The Imperial Russian Legacy of
Bruce W. Menning1
Conventional wisdom ascribes the origins of Soviet operational art to varying experiences and perceptions of World War I on the Eastern Front and the Russian Civil War.2 In reality, however, the roots of Soviet operational art lie embedded in the earlier imperial Russian period, when changing military circumstances and diverse intellectual influences first prompted original departures in operational theory and new approaches to application. These initiatives began with the traditional notions of G. A. Leyer and reached fruition with the novel contributions of N. P. Mikhnevich, A. A. Neznamov, and A. A. Svechin. The latter three key figures would eventually survive World War I and the revolutions of 1917 to serve as living links between the imperial Russian and Soviet military traditions.3
The pilgrimage from Leyer to Svechin occurred by stages within a specific intellectual context: the evolution of a theory for the conduct of operations. Between 1878 and 1914, the Russians redefined their understanding both of operations and of their preparation and conduct to produce a concept that was linked to, but theoretically and practically distinct from, either strategy or tactics. During this process, they reformulated their understanding not only of operations but also of strategy and tactics. What emerged in the aggregate were a refined interpretation of military art and military science and the glimmer of a new role for one of their most important allies, military history. It is to these developments and their consequences that the modern concept of Soviet operational art owed its origins.
Dilemmas of Application and Theory, 1878–l904
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 offered Russian military theorists a heady mixture of direct and vicarious combat experience. However, for reasons of misplaced emphasis, impaired
institutional memory, and preoccupation with Napoleonic precedent, the Russians were unable to reap meaningful benefit from the lessons of either conflict.
In their own recent war with Turkey, the Russians had conducted a relatively successful mobilization to launch a primary effort in the Balkans and secondary operations in the Caucasus. After marching across Rumania to execute a brilliant crossing of the Danube at Sistova, the tsarist high command divided its Balkan forces into three detachments, with one each to screen right and left and a third to force the Balkan divide, thereby opening Roumelia to follow-on forces. However, the Russians failed to draw operational advantage from the tactical success of I. V. Gurko’s forward detachment, which had actually seized a Balkan pass, and the tsar’s offensive was soon bogged down in a time- and manpower-consuming series of battles and sieges at Plevna and its environs. Only at the end of 1877 were the Russians able to shake themselves loose, thrusting three columns through wintry Balkan passes to win a landmark battle of envelopment at Sheinovo and to seize Sofia and Philippopolis. By the spring of 1878, with the Russian Army threatening Istanbul, the Turks sued for peace at San Stefano. However, Great Power opposition forced the Russians to settle for limited gains in accordance with the Congress of Berlin.4
In contrast, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 had produced a clear-cut victory for Wilhelm I and Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian General Staff. Utilizing planning and railroads to the utmost, the Prussians and their German allies had concentrated well forward, driven into France across a broad front, then prevented the French armies from uniting to resist a concerted Prussian advance on Paris. After the French Marshal Bazaine had been defeated and surrounded at Metz, Marshal MacMahon marched to his rescue, only to fall victim to envelopment at Sedan. The German armies went on to lay siege to Paris, which capitulated in February 1871. The Treaty of Frankfurt ceded Alsace and parts of Lorraine to a newly proclaimed German Empire.5
The diverse experiences of 1877–1878 and 1870–1871 provided sufficient grounds for practitioners and commentators alike to reexamine traditional military verities. New technologies and methods had enabled commanders to assemble masses of men, equipment, and horses, then project them more quickly than ever before into potential theaters of conflict. Issues of time and space had become still more vital as theorists envisioned the outcome of future war to be determined largely by which side would win the race for deployment to and concentration within theater. The railroad and telegraph had fundamentally altered traditional conceptions of assembly, deployment, and concentration, with the result that military men were forced to accept as conditional rather than absolute long-cherished convictions about the importance of such fundamentals
as interior lines and mass. Given the lethality of breech-loading weaponry and the problem of extended frontages, the solution lay, as Gunther Rothenberg has written, in “outflanking the enemy in a single, continuous strategic-operational sequence combining mobilization, concentration, movement, and fighting.”6 Moltke’s oft-quoted maxim, “getrennt marschieren, zusammen schlagen” (march separately and fight together), perhaps most aptly summarized the theoretical and practical challenges confronting military thinkers of the 1880s and 1890s: The notion was at once Napoleonic and contemporary. The emphasis on mass and concentration remained traditional, but the underlying assumption was that changing technologies and methods were busily reshaping the conditions and recasting the means.7
In theoretical perspective, the challenge was how to understand the impact of mass armies and changing technologies and methods on the complex interplay between the offense and defense within both theater and the narrower confines of the battlefield. Again, Moltke thought he had the answer when he stressed the importance of assuming the operational offensive within the theater, then going over to the defensive, thus forcing his adversary to spend manpower and energies in a series of disastrous tactical confrontations against powerful defensive dispositions. If circumstance required offensive decision, the assailant turned to the new technologies and methods at his disposal to conduct a frontal pinning attack, then to envelop the enemy’s comparatively weaker flanks to seek a classic victory of annihilation by means of encirclement. The wars of 1870–1871 and 1877–1878 offered two powerful examples: Sedan and Sheinovo.8
For Russian students of war, the primary task was building an effective intellectual context within which to view the complexities of Sheinovo and Sedan in all their dimensions. However, for various reasons the Russians failed to grasp the full significance of the revolution in military art embodied in Moltke’s methods. Russian tactical thought, heavily mortgaged to the legacy of M. I. Dragomirov, produced only incremental adjustments to the dramatic challenges of new technology on the battlefield. Although the Imperial Russian Army devoted greater attention after 1878 to the skirmish line and open-order formations in the attack, Dragomirov and his disciples stressed the primacy of will and élan over weapon and enemy.9
At the same time, the Russians failed to draw maximum benefit from their own recent combat experience. The War Ministry had created a Historical Commission to produce a history of 1877–1878, but official historians soon fell victim to a combination of inertia and varying degrees of official resistance stemming from an impulse to cover up mistakes and protect careers and reputations. Although various individual studies of 1877–1878 gradually appeared, no comprehensive official account would see print until the early years of the twentieth century. The Russo-
Turkish War failed to find a place on the official historical agenda, and the curriculum of the Nicholas Academy of the General Staff suffered accordingly.10
The intellectual consequences were devastating. At the very time when traditional assumptions and habits required alteration or revalidation in light of combat experience, the Russians had no coherent picture of their most recent military history. With no systematic understanding of their own experience, they lacked immediate reference points to make sense of other relevant experience, including the Franco-Prussian conflict. Under these circumstances, outmoded convictions and assertions retained surprising currency, while institutional emphasis contended with broader intellectual currents to obscure change and stress continuity and system. Thus, positivist notions would mingle with prevailing wisdom to encourage the Russians to view new military realities through a conventional Napoleonic prism.
