THE ARMY IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
At the outset of the century, Alexander I inherited a sizeable and unaffordable army, many of whose commanders were seasoned veterans. After instituting a series of modest administrative reforms for efficiency and economy, including the creation of a true War Ministry, the Tsar in 1805 plunged into the wars of the Third Coalition. For all their experience and flexibility, the Russians with or without the benefit of allies against Napoleon suffered a series of reverses or stalemates, including Austerlitz(1805), Eylau (1807), and Friedland (1807). After the ensuing Tilsit Peace granted five years’ respite, Napoleon’s Grand Armée invaded Russia in 1812. Following a fighting Russian withdrawal into the interior, Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov in September gave indecisive battle at Borodino, followed by another withdrawal to the southeast that uncovered Moscow. When the French quit Moscow in October, Kutuzov pursued, reinforced by swarms of partisans and Cossacks, who, together with starvation and severe cold, harassed the Grand Armée to destruction. In 1813, the Russian army fought in Germany, and in 1814 participated in the coalition victory at Leipzig, followed by a fighting entry into France and the occupation of Paris.
The successful termination of the Napoleonic wars still left Alexander I with an outsized and unaffordable military establishment, but now with the addition of disaffected elements within the officer corps. While some gentry officers formed secret societies to espouse revolutionary causes, the Tsar experimented with the establishment of settled troops, or military colonies, to reduce maintenance costs. Although these colonies were in many ways only an extension of the previous century’s experience with military settlers on the frontier, their widespread application spawned much discontent. After Alexander I’s death, unrest and conspiracy led to an attempted military coup in December 1825. Tsar Nicholas I energetically suppressed the so-called Decembrist rebellion, then imposed parade- ground order. His standing army grew to number one million troops, but its outdated recruitment system and traditional support infrastructure eventually proved incapable of meeting the challenges of military modernization. Superficially, the army was a model of predictable routine and harsh discipline, but its inherent shortcomings, including outmoded weaponry, incapacity for rapid expansion, and lack of strategic mobility, led inexorably to Crimean defeat. The army was able to subdue Polish military insurrectionists (1830–1831) and Hungarian revolutionaries (1848), and successfully fight Persians and Turks (1826–1828, 1828–1829), but in the field it lagged behind its more modern European counterparts. Fighting from 1854 to 1856 against an allied coalition in the Crimea, the Russians suffered defeat at Alma, heavy losses at Balaklava and Inkerman, and the humiliation of surrender at Sevastopol. Only the experience of ex- tended warfare in the Caucasus (1801–1864) afforded unconventional antidote to the conventional “paradomania” of St. Petersburg that had so thoroughly inspired Crimean defeat. Thus, the mountains replaced the steppe as the southern pole in an updated version of the previous century’s north- south dialectic.
THE ARMY DURING THE SECOND HALF OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Alexander II’s era of the Great Reforms marked an important watershed for both services. In a series of reforms between 1861 and 1874, War Minister Dmitry Alexeyevich Milyutin created the foundations for a genuine cadre- and reserve-based ground force. He facilitated introduction of a universal service obligation, and he rearmed, reequipped, and redeployed the army to contend with the gradually emerging German and Austro-Hungarian threat along the Empire’s western frontier. In 1863–1864 the army once again suppressed a Polish rebellion, while in the 1860s and 1870s small mobile forces figured in extensive military conquests in Central Asia. War also flared with Turkey in 1877–1878, during which the army, despite a ragged beginning, inconsistent field leadership, and inadequacies in logistics and medical support, acquitted itself well, especially in a decisive campaign in the European theater south of the Balkan ridge. Similar circumstances governed in the Transcausus theater, where the army overcame initial setbacks to seize Kars and carry the campaign into Asia Minor.
Following the war of 1877–1878, planning and deployment priorities wedded the army more closely to the western military frontier and especially to peacetime deployments in Russian Poland. With considerable difficulty, Alexander III presided over a limited force modernization that witnessed the adoption of smokeless powder weaponry and changes in size and force structure that kept the army on nearly equal terms with its two more significant potential adversaries, Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary. At the same time, the end of the century brought extensive new military commitments to the Far East, both to protect expanding imperial interests and to participate in suppression of the Boxer Rebellion (1900).
THE ARMY NICHOLAS II
Under Russia’s last Tsar, the army went from defeat to disaster and despair. Initially over-committed and split by a new dichotomy between the Far East and the European military frontier, the army fared poorly in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. Poor strategic vision and even worse battlefield execution in a Far Eastern littoral war brought defeat because Russia failed to bring its overwhelming re- sources to bear. While the navy early ceded the initiative and command of the sea to the Japanese, Russian ground force buildups across vast distances were slow. General Adjutant Alexei Nikolayevich Kuropatkin and his subordinates lacked the capacity either to fight expert delaying actions or to master the complexities of meeting engagements that evolved into main battles and operations. Tethered to an 8-thousand-kilometer-long line of communications, the army marched through a series of reverses from the banks of the Yalu (May 1904) to the environs of Mukden (February–March 1905). Although the garrison at Port Arthur retained the capacity to resist, premature surrender of the fortress in early 1905 merely added to Russian humiliation.
The years between 1905 and 1914 witnessed renewal and reconstruction, neither of which sufficed to prepare the Tsar’s army and navy for World War I. Far Eastern defeat fueled the fires of the Revolution of 1905, and both services witnessed mutinies within their ranks. Once the dissidents were weeded out, standing army troops were employed liberally until 1907 to suppress popular disorder. By 1910, stability and improved economic conditions permitted General Adjutant Vladimir Alexandrovich Sukhomlinov’s War Ministry to undertake limited reforms in the army’s recruitment, organization, deployment, armament, and supply structure. More could have been done, but the navy siphoned off precious funds for ambitious ship-building programs to restore the second arm’s power and prestige. The overall objective was to prepare Russia for war with the Triple Alliance. Obsession with the threat opposite the western military frontier gradually eliminated earlier dichotomies and subsumed all other strategic priorities.
The outbreak of hostilities in 1914 came too soon for various reform and reconstruction projects to bear full fruit. Again, the Russians suffered from strategic overreach and stretched their military and naval resources too thin. Moreover, military leaders failed to build sound linkages between design and application, between means and objectives, and between troops and their command in- stances. These and other shortcomings, including an inadequate logistics system and the regime’s inability fully to mobilize the home front to support the fighting front, proved disastrous. Thus, the Russians successfully mobilized 3.9 million troops for a short war of military annihilation, but early disasters in East Prussia at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, along with a stalled offensive in Galicia, inexorably led to a protracted war of attrition and exhaustion. In 1915, when German offensive pressure caused the Russian Supreme Command to shorten its front in Russian Poland, withdrawal turned into a costly rout. One of the few positive notes came in 1916, when the Russian Southwest Front under General Alexei Alexeyevich Brusilov launched perhaps the most successful offensive of the entire war on all its fronts.
Ultimately, a combination of seemingly endless bloodletting, war-weariness, governmental inefficiency, and the regime’s political ineptness facilitated the spread of pacifist and revolutionary sentiment in both the army and navy. By the beginning of 1917, sufficient malaise had set in to render both services incapable either of consistent loyalty or of sustained and effective combat operations. In the end, neither the army nor the navy offered proof against the Tsar’s internal and external enemies.