Category Archives: Military History

Shocking

Yesterday RIA Novosti pointed out something easily overlooked.  On May 11, the head of the MOD’s Main Directorate of Combat Training (GUBP) announced in Krasnaya zvezda that the Russian Army will reintroduce the honorific “shock” [ударная] — as in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th Shock Army [ударная армия].

Medal for 3rd Shock Army Veterans

Medal for 3rd Shock Army Veterans

General-Lieutenant Ivan Buvaltsev indicated that units will compete for the right to bear the title “shock.”  Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu will award the name to the most combat capable formations (divisions, brigades) — motorized rifle, tank, naval infantry, airborne, air-assault, but also units and sub-units.  They will receive a distinctive heraldic emblem.

Commanders of Russia’s military districts and armed services and branches have nominated 78 formations, units, and sub-units.  An MOD commission will inspect them this month before the final selection.  It isn’t exactly clear how many will win the title.

Honorific names are traditional in the Russian military.  The moniker Guards might be the most ubiquitous.  It was a Tsarist title abolished by the Bolsheviks in 1918, but reinstituted by Stalin in 1941 to inspire divisions in the dark early days of the Great Patriotic War.  Honorary names are passed down to preserve the lineage of different units.  Common for divisions and brigades, they are less frequently awarded to regiments, battalions, etc.

Udarnaya [ударная] is the adjective from the verb udarit [ударить] meaning to hit, strike, bang, beat, shock, etc.  So you’ll see the translation “strike army” sometimes.

Shock armies were big in the Soviet defeat of the Wehrmacht.  They were much heavier in tanks and artillery than regular armies, and had tank and mechanized corps in them. They had organic air support.  They served as reinforced armies on the main axes of fronts, and were built to break through enemy defenses.  In short, there’s no army in today’s Russian military approaching the size — the men and equipment — of the wartime shock armies.

There were five Soviet shock armies by late 1942.  Three belonged to the reserve of the Headquarters Supreme High Command [Ставка ВГК].  One was on the North-West Front, and another on the Volkhov Front.  The latter — General-Lieutenant Andrey Vlasov’s 2nd Shock Army — was encircled and destroyed trying to lift the siege of Leningrad in the first half of 1942.  Vlasov was captured, and he collaborated with the Nazis by heading the so-called Russian Liberation Army.

What the Russian MOD intends in resurrecting the shock army (shock division, shock regiment?!) only time will tell.  But it’s probably not for nothing.  The armies (divisions, battalions?!) so designated might be beefed up.  Those chosen for the honor likely won’t surprise us.  Look for them in the southwest opposite Ukraine and northwest opposite the Baltic countries.

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Brothers Armed — A Review

Brothers Armed

If you follow the Russian military, you need to pick up Brothers Armed:  Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine from the Moscow-based Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) and published by East View Press.

Brothers Armed is a great summary of events in Russia’s seizure of Crimea last February-March as well as in-depth reference detailing the condition of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries.  It isn’t perfect, but it’s good and, most importantly, it’s sui generis.  It came out quickly and no other book covers these issues.  CAST has successfully achieved “relative objectivity” in its approach, as the introduction by David Glantz notes.

Vasiliy Kashin begins Brothers Armed by examining the history of Crimea’s disputed status.  He concludes:

“. . . in several agreements and treaties . . . Russia clearly recognized Ukraine’s territorial integrity within its existing borders [including control of Crimea]. Until the crisis in 2014, Russia had made no attempts to question Ukraine’s rights to Crimea.”

Putin’s move on Crimea was opportunistic, not premeditated, according to Kashin.

Two chapters then explain how Ukraine neglected its rich inheritance from the Soviet military.  In sheer hardware terms, Ukraine suddenly found itself the second most powerful in Europe, and fourth in the world.  The legacy of Soviet defense industry left it with “more than 700 military design bureaus and manufacturing plants that developed and made almost every type of modern weaponry.”  But without obvious threats and an army too large for its needs and finances, Kyiv focused on downsizing rather than preserving its forces.

Following Russia’s short war with Georgia in 2008, a “snap inspection” of the Ukrainian Army’s combat readiness “yielded very alarming results.”  In 2014, this inability to react to a rapidly emerging threat resulted in the loss of Crimea.

Mikhail Barabanov provides two narratives on Russian military reform — before and after the war with Georgia.  He concludes that, although former Defense Minister Serdyukov was despised by the military, he was “instrumental in laying the foundations of a genuinely modern Russian Army.”  His successor has normalized and stabilized the military in the wake of Serdyukov’s changes, but not reversed their intent.

Barabanov argues Crimea vindicated Russia’s transition from a big war mobilization army to leaner high readiness forces for smaller wars (despite lingering problems in manning them fully).

Alexey Nikolsky’s report on the formation and use of Russia’s two new SOF units in the seizure of Crimea makes for an intriguing chapter.  He argues that the SOF units are elite combat elements, unlike GRU Spetsnaz which are tasked with strategic reconnaissance.

Anton Lavrov’s section on Russia’s military operation in Crimea is the meat of Brothers Armed, and it’s a valuable account of what happened on the ground last winter.  He points out that, although Kyiv’s numbers were superior to Moscow’s, its military forces were psychologically, politically, and technically unready to react to the Russian invasion of Crimea.  At a point, he writes, “. . . the Ukrainian government was forced to desist from active attempts to restore its control of Crimea, so as not to risk a full-blown Russian invasion.”

