The Russian Understanding of War
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The Russian Understanding of War

Blurring the Lines between War and Peace

Oscar Jonsson

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eBook - ePub

The Russian Understanding of War

Blurring the Lines between War and Peace

Oscar Jonsson

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About This Book

This book analyzes the evolution of Russian military thought and how Russia's current thinking about war is reflected in recent crises. While other books describe current Russian practice, Oscar Jonsson provides the long view to show how Russian military strategic thinking has developed from the Bolshevik Revolution to the present. He closely examines Russian primary sources including security doctrines and the writings and statements of Russian military theorists and political elites. What Jonsson reveals is that Russia's conception of the very nature of war is now changing, as Russian elites see information warfare and political subversion as the most important ways to conduct contemporary war. Since information warfare and political subversion are below the traditional threshold of armed violence, this has blurred the boundaries between war and peace. Jonsson also finds that Russian leaders have, particularly since 2011/12, considered themselves to be at war with the United States and its allies, albeit with non-violent means. This book provides much needed context and analysis to be able to understand recent Russian interventions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, how to deter Russia on the eastern borders of NATO, and how the West must also learn to avoid inadvertent escalation.

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The Soviet Understanding of War

An analysis of Soviet military publications indicates an exceptionally sophisticated level of professional understanding by the Warsaw Pact officers of Western military-technological innovations. What is even more striking is that the Soviets were able to place these innovations in a much deeper and broader context, reflecting a far more profound grasp of these developments’ implications than the West itself possessed.
—Dima Adamsky (2010, 32)
Many of the particular features of Russian military thought today have roots in Soviet military thought. This is probably unsurprising since the majority of the elites in today’s Russia were educated and had their early careers under the Soviet system. The influence, however, goes further. Some of the key debates in contemporary Russia regarding what war is—including the US military’s MTR/RMA, which later became network-centric warfare (NCW)—originated in Soviet times. Furthermore, many of the characteristics that set Russian military thought apart from its Western equivalent, such as the reliance on holism and dialectical materialism, were also introduced during the Soviet period. Soviet military theorists and political elites had a different way of approaching military thought, and arguably it was deeper and broader than Western approaches, as the quote above emphasizes.
The body of military theory and authoritative views was exceptionally stable throughout the history of the Soviet Union. This was partly because the essence of war was indeed seen as static and partly because all military theory and military science had to reflect the established views and ideology of the Communist Party, from which military doctrine and military strategy was derived—that is, all authoritative ideas on matters of war and military policy derived from party policy (Scott and Scott 1982, 13). Military doctrine was divided into a political part and a military part. The political part was the super-ordinate, and it changed little (Light 1988, 13). The military part was also quite stable, with much of the foundation of Soviet military theory developed in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the key concepts—deep operations, echeloned formation in the attack, the primacy of the offensive, and the importance of engagement—persisted in various forms (Scott and Scott 1982, 18).
This chapter analyzes the development of the Soviet understanding of war from Lenin’s early writings until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. While not entering into a comparative study, it discusses the particularities of this “broader and deeper” Soviet understanding. It begins by discussing the particular features of Soviet military science. Thereafter, it analyzes the nature of war in the Soviet understanding in terms of the definition, the root cause of war, and the view of war as an instrument of politics.

