Vladimir Triandafillov (1894–1931)

Vladimir Triandafillov was killed in an aircraft crash on July 12, 1931 and was buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. The quality of his work was realised late during World War II, when Georgy Zhukov said that his success was due to closely following Triandafillov’s deep operations doctrine.

First published in 1929, Triandafillov’s Kharakter operatsii sovremennykh armii (The Character of the Operations of Modern Armies) has long been considered a major and comprehensive contribution to Soviet military thought. In the introduction to the first edition, Triandafillov states that his aim is nothing more than an examination of the sum of all those elements that characterize the operations of modern armies. The extent of Triandafillov’s analysis is indeed impressive, and he provides valuable insights into how a future war could be conducted.

Based on data available in the 1920s, he begins his analysis by considering the matériel foundation of armies and weapons; then he addresses a whole series of questions pertaining, inter alia, to the conduct of deep operations. Overall, his analysis bears the stamp of Marxism-Leninism, and Triandafillov provides candid insights into the nature of war waged by the Soviet state in pursuit of its ideological goals. Triandafillov also warns that, “since the material basis being examined in the present work is mainly characteristic for the start of a future war, all the author’s tactical and operational assumptions and conclusions mainly pertain to the operations of the first period of this war.” In view of what actually occurred on all fronts during World War II, Triandafillov’s qualification proved to be accurate. Regarding later periods, all that can be established are general trends. What this implies is that any analysis of the first phase of a future war is critical for both attacker and defender. Again, this was manifestly the case after 22 June 1941 and the eventual assault on Moscow.

Triandafillov’s book was issued in three editions, the last two of which were published after his death in 1931. In view of the fact that his book was considered valuable because of “its correct [pravil’naia] Marxist methodology” (as stated in the introduction to the second edition), one might assume that this protected the author. However, even if he wrote a book that satisfied the ideologically correct requirements of Marxism-Leninism, Triandafillov shows no signs of the intellectual slavishness that would become the norm after 1937 and do such damage to Soviet military thought. One cannot know whether Triandafillov would have been cut down by Stalin’s Terror, but along with Frunze, Tukhachevskii, and others, he certainly falls into a category of Soviet military thinkers who regarded military professionalism as a virtue and as essential if Soviet goals were to be achieved. Military professionalism requires an independence of mind without which rigorous analysis becomes impossible and military theory cannot be formulated and distilled. In 1937, however, these Clausewitzian postulates, taken for granted in all other major armies, aroused Stalin’s suspicion because they were perceived as a threat to his final consolidation of power.

A key question for the modern army is whether it should be a mass army, in excess of a million strong, or whether quantity should be sacrificed or reduced for quality. A small, professional army acquires a sense that it is special, that it is an elite force. From a Marxist-Leninist perspective, this is potentially dangerous because it risks Bonapartism. To achieve the goals envisaged by Triandafillov, large armies are required, but this leads to problems of quality and training. Triandafillov argues, “The idea of conquering modern states by small numbers of troops, even if motorized is naïve. Such an army, having penetrated into the depth of an enemy country, runs the risk of being isolated, if, at the same time it is not supported by a much stronger army.”

Countering the British military theorist Fuller, Triandafillov sees specific advantages in a large, mass army—the so-called nightmare army—because it possesses all the necessary technical means to solve the problems of modern war. According to Triandafillov, Fuller’s misgivings about the nightmare army are prompted by fear of the inevitable proletarian revolution, a fear that arises from a lack of trust in the masses that have become class-conscious. In Triandafillov’s rejection of Fuller, and in Triandafillov’s less than convincing arguments about the nature of capitalist societies and their succumbing to fascism, there are ideas of merit that have special relevance for 1939–1945:

The provision of the best conditions for the conduct of freedom of maneuver and of the broad tactical and operational art will not be achieved by returning to the numerically smaller armies of armchair strategists but by the corresponding increase in the mobility of million-strong armies by means of improving the technology of transport (the use of road transport, six-wheeled vehicles, a wider development of railway communications and so on). That country which is compelled out of political considerations to return to a numerically smaller army, as a result of a lack of trust in the masses, cannot reckon with the possibility of its being able to conduct a major war.

