The USSR was preparing for a nuclear war, and Russia still uses the equipment intended for it. But the modern war turned out to be different. Here are the weak points of the Russian army

Dmytro Rayevskyi
Tetyana Lohvynenko
The USSR was preparing for a nuclear war, and Russia still uses the equipment intended for it. But the modern war turned out to be different. Here are the weak points of the Russian army

The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine investigated the Russian trophy equipment captured by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, in particular near Kyiv, and presented its findings in a report. It is not published, but British journalists were able to read it. The report states that Russia uses outdated and ineffective weapons in Ukraine. Soviet missiles are not very accurate, modernized Soviet tanks are vulnerable to modern anti-tank weapons, and infantry fighting vehicles and amphibious assault vehicles cannot withstand even bullets and shrapnel. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine was not a quick victory not only because of the poor quality of equipment. The Soviet tank remains quite a powerful and deadly weapon if used correctly. Military experts increasingly write that the problems of the Russian army are much deeper. Soviet military concepts, to which Russia still gravitates, do not correspond to the nature of modern warfare. "Babel" tells how military doctrines changed from the Napoleonic Wars to the invention of nuclear weapons, what is the difference between the American and Russian approaches, and what does Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz have to do with it.

Carl von Clausewitz and the problem of modern wars

In 1816, the Prussian commander Carl von Clausewitz began writing the treatise On War, which significantly changed the worldʼs ideas about military science. Clausewitz never finished his work. He added and rewrote the treatise until his death in 1831, but kept the main provisions unchanged.

Stamp issued in East Germany in 1980 in honor of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Carl von Clausewitz.


Clausewitz was the first to formulate that war is the continuation of politics by other methods. That is, the goals that the state wants to achieve through war coincide with its political aspirations. Based on this statement, Clausewitz distinguished two types of war — total and limited. The goal of total war is the complete political destruction of another state or the reduction of its military strength to the level where any peace terms can be imposed on it. The goal of limited war is to seize certain territories near its borders to use during negotiations. At the same time, within the framework of one conflict, war can go from limited to total and vice versa. For example, from the point of view of Clausewitzʼs theory, Russiaʼs invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 is an attempt at total war, after the failure of which hostilities became more like a limited one. But they can turn into a total again — it all depends on the political goals of the aggressor.

Clausewitz analyzed the Napoleonic Wars and predicted that future wars would be larger. This gradually led to a gap between tactics and strategy: armies and theaters of war became too large, and strategic planning could no longer take into account all the nuances that arose at the tactical level in specific units.

Return of the dragoons of the Spanish army during the French campaign, 1814.


The accompanying problem is that the types of troops were becoming more and more numerous. Artillery began to play a major role at the beginning of the XX century, it was joined by aviation and armored vehicles, and more military specialties appeared. It was necessary to organize coordination between different types of troops so that they worked for a single goal.

In the 19th century, the concept of "grand tactics" appeared, which during the First World War was replaced by the antonym — "small strategy". Before the Second World War, the term "operational art" appeared in the USSR. The Soviet military proposed planning joint operations of various branches of the military at a level below the general strategic one, where the command operates with all its forces. And at an even lower level, the operation covered specific tactical decisions for individual units. Germany, the USA, and Britain had their own principles of planning operations during the Second World War, although the concept of "operational level" was not officially included in their military doctrines. All of them developed the ideas of Clausewitz, Henri Jomini, Helmuth von Moltke, and other military theorists of the XIX century.

Naval cannon, 1922.


Nuclear weapons changed the military doctrine of the USSR

The invention of the nuclear bomb changed everything. Weapons that could destroy humanity undermined Clausewitzʼs basic concept of war as an extension of politics. Because no state has ever set such political goals as the global destruction of all living things. Military analysts of the second half of the XX century often wrote that the old military art is gradually losing its relevance because states will not openly start major wars and will prefer diplomacy, secret operations, and proxy wars.

The control point of the nuclear missile base near Moscow.

On the other hand, readiness for a global war of destruction also influenced the military doctrines of the great powers. They were still preparing for total war, but already for another, very different from the Second World War. The Soviet Army shifted the focus of its strategy from operational maneuvers to the use of nuclear weapons. Marshal Vasyl Sokolovsky, who in the 1950s was the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the USSR, while working on the military doctrine, said that future wars will be fundamentally nuclear, and it is nuclear weapons that will be decisive in the battlefield. Therefore, all the armed forces must be built based on the fact that nuclear and missile strikes are at the center of the strategy, and other types of troops only ensure their effectiveness and occupy the burned-out territory.

The Soviet Union tested its first nuclear bomb at a test site in Kazakhstan on August 29, 1949.

