majority of Axis POWs taken prisoner by the Soviets died in captivity. Of the all the German troops taken prisoner at Stalingrad, only about 5,000 even made it back to Germany.[citation needed] The fate of the Soviet POWs was equally bad or worse.

US-Government poster showing a friendly Russian soldier as portrayed by the Allies during World War II.

In the first part of the war, the Red Army fielded weaponry of mixed quality. It had excellent artillery, but it did not have enough trucks to manoeuvre and supply it; as a result the Wehrmacht (which rated it highly) captured much of it. Red Army T-34 tanks outclassed any other tanks in the world, yet most of the Soviet armoured units were less advanced models; likewise, the same supply problem handicapped even the formations equipped with the most modern tanks. The Soviet Air Force initially performed poorly against the Germans. The quick advance of the Germans into the Soviet territory made reinforcement difficult, if not impossible, since much of the Soviet Union's military industry lay in the west of the country.

The Manchurian Campaign

As a postscript to the war in Europe, the Red Army attacked Japan and Manchukuo, Japan's puppet state in Manchuria, on 9 August 1945, and in combination with Mongolian and Chinese Communist forces rapidly overwhelmed the outnumbered Kwantung Army. Soviet forces also attacked in Sakhalin, in the Kuril Islands and in northern Korea. Japan surrendered unconditionally on 2 September 1945.

The Cold War

The Soviet Union only had Ground Forces, Air Forces, and the Navy in 1945.[16] The two Narkomats, one supervising the Ground Forces and Air Forces, and the other directing the Navy, were combined into the Ministry of the Armed Forces in March 1946. A fourth service, the Troops of National Air Defence, was formed in 1948. The Ministry was briefly divided into two again from 1950 to 1953, but then was amalgamated again as the Ministry of Defence. Six years later the Strategic Rocket Forces were formed. The VDV, the Airborne Forces, were also active by this time as a Reserve of the Supreme High Command. Also falling within the Soviet Armed Forces were the Tyl, or Rear Services, of the Armed Forces, the Troops of Civil Defence, and the Border and Internal Troops, neither of which came under command of the Ministry of Defence.

Men within the Soviet Army dropped from around 13 million to approximately 2.8 million in 1948. In order to control this demobilisation process, the number of military districts was temporarily increased to thirty-three, dropping to twenty-one in 1946.[17] The size of the Army throughout most time of the Cold War remained between 4 million and 5 million, according to Western estimates. Soviet law required all able-bodied males of age to serve a minimum of 2 years. As a result, the Soviet Army remained the largest active army in the world from 1945 to 1991. Soviet Army units which had taken over the countries of Eastern Europe from German rule remained in some of them to secure the régimes in what became satellite states of the Soviet Union and to deter and to fend off pro-independence resistance and later NATO forces. The greatest Soviet military presence was in East Germany, in the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, but there were also smaller forces elsewhere, including the Northern Group of Forces in Poland, the Central Group of Forces in Czechoslovakia, and the Southern Group of Forces in Hungary. In the Soviet Union itself, forces were divided by the 1950s among fifteen military districts, including the Moscow, Leningrad, and Baltic Military Districts.

The trauma of the devastating German invasion of 1941 influenced the Soviet Cold War military doctrine of fighting enemies on their own territory, or in a buffer zone under Soviet hegemony, but in any case preventing any war from reaching Soviet soil. In order to secure Soviet interests in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Army moved in to quell anti-Soviet uprisings in the German Democratic Republic (1953), Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). As a result of the Sino-Soviet border conflict, a sixteenth military district was created in 1969, the Central Asian Military District, with headquarters at Alma-Ata.[18] To improve capabilities for war at a theatre level, in the late 1970s and early 1980s four high commands were established, grouping the military districts, groups of forces, and fleets.[19] The Far Eastern High Command was established first, followed by the Western and South-Western High Commands towards Europe, and the Southern High Command at Baku, oriented toward the Middle East.

Confrontation with the US and NATO during the Cold War mainly took the form of threatened mutual deterrence with nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union invested heavily in the Army's nuclear capacity, especially in the production of ballistic missiles and of nuclear submarines to deliver them. Open hostilities took the form of wars by proxy, with the Soviet Union and the US supporting loyal client régimes or rebel movements in Third World countries.