This assessment points to the type of army that actually emerged from Germany’s final renunciation of the Treaty of Versailles and Hitler’s rise to power. The treaty provisions resulted in a much smaller German army and one that, at least for the time being, was denied a whole range of weapons. In other words, the Weimar German army bore some resemblance to the numerically small but professional army rejected by Triandafillov, even if it was temporarily denied the equipment envisaged by him. The provisions of Versailles notwithstanding, the German army was still able to study the nature of future war and conduct various exercises and small-scale trials. Guderian’s advocacy of the panzer bears witness to the fact that the theoretical analysis was conducted at the highest level and that there was openness to new ideas from whatever source. This theoretical work illustrates that time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted. To put it another way, time spent considering the nature of future war is not wasted and is, in fact, one of the primary duties of a professional corps of staff officers. Such work was conducted in Germany even within the limits imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.

The theoretical work carried out by officers such as Guderian bore fruit when it eventually became possible to translate plans and ideas into realities with the construction, testing, and creation of panzer divisions. Critically, the ethos of military professionalism maintained during the Weimar years not only facilitated the rapid expansion of the German army (and other service arms) when the time came but also ensured a high standard of quality. This totally vindicates the requirement for a thoroughly professional corps of staff officers dedicated to studying all questions related to war. Thus, by 1939, Germany had built a large, high-quality, and well-led army—something not envisaged by either Fuller or Triandafillov. This state of affairs strongly implies that had Stalin not succumbed to ideological paranoia and violence in 1937 and torn apart the theoretical and practical development initiated in the 1920s, the Soviet Union would have been in an incomparably stronger position in 1941.

Conceptualizing the formation and professionalism of Western armies based on the belief that their soldiers are in some way “committed to capitalism,” Triandafillov misconstrues or cannot grasp the reasons why men serve. Some soldiers serving in Western armies may grasp the fundamental differences between privately owned and state-owned means of production, but such men are not normally motivated to join the military by such bloodless, economic abstractions. Rather, they are motivated by a sense of duty, patriotism, and adventure, by the intense emotional experiences and comradeship offered by war. Even if one conceded that the motives for pursuing international revolution in accordance with Marx, Engels, and Lenin were somehow morally and intellectually superior to the pursuit of war out of a sense of patriotism and a desire for adventure, that motivation to serve in the Raboche-Krest’ianskaia Krasnaia Armiia (Workers-Peasant Red Army [RKKA]) confers no superiority when it comes to mastery of the art of war. What made the Wehrmacht so formidable was that it managed to fuse outstanding military professionalism with a commitment to the ideas of National Socialism. Here, we can see a conspicuous failing of Marxist-Leninist analysis, which had no obvious and convincing conceptual framework to accommodate or explain the masterful political manipulations of highly charismatic leaders such as Adolf Hitler and their rise to power.

The degree to which Triandafillov’s Marxist-Leninist-based analysis misconstrues the nature of Western societies—and, above all, the Soviet Union’s future opponent—is evident in his description of what he considers the main weaknesses of Western societies: “This, of course, does not mean that the bourgeoisie has succeeded in or will succeed in eradicating those preconditions determining the unreliability of the armed masses in capitalist countries. Class, national and other contradictions which are undermining the capitalist system will not only remain but in the course of a war will inevitably grow to an extreme limit of aggravation and will, in all probability, lead, and not in one country alone, to unavoidable social shocks.” This is wishful thinking born of Marxism-Leninism.