Emphasis on Napoleon corresponded with the persistent influence of his foremost interpreter, Jomini. For reasons of familiarity and simplicity, Russian thinking about war and strategy in the 1880s and 1890s gravitated heavily to Jomini, not the more complex Clausewitz.11 Unlike Clausewitz, who asserted that strategy was complex, Jomini held that strategy was a simple discipline, limited to the art of directing masses within theater and distinct from tactics that did not admit to hard and fast rules. To retain purity of military thought, Jomini relegated political considerations to a separate discipline, military politics, thereby neatly — and dangerously — divorcing politics from strategy. Jomini also deftly sidestepped some of the more difficult questions of military art by consigning them to the imponderable realm of the great captain’s genius and tact. Thus, while Clausewitz attempted to come to grips with the ambiguities of war, Jomini avoided them to retain simplicity and clarity, or as Aleksandr A. Svechin later put it, “order was attained at the expense of vitality.”12 Of more immediate importance, Clausewitz, the prophet of complexity and firm believer in the inherent strength of the defense, failed to find adherents either in St. Petersburg or within the Russian military districts. Meanwhile, the Jominian tradition reigned supreme, advocating a strategy of the shock strike (in Russian, sokrushenie, or “crushing”) that culminated in climactic battle, in which the commander who enjoyed the fruits of victory was the commander who concentrated the greatest force at the decisive point at the decisive moment.13
Finally, the siren call of scientific positivism with its emphasis on method, system, and classification also figured prominently in the Russian military thinking of the time. It was no accident that strategists of the era adopted the scientific trappings of civilian academia as they sought a respectable place in the intellectual sun for their own theories of strategy and military science. It was also no accident that the neatness and clarity
of Jomini at least superficially lent his thought more scientific credibility than that of Clausewitz. These and similar preoccupations lent legitimacy to a quest to demonstrate the existence of underlying laws and principles that could be studied systematically to provide the theoretical underpinnings for what some commentators exuberantly proclaimed as military science.14
The military scholar most prominently associated with this movement in Russia was Genrikh Antonovich Leyer (1829–1904). Although often identified with the emerging academic school of Russian military history, he is perhaps best remembered for his groundbreaking work on the development of strategy. Leyer taught between 1869 and 1878 as Ordinary Professor of Strategy at the Nicholas Academy of the General Staff, then served between 1889 and 1898 as commandant. His textbook, Strategy, went through six editions between 1867 and 1898, when disciples and detractors alike finally rose to challenge the master. Still, no other writer — save perhaps Dragomirov — exercised such a profound influence on Russian military thought between 1878 and 1904. For better or worse, Leyer’s teaching formed a major part of the intellectual legacy, which a generation of Russian staff officers carried with them to Far Eastern battlefields in 1904–1905.15
Leyer’s own intellectual baggage consisted of a devotion to Napoleon and a fixation on the seemingly diverse preoccupations of philosophical idealism and positivism. From studies of the Napoleonic campaigns he emerged with an appreciation both of military history and for individual genius as true repositories of military art. From William Lloyd and Antoine de Jomini he gained an appreciation of the rational element in Napoleonic strategy. From the positivists of his own era, Leyer drew an understanding of classification and generalization, which he would impose on his own evolving conceptions of strategy as a fledgling science. Thanks to these influences, refracted through the unique prism of Leyer’s own military outlook and preoccupations, Napoleon served not as a point of departure, but as the touchstone against which all subsequent military developments were measured.16
Leyer’s understanding of complex military phenomena began with ideas and history. For him, “always and everywhere idea came before act.” When selectively and critically studied, military history enabled the discerning student to “arrive at an understanding of the idea which gave rise to the facts.” In application, every military operation or sequence of operations embodied a fundamental idea from which flowed plan, lines of development, sequence of actions, establishment of priorities, and concentration of resources, all of which ultimately spelled success or
failure for the commander seeking battlefield decision. From historical analysis, Leyer logically arrived at an understanding of the two forces which dominated every operation: objective (tsel’) as developed from idea, and direction (napravlenie) as represented figuratively by an operational line depicting the unfolding in reality of idea and plan.17
For Leyer, strategy in its most restricted sense treated operations within what he called a theater of military actions (teatr voennykh deistvii). His study of military history enabled him to classify strategic operations according to three types: main, preparatory, and supplemental. The first section of his text on strategy Leyer devoted to an analysis of main, or primary, operations (glavnye operatsii), including selection of operational line, execution of marches and maneuvers, conduct of diversions, and the concentration of forces for combat, all of which culminated in main battle as the ultimate resolution of an operation. In the second section of Strategy, Leyer discussed preparatory (podgotovitel’nye) operations, the term he used to describe the organization of armies and bases, deployment of forces in theater, and engineering preparation of the theater of military action. Finally, he outlined supplementary (dopolnitel’nye) operations as those involving accumulation of supplies, establishment of communication lines, and the organization of security, including planning routes of possible withdrawal and preparing fortresses and fortified lines.18