Soviet Military Science

Before venturing into the Soviet understanding of war, a few words are merited on Soviet military science. The starting point for investigating the nature of war was the established views and ideology of the Communist Party. It was from the precepts therein that Soviet military science drew when forming its system of knowledge. This included the character of war, the laws of war, the preparation of the armed forces for war, and the methods of waging war (Scott and Scott 1982, 5). The authoritative framework was set out at the creation of the Soviet Union by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, commissar of war from 1918 to 1925 and the founder of the Red Army. They in turn relied heavily on Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Marxism in what later became known as Marxism-Leninism.
The first point that rendered Soviet military science particular is its insistence on holism, the belief that everything is connected in a single synthetic system. All issues are analyzed with the function of the system in mind. This, Adamsky argued, is to be seen in contrast with the Western analytical-logical tradition that starts from the microlevel processes and then goes on to aggregate them (Adamsky 2010, 40). This was also the interpretation of the military historian David Glantz, who argued that “this tendency to treat war as a totality of military, economic, political, and social measures differentiated Bolshevik strategy from that of its opponents” (Glantz 1992, 16). Holism—starting from the whole and then analyzing how the different components fit into it—is something the veteran Soviet military analysts Harriet and William Scott say persisted throughout the Soviet era (Scott and Scott 1988, 288).
The second point, which ties in with the first, is that Soviet military science was scientific because of the strict reliance on formal philosophy in the form of dialectical materialism as a guide to action and development (Fedotoff-White 1936, 321). Western analysts were often led astray when analyzing Soviet military thought because they gave too little attention to the philosophy that Soviet military science relied on (Scott and Scott 1982, 28). Materialism started with Hegelian dialectics but was modified by Marx and Engels, who discarded Georg Hegel’s idealistic metaphysics (Somerville 1945, 24). The three basic laws of dialectical materialism can be summarized as follows: “The law of strife and unity of opposites (that is, things are in a continuous process of change because they are made up of opposing forces or elements); the law of transformation of quantity to quality . . . and the law of negation of negation (each qualitative stage becomes negated by a further development)” (Somerville 1945, 24). N. Ya. Sushko and Stefan Tiuskhevich described dialectical materialism and military thought, saying that “the appearance of new means of struggle always brings into being corresponding counter-means, which in the end also lead to changes of military operations. The ‘struggle’ of tanks and antitank means, submarines and antisubmarine means, aircraft and antiaircraft defense . . . this is the axis around which revolves the development of military affairs, including the development of methods and forms of armed conflict” (Sushko and Tiuskhevich 1965, 128).
Dialectical materialism and holism were the foundation for the scientific drive in Soviet military science. In 1917, Lenin decided that all science of war and society needed to be based on Marxism-Leninism (Thomas 2011, 77). Against the backdrop of Lenin’s disappointment when the older strategists did not rely on Marxist-Leninist methodology, Adamsky says that “the Bolsheviks were determined to produce unique, proletarian military science. They assumed that armed with the laws of dialectical materialism, the Red Army would possess a master key to military reality” (Adamsky 2010, 47). Adamsky goes on to state that the major theorists—Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Boris Shaposhnikov, Mikhail Frunze, Aleksandr Svechin, and Trotsky—shared a conviction that “scientifically” developed military thought was a basic necessity (Adamsky 2010, 47). However, a closer look reveals a contradiction here. Both Svechin and Trotsky held the view that military knowledge was more of an art than a science. Trotsky argued that “there is not and cannot be a science of war, in the precise meaning of that word. There is an art of war” (Trotsky 1922). Trotsky also contended that historical materialism was not a universal method but rather a method for “a strictly delimited group of phenomena, a method of investigating the development of historical man” (Trotsky 1922, emphasis in original). Nonetheless, the strict scientific approach to military affairs remained.
The scientific dialectics were taken further by Josef Stalin, who coined five permanently operating factors that would ensure victory in war (discussed below). As explained by Gen. Vladimir Kurasov, commandant of the Academy of the General Staff, one of the top positions in the Soviet Armed Forces, in an article on Stalin’s military art, “the most important and characteristic feature of Stalinist strategy, finally, is the profoundly scientific foresight” (Kurasov 1950, 85, italics added). He explained that “Comrade Stalin determined these decisive factors of war on the basis of brilliantly applying the method of Marxist dialectical materialism to the phenomena of war. Therefore Stalinist strategy is deeply scientific, permitting the correct disclosure of the perspective for the development of a war” (Kurasov 1950, 85).
Likewise, Vasily Sokolovsky stated confidently that war was “an extremely complex social phenomenon, whose essential meaning can be revealed solely by using the only scientific method: Marxist-Leninist dialectics” (Sokolovsky 1963, 270). In sum, working in the philosophical tradition of dialectical materialism was seen as the key element of what made Soviet military science scientific. Marxist philosophy and dialectics had their roots in Hegelian dialectics, even if the Marxist tradition developed in opposition to it, especially with regard to the central role of the state for Hegel (Gat 1992, 372). This philosophical kinship, which included the common focus on historicism, was a key reason why communist military theorists found such affinity with Clausewitz, who was also drawing heavily on Hegel (Gat 1992, 364). Lenin appreciatively noted Clausewitz’s use of dialectics.
A third component that made Soviet military science scientific was its focus on history. Historical analysis was a constituent part of Marxist-Leninist dialectical materialism and seen as critical in the development of Soviet, and later Russian, military theory. As the seminal theorist Svechin put it, “All of strategy is basically a contemplation of military history,” and “the study of strategy is of little use without military historical knowledge” (Svechin 1927, 77). Or, as similarly put by Ivan Vorobyov and Valery Kiselyov, military history was an “organically indissoluble constituent” of military knowledge and the “nucleus of military science” (Vorobyov and Kiselyov 2013, 43; see also Vorobyov and Kiselyov 2011). Indeed, Russian theorists insisted that their military science is distinct, partly because of its focus on history (see Adamsky 2010, 33; Gorbunov and Bogdanov 2009, 17; Vorobyov and Kiselyov 2013, 43).