This concept almost didnʼt change until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although since the 1970s Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov tried to reform the Soviet army. He emphasized that it is necessary to return to the study of operational art and maneuvers, because war, as Clausewitz once said, remains a continuation of politics. It should contribute to the achievement of political goals, and nuclear weapons have not yet become a universal key to solving all problems. But Ograkovʼs ideas ran into opposition from the USSR Defense Ministers Andrei Grechko and Dmitriy Ustinov.

The last Russian military leader who tried to thoroughly revise Soviet concepts was Defense Minister Aleksey Serdyukov. He was replaced by Sergei Shoigu, who is not a military man. However, Valeriy Gerasimov, who remains a supporter of the Soviet ideas of focusing on missile and nuclear forces, was appointed to the post of Chief of the General Staff.

Soldiers of the Russian army stand against the background of the Yars strategic missile system.

The Soviet legacy of the modern Russian army

The military doctrine of the state depends on which war it is preparing for and what weapons and equipment it will produce. Therefore, the Soviet focus on the nuclear war had a significant impact on the military equipment that Russia uses to this day.

Kamil Galeev, a historian and employee of the American analytical organization Wilson Center, explains this influence using the example of infantry fighting vehicles (BMP), which Russia still uses. Soviet BMPs have rather weak protection — the armor protects against light weapons from the front, but even machine guns or projectile fragments can penetrate the vehicle from the sides. And the BMP has poor protection against high-explosive shells and mines.

Galeev explains this by the fact that the USSR was preparing for a nuclear war. Therefore, protection against radiation in BMP is good. The concept of such a war was that strategic and tactical nuclear weapons were to destroy the enemyʼs forces, and after nuclear strikes, ground forces were to finally clear the territories and occupy their positions.

Destroyed equipment of the Russian occupiers in Bucha, March 2022.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

That is, the radiation danger for the infantry inside the BMP had to be much higher than the chance of coming under fire. Therefore, they were developed rather for movement through the nuclear desert and not for maneuver battles with an active enemy. So, now the Russians have to reinforce the Soviet equipment with additional protection, sometimes even with sandbags or car tires.

Galeev writes that the focus on nuclear war also influenced the Soviet concept of hostilities without nuclear weapons. Everything is almost the same — the artillery should fire the enemyʼs positions with a powerful "shaft of fire", which becomes a curtain for a ground offensive or landing.

HIMARS and modern American military doctrine

The hostilities in Donbas indicate that Russia still gravitates towards massive artillery fire. This tactic can be effective. But under conditions when it is impossible, the Russian army begins to suffer heavy losses. As it was at the beginning of the invasion — in February and March 2022, when Russiaʼs 4th Guards Tank Division, equipped exclusively with T-80 tanks, lost 41 tanks in just two weeks. T-80s moved without artillery support and became easy targets for Ukrainian anti-tank weapons.

Ukrainian artillery accurately destroys warehouses with ammunition. This also prevents the Russians from relying on the "moving wall of artillery fire" and carrying out effective offensives because it disrupts logistics — Russian tactics require a constant supply of shells.

Kuzya, the commander of the unit, shows the missiles on the HIMARS vehicle. East of Ukraine, July 1, 2022.

It is not by chance that the Armed Forces use American M142 HIMARS systems to destroy warehouses. They were developed precisely for this because, in the 1980s, the American military doctrine changed. While the USSR continued to prepare for nuclear war, the American military decided to reconsider its approach to tactics and strategy. In 1982, the US Armed Forces had a new statute, FM 100-5. It introduced two new concepts — the well-known "operational level" and "air-ground operation".

The Americans assumed that it was impossible to oppose the USSR and other countries of the socialist bloc with the same number of troops and the corresponding power of the "moving wall of artillery fire". Therefore, it is necessary, first of all, to be able to deliver accurate strikes far from the front line in order to destroy the enemyʼs logistics and its reserves before they begin to act. And secondly, one should learn to plan complex military operations deep into the front, based on the coordination of ground and air forces.

This required a new technique that would provide long-range reconnaissance, the ability to deliver accurate strikes at long distances, and reliable communications for real-time coordination between units. HIMARS began to be developed in the mid-1990s under this doctrine. Where the USSR, and later Russia, sought greater firepower, NATO countries focused on high accuracy and range of artillery.

Modern warfare, as in Clausewitzʼs time, remains a continuation of politics by other means. And as long as none of the nuclear countries set themselves the political goal of destroying humanity, many ideas of military theorists of the XIX and XX centuries will be relevant. A nuclear war will be different. It is difficult to imagine how exactly. We hope this obscurity will remain.

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