This intellectual framework for an understanding of operations marked one of Leyer’s enduring contributions to the development of Russian military thought. Subsequent students of military art at first clung to Leyer’s basic definition without a clear understanding that his conceptual umbrella emphasized Napoleonic continuities at the expense of recalculating old verities in light of recent technological and organizational innovation. Not surprisingly, in 1891 the rising young strategist N. P. Mikhnevich penned a definition of “operation” for the Entsiklopediya voennykh i morskikh nauk (Encyclopedia of Military and Naval Sciences), which stood virtually unchallenged until 1905. He wrote that each war consists of one or several campaigns, each campaign of one or several operations, which represent by themselves a known, finite period, from the strategic deployment of the army on the departure line of the operation to the final decision of the latter by way of victorious battle on the field of engagement.”19 The realization was that, although strategy as a whole was more complex than ever before, its main task in theater was to guide the commander to a main battle that would produce decision either by encirclement of the enemy or by the energetic pursuit of his broken forces following main battle.
Leyer was less successful in linking strategy within theater — which he called the “tactics of the theater of military actions” — with his broader conception of strategy as an all-embracing military science. He believed that strategy in its widest sense was “a synthesis of all military matters,
their generalization, their philosophy.”20 Although the physical manifestations of reality might change, Leyer clung to a conviction that underlying ideas remained constant and that a selective reading of military history yielded eternal and unchanging principles that existed independently of time and place. These principles he identified as four: mutual support, concentration of superior forces at the decisive moment and place, economy of force, and surprise. He was less clear about how these “eternal and unchanging principles” might apply to specific situations.21
Leyer’s approach thus left his students with two substantial intellectual obstacles to overcome: an obsessive and exclusionary preoccupation with Napoleonic precedent and the knotty problem of translating idea and immutable principle into action. Rather than ask how Moltke and his adherents varied from the French paradigm, he sought to demonstrate how they conformed to it. He taught that the campaigns of 1870–1871 reaffirmed the significance of Napoleonic strategy, but he completely ignored the campaign of 1866 because it did not neatly fit his preconceived pattern. In addition to charging that Leyer had his own “court complement of facts,” Svechin later asserted that in Leyer’s eyes, “facts were also good children or troublemakers.” If the latter required a break in consciousness, Leyer’s “doctrinaire thought turned away from them or ignored them.”22
Not everyone agreed with Leyer’s impulse to delimit either by approach, definition, or geography, and one of the gravest challenges came from thinkers who actively challenged convention by crossing disciplinary lines to ponder the relationship between politics and war. In 1892, Jan S. Bloch, a Warsaw banker and amateur student of war, embarked on a pioneering study of the relationship between a nation’s social and economic infrastructure and its ability to conduct war. Unlike the adherents of sokrushenie, who accepted 1870–1871 and, to a lesser extent, 1877– 1878, as models of future lightning war, Bloch envisioned future wars as costly, drawn-out contests that would eventually lead to the exhaustion of the combatants. Thus emerged in embryonic form a complex vision of linkages between fighting front and civilian rear which, with subsequent elaboration, came to support a strategy of exhaustion (in Russian, izmor, in German, Ermattungsstrategie) as an alternative to a strategy of annihilation. Abetted by A. K. Puzyrevskii, military historian and chief of staff of the Warsaw military district, Bloch’s opus by 1898 had blossomed into a five-volume compendium published in Russian in St. Petersburg.23
Bloch’s ideas found only a few sympathetic listeners in the imperial capital. One of them, A. P. Agapeyev, openly criticized military writers who persisted in treating military matters “as something closed [and]
isolated, not having a direct connection with overall state institutions and independent of the spirit of the times and the political life of society in its entirety.” Lt. Col. A. A. Gulevich, another Bloch partisan and an instructor at the Academy of the General Staff, carried the argument further, asserting that:
Gulevich maintained that the advent of mass cadre and reserve armies meant that future war would be decided not by main blows on the field of engagement, but by persistent and protracted armed struggle. Therefore, the decisive element in modern war was the strength of the state’s socioeconomic infrastructure, that is, the foundation of the state’s ability to wage protracted conflict.24 In a theme to which others would return, Gulevich further maintained that Russia’s apparent economic backwardness was actually a strength, since the dislocations of protracted war would have far less effect on an agrarian society than on a more industrialized society. However, Gulevich did warn that Russia’s underdeveloped armaments industry and rail network would pose serious difficulties in any future European war.25