Manpower and Enlisted Men

The Soviet Armed Forces were manned through conscription, which had been reduced in 1967 from three to two years. This system was administered through the thousands of military commissariats (военный комиссариат, военкомат (voyenkomat)) located throughout the Soviet Union. Between January and May of every year, every young Soviet male citizen was required to report to the local voyenkomat for assessment for military service, following a summons based on lists from every school and employer in the area. The voyenkomat worked to quotas sent out by a department of the General Staff, listing how young men are required by each service and branch of the Armed Forces.[20] The new conscripts were then picked up by an officer from their future unit and usually sent by train across the country. On arrival, they would begin the Young Soldiers' course, and become part of the system of hazing and domination by an older class of draftees, known as dedovshchina, literally "rule by the grandfathers." There were only a very small number of professional non-commissioned officers (NCOs), as most NCOs were conscripts sent on short courses[21] to prepare them for section commanders' and platoon sergeants' positions. These conscript NCOs were supplemented by praporshchik warrant officers, positions created in the 1960s to support the increased variety of skills required for modern weapons.[22]

Military Doctrine

The Soviet meaning of military doctrine was much different from U.S. military usage of the term. Soviet Minister of Defence Marshal Grechko defined it in 1975 as 'a system of views on the nature of war and methods of waging it, and on the preparation of the country and army for war, officially adopted in a given state and its armed forces.' Soviet theorists emphasised both the political and 'military-technical' sides of military doctrine, while from the Soviet point of view, Westerners ignored the political side. However the political side of Soviet military doctrine, Western commentators Harriet F Scott and William Scott said, 'best explained Soviet moves in the international arena'.[23]

The limited contingent in Afghanistan

Soviet soldier in Afghanistan, 1988

In 1979, however, the Soviet Army intervened in a civil war raging in Afghanistan. The Soviet Army came to back a Soviet-friendly secular government threatened by Muslim fundamentalist guerillas equipped and financed by the United States. Technically superior, the Soviets did not have enough troops to establish control over the countryside and to secure the border. This resulted from hesitancy in the Politburo, which allowed only a "limited contingent", averaging between 80,000 and 100,000 troops. Consequently, local insurgents could effectively employ hit-and-run tactics, using easy escape-routes and good supply-channels. This made the Soviet situation hopeless from the military point of view (short of using "scorched earth" tactics, which the Soviets did not practise except in World War II in their own territory). The understanding of this made the war highly unpopular within the Army. With the coming of glasnost, Soviet media started to report heavy losses, which made the war very unpopular in the USSR in general, even though actual losses remained modest, averaging 1670 per year. The war also became a sensitive issue internationally, which finally led Gorbachev to withdraw the Soviet forces from Afghanistan. The "Afghan Syndrome" suffered by the Army parallels the American Vietnam Syndrome trauma over their own lost war in Vietnam. Tactically, both sides concentrated on attacking supply lines, but Afghan mujahideen were well dug-in with tunnels and defensive positions, holding out against artillery and air attacks. In the Soviet attack on Zhawar in 1986 before withdrawing, 800 guerillas prevailed against a Soviet force 6,600 and 12 days of bombing The Campaign for the Caves.

Eventually, the enormous cost of maintaining a 5-million-man peacetime army, as well as of waging a 9-year war in Afghanistan, would prove a major factor contributing to the decay of the Soviet economy and the Soviet Union as a whole.

The end of the Soviet Union

Monument to the Red Army, still standing in Berlin

From around 1985 to 1990, the new leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to reduce the strain the Army placed on economic demands. His government slowly reduced the size of the army. By 1989 Soviet troops had completely left their Warsaw Pact neighbors to fend for themselves. That same year Soviet forces left Afghanistan. By the end of 1990, the entire Eastern Bloc had collapsed in the wake of democratic revolutions. As a result, Soviet citizens quickly began to turn against the Communist government as well. As the Soviet Union moved towards disintegration, the military played a surprisingly feeble and ineffective role in propping up the dying Soviet system. The military got involved in trying to suppress conflicts and unrest in the Caucasus and central Asia, but it often proved incapable of restoring peace and order. On April 9, 1989, the army, together with MVD units, massacred about 190 demonstrators in Tbilisi in Georgia. The next major crisis occurred in Azerbaijan, when the Soviet army forcibly entered Baku on January 19–20, 1990, removing the rebellious republic government and allegedly killing hundreds of civilians in the process. On January 13, 1991 Soviet forces stormed the State Radio and Television Building and the television retranslation tower in Vilnius, Lithuania, both under opposition control, killing 14 people and injuring 700. This action was perceived by many as heavy-handed and achieved little.

