Lost lessons of 1941

It is difficult to give an unequivocal assessment of the causes of the disaster of 1941. The army and the nation were preparing for war. Clausewitz saw the military as an instrument of diplomacy, and indeed the Soviet military and political leadership had ordered the army not to provoke Hitler to invade prior to the start of the war.

During a talk on the first volume of The History of the Great Patriotic War the other day, my colleague Oleg Rzheshevsky spoke about newly discovered archival materials showing that the United States and Britain warned Stalin that they would support Germany if the Soviet Union provoked Germany to invade. Therefore, Stalin’s worst fear was that he would have to take on the entire West on his own. 

There were many reasons behind the events of 1941. The Red Army was beset by problems. Before the war, Stalin purged the military of many seasoned commanders who served in the Civil War, depriving many units, districts, corps and regiments of much needed experience. Then the Soviet Union embarked on its ill-fated Finnish campaign.

The army was not fully mobilized for the war. Military strategy was lagging behind. Soviet military planners had not foreseen the potential for a deep land invasion with the use of tank units. Our armed forces did not have the necessary means of communication and command. Only 221 out of 832 T-34 tanks deployed in military districts on the border were equipped with radios as of June 1, 1941.

There was no radiolocation, nor rapid-fire guns, nor intelligence systems. When German Focke-Wulf reconnaissance planes (called “frames” in the USSR) flew over the positions of our units and took photos of their locations and movements, our troops could not shoot them down at first. And we didn’t have our own aircraft capable of reconnaissance in the enemy’s rear until practically the very end of the war.

We suffered similar setbacks during the August 2008 war with Georgia. The Russian army was not prepared for Georgian aggression either, nor did it have enough communications equipment. Here is just one scandalous example: the commander of the 64th army that took part in hostilities had to contact the General Headquarters by using the satellite phone given to him by Komsomolskaya Pravda correspondents.

Therefore, I believe that the lessons of 1941 were lost. Our military capabilities, hardware and combat support are at a different level now, but, regrettably, Russia only pays attention to the needs of its military after the fact. It locks the door after the horse is stolen. Had it not been for the August 2008 war, it is unlikely that the defense ministry would have instituted the current military reform.

During Sergei Ivanov’s eight-year tenures as defense minister, we were told many times to forget about military reform. But the new defense minister is more inclined to crack the whip. He launched a new reform and things started moving. The implementation of the reform has not been smooth. It has been painful, and it is negatively impacting people’s lives. There is much room for improvement. But we are finally trying to modernize our army, equip it with all the necessary armaments and combat support systems and reconfigure our military districts to meet the demands of modern warfare.

Much can be done in peacetime, but war will be the first real test of the reforms.

Viktor Litovkin is executive editor of The Independent Military Review

Leave a comment