A. K. Puzyrevskii’s direct and indirect participation as a historian in the intellectual ferment of the 1890s revealed the degree to which institutionally sponsored military history owed much of its origins and initial successes to the preoccupations of the period. Despite the absence of consistent official sanction, the assumption on the part of generalizers and fact-finders alike was that history alone in all its richness offered sufficient evidence for the discerning student to discover the underlying patterns and rhythms inherent in any body of knowledge with sufficient coherence to become the foundation for a military science. Not surprisingly, conflicting opinions over the relevance of unchanging law and changing circumstance dominated the development of Russian military historiography throughout the 1890s and early years of the twentieth century. In addition to giving rise to “academic” and “Russian” schools of Russian military thought and history, debate about the nature and meaning of military history sparked wide-ranging and original research, the results of which can be read with profit even today.26
Within the larger picture of growing intellectual diversity, one of the brighter spots was the emergence at the very end of the nineteenth century of N. P. Mikhnevich as a serious synthesizer of Russian military thought. By the late 1890s he had already made his mark as a military analyst and historian, having completed several article-length studies during the
previous decade on cavalry and partisan operations, then having acceded in 1892 to the Chair of the History of Russian Military Art at the Staff Academy. There followed in rapid succession two groundbreaking monographs, “The Significance of the German-French War of 1870–1871” (in Russian, 1892) and “The Influence of the Most Recent Technological Inventions on Troop Tactics” (in Russian, 1893). Like Mikhnevich’s encyclopedia entry for “Operations,” these works revealed Leyer’s persistent influence with introductory assertions that wars were eternal and that the laws and principles of the art of war were in essence “Napoleonic.” However, there was also a glimmer of something new, something that was already beginning to affect many of Leyer’s disciples. This was the understanding that “the phenomena to which war relates and with which it must reckon are subjected to constant change” and that “almost every epoch has its own military art, distinct from others.”27
In an 1899 presentation to the officers of the garrison and fleet of St. Petersburg, Mikhnevich argued for the necessity of a well-founded military science. At the same time he called for a timely review of its focus, essence, and content, including especially the relationship of military science to other sciences. He placed military science with the social sciences and emphasized that its object was a study of “the laws of victory,” the principles of military art, and the means of applying them to the concrete conditions of reality. In contrast with Leyer’s fixation on philosophical idealism, Mikhnevich emphasized the material foundations of military science, holding that laws and principles represented “broad empirical generalizations proceeding from a multiplicity of facts” and retaining conditional significance, but he was not quite willing to divorce them completely from Leyer’s emphasis on permanence. Still, in contrast with Leyer, who saw strategy as the essence of military science, Mikhnevich saw the latter as the philosophy of military affairs, linking it closely with the theory of military art. He emphasized the necessity for such a vision of military science as a science for application that would direct military thought to make correct decisions.28
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905
Even as Mikhnevich was groping for a new synthesis, the Russo- Japanese War provided a rude shock for Russian officers who had been brought up on a steady diet of Leyer and Dragomirov. After the initial Japanese surprise attack of 9 February 1904 on the Russian Pacific Squadron at Port Arthur, the Russians began a laborious buildup that would eventually leave several field armies under General A. N. Kuropatkin dangling at the end of a precarious 5,000-mile supply line. Meanwhile,
the Russian Pacific Squadron would remain bottled up in Port Arthur. After unsuccessful Russian delaying actions, the land campaign naturally subdivided itself into two distinct parts: a siege war at Port Arthur and a maneuver war astride the railroad extending south from Mukden to Liaoyang. Both wars revealed the impact of smokeless powder technology, including the machine gun, quick-firing artillery, and the repeating rifle. However, it was the maneuver war in all its starkness that revealed the bankruptcy of Leyer’s Napoleonic paradigm. Mass armies moved like lemmings to contact, pressed from contact directly into meeting engagements, then fought — sometimes sporadically and sometimes continuously — for days and even weeks. Neither side could produce a Sedan-like victory, and frontages ballooned to 100 kilometers and depths to 60.29 In the aggregate, various disparate but related combat actions across time and space amounted to something more than large battles (srazheniya), and gradual recognition of this fact would argue for altered approaches to planning, organization, and implementation. Other requirements included the creation of higher commands, including army groups, and the necessity to undertake deliberate reorganization during the actual course of an operation.30 In the parlance that the Russians would come to accept after the war, they fought three separate operations — Liao-yang, Sha-ho, and Mukden. And they lost all three because, as one young general staff officer put it, “we did not understand contemporary war.”31 Port Arthur capitulated on 20 December 1904, and the destruction of the Russian Baltic Fleet at Tsushima Straits in May 1905 wrote the last humiliating chapter to a sad war story. While the Japanese fared better, peace negotiations found the field armies of both combatants exhausted and increasingly susceptible to the vulnerabilities of the home front.
