I have been meaning to write this type of a note for a while but been too busy. So here goes…
Fairly modern Russian military is probably best traced from the 18th century. It is a perhaps controversial thought, in the sense that the modern period in Russia began with Peter the Great but those early days were characterized more by the sudden realization that industry can be used to support military. Large scale pouring of cannons and so forth. However the deeper thought and theory associated with using industrially equipped army did not happen until later. Peter also imported a lot of his military and industrial specialists from abroad and so it is harder to decouple organically Russian developments from imported.
However, the period of Catherine the Great was much more defining for the Russian military. The early squabbles with Swedes under Peter the Great grew into a steady stream of European conflicts: Russia got into a lot of wars and skirmishes like Prussia’s seven year war and military engagements related to the French Revolution. So just as the Russians internalized a lot of ideas and systems from the Mongols a few centuries prior, they were now adapting to European military thought.
The main figures shaping this were Peter Rumyantsev and Alexander Suvorov-Rymniksky. Part of the reason these two stand out is because they backed up their theory with spectacular wins, especially against the Turks. The European influence cannot be overstated, for example Rumyantsev borrowed French words for battle and retreat pretty much wholesale and they became standard military speak henceforth. Rumyantsev’s central contribution to Russian military thought was his view that “attacking forces held a constant moral ascendancy over those that were defending” [quoted from Duffy]. His point was basically that war is all about strategic initiative and if you defend then you are already without initiative and hence lost. In a lot of ways this was not an original view but it was certainly very organic to Russia at the time: the army was mostly composed of serfs who were conscripted at a young age and went through decades of military service where they were brainwashed into sacrifice and discipline. They had no education nor capacity for initiative and so they were ill suited for the more complex defensive campaigns but they could charge as one with organization and discipline almost regardless of losses. Rumyantsev was basically justifying the strategies and tactics available to him and making them sound like pinnacles of military thought. Still, Russia had rapidly expanding population and weak Ottoman empire to poach so Rumyantsev had lots of success. To the extent that he could, Rumyantsev also tried to develop light infantry (something like special ops and guerilla units) and for those troops he allowed initiative and semi-independent operation without tight coordination with central command. Anyways, all of this was subordinated to his central idea of attacking and not retreating and again, a lot of that was because his troops were fit for attack and not retreat.
Following Rumyantsev, Suvorov advanced similar views and was even nicknamed General Forward for his attitude. His (and Rumyantsev’s) big idea was that territory is not crucial in a war. The central aim for him was not conquest of territory but the destruction of human resources of the enemy. His was revealed to be completely wrong during his lifetime when he went a bit crazy trying to win lots of battles in the Italian campaign (including the capture of Milan) but managed to piss of his allies (the Austrians) and had to skedaddle out of Italy. Winning battles as it turned out was not a recipe for success and destroying the human resources of the enemy was not fruitful if you turn allies into enemies in the process thereby multiplying human resources who are not friendlies. Suvorov then screw up badly by getting his ass handed to him in the Alps by the French to such an extent that mere survival of some of his army is hailed a great win and celebrated by the Russians to this day. He was a political loser all-around, falling out of favor with the tsar to such an extent that his military insights were basically cleansed out of the military for a while, as the tsar preferred Prussian military thought. Still, Suvorov’s losses were essentially in the realm of politics and not on the battlefield. Eventually, after a change of tsars, the Russians rediscovered his writings and they became standard teachings of the day.
Suvorov took Rumyatsev’s approach of glorifying what they had on hand and took it to the extreme. He advocated that a bayonet was better weapon than a bullet, basically turning logistics issues and industrial procurement issues in the Russian empire into virtues. He staged large scale training maneuvers for his troops which so closely simulated actual battles that he usually had many KIA and WIA from exercises alone. He exploited the extreme obedience and discipline of Russian troops to the limit, often making his troops move very fast across long distances and he sort of even lost touch with reality in later years: in the Italian campaign, he made his soldiers literally run for hours to their next engagement to the point where soldiers were dying en route from exhaustion. On the other hand, he did try to promote soldiers thinking for themselves in battle and had a knack for guessing the timing of how the battle would progress. In this way he was able to coordinate battles in what must have seemed to contemporaries as almost telepathy and achieved an effect similar to combined arms. For example, during the famous storming of Ismail he set specific targets to conquer in rough order and brought in reinforcements at just the right time to keep battle momentum going in his favor.