Triandafillov devotes much space to developing his ideas on the shock army (udarnaia armiia). His use of the term is based on the formation of the German army in World War I that advanced through Belgium to the Marne and the advance of the Red Army to the Vistula in 1920. A shock army is an army designed to advance on the main axis, and Triandafillov stipulates that it “must be organized in such a manner that it is able, using its own forces, to conduct a series of consecutive operations from start to finish. It must possess all the resources which would permit it to overcome any resistance on the part of the enemy both at the start as well as during the course of the operations being undertaken.” The demands on shock army commanders are considerable. They must grapple with changing circumstances after the start of the battle as the enemy reacts: the enemy gains strength, the density of the front increases, and hastily prepared defensive positions appear on the lines of advance.

With regard to the width of the front, Triandafillov, basing his analysis on the final stages of World War I, asserts that a modern defense is so resilient that it cannot be broken by attacks on a narrow sector of the front. The reason for this failure, according to Triandafillov, is that such a blow engages only an insignificant part of the enemy’s forces, and enemy reserves will be used to create a new front to envelop and quarantine the attackers. Crucial to the defender’s ability to counter a breakthrough is his use of the rail network to deploy reserves to the threatened sector. Given the defender’s ability to respond in this manner, Triandafillov concludes that an attacker can achieve a successful penetration only where he is able to pin down large enemy forces and place himself in an operational situation that gives him an advantage over the defender.

However, even when a massive concentration of force is deployed on a narrow front, a major offensive success is unlikely, mainly because of the resilience of the defense and the defender’s ability to withdraw his forces in good time. The way to break the defense is by a combination of blows, with consecutive operations carried out at great depth. The aim here is to encircle the enemy and destroy or capture his forces. Based on the mobility constraints on the western front in World War I, Triandafillov’s proposals for breaking the defense are reasonable. Unfortunately, he makes no allowance for the increased speed and armament of tanks, and since Triandafillov does not envisage tanks taking a dominant role in an assault, he makes no allowance for the effect of mass armor in contrast to mass infantry. As was the case in the summer of 1940, the speed of the German advance meant that it was able to overwhelm the defenders before they could react. Again, Triandafillov’s ideas about defensive operations—with special attention to reinforced zones and, above all, to the carrying capacity of the rail network—are silent on how these installations might be bypassed and how to counter the rail network’s vulnerability to air attack. In fact, when he considers the costs of war—resources, high casualties, and loss of equipment—Triandafillov envisages a future war as being similar to World War I, but on a far more destructive scale. Nor does he see this as a war of maneuver. On the contrary:

In the future it is necessary to expect the long-term growth in casualties. The phase of mobility in the world war cannot in this regard be considered to be characteristic for future operations. Quite the reverse in fact; the character of future battles in terms of the saturation of automatic fire, the correlation between the forces of the attack and defense, the scale of the use of airpower and chemical weapons will bear a much closer resemblance to those battles out of which were formed the operations of 1918 on the western front.

Implicit in his remarks is the recognition that casualties were reduced in the mobile phase of World War I. When contemplating the defensive systems envisaged by Triandafillov, the options for the attacker are indeed sobering, but the problems are not insurmountable. To overcome these problems, the attacker must be original, innovative, bold, and willing to try new ideas and take risks; he must develop new ways to solve problems, including the use of psychological weapons, special forces, and sophisticated deception and trickery; he must have a command system that encourages leadership and initiative at all levels. This summary does not describe the state of the Red Army in 1939–1941. For all the difficulties envisaged in the deployment of shock formations (udarnye gruppirovki), Triandafillov argues that “deep and crushing blows remain the most decisive means of strategy in attaining the goals demanded by the war.” Confronted with the apparently insurmountable problems of deep operations, military planners may succumb to what Triandafillov calls “operational opportunism,” by which he means the tendency to reject “active and deep blows” in pursuit of “the tactics of staying put and inflicting short-range attacks, operations characterized by the modish word ‘attrition’ (izmor).” The correct way forward for operational art, argues Triandafillov, is not to limit voluntarily the depth of consecutive operations but to maximize all avenues in order to destroy the enemy. In his words: “The correct resolution of this question will inevitably be linked with the total exploitation of possibilities for the development of decisive blows at a maximum depth which are permitted by the physical and psychological condition of the troops and by the conditions arising from the restoration of roads and supply.” In other words: “The art of the strategist and the operational staff is correctly to perceive the limit in the forcing of human and material resources beyond which may lead to the breakdown of the troops, resulting not in victory but in defeat.”