For Russian military thinkers, the post-1905 challenge lay in fashioning a new intellectual construct within which they might make sense of the Far Eastern débâcle. Leyer’s understanding of strategy as a science with its own immutable laws — demonstrable through a close study of military history, and especially the campaigns of Napoleon — remained too rigid, remote, and unimaginative to convey a sense of the complexities of contemporary battles, operations, and campaigns. Modern mass armies stubbornly resisted defeat in the single climactic battle, which during the previous century had often decided the fate of an entire campaign, or even an entire war. The nature of battle itself was changing from a deadly affair mercifully lasting only several days to protracted struggle dragging on for several weeks. The railroad and the telegraph, and more recently the telephone and wireless, continued to play havoc with traditional notions of time, space, and timing. The same changes prompted a renewed call for a reevaluation of fundamental conceptions of envelopment and operation on interior and exterior lines. In a word, Jomini was out, and Clausewitz and the elder Moltke (as modified by experience and
observation) were in. However, Moltke had to be understood not so much in the way he related to Napoleon as in the way that he and his disciples had revolutionized modern warfare in a new age of industrialism. This understanding accented the development of an embryonic version of the operational level of war. In the realm of tactics, General Dragomirov’s principles cried out for rigorous updating in light of new weaponry and attendant requirements for more flexible application and a new emphasis on combining the effects of the combat arms, especially infantry and artillery. The lethality of smokeless powder weaponry begged for a fundamental reevaluation of the relationship between fire and shock action in both offensive and defensive battle.32 Greater dispersion seemed inevitable, but the problem was how to achieve mass and retain control with manpower and firepower spread over larger areas. Manchurian battles delivered new experience and new data into the hands of those who would update the lessons that many tacticians had seen in the conflicts of 1870–1871 and 1877–1878.
Preliminary conclusions offered scant comfort. The Russo-Japanese War seemed to indicate that the modern tactical headache, the meeting engagement, was to remain a standard feature of military operations. To escape set-piece battles with their steep casualty rates, the sensible commander now sought both to avoid the assault of fortifications and to retain the initiative by attacking his adversary from the march while both sides were still moving to contact. It was now commonplace that commanders attempt to catch each other in the rear or on the flank to avoid costly confrontation with frontal firepower. While the defensive retained utility, only the offensive promised both decision and all-important retention of the initiative in warfare. One of the ironies of the period was that renewed emphasis on offensive battle did not occur in utter disregard of changing military technology; rather, it evolved as a way of minimizing the lethality of the new technology.
Whether or not stress on the offensive proved sound, conflict rattling across space and time had to conform to some kind of overall design. New means and methods of deploying mass armies within theater had led to engagements and battles unfolding seemingly helter-skelter across vast distances for days and even weeks until physical, moral, and materiel exhaustion called a temporary halt. But how to make sense out of chaos, how to meld apparent confusion into a coherent whole? Writing in 1907, Col. Aleksandr Gerua reflected on the teachings of Russian military thinkers and the writings of the German strategist Blume and called for a new concept to bridge the intellectual gap between Dragomirov’s elementary tactics and Leyer’s undying (and ethereal) principles of strategy. Gerua labeled his version of the bridge “applied strategy” (prikladnaya strategiya). Of emphatically modern significance, its function would be “to afford a series of firm rules for moving armies along contemporary
routes of communication, securing these routes, equipping bases, maneuvering large armies toward the field of engagement, and organizing reconnaissance and so forth in the field.”33 Somewhat later, perhaps under the influence of the German Operativ, he would interpose between strategy and tactics something that he called operatika.34 Its function was to provide an intellectual perspective from which commanders and their staffs could envision and plan for the sum of disparate activities and actions over time and space that went into the makeup of a modern military operation. Gerua’s term never gained currency. In the 1920s, however, Svechin and other Soviet military writers would supplant it with the less elegant term “operational art” (operativnoye iskusstvo).35
Perhaps Gerua failed to introduce new terminology because traditional conceptions of strategy retained sufficient flexibility to be hauled back to earth from Leyer’s ether. Theorists might differ with each other in their definitions of strategy, but there was common agreement that Leyer’s legacy lacked practicality. A new generation of officers extended the criticisms which Leyer and his disciples had already witnessed in the 1890s, with the result that old terms and concepts were subjected to rigorous re-examination in the light of new urgencies. After 1905, Leyer’s idealism was carried away in a new wave emphasizing theater and battlefield application. For the time being, few saw the inherent danger in emphasizing practice over theory that Svechin — paraphrasing a French commentator — would warn against years later in a different context: “theory strives always to go hand-in-hand with experience, and sooner or later avenges itself if it is ignored too much.”36
Theory and practice came together at the General Staff Academy, but only imperfectly. Unfortunately, the Academy chose to meet post- 1905 challenges with a combination of half-hearted reform and inertia. Consequently, the atmosphere at the Academy proved conducive only in a limited sense both to reexamining old verities and to searching for new ones. Examinations and student projects often focused on comparisons across time, and faculty members with Far Eastern experience made their presence felt in field exercises and tactical problems. In addition, many of the students themselves were veterans of the Russo-Japanese War. As Ordinary Professor of Strategy, Lt. Col. A. A. Neznamov brought a combination of background from the field and theoretical insights to his instruction. He was a brilliant tactician whose Manchurian experience and reading of German military theory prompted him to link tactical and operational conceptions with broader issues of strategy. Indeed, without using the terminology, Neznamov’s course in strategy probably did a reasonable job of bridging the gap that Gerua had pointed out in 1907. B. M. Shaposhnikov, an officer-student at the time and later first chief of the Soviet General Staff, recalled that Neznamov’s lectures were “something like instruction about operational art, neither grand tactics according to
Napoleon’s definition nor Leyer’s strategy of the theater of military action.”37 Students were at first captivated, then put off when they discovered that many of Neznamov’s ideas came from a German military theorist, General Sigismund Wilhelm von Schlichting, whose works were first translated into Russian in 1909.