The Cause of War

In Marxist thought, the root cause of war was the existence of class societies. War was seen as a logical, almost automatic consequence of political systems with class divisions. The exploiting ruling class would continually use war to further its economic interests, and in this light the cause of war was economic (Light 1988, 212). B. Byely et al. (1972, 32) concluded that all the wars in history “were caused by private ownership relations and the resultant social and class antagonisms in exploiter formations.” Likewise, the chief of the Red Army in 1923, Ioakim Vatsetis (1923, 33), opined, emblematic of the view that persisted throughout the Soviet Union, that “a future war will in a sense be a class war, evoked by rivalry on purely economic grounds.” Indeed, economics was of primary importance; “the connection between the military organization of the nation and its entire economic and cultural structure was never as close as the present” (Glantz 1992, 6). This was enabled by Marxist-Leninist theory, which provided a coherent framework that guided politics, economics, and war.
Lenin contended in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism that “imperialist wars are absolutely inevitable under such an economic system where private property in the means of production exists” (Lenin 1916a, 28). This represented a continuation of the thought of Marx and Engels and became one of the core points of the Soviet understanding of war. Wars were, Lenin argued, “inseparable from the political systems that engender them” (Lenin 1917, 25). Wars would inevitably occur by virtue of the existence of exploitative political systems, until the whole world has become communist. In the “Military Programme of the Proletarian Revolution,” Lenin wrote, “Only after the proletariat has disarmed the bourgeoisie will it be able, without betraying its world-historic mission, to consign all armaments to the scrap-heap” (Lenin 1916b, 2, italics in the original). This view of perpetual conflict was confirmed by Frunze, one of the most acclaimed Soviet military theorists and commissar for the army and navy in 1925, who saw that “between our proletarian state and all the rest of the bourgeois world there can be only a state of long, stubborn, desperate war to the death” (Frunze 1921, 30; see also Svechin 1927, 91). Byely et al. (1972, 32) recapitulated that “wars are . . . a constant traveling companion to capitalism.”
Lenin understood war as having more utility than Marx and Engels. He held that “the victory of socialism in one country does not at one stroke eliminate all war in general. On the contrary, it presupposes wars” (Lenin 1916b, 2). Thus, in Lenin’s view, war was necessary in the condition of transforming the world and reaching the ultimate good. For Soviet leaders, “the socialistic transformation of society without an armed struggle was unconceivable” (Lider 1977, 232). This struggle was not limited to an interstate-level; rather, it was militarizing the whole of social life (Lenin 1916b, 3) because the success of socialism in one country would not only create friction but also direct attempts by the bourgeoisie to crush the socialist state’s victorious proletariat (Lenin 1916b, 2). Frunze agreed, arguing that “absolutely all aspects of social life are absorbed by war and subordinated to them” (Frunze 1921, 28). Consolidating the internal front was seen, in the Marxist-Leninist view, as a key condition for the ability to conduct external battles (Peralta 2005, 116). In this sense, Lenin was mindful of both interstate war and revolution, a key concept in Marxist-Leninist thought. Revolution can be seen as the link between the class struggle and war (Peralta 2005, 95).
The perception of war as having the potential to speed up the revolutionary process was strengthened by the First World War and the following Russian Revolution when the Bolsheviks came to power and by the Second World War when the Soviet Union established control over half of Central Europe (Light 1988, 21). Byely et al. (1972, 15) stated that war could also delay or hasten the development of the class society. Here it is useful to add the context of the development of military theory in the early days of the Soviet Union. In a passage of history less remembered by Western states than in the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and the United States were involved in the Russian Civil War, supporting the White movement against the Bolsheviks (Glantz 1992, 9). Thus, the foundational policy and military doctrine of the Soviet Union matured in the context of an “internal struggle and foreign intervention [that] threatened the fledgling Bolshevik regime’s existence” (Glantz 1992, 5).
At the core of the Marxist view of war was thus a paradox. On the one hand, war was perceived as something evil that could be remedied only by the transformation of the whole world to communism and the concomitant eradication of class societies (Communist Party of the Soviet Union 1919, 116). On the other, war was a positive force that could speed up the revolutionary process, through which all societies would become communist, either through peaceful transformation or armed revolution (Vigor 1975, 17). Thus, “since war is necessary for achieving socialism, it must be instrumental: moreover, since socialism is inevitable, then war must be unavoidable” (Lider 1977, 240). This paradox (the necessity of peace / the inevitability of war) was found not only in ideology but also among policymakers (Light 1988, 209).
