“Strategy of annihilation”: strategic and military technical conceptions of the future war in the structure of the Soviet military doctrine in the 1930s—early 1940s (in Russian)

Published in Rossiiskaia istoriia, no. 3 (Moscow, 2010): 3–18. The full text of the article (PDF, in Russian).


The circumstances of the beginning of the war on the Eastern Front of 1941–45 are still the subject of close attention mostly by Russian researchers, but also by other researchers as well. Modern historiography, unfortunately, is still dominated by papers concerned with only a relatively short period immediately preceding the war (1939–41). Apparently, the effects of the heated debate of the 1990s remain, namely those of the “unplanned discussion” around the books of Victor A. Suvorov. From the beginning, the main subject of this discussion was his key idea that in 1941, the Soviet Union was preparing for an attack on Germany.

Meanwhile, a better understanding of the history and the prehistory of the war on the Eastern Front is only possible if we consider these issues in a broader context that includes not only the events themselves, but also their intellectual, cultural and psychological background. The USSR began to prepare for future confrontation with “world imperialism” well before the Second World War. The scale of the war with Germany, a war which broke out in June 1941, was in keeping with the expectations of those years; thus the war happened to be a kind of test for the Soviet state and its armed forces after the work done during the interwar period. Therefore, the study of measures to improve the armed forces and to prepare for the next war, measures in effect in our country in the 1920s—1930s, is no less important than the study of the events of 1939–41. Of equal importance is the study of ideas and concepts that underlie the most important political and strategic decisions made during this period.

Active research of such a problem as the Soviet leadership’s and their military elite’s ideas of the next war in 1929–41, that is, during the first Five-Year plans, is relatively recent and is, to a certain extent, still in the initial stage. Meanwhile, the value of the issue cannot be underestimated, because it is the perceptions of future war, combined with the current situation, that determine the direction and content of the preparations for the upcoming battle. Man’s actions depend not so much on the objective conditions as such, but on his understanding of these conditions, and, as the experience (including the experience of the Second World War) demonstrates, the perception of the circumstances may diverge from reality.

It is therefore important to find out how the Soviet leaders saw the future war in the 1920s and especially in the 1930s during a large-scale reconstruction of the armed forces. This would allow us to create a really coherent picture of many discrete events, to clarify the logic of decisions being made, and ultimately to understand in greater depth the origins of the Red Army’s defeats during summer and autumn 1941.

In fact, what is at issue is the military doctrine of the Soviet leadership, a doctrine which formed during the interwar period, but was never issued in an official document. Of additional interest are other, more practical, ideas based on the military doctrine such as assessing the level of training of the armed forces’ personnel as well as estimates of the army’s technical equipment as compared with that of the armies of potential enemies, and with the anticipated requirements of the future large-scale war. Especially interesting subjects for study are the materials of strategic planning in peacetime; in a sense, they are an attempt to draw a more concrete and detailed image of the coming war.

Within the structure of military doctrine, it has traditionally been assumed that this would specify the political component and the actual military component (in the former Soviet terminology—military-technical). This article deals just with the last one that contains ideas about how to wage future war and about the use of various types of weapons and military equipment, as well as with practical conclusions made on the basis of these ideas.


Throughout the interwar period the dominant view remained, that the impending war would be a protracted war, which would require general mobilization and complete reconstruction of the whole of the country on a war rhythm. The experience of the First World War played its role, together with the continued rapid development of military technology. The same fixed idea concerned the extremely important role of technical arms in a future war. The concept of small, super-mechanized armies was not widespread, and the predominant belief was that during the forthcoming technological era, a massive army would remain.

All of these ideas were worked out by military theoreticians, and were accepted by military and political leaders as part of the military doctrine. A consensus on the question of whether the future warfare would be positional or moving was not developed. Observations on the further improvement of weapons and analysis of the experiences of new wars and conflicts happened not to be enough to determine with reasonable certainty which of these trends was predominant. As a result, a compromise solution was chosen that the Army must be prepared both for a war of maneuver, and to act in conditions of trench warfare.

Major changes during the interwar period occurred in fact only within those representations, the content of which was mostly determined by empirical experience. Thus, with the development of military technology, greater importance was attached to armored troops and air forces in a future war. If at the end of the 1920s, tanks were considered only as a powerful new tool to support the infantry, in 1930s, there appeared self-contained armored units, which in turn helped to modernize radically the tactics and operational art, developing a theory of “deep battle” and “deep operations.”

However, in understanding the role of technology in modern warfare the Soviet leadership was still rather conservative. Despite the constant talk about the fact that the Cavalry, given modern conditions, was steadily losing its value, the Soviet Union continued to maintain numerous Cavalry units, even in the European part of the country.

Another example of ideas arising from concrete experiences were the concepts of the opening stage of war, ideas which underwent a radical change for the first time in the early 1930s, and then, belatedly, in 1939–41.

It is important, however, to note that the basis for the Soviet military doctrine in the interwar period was the theory of “annihilation:” that is, of permanent active operations in order to defeat the enemy as soon as possible. The strategy of “attrition,” which aimed to prolong the war and exhaust the enemy without inflicting crushing blows at the front, was rejected. Moreover, chronic underestimation of the role of defense in modern warfare was typical of the official strategic vision of future war. It is significant that, in the Soviet sense of the war in those years, aggression and repulsion should have been developed almost equally (the concept of a “response strike”—mobilization and deployment of the main body under the protection of active and, if possible, offensive operations by covering forces, then transition to a crushing offensive).

In spring 1941 the idea of a sudden invasion of the main forces as the most likely way to start the war finally prevailed over the old theory of “creeping into the war,” which led to the rejection of the doctrine of “response strike,” but not of the concept of “annihilation” as such. Apparently, this explains the fact that the last known at the moment draft strategic plan for war with Germany (developed in May 1941), suggests, again, not a strategic defense, but a surprise attack on the Wehrmacht by the Red Army’s main forces. Adopted military doctrine simply did not allow for other options.

Apparently, the theory of “annihilation” was adopted in the USSR, a priori, and no specific realities of the existing situation could persuade the Soviets to abandon the theory. This approach made military training and strategic planning one-sided and unbalanced with no alternative. However, this fact was never realized. As a consequence, in a surprise German attack, Soviet leaders, forced to improvise, still operated under the doctrine of the prewar period, giving the troops the order to counterattack (Main Military Council Directive No. 3, 22 June 1941). In this new situation, the decision led to a disaster.