The final chapter is Vyacheslav Tseluyko’s insightful look at where Ukraine’s military needs to go now that Russia is giving it “a crash course in real warfare.” He concludes Kyiv should focus on its most dangerous threat — a Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine — and adopt a territorial defense strategy to prevent a foreign occupation.  Tseluyko advocates drawing the aggressor into protracted fighting in urban areas, making every Ukrainian soldier an infantryman, and employing anti-armor weapons from light helicopters.

Brothers Armed is an object lesson for countries bordering Russia. They and their armed forces need to be ready immediately to respond to challenges to their sovereignty and territorial integrity from their overweening neighbor to the east.  Anything less could be too late.

The book is smoothly translated and features good photos.  A good map lost in the back might have served better up front.

With Brothers Armed on the shelf, one looks forward to a future book about the war in the Donbass.  CAST publishes routinely about the conflict in its English language journal.

Defense Ministry Collegium

Wednesday Defense Minister Serdyukov presided over a collegium dedicated primarily to military bases, housing issues, and flight security, according to available accounts.

Mil.ru reported Serdyukov and his subordinates discussed the deployment of troops in military towns, the outfitting of garrisons, and preparations for the coming heating season.

Rossiyskaya gazeta was more forthcoming stating that the Defense Ministry owes fuel suppliers the not-small amount of 4.5 billion rubles for earlier deliveries.

According to the paper, the Defense Minister repeated past declarations that the military plans to consolidate its current inventory of 7,500 facilities into 300 by concentrating personnel and units in larger bases and garrisons.

Serdyukov, in Kursk, said five units numbering 5,000 men will move to a military town near that city.  But he also indicated new infrastructure (barracks, housing, medical, recreation, and parking facilities) has to be built to accommodate them.

So it’s not just as easy as ordering them to go there.

Mil.ru wrote that the Defense Minister called provision of permanent housing to former servicemen in accordance with the president’s and prime minister’s instructions a “priority mission.”  He provided more details:

“Since the beginning of the year, 34 thousand servicemen have received apartments.  The number of territorial housing support organs has increased, the normative-legal base is being completed, and the simultaneous transmission of essential information to all levels of housing presentation has also been organized in the interest of fundamentally improving resolution of housing issues.”

Serdyukov also demanded that military leaders eliminate “violations of time periods for making decisions on the receipt of distributed housing by servicemen.”

Serdyukov met with President Putin a week ago to discuss military apartments.

According to Kremlin.ru, Serdyukov told the Supreme Glavk some 54,000 servicemen were owed apartments at the start of this year, and 33,000 have gotten them.  He said the handover of 1,500 to 1,650 apartments is completed every week, and, at that rate, he believes the housing line will disappear by early next year, at the latest.

Then Putin asked his Defense Minister if he dealt with excess bureaucracy in the process of giving out apartments.  Serdyukov replied that 37 additional offices are open for this purpose, and paperwork requirements have been cut.

Putin and Serdyukov seem focused only on procedure and process problems in handing over housing.  But military men have refused large numbers of  proffered apartments because they aren’t ready to inhabit, lack essential infrastructure, or are simply in places they have no desire to live.  It is more likely than not housing will still be an issue well into 2013 and beyond.  For background on substantially larger amounts of money required and 167,000 men awaiting housing, see Kommersant.ru here and here.

But back to the collegium . . .

RG noted the talk about flight safety came against a backdrop of more new airplanes and helicopters arriving — reportedly 150 in 2010 and 2011, 190 thus far in 2012, and perhaps 1,200 over the next seven years.  RIA Novosti hinted the fatal crash of a new Mi-35 helo, blamed on weather and human error, might have prompted discussion of aircraft accidents.

No One and Nothing is Forgotten

Piskarevskoye Memorial Cemetery

One happened to stumble on something yesterday, 71st anniversary of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union . . . famous words that “No one and nothing is forgotten” on Russia’s Day of Remembrance and Grief.

Probably few non-Russians are familiar with their origin.  They come from a poem by Leningrad blockade survivor Olga Berggolts.  Poignant verse carved in the stone at the center of Piskarevskoye Memorial Cemetery on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.

Nearly half a million Soviet citizens killed by bombs or bullets, or starved in the siege are buried in 186 rows of mass graves at Piskarevskoye.  Markers like the one below indicate the year and row number (22).

Here’s a translation of Berggolts’ poem:

Berggolts and her family were victims not only of the Nazis, but also Stalin’s terror.  Still she was a patriotic and loyal citizen.

Her life history makes one wonder if she felt “No one and nothing is forgotten”  covered more than the war’s tragedies.  This line written long ago still seems relevant in the struggle for Russia’s historical memory.

70 Years Ago

It was an event that sparked our interest in the USSR, in Russia.  Red Army troops marched heroically from the November 7, 1941 parade marking the 24th anniversary of the October Revolution straight into battle on Moscow’s outskirts.  Here’s how RT covered today’s reenactment.

Here’s the grainy film showing the actual event.

One can’t help imagining what these young men faced, and what must have happened to them.

Here’s Stalin’s speech.

Stalin, who was paralyzed for days after German invasion, tells the Soviet people that, although conditions are difficult, they aren’t as bad as what the country faced in 1918.  And he declares the German Army has not gained the quick victory it expected, and is not invincible.  But Stalin also promises an early defeat of the invaders that wasn’t in the cards either.