Suvorov’s most famous contribution though is a short pamphlet called “the Science of Winning.” The first part was a how-to manual for troops and it was obsolete almost as soon as it was published due to technological progress. But the second part aged better and screwed up Russian military thinking for ages. Suvorov advocated three virtues for commanders: the ability to eyeball everything quickly and precisely from camp arrangement to battlefield, the speed of troop movement (some readers include logistics here but Suvorov really pushed specifically troop movement speed above all), and finally “natisk” or what we now call toxic masculinity. This business of “natisk” is really crucial to understanding Russian mentality in war: Suvorov embedded the principle of not a step back into this concept. Unlike Rumyantsev who entrenched “retirovatsa” as a word for retreat into Russian military vernacular, Suvorov never once mention retreat in his “Science of Winning.” Suvorov is basically Rumyantsev taken to 11.
OK, so now what happens when the simpletons who got lucky exploiting lucky circumstances run out of room for their idiocy? Confusion happens. Almost as soon as Suvorov got off the world stage, the center stage went to Napoleon. This guy had nothing better to do than invade Russia and as soon as he did, all Russian theories about always attacking went out the window. Russia under leaders like Kutuzov had to make a strategic retreat, defend in depth, attack GLOCs of the French and do all the fun things Rumyantsev and Suvorov “glossed over” or outright neglected. Kutuzov famously decided to surrender Moscow to Napoleon so one would think that the exalted and extreme “retreat is death” philosophy of Suvorov was dead and gone. One would be wrong. The problem was that soon after the victory over Napoleon, Russian nobles rebelled in what became known as the Decembrist uprising. The incoming tsar reacted by trying to instill discipline and hard line centralized military thinking and it was natural to fall back on the glory days of Catherine the Great. Suvorov was en vogue. An entire line of Russian military thought basically developed around glorifying Suvorov’s thinking. Then came the defeat in Crimean war and much soul searching. Suddenly there was room for people like Genrikh Leer to introduce some sane systemic thoughts about building a modern industrialized army. But still, even at the end of 19th century you had a major wing of Russian military thought led by Mikhail Dragomirov who were Suvorov adepts. You want bayonet charges? Dragomirov’s got you. You want “win at all costs and no retreat ever”? Dragomirov’s your guy. The importance of Dragomirov can be seen in the Turkish war of 1877-78 where his attitude was important for the Russian decisions not to retreat and for keeping morale high. By contrast Leer was actually more of Lloyd and especially Moltke guy. Specifically his main goal in war was gaining territory not killing off human resources of the enemy. He was talking about things like fixing the main force of the enemy and admiring Moltke’s innovations in command structure. But Russian military was still made up of now former serfs with similar low skills and initiative but high endurance and bravery. The military elite was inert and Leer was rolling the rock uphill trying to modernize their thinking. It may seem strange that Russia was in the middle the Great Game against the Brits for world domination but all around the Russian periphery there were still lots of targets which could be conquered with Russian approach and so all through the 19th century Russian thought never fully went away from Suvorov’s ethos of always charging forward and never retreating.
And then comes the 20th century. Russia suffered one calamity after another. They lost the war with Japan, found their limits in central Asia, then ceded much European territory to partial German control with the Brest-Litovsk treaty (modern Ukraine and Belarus borders largely come from that treaty) and then they fell apart. During the civil war, many military commanders were lost or immigrated but many went commie and formed the base of Soviet army including in its military thinking. The Suvorov glorification survived all these calamities. Suffice it to say that before WW2, the Soviet government widely advertised that the war was coming and that they intended to “destroy the enemy on his own territory.” In other words, they framed the upcoming war as a no retreat one from before the war started. The order 227 (Stalin’s not a step back) was not an isolated measure — it grew out of the pre-war posturing to attack rather than pondering possible retreat and ultimately out of the remainder of the Rumyantsev-Suvorov doctrine. One can see the entire history of Russia from 18th century till now as the obsolete monster trying harder and harder to attack at all costs and one can see how this ethos is gradually breaking the monster’s back.
If one sees Suvorov’s military approach for what it is: toxic masculinity run amok — then one can also see that the modern insanity from Russia like defending every inch even on poorly protected territory is just more of the same. It is not by any means just a continuation of some Brusilov idea as some suggested. Brusilov was just the face of a major offensive. There were lots of people around him with similar toxic ethos roots. Consider Mikhail Khanzhin who got awards for stopping an army retreat in WW1 and who got a major promotion for his role in the Brusilov offensive. When he fought the commies as part of Kolchak’s army he won awards for his offensives and got demoted quickly for the retreat his army suffered. There were many others. Brusilov’s tactics were not the product of one man and were not in isolation from Russian military thought. A lot of the bigger context for Russian approach to warfare goes back to the 18th century and a lot of the influences on Brusilov go back to the Russian General Staff Academy and ergo back to Dragomirov and back to Suvorov. I would argue that in the context of the military, insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same outcome (for centuries) and that is roughly what Russia is doing.