The Russian Way of War

Anton Antonovich Kersnovsky (1907-1944) was a soldier by nature; at the mere age of 13 he was fighting for the White Army against the Bolsheviks in Russia’s south. Emigrating to France, the young man would become a prolific commentator and analyst on military matters and wrote The Philosophy of War in 1936. Eschewing classic European models of attrition warfare from the 19th and 20th centuries, Kersnovsky emphasized the legendary feats and thought of his hero, General Alexander Suvorov, in forming a specifically Russian military doctrine based upon professionalism, speed, shock and flexibility. Translated by Mark Hackard.

The essence of the Russian national military doctrine is defined by the superiority of spirit over matter.

This superiority of the immortal spirit over the mortal was sensed by the Russian artillerymen of Zorndorf, who kissed their cannons, bidding them farewell forever and “not retreating one step” at the moment when Seydlitz’s cavalry cut them down – and when a German in their place would have escaped or surrendered. It was with this feeling that Rumyantsev and his 17,000 embarked against 200,000 Turks at the Battle of Kagul. This was the feeling that inspired the pen of Suvorov, who laid down the immortal lines of The Art of Victory, and inspired the sword he dedicated to the heroes on the gray morning of Rymnik, the sultry days of Trebbia and in the night darkness of the Alps. Miloradovich’s musketeers, Dokhturov’s chasseurs, the grenadiers of Kotlyarovsky, Yudenich’s riflemen and Kornilov’s shock troops – all of them were moved by this superiority, this bright flame burning in their souls and in the souls of their commanders.

The foundations of the Russian national military doctrine were, are and will remain the following:

Being an Orthodox people, we view war as an evil – a moral disease of humanity – and the moral inheritance of the sin of our primogenitors, as disease of the body is its physical inheritance. Neither by pompous words, nor by paper treaties and hiding our heads in the sand can we prevent evil. The parchment of the Treaty of Paris in 1928, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, didn’t deliver humanity from war, just as a dragon painted on the door did not deliver the Chinese from the plague.

And if this is so, then we must prepare for this evil, steel the body of the nation and increase its resistance. This is a matter for the legislator and the politician.

The military art and military science (and the latter is called to be of service to the former) possess a strictly national character, flowing from the spiritual qualities and characteristics of a given people, a given nation. There can be no Russian Von Moltke, just as there cannot be a German Suvorov. The Germans did not proceed in the style of Suvorov, and they will not go further than Blucher. In the style of Von Moltke, the most we could give was Milyutin. Our teachers – Peter the Great, Rumyantsev, Suvorov – and those few Russian captains and statesmen who were inspired by their example, are far from foreigners, who are organically alien to us. Foch and Von Moltke cannot be our teachers; they can be at most only our tutors.

How superior and pure is The Art of Victory in comparison to the sophisms of Clausewitz, the Scholasticism of Von Schlieffen and the brilliant metaphysics of Von Seeckt!

The Russian national military doctrine always places the principles of quality and selection (“One does not conquer through multitude.”) as the basis of the organization of the armed forces. Peter built his entire army on the idea of selection, and the recruitment of the nobility before all others. The Russian army of the 18th century was first and foremost an elite army, and this explains its achievements in that great age.

The very organization of the Russian armed forces, both of the Muscovite state and the Petrine Empire, was the result of our uniqueness. “We little resemble other European peoples,” wrote Rumyantsev in his Thoughts on the Structure of the Armed Forces. The fall of our army began with the imitation of foreign models under Tsar Paul.

In waging war, we should strive to avoid its inhuman forms. Having discarded with revulsion the “Clausewitzian-Leninist” theory of total war with its terrorization of the enemy country’s population, we shall recall the words of our second (after Lazarev) supreme commander in the Caucasus, Prince Tsitsianov:

Russian warriors can as a rule strike their enemy when needed, but should not bring him to ruin, for Russians, having vanquished the adversary, cannot but annex his lands to their state, and consequently, every man is obligated to preserve his property.

If we read these words not with the eyes of the body, but those of the spirit, then we shall understand their whole timeless meaning. To annex enemy lands isn’t necessary for us (only if they are our stolen possessions) – that foreigners join our culture spiritually is enough. And this is possible only with the absence of mutual animosity and unhealed wounds.

Not practicing inhumanity toward other nations, can we be beasts in relation to our own mother? We should wage war while aiming to aggravate and exhaust the organism of our own country as little as possible. This is achieved only by the preservation in place of the greatest possible number of specialists in their area – whether tillers of the soil or railroaders, craftsmen or traders. We shall not begin to repeat the errors that enthralled us to the idea of armed hordes, the fateful mistake of 1916.

But in order that our army would give all it is capable of giving, its power must be applied accordingly. And the Russian national military doctrine renders laws to this. It is first of all “viewing a matter in its whole,” a synthesis (to which in foreign doctrines approximately corresponds Verdy du Vernois’ phrase “De quoi s’agit-il ? – What are we dealing with?” cited by Foch). Then “a sharp eye, speed, and the attack.” The crown for all of this is victory, moreover “a victory gained through little blood.”

With regard to education, our doctrine has always promoted the religious principle and national pride. “We are Russians – God is with us!” taught Suvorov. And therefore his art truly did become The Art of Victory. Each of his words has reached the guileless heart of the hero, and all of Suvorov’s exhortations compose one of the purest works of Russian genius, a magnificent monument to Orthodox Russian culture. For instruction in The Art of Victory in military academies, it stands to institute a special faculty that would teach, of course, without fanatically literal interpretation, but also without heretical “adjustments to modern conditions,” so that properly assimilated by the officers, it could be correctly passed on to soldiers.

Moreover, our doctrine is characterized by the requirement of a conscious approach to one’s service: “Every warrior knows his maneuver.” The display of initiative in the lower ranks was a demand of Peter’s: “Do not hold to regulations blindly, or you’re sure to hit a wall.” And Suvorov’s: “The man on the ground judges better. If I order to the right, and you see that you must go left, don’t listen to me.” Facilitating this initiative among the brass was Rumyantsev’s approach: “Don’t go into details or beyond assumption of the only possible scenarios, against which a wise commander himself knows precautions, and do not tie your own hands.”

And in this respect, as in all others, our only method, our only salvation, is to return to that path from which we were diverted by the parade pikes of Paul’s drilling ground at Gatchina – back to the path shown us by Peter, Rumyantsev and Suvorov.