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Soviet Union


Immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks (see Glossary) merged their 20,000-man army, the Red Guards, with 200,000 Baltic Fleet sailors and Petrograd garrison soldiers who supported the Bolsheviks. Bolshevik leader Vladimir I. Lenin decreed the establishment of the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army on January 28, 1918, and Leon Trotsky was then first commissar for war. The Bolsheviks recognized the importance of building an army under their control; without a loyal army, the Bolshevik organization itself would have been unable to hold the power it had seized.

The early Red Army was egalitarian but poorly disciplined. The Bolsheviks considered military ranks and saluting to be bourgeois customs and abolished them. Soldiers elected their own leaders and voted on which orders to follow. This arrangement was abolished, however, under pressure of the Civil War (1918-21), and ranks were reinstated (see Civil War and War Communism , ch. 2).

Because most professional officers had joined the antiBolshevik , or White, forces, the Red Army initially faced a shortage of experienced military leaders. To remedy this situation, the Bolsheviks recruited 50,000 former Imperial Army officers to command the Red Army. At the same time, they attached political commissars to Red Army units to monitor the actions of professional commanders and their allegiance to the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik). By 1921 the Red Army had defeated four White armies and held off five armed, foreign contingents that had intervened in the Civil War.

After the Civil War, the Red Army became an increasingly professional military organization. With most of its 5 million soldiers demobilized, the Red Army was transformed into a small regular force, and territorial militias were created for wartime mobilization. Soviet military schools, established during the Civil War, began to graduate large numbers of trained officers loyal to the party. In an effort to increase the prestige of the military profession, the party downgraded political commissars, established the principle of one-man command, and reestablished formal military ranks.

During the 1930s, Soviet leader Joseph V. Stalin's five-year plans and industrialization drive built the productive base necessary to modernize the Red Army. As the likelihood of war in Europe increased later in the decade, the Soviet Union tripled its military expenditures and doubled the size of its regular forces to match the power of its potential enemies. In 1937, however, Stalin purged the Red Army and deprived it of its best military leaders (see The Period of the Purges , ch. 2). Fearing or imagining that the military posed a challenge to his rule, Stalin jailed or executed an estimated 30,000 Red Army officers, including three of five marshals and 90 percent of all field grade officers. Stalin also restored the former dual command authority of political commissars in Red Army units. These actions were to severely impair the Red Army's capabilities in the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-40 and in World War II.

After occupying the Baltic states and eastern Poland under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939, the Soviet Union demanded territorial concessions from Finland in late 1939 (see Foreign Policy, 1928-39 , ch. 2). When the Finnish government refused, the Red Army invaded Finland. The resulting war was a disaster for the Soviet Union. Although the Soviet Union has not published casualty statistics, about 100,000 Red Army troops are believed to have died in the process of overcoming the small, poorly equipped Finnish army.

The Red Army had little time to correct its numerous deficiencies before Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, which began his war against the Soviet Union, on June 22, 1941. At the beginning of the Great Patriotic War (see Glossary), the Red Army was forced to retreat, trading territory for time. But it managed to halt the Wehrmacht's blitzkrieg in December 1941 at the gates of Moscow. In 1942 the Wehrmacht launched a new offensive through the Volga region aimed at seizing Soviet oil resources in the Caucasus. At this critical moment, Stalin reinstituted one-man command and gave his field commanders more operational independence. The Red Army encircled and destroyed German forces in the city of Stalingrad in a battle that ended in February 1943. In the summer of 1943, the Red Army seized the strategic initiative, and it liberated all Soviet territory from German occupation during 1944. After having driven the German army out of Eastern Europe, in May 1945 the Red Army launched the final assault on Berlin that ended the Great Patriotic War. The Red Army emerged from the war as the most powerful land army in history and became known as the Soviet army thereafter. The defeat of the Wehrmacht had come, however, at the cost of 7 million military and 13 million civilian casualties among the Soviet population.

From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, the Soviet armed forces focused on adapting to the changed nature of warfare in the era of nuclear arms and achieving parity with the United States in strategic nuclear weapons. Conventional military power showed its continued importance, however, when the Soviet Union used its troops to invade Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to keep these countries within the Soviet alliance system (see Appendix C). In the 1970s, the Soviet Union began to modernize its conventional warfare and power projection capabilities. At the same time, it became more involved in regional conflicts or local wars (see Glossary) than ever before. The Soviet Union supplied arms and sent military advisers to a variety of Third World allies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Soviet generals planned military operations against rebels in allied Angola and Ethiopia. Soviet troops, however, saw little combat action until the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. They fought a counterinsurgency against the Afghan rebels, or mujahidin, for nearly ten years. An estimated 15,000 Soviet soldiers had been killed and 35,000 wounded in the conflict by the time Soviet forces began to withdraw from Afghanistan in May 1988. All 110,000 Soviet troops deployed in Afghanistan had been withdrawn by February 1989, according to Soviet authorities.

Data as of May 1989

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