One of the main reasons Triandafillov so forcefully advocates the concept of deep operations is that he considers them an effective means of achieving the revolutionary goals of Marxism-Leninism. Small states—those he dubs somewhat contemptuously “Lilliput states”—can be easily crushed, whereas larger states can be destabilized and weakened. Major blows against larger states can lead to “the creation of objectively favorable conditions for societal-political shocks in the enemy’s country.” Moreover, “deep and crushing blows remain one of the most reliable ways to transform a war into a civil war.”

Triandafillov’s analyses of the “form of the blow” are remarkably prescient in terms of the German army’s actions in 1941. Operating against an enemy with a wide front and an open rear, the correct approach is to deploy concentric advances that can lead to the destruction of enemy forces. Speed of the advance is essential here, and the role of large armored formations and mechanized infantry is obvious, since they can outstrip the nonmotorized infantry’s ability to withdraw. When the enemy can be pushed back against a neutral border, sea, mountains, or impassable terrain such as marshes, one shock group (udarnaia armiia) will suffice. Whether using one or two shock groups, the aim is to destroy the enemy’s manpower. In summarizing the theoretical requirements for the conduct of such operations—well-organized rear echelons, a high level of training, troops accustomed to rapid and deep movements, and a command stratum in charge of the situation, all of which secures a high level of tactical mobility—Triandafillov provides an accurate description of what the German army achieved in 1940–1941 and the Red Army emphatically did not.

As an orthodox Marxist-Leninist, Triandafillov attaches great importance to the role of agitprop. He also envisages the possibility that troops will be cut off from their main forces and will have to fight in encirclement. Thus, Triandafillov acknowledges that encirclement (okruzhenie) is a fact of modern war; unlike attitudes in the Red Army between 1941 and 1945, it is not something that should be regarded with suspicion by Soviet security forces. Overall, the conditions of this future war will impose enormous strain on the troops, requiring that they understand the nature of the struggle. The nature of a future war waged by the Soviet Union will be a revolutionary class war, necessitating that close attention be paid to the troops’ political indoctrination before and during the war. Triandafillov concludes: “And only the army which knows for what it is fighting and knows that it is protecting its vital [krovnye] interests, is capable of that.”48 That Triandafillov can characterize these interests in terms of blood is most unusual for a Soviet military thinker espousing the Marxist-Leninist cult of class and class war, since there is a distinct echo of the themes of Blut und Boden in NS ideology.

Mindful perhaps of the role played by antitsarist subversion and agitation in undermining the Russian army in World War I, Triandafillov maintains that the same subversive activity must be conducted among enemy troops in any future war so as to exploit what he sees as the inevitable class, national, and other contradictions and, ideally, to provoke civil war. In addition, every effort must be made to win over the civilian population and explain to them the nature of capitalist exploitation, although Triandafillov makes no provision for the treatment of those civilians who remain skeptical of Marxist-Leninist promises about the socialist commonwealth. Such skeptics would be well advised to hide their views, given what Triandafillov envisages after the fighting is over: “A huge burden of work falls on the political apparatus of the army with regard to the sovietization of the territories recaptured from the enemy.” Sovietization is the process whereby all institutions in the new zones are brought into line with Marxist-Leninist ideology. It amounts to a thoroughgoing purge of all those in positions of power, influence, or authority who are deemed to be hostile, anti-Soviet elements. In practice, it meant mass arrest, deportation, incarceration, dispossession, and execution, the fate endured by Poland and the Baltic states after September 1939. Sovietization also anticipates, and provides a template for, NS Gleichschaltung.


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