Reaction to Schlichting’s influence indicated the degree to which segments of the military consciousness remained captive to “we-they” notions of indigenous evolution and foreign military domination. Although Neznamov went out of his way to cite Russian military authorities with great frequency in his works, he was branded a “westernizer,” as were many reform-minded genshtabisty, or general staff officers, who soon earned for themselves and their adherents the sobriquet Young Turks. Against these westernizers were arrayed latter-day descendants of the Russian nationalist school that now championed the development of “a national military doctrine.” One side preached the merits of military modernization, whatever the inspiration; the other trumpeted the necessity to search the immediate and more remote past to retain harmony with Russia’s true national lines of military development. The issue, of course, was one of degree. While Neznamov considered military history an indispensable adjunct to theoretical development, the nationalist school saw historical understanding as the key to theoretical advances. In effect, the old feud between the Russian national and academic schools was now rekindled under different terms with different participants. Lines between the camps often blurred, but their discourses, definitions and debates helped establish a framework for the continued development of Russian military theory and its definition of operational art.38
The Mature N. P. Mikhnevich
Nikolay Petrovich Mikhnevich, the strategic thinker who inherited Leyer’s mantle at the academy, stood with one foot in either camp, but his publishing record and deep regard for historical studies meant that he was usually identified with the nationalist school. A disciple of the positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, Mikhnevich firmly believed in the evolution of both human institutions and knowledge from simple to more complex forms. This conviction simultaneously put him at odds with Leyer’s unchanging laws of military science and endeared him to historians wedded to an approach that stressed studying change within context over time.
For Mikhnevich and others who seriously pondered military issues a common point of departure was speculation over the nature and character of future war. Would future European conflict be a “lightning war” in the manner of 1870–1871? Or, would it follow the lines of protracted struggle in the manner of the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon? Answers to these questions drew upon analysis and insights gleaned from
a variety of sources and experiences. The same answers also determined issues and emphases across a range of war-related considerations. By now, nearly everyone acknowledged the impact of technology — although perhaps in varying degrees. Likewise, everyone acknowledged the likelihood of a coalition war waged by multimillion-man armies. However, here the similarities in outlook ended. If war were to be brief and violent, stress would fall upon immediate preparation, speedy deployment, a spirited offensive, and firm tactical and operational linkages during the initial period of conflict. If war were to be protracted, then stress would fall on strategic depth, full mobilization capacity, measured responses to operational challenges, and maintenance of internal unity and firmness of purpose.
Mikhnevich’s Strategy (in Russian, third edition, 1911) touched on nearly all these issues with its far-reaching and integrative inquiry into the nature of military science, strategy, and tactics in an age of mass armies. In accordance with his own positivist views and in contrast with Leyer’s penchant to look for many laws, Mikhnevich saw only two: the law of evolution and the law of struggle. Both military institutions and knowledge about military affairs were evolving from simpler to more complex forms. For him, such a thing as military science existed, but only in so far as it was “an objectively verifiable and systematic knowledge about real phenomena from the perspective of their regular recurrence [zakonomernost’] and unchanging order.” Within Mikhnevich’s dynamic scheme, the search for laws gave way to a search for principles with an emphasis on the need to seek unity of theory and practice. The main objective of a theory of military art, he wrote, was “to establish firmly its fundamental principles, to study the most fundamental elements of a situation, and to indicate in light of the situation how principles are to be applied in war.”39
Mikhnevich agreed with apostles of the Russian national school that man remained the center of war, but his understanding was more complex than simple emphasis on the role of individuals. In the past, the human element had been manifested in war through strategy and tactics. Now, the evolving complexity of human society meant that emphasis fell upon the manifold aspects of humanity as a whole. Or, to put it another way, the human element remained, but it now manifested itself through more sophisticated institutions in a new, mass form. There was no romantic wistfulness for times gone by, only hardheaded acknowledgment of an emerging new order. For Mikhnevich, then, the laws of war were embodied in those social characteristics (numerical, physical, economic, intellectual, and moral superiority) that in sum determined the outcome of armed conflict. In a more limited military sense, the principles of war governed application of mass against the main objective and the attainment of moral superiority over the factors of material, accident, and surprise.40
In arguments reminiscent of the German theorist Colmar von der Goltz, Mikhnevich went on to assert that the competitive stakes were now so great that nations would go to war only on the basis of all their resources, physical and moral. With everything committed, modern war held the distinct possibility of transforming itself into protracted struggle that would involve the total resources of the state, a concept already advanced by Gulevich and Bloch. This vision of deliberate and calculated engagement explicitly called for a new kind of preparation and domestic and foreign policies, a position that at least implicitly criticized the tsarist government’s conduct of the Russo-Japanese War.41
Mikhnevich also held that Russia possessed some distinct advantages in waging modern war. One was the strong monarchy, which he saw as the best form of government for waging modern war. Another was the combative spirit (voinskyi dukh) of the population, which promised persistent moral superiority. At the same time, Russia’s comparative backwardness meant that its society was immune to the kind of wartime dislocations that would quickly imperil more complex western European societies. In different terms, his ideas were reminiscent of the nineteenth-century Slavophile conviction that Russia’s backwardness was actually virtue when viewed from a different perspective. For Mikhnevich, durability and inherent spiritual strength meant that there was no need for Russia to be stampeded into a lightning war. If need be, the Russians could revert to a Scythian strategy, calling upon depth and the resources of their land to outlast the enemy in protracted conflict. “Time is the best ally of our armed forces,” he wrote, “therefore, it is not dangerous for us to adopt ‘a strategy of attrition and exhaustion,’ at first avoiding decisive combat with the enemy on the very borders, when superiority of forces might be on his side.”42
Yet this was no excuse for deliberately embarking on a defensive war. A theorist of strong convictions and perhaps even stronger perceptions, Mikhnevich remained enough of a historian to know that the political price could be steep when trading land and lives for time. He encouraged the monarchy to increase military expenditures and to double the size of the army “in order not to fall behind the other states.” Otherwise, “in a future general European war without allies, Russia would be forced to begin on the defense as against Charles XII [of Sweden] and Napoleon, which of course is undesirable and disadvantageous.”43
Although very much a traditionalist in cultural terms, Mikhnevich saw changing technology exerting a profound impact on war. Indeed, since the 1890s, his evolutionary model of military reality owed much of its dynamism to an acknowledgment that technology was changing the very nature of battles and operations. He saw, for example, that smokeless powder weaponry imposed new battlefield requirements for calculating distances, intervals, and depths. These requirements in turn called
for new tactical and organizational structures. At the same time, other technologies, including steam propulsion and telegraphic communication, imposed still more new requirements in planning for and conducting mobilization, deployments, and operations.44
Mikhnevich’s emphasis on planning not only called attention to the pressing need for rational economic development but also laid stress on the purely military aspects of the initial period of war. He held that strategic deployments should not occur in close proximity to the enemy so that concentrating forces would not be subject to attack before an army was fully capable of conducting operations. It seems likely that he also borrowed from the Germans and expanded upon Leyer’s teaching to evolve a suitable terminology to describe what occurred in war. Just as in the 1890s, he continued to write that “every war consists of one or several campaigns, and every campaign of one or several operations.”45 However, the understanding now was that this conception underlay a more modern understanding of operations and encouraged the kind of conceptual linkages across the warfighting spectrum that Gerua had found so lacking in the pre-1905 intellectual environment.