By mid-1991, the Soviet Union had reached a state of emergency. According to the official commission (the Soviet Academy of Sciences) appointed by the Supreme Soviet (the higher chamber of the Russian parliament) immediately after the events of August 1991, the Army did not play a significant role in what some describe as coup d'état of old-guard communists.[citation needed] Commanders sent tanks into the streets of Moscow, but (according to all the commanders and soldiers) only with orders to ensure the safety of the people. It remains unclear why exactly the military forces entered the city, but they clearly did not have the goal of overthrowing Gorbachev (absent on the Black Sea coast at the time) or the government. The coup failed primarily because the participants didn't take any decisive action, and after several days of their inaction the coup simply stopped. Only one confrontation took place between civilians and the tank crews during the coup, which led to the deaths of three civilians. Although the victims became proclaimed heroes, the authorities acquitted the tank crew of all charges. Nobody issued orders to shoot at anyone.

Following the coup attempt of August 1991, the leadership of the Soviet Union retained practically no authority over the component republics. Nearly every Soviet Republic declared its intention to secede and began passing laws defying the Supreme Soviet. On December 8, 1991, the Presidents of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine declared the Soviet Union dissolved and signed the document setting up the Commonwealth of Independent States. Gorbachev finally resigned on December 25, 1991, and the following day the Supreme Soviet, the highest governmental body, dissolved itself, officially ending the Soviet Union's existence. For the next year and a half various attempts to keep its unity and transform it into the military of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) failed. Steadily, the units stationed in Ukraine and some other breakaway republics swore loyalty to their new national governments, while a series of treaties between the newly independent states divided up the military's assets. After the following collapse of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Army dissolved and the USSR's successor states divided its assets among themselves. The divide mostly occurred along a regional basis, with Soviet soldiers from Russia becoming part of the new Russian Army, while Soviet soldiers originating from Kazakhstan became part of the new Kazakh Army. As a result, the bulk of the Soviet Army, including all of the nuclear missile forces, became incorporated in the Russian Ground Forces.

In mid-March 1992, Yeltsin appointed himself as the new Russian minister of defence, marking a crucial step in the creation of the new Russian armed forces, comprising the bulk of what was still left of the military. The last vestiges of the old Soviet command structure were finally dissolved in June 1993. In the next few years, the former Soviet forces withdrew from central and Eastern Europe (including the Baltic states), as well as from the newly independent post-Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia(partially), Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan. Now-Russian forces remained in Tajikistan, and at isolated outposts including the Garbala space tracking station in Azerbaijan, the Baikonur Cosmodrome and other space facilities in Kazakstan, and a naval test centre at Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. While in many places the withdrawal took place without any problems, the Russian army remained in some disputed areas such as the Sevastopol naval base in the Crimea as well as in Abkhazia, Georgia, where the Russian military presence was deeply resented, and Transnistria.

Further reading

  • The Warsaw Pact: Arms, Doctrine and Strategy, Lewis, William J.; Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis; 1982. ISBN 0-07-031746-1. This book presents an overview of all the Warsaw Pact armed forces as well as a section on Soviet strategy, a model land campaign which the Soviet Union could have conducted against NATO, a section on vehicles, weapons and aircraft, and a full-color section on the uniforms, nations badges and rank-insignia of all the nations of the Warsaw Pact.
  • "The Campaign for the Caves: The Battles for Ahawar in the Soviet-Afghan War" by Lester W. Grau and Ali Ajmad Jalali, Foreign Military Studies Office, Ft. Leavenworth, KS, reprinted from Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Vol. 14, September 2001, Number 3.