The understanding of war as inevitable was maintained from the formation of the Soviet Union until Nikita Khrushchev amended it several years after the Soviet Union’s first successful test of an explosive nuclear device: “There is, of course, a Marxist-Leninist precept that wars are inevitable as long as imperialism exists . . . but war is not fatalistically inevitable. Today there are mighty social and political forces possessing formidable means to prevent the imperialists from unleashing war” (Khrushchev, cited in Booth 1981, 84–85, italics added; see also Burin 1963).
The “formidable means” that Khrushchev referred to were, of course, nuclear weapons. This view concomitantly entered Marksizm-Leninism o voine i armii as “wars are no fatal inevitability in human social development” (Byely et al. 1972, 5). This led to a reconsideration of the view that the transformation to socialism absolutely necessitated armed struggle; rather, “the only condition necessary for the transition from capitalism to socialism is the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat” (Lider 1977, 233). That being said, Khrushchev maintained the view that imperialist systems were still the ultimate cause of war (Lider 1977, 241).
To grapple with the inevitability of war, Khrushchev launched the idea of peaceful coexistence. He wrote an article in Foreign Affairs in 1959 introducing the concept to the American audience. Khrushchev argued that there were two ways to deal with a neighbor one dislikes: war (which in the age of atomic and hydrogen weapons of mass destruction would be dire for all) or peaceful coexistence (Khrushchev 1959). Peaceful coexistence was not an absence of conflict and disagreement but more a recognition that different systems should compete by their respective strengths rather than by war. Or, in less friendly words, “peaceful coexistence is conceived as a form of the international class struggle for the ultimate victory of socialism waged without the use of arms” (Lider 1977, 251). Khrushchev saw that “the new alignment of international forces . . . offers ground for the assertion that a new world war is no longer a fatal inevitability, that it can be averted” (Khrushchev 1959).
Leonid Brezhnev maintained the concept of peaceful coexistence, even though he seemed less optimistic. For him, peaceful coexistence did not in any way lessen the conflict; rather, “we must be prepared for this struggle to become more intense and an even sharper form of confrontation between the two social systems” (quoted in Lider 1977, 265). While maintaining Khrushchev’s notion of war as avoidable, The Soviet Military Encyclopedia noted that it did not “signify the complete elimination of the possibility of war in the modern age. The nature of imperialism has not changed” (Grechko and Ogarkov 1993, 368).
This underlies the Soviet view that the character of war depended on two things: economy and technology. Since the cause of war was economic in the Marxist-Leninist view and wars were caused by the ruling class to further their economic interests, the character of war depended on the economy. This was an idea originally proposed by Engels but maintained in Soviet thought (Peralta 2005, 96). The Soviet Military Encyclopedia saw that the class relations defined the type of war, and they changed over time. The different eras included wars in a slaveholding society, in which the goal was to capture slaves; wars in a feudal society, where the goal was to seize land; wars in a capitalist society to acquire labor and access markets; and imperialist war, which “exacerbates all of the contradictions of capitalism to extremes and to an enormous degree intensifies the scale, the intensity, and the sphere of [sic] spread of wars” (Grechko and Ogarkov 1993, 365–66). The varying character of war with the character of the economy can also be expressed as is in the foundation of Marxist theory: The economy—the means of production and people’s relation to production—was the base that conditions the superstructure (essentially everything else).
The most common way of describing how technology affected the character of war in the Soviet Union was through revolutions or stages of warfare (Fink 1989, 320). This practice continued in post-Soviet Russia with the use of generations of warfare. The advent of a new generation was mostly seen to be driven by technology, but technological innovation alone does not suffice as a description. Rather, a revolution meant a radical change in capabilities, doctrines, and organization, so fighting took on a fundamentally different form. The most authoritative work on the subject is by Vladimir Slipchenko, whose taxonomy of warfare is still the basis for most modern Russian theorists. The first generation was 500 BC–900 AD, with hand-to-hand fighting and primitive arms. The second generation, 900–1700, featured firearms. Third-gene...

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Citation styles for The Russian Understanding of War

APA 6 Citation

Jonsson, O. (2019). The Russian Understanding of War ([edition unavailable]). Georgetown University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)

Chicago Citation

Jonsson, Oscar. (2019) 2019. The Russian Understanding of War. [Edition unavailable]. Georgetown University Press.

Harvard Citation

Jonsson, O. (2019) The Russian Understanding of War. [edition unavailable]. Georgetown University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Jonsson, Oscar. The Russian Understanding of War. [edition unavailable]. Georgetown University Press, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.