Neznamov and the War Plan
Even more to the point were the views of Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Neznamov, who shared some of Mikhnevich’s interest in history and more of his preoccupation with the war plan. Neznamov was one of the most outspoken of the Young Turks, whose views are often interpreted as diametrically opposed to the nationalists, although differences were often more of degree and approach than substance and program. Neznamov well knew the value of history but chose to use it only as a point of departure, for 1904–1905 had convinced him that the Russians simply did not understand the nature of contemporary war.46 For Neznamov, the most pressing task confronting the Imperial Russian Army was not a generalization of past experience but an analysis of the probable means and methods of waging future war. “Even the past does not provide a full idea of the present, especially in our fast-moving century,” he wrote. Therefore, “past military thought cannot be ignored, but [military thought] must constantly make corrections because of present technical advances and, where possible, also peer ahead.”47
As if in answer to Gerua’s pleading, Neznamov extended Mikhnevich’s thought to evolve a modern theory of military operations that joined planning and preparation to the actual conduct of operations and battles. Central to his thought, just as to Mikhnevich’s, was the war plan. Like Mikhnevich, Neznamov believed that modern war would no longer be decided by the outcome of a single climactic engagement (srazhenie). Rather, modern war consisted of a series of engagements and
operations linked to one another by the overall concept of the war plan. The plan guided the fulfillment of discrete but related tasks; therefore, the accomplishment of general strategic objectives occurred during the actual course of operations.48 Neznamov owed his concept not only to a close and original study of the Russian experience in the Far East, but also to a reading of contemporary European, especially German, military theory. He quoted Falkenhausen on preparedness, paraphrased Schlichting on the meeting engagement and modern battle, and believed in the relevance of Goltz’s notion of the nation in arms.49
Neznamov’s war plan was an integrated concept calling for a nation’s total involvement in modern conflict. Implicit was a fundamental devotion to Clausewitz’s definition of war as politics by other means, with all the attendant implications for unity of civil-military will. The necessity for a truly single-minded effort meant that before embarking on modern war, a nation had to take into account a number of considerations other than purely military factors, including economics, politics, morale, and culture. Neznamov’s intent was not merely to emphasize method in war planning but also to underscore the importance of preparing the entire body politic for future conflicts, which would probably not resemble past wars. In actual war preparations, he parted ways with those who emphasized the importance of great Russian captains. Leadership was no doubt important, but the war plan itself was less the province of supreme authority than it was a function of a relatively constant set of objective factors: geography, climate, communications, strategic objectives, and centers of political and economic concentration.
The idea behind the war plan was to translate preparations into military realities, which would allow one state to impose its will on another through offensive operations. This was the essence of strategy. The army’s strategic deployment remained the clearest expression of a nation’s war plan and its determination to seek decision. In the past, Neznamov declared that faulty dispositions had been “a chronic Russian weakness.” In contrast now with Mikhnevich, who emphasized the inherent advantages of depth and the ability to trade space for time, Neznamov asserted that dispositions must be governed by a requirement to achieve speedy and superior concentration against the main threat while lesser threats were held at arm’s length. Security of concentration was an absolute necessity, but distances were to be calculated not by historical rules of thumb but in accordance with knowledge of actual rates of deployment, concentration, and advance. Above all, in determining courses of action, Neznamov repeatedly intoned that “we must know what we want.”50
Whether the Russians wanted it or not, Neznamov read the combined lessons of the past and present theoretical projections to emphasize maneuver warfare. Along with his contemporaries, A. G. Yelchaninov and V. A. Cheremisov, Neznamov pondered the nature of contemporary and
future battle to emerge with a vision that called for new attention to the application of mass through combined fire-and-maneuver tactics. The old combination of skirmish line and closed ranks in the assault had to give way to new forms of organization and attack. In addition, new ways had to be devised to concentrate all forms of firepower, for in Neznamov’s view “fire was the primary factor in contemporary battle.”51 The appearance of various kinds of air assets both promised new forms of reconnaissance and attack and created the problem of air defense and active and passive security measures against air power. Despite the importance of mass, the lethality of modern weaponry opened distances and added depth at all organizational levels in the field.52
Battles, he believed, would be integral components of operations conducted not only by a single army, but also by groups of two or three armies, a development that would create the need for additional organizational and intellectual linkages. Under the pressure of modern combat, success beckoned to commanders at all levels, who displayed confidence and mutual trust in their own and other commanders’ dispositions and decisions. Such confidence flowed from a common understanding of the nature of contemporary war and from adherence to a common plan. “Only battles are decisive in war; everything else serves only to prepare for them,” Neznamov asserted. Therefore, “it is understood that each troop unit, each column must press into battle with all it has [and] under conditions in which units enter battle in the normal organizational structure.”53 Kuropatkin’s Manchurian muddle had made a strong impression on Neznamov.
