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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Same Army, Same Mistakes, Different Uniforms - Russian Armies since The Crimean War

There are some events in the contemporary world that suddenly make historians look at the past in a different light. Some books do the same.

For me in recent days, I have been struck by how the Russian Army in Ukraine has been repeating mistakes from previous wars. The thing that first caught my eye was that the Ukrainians were easily intercepting Russian battlefield messages, exactly as the Germans were doing back in 1914. Don't the Russian Military Academies teach World War One history? Presumably not because it comes from a time that many Russians regard as lost back in The Middle Ages with Nicholas II, Rasputin et al. Rather in the way that British Officer training before The First World War failed to learn the lessons of trench warfare from The American Civil War.

The book I have found invaluable is wonderful - The Great Bear at War, Russian and Soviet Army 1917 - Present, by Chris McNab, published 2019. As a bonus it is beautifully illustrated. It is a book written for non experts by a well read expert.

Some of you reading this will have already begun to question my thesis, in as much as you will point to the success of The Red Army in The Second World War. Yet the Russian Red Army performed poorly against The Finns in The Winter War of 1939, and again against the advance of Nazi Forces towards Moscow in 1941. So poorly did the Russians perform at the start of Operation Barbarossa, that Colonel General Franz Halder of The German General Staff, wrote ' The Russians have lost this war in the first eight days! Their casualties - in both men and equipment - are unimaginable'.

The Russians call The Second World War 'The Great Patriotic War', a title chosen because of the heroism of ordinary Russians in the siege of Leningrad and the battle of Stalingrad to withstand everything the Germans threw at them. Moreover, as in The Napoleonic War, the Russians were saved, as the old joke goes, by their greatest General, General Winter. Much the same scenario is being played out in Ukraine at this very moment - a determined and patriotic civilian population aided by the weather, and the inability seemingly of the Russians to deal with either.

The Russians also had political commissars attached to military units, who with no military experience could override the military officer corps. There are reports coming out of Ukraine that something similar is going on today. Additionally, because of Stalin's purges of the officer corps during The Thirties there were few senior commanders with any experience or length of service available to the Army in 1941.

The fact that it was Russian troops that reached Berlin ahead of the Western Allies is because by then the Germans on The Eastern front were demoralised and the leadership in Berlin was crumbling away as it fought a losing battle on multiple Fronts.

But let me return to the beginning and then take the story forward chronologically. The Crimean War was fought in 1853/56 against Britain, France, The Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia-Piedmont. Oddly one reason for the Russian failure was that its lines of communication back into Russia were very long and on poor roads (similar to Ukraine today), whereas the Allies could be resupplied far more easily by sea, The Russians had inferior weapons, many of the infantry being armed only with muskets rather than rifles. We know all too well from our history lessons at school how incompetent the senior British and French officers were, but the Russian leadership was in a different league of bad. It has been said that Russian Armed Forces suffer from two problems, namely moronic leadership and poor roads. As of today the Russians have lost in action three senior commanders and we have all seen on television the state of the roads and the state of their military vehicles.

I have already made mention that in 1914 the Germans were able to read every communication between the Russian commanders. The Russian troops were largely illiterate (especially the conscripts), poorly fed, poorly clothed (some lacked boots), and poorly armed (6 million rifles for an army at its peak of 155 million) . By the end of the Tsarist war in 1917, Nicholas II had himself taken supreme command even though he lacked any military experience. By the time Lenin and Trotsky extracted Russia from the war, desertions and mutinies were rife throughout the Army.

We all know that the Russians, like the British before them and the Americans after them failed spectacularly in Afghanistan. A failure that contributed not only to Russia's drugs problem but, more importantly, to the collapse of The USSR itself. Reasons for failure included lack of experience, especially in the realm of counter-insurgency - something which looks as though they will have to deal with in Ukraine over coming months, if not years.

Again the Russian military forces performed poorly in The First Chechen War, 1994-96.

Chris McNab writes, 'Post Soviet Russia fought its first war - The First Chechen War - in 1994-6. In effect it lost: a nation with a population of 147 million was forced to recognize the de facto autonomy of Chechnya, a country one hundredth its size and with less than one-hundreth of its people'. True the Russians managed 'victory' at the end of The Second Chechen War. Yet, the Chechens have continued the conflict via terrorist acts in the heart of Russian cities. McNab, writing only 3 years ago, ends with the following sentence which few in The West would now give credence to; 'After more than a century of tumultuous history, the Great Bear [Russia] still commands our respect.'

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