Military history of Russia

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The military history of Russia has antecedents involving Kievan Rus' and some of the Rus' principalities that succeeded it, the Mongol invasion of the early 13th century, Russia's numerous wars against Turkey, against Poland, Lithuania and Sweden, the Seven Years' War, France (especially the Napoleonic Wars), and the Crimean War of 1853–1856. The 20th century saw defeat by Imperial Germany in World War I and an extremely costly victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, as well as smaller military actions against breakaway provinces and Poland. During the Cold War (1947 to 1990) the greatly enlarged military of the Soviet Union suppressed rebellions in Eastern Europe and became a nuclear superpower facing off against NATO and the United States, as well as China after 1960.


  • Throughout its history, Russia has been a special case. It arrived late on the European scene—well after France and Great Britain had been consolidated— and none of the traditional principles of European diplomacy seemed to apply to it. Bordering on three different cultural spheres—Europe, Asia, and the Muslim world—Russia contained populations of each, and hence was never a national state in the European sense. Constantly changing shape as its rulers annexed contiguous territories, Russia was an empire out of scale in comparison with any of the European countries. Moreover, with every new conquest, the character of the state changed as it incorporated another brand-new, restive, non-Russian ethnic group. This was one of the reasons Russia felt obliged to maintain huge armies whose size was unrelated to any plausible threat to its external security. Torn between obsessive insecurity and proselytizing zeal, between the requirements of Europe and the temptations of Asia, the Russian Empire always had a role in the European equilibrium but was never emotionally a part of it. The requirements of conquest and of security became merged in the minds of Russian leaders. Since the Congress of Vienna, the Russian Empire has placed its military forces on foreign soil more often than any other major power. Analysts frequently explain Russian expansionism as stemming from a sense of insecurity. But Russian writers have far more often justified Russia’s outward thrust as a messianic vocation. Russia on the march rarely showed a sense of limits; thwarted, it tended to withdraw into sullen resentment. For most of its history, Russia has been a cause looking for opportunity.
  • As Gregory Carleton observes in his superb 2017 study Russia: The Story of War, war is an indispensable part of how Russians see the world and their place in it. The extent to which World War II and all previous wars extending back a thousand years define Russian national identity is truly astonishing.
  • But the real point is that Britain and America did not invade France until 1944. As a consequence, the land war in Europe was decided largely on the Eastern Front. Between June 1941 and June 1944 (from Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union up to D-Day), 93 percent of Germany’s combat losses were inflicted by the Red Army. In cold figures that meant 4.2 million German dead, wounded or missing on the Eastern Front, against 329,000 in North Africa and Italy. Once the Soviets turned the tide at Stalingrad in January 1943 and then began the rollback at Kursk the following July, it was almost inevitable that they would end up deep in Eastern Europe. Stalin’s influence at Teheran, indeed his readiness to leave his lair and meet Roosevelt and Churchill, reflected these new geopolitical realities.
    • David Reynolds, Summits: Six Meetings that Changed the Twentieth Century (2007), pp. 106-107
  • On behalf of the people of the United States, I want to express to the Red Army, on its twenty-fifth anniversary, our profound admiration for its magnificent achievements, unsurpassed in all history. For many months, in spite of tremendous losses in men, supplies, transportation, and territory, the Red Army denied victory to a most powerful enemy. It checked him at Leningrad, at Moscow, at Voronezh, in the Caucasus, and finally, at the immortal battle of Stalingrad, the Red Army not only defeated the enemy but launched the great offensive which is still moving forward along the whole front from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The enforced retreat of the enemy is costing him heavily in men, supplies, territory, and especially in morale. Such achievements can only be accomplished by an Army that has skillful leadership, sound organization, adequate training, and above all, the determination to defeat the enemy, no matter what the cost in self-sacrifice.
  • Comrades, it is in strenous circumstances that we are today celebrating the twenty-fourth anniversary of the October Revolution. The perfidious attack of the German brigands and the war which has been forced upon us have placed our country in jeopardy. We have temporarily lost a number of regions, the enemy has appeared at the gates of Leningrad and Moscow. The enemy reckoned that after the very first blow our army would be dispersed, and our country would be forced to its knees. But the enemy sadly miscalculated. In spite of the temporary reverses our army and navy are heroically repulsing the enemy's attacks along the whole front and inflicting heavy losses upon him, while our country - our entire country - has formed itself into one fighting camp in order, together with our Army and our Navy, to encompass the defeat of the German invaders. There were times when our country was in even more difficult straits than today. Recall the year 1918, when we celebrated the first anniversary of the October Revolution. Three-quarters of our country was at that time in the hands of foreign invaders. The Ukraine, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Urals, Siberia and the Far East were temporarily lost to us. We had no allies, we had no Red Army - we had only just begun to form it; there was a shortage of food, of armaments, of clothing for the army. Fouteen states were pressing on our country. But we did not despond, we did not lose heart. In the fire of war we forged the Red Army and converted our country into a military camp. The spirit of the great Lenin animated us in the war against the invaders. And what happened? We routed the invaders, recovered all our lost territory, and achieved victory.
  • Today the position of our country is far better than it was twenty-three years ago. Our country is now much richer than it was twenty-three years ago as regards industry, food and raw materials. We now have allies who together with us are maintaining a united front against against the German robbers. We enjoy the sympathy and support of all the nations of Europe who have fallen under Hitler's tyranny. We now have a splendid army and a plendid navy, who are staunchly defending the liberty and independence of our country. We experience no serious shortage of food, or of armaments or of army clothing. Our entire country, all the peoples of our country, support our Army and our Navy, helping them to smash the invading hordes of German fascists. Our reserves of manpower are inexhaustibe. The spirit of the great Lenin and his victorious banner now animate us in this patriotic war just as they did twenty-three years ago.