Manchuria also influenced the way that Neznamov viewed seemingly discrete aspects of combat within theater. He saw armed confrontation both as physical struggle and as a struggle for information and time. Speed enabled a commander to win these struggles, thus assuring retention of the initiative and constantly forcing an adversary to react. At the same time, Neznamov perceived that “just as all of a war is broken down into a whole series of operations, so is each operation broken down into a whole series of immediate tasks, in which the preceding ones condition the following ones, and all of them are combined into a single operation just as all operations are joined with one another.”54 Just as contemporary war could not be fought with older methods, neither could contemporary armies be defeated in a single engagement. Future war might well assume a protracted character. Manchuria had demonstrated that war was now a series of “separate offensive leaps forward and defensive leaps backward.” Thus appeared in embryonic form a theory of successive operations.55
One of Neznamov’s lasting contributions to military theory was to ascribe a central place to the operation as a phenomenon of contemporary war. In contrast with Leyer’s more abstract categories of operations (fundamental, preparatory, and supplementary), Neznamov offered a
down-to-earth classification of operations as either offensive, defensive, meeting, or delaying (vyzhidatel’nye), with the latter two being variants respectively of the first two. He also emphasized preparation and conduct, asserting that these aspects of operations were evolving in complexity from the concepts of individual commanders to “purely scientific” requirements that involved not only the art of army commanders but also the precise work of their staffs.56
From these and related ideas flowed conceptions that visualized modern war unfolding across a broad strategic front in which envelopments and breakthroughs became major operational objectives. While envelopment (shallow and deep) and encirclement operations had long held central stage in German military thought and teaching, there was increasing evidence that the breakthrough was gaining its share of adherents, both Russian and German. The objective of the breakthrough was to drive a wedge into the enemy’s strategic front, then to develop success in depth and outward, thus threatening at their core an enemy’s communications and organizational coherence. Individual successes during the course of the breakthrough would assure larger successes within the theater of operations. Overall success depended upon superiority in forces and means, particularly in the realm of artillery support. It was emphasized that the breakthrough would enjoy success only under conditions of the cooperative action of all arms.57
How to conduct Neznamov’s vision of future military operations? In rejoinder to the nationalists, he asserted that the traditional Russian virtues of bravery, self-sacrifice, stolidity, and self-sufficiency — although still necessary — no longer sufficed. Now, more than ever, the army needed knowledge, training, and correct utilization of national assets, and it needed to apply them in accordance with mutually understood principles and methods. Schooling and training in advance of war were the keys to releasing the moral potential of the Russian soldier and elevating the competence of his leaders.58
Against the pre-1914 background of personnel turmoil and intellectual ferment, Colonel Svechin remained a voice of sober calculation. He understood the contemporary emphasis on the offensive from the beginning (“offensive à outrance,” as the French intoned), but was careful to look ahead in case initial operations failed to produce decision. In 1913 he assessed the significance of potential coalition operations both west and east and concluded that the strategic center of gravity was slowly shifting to the east, thanks to demography, distance, and improved Russian military preparedness. In the event that French and tsarist armies failed to deliver rapid decision in any future conflict, the two nations would be well served to seek a balance between offense and defense. Svechin did his calculations and concluded that combatants might plan for an early victory but must be prepared for protracted conflict.59 This
was a theme to which he would return in the 1920s, with lamentable personal consequences. Before 1914 his voice was lost in the whirlwind accompanying overcommitment to the French and overconfidence in the decisive effect of initial operations.
World War I on the Eastern Front became additional grist for the combat experience mill. As early as 1918, with Russian participation scarcely terminated, military historians and commentators in the new Soviet state set to work on the history of the conflict with an eye both to distilling lessons learned and to adding more generally to the font of historical wisdom. Not surprisingly, some of the same figures involved either directly or indirectly in this effort were voenspetsy, or military specialists, former tsarist officers who were serving new political masters. As the Russian Civil War and allied intervention wound their course, they found their ranks swelled by younger officers who owed their fortunes more assuredly to the new revolutionary regime.
During the early and mid-1920s, the experience and outlook of these two groups of officers blended to influence the evolving military theory of the new Soviet state. What emerged from the blend was a novel understanding of military doctrine, military science, and the primary components of military science, including strategy, operational art, and tactics. While the specific definitions of these and other terms often assumed new significance and dimensions, the Soviet military theorists of the 1920s did not build on empty ground. In fact, A. A. Svechin, the voenspets whose name is most frequently associated with the appearance of the term operational art, was a former officer of the imperial Russian General Staff who had attained intellectual maturity during the remarkable flowering of Russian military thought in the pre-1914 period.
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