See also


  1. ^ Scott and Scott, The Armed Forces of the Soviet Union, Westview Press, 1979, p.13
  2. ^ William E. Odom, The Collapse of the Soviet military, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1998
  3. ^ Terence W. Lapin, The Mosin-Nagant Rifle (3rd Ed., North Cape 2003)
  4. ^ Telegram from the German Ambassador in the Soviet Union, (Schulenburg) to the German Foreign Office, 10 September 1939, at Yale Law School's Avalon Project: Nazi-Soviet Relations 1939-1941.
  5. ^ Кривошеин С.М. Междубурье. Воспоминания. Воронеж, 1964. (Krivoshein S. M. Between the Storms. Memoirs. Voronezh, 1964. in Russian); Guderian H. Erinnerungen eines Soldaten Heidelberg, 1951 (in German — Memoirs of a Soldier in English)
  6. ^ Krivosheev, Soviet casualties and combat losses in the twentieth century, ISBN 1-85367-280-7.
  7. ^ a b KAMPANIA WRZEŚNIOWA 1939] from PWN Encyklopedia. Please note that the above link is the Internet Archive version, , mid-2006. The new PWN article is significantly shorter.
  8. ^ Piotrowski, Tadeusz (1988). "Ukrainian Collaborators". Poland's Holocaust: Ethnic Strife, Collaboration with Occupying Forces and Genocide in the Second Republic, 1918-1947. McFarland. pp. 177–259. ISBN 0786403713. "How are we ... to explain the phenomenom of Ukrainians rejoicing and collaborating with the Soviets? Who were these Ukrainians? That they were Ukrainians is certain, but were they communists, Nationalists, unattached peasants? The answer is "yes" - they were all three." 
  9. ^ For example, see events as described in: (Polish) Bronisław Konieczny, Mój wrzesień 1939. Pamiętnik z kampanii wrześniowej spisany w obozie jenieckim, KSIĘGARNIA AKADEMICKA SP. Z O.O./Biblioteka Centrum Dokumentacji Czynu Niepodległościowego, ISBN 978-83-7188-328-6 [1] [2] [3] and Moje życie w mundurze. Czasy narodzin i upadku II RP, KSIĘGARNIA AKADEMICKA SP. Z O.O., 2005 ISBN 978-83-7188-693-5 [4] [5]
  10. ^ Ibid.
  11. ^ (Polish) Edukacja Humanistyczna w wojsku. 1/2005. Dom wydawniczy Wojska Polskiego. ISNN 1734-6584. (Official publication of the Polish Army). Last accessed on 28 November 2006.
  12. ^ (Russian) В.Н. Барышников. От прохладного мира к Зимней войне. Восточная политика Финляндии в 1930-е годы. Санкт-Петербург, 1997.; В.Н. Барышников, Э. Саломаа. Вовлечение Финляндии во Вторую Мировую войну. In: Крестовый поход на Россию. М., 2005.; О.Д. Дудорова. Неизвестные страницы Зимней войны. In: Военно-исторический журнал. 1991. №9.; Зимняя война 1939-1940. Книга первая. Политическая история. М., 1998. – ISBN 5-02-009749-7; Эрик Ковалев. Зимняя война балтийских подводных лодок (1939–1940 гг.). In: Короли подплава в море червонных валетов. М., 2006.; М. Коломиец. Танки в Зимней войне 1939-1940. In: «Фронтовая иллюстрация», 2001; Александр Широкорад. Северные войны России. М., 2001.; Владимир Холодковский. Эта Зимняя война. In: Ленинская правда. 1990. 4 янв., c. 3.
  13. ^ Resolution of Council of League of Nations
  14. ^ Great Soviet Encyclopedia, Finland, Moscow, 1974, ISBN 0-02-880010-9
  15. ^ See Г. Ф. Кривошеев, Россия и СССР в войнах XX века: потери вооруженных сил. Статистическое исследование (G. F. Krivosheev, Russia and the USSR in the wars of the 20th century: losses of the Armed Forces. A Statistical Study, in Russian)
  16. ^ Scott and Scott, 1979, p.131
  17. ^ Scott and Scott, The Armed Forces of the Soviet Union, Westview Press, Boulder, CO., 1979, p.176
  18. ^ Scott and Scott, 1979, p.176
  19. ^ William E Odom, The Collapse of the Soviet Military, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998, p.29
  20. ^ Carey Schofield, Inside the Soviet Army, Headline, London, 1991, p.67-70
  21. ^ Viktor Suvorov, Inside the Soviet Army, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1982, gives the figure of six months with a training division
  22. ^ William E Odom, The Collapse of the Soviet Military, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998, p.43
  23. ^ Scott and Scott, 1979, p.37,59

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