Countering Mass as a Middle Power: A Case Study

On 22nd June 1941, the Russian military was in disarray as Germany embarked upon the largest military campaign the world had ever seen; Operation Barbarossa. Tactically, the Red Army was woefully unprepared, but a robust Soviet strategic and ideological framework was in place to leverage off the concept of total national mobilisation. Russia’s ruthless approach to ‘total war’ and harnessing all elements of national power ultimately led to their epic-scale and relentless counter-offensive; Operation Bagration – resulting in what many believe to be the fundamental component of Germany’s demise. In less than four years, the Soviets completely turned around the scale and quality of their industrial production while revolutionising their battlefield tactics against a formidable enemy. This case study, more than any other, demonstrates how national will and mass can overcome a manoeuvrist approach.

In the opening phases of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans experienced unprecedented levels of success. German manoeuvre tactics, leveraging on small-scale initiative and rapid fire and movement, proved to be overwhelmingly effective against the lethargic, centrally-controlled, and poorly trained Soviets. Soviet resistance fell apart due to failures in command and control, as well as the inability to apply coherent tactical defensive techniques. The Germans assessed that they would occupy Moscow in less than four weeks and the war in the East would be over. The problem was that nobody told the Soviets they were losing.

The problem was that nobody told the Soviets they were losing.

Tactics continued to develop on both sides as a matter of necessity, but the concept of mass at the strategic level was central to Soviet success. Despite the poor fighting performance of the Soviets in the opening phases, Condoleezza Rice points out in her 1986 paper ‘The Making of Soviet Strategy’ that the Soviet victory in the Second World War was in many ways a victory for the concept of the whole country mobilised for war. Tactically, the Soviets were unprepared, but the depth and mass of the Red Army meant that their initial tactical setbacks were irrelevant to the strategic narrative and could be absorbed. Strategically, the Soviets were prepared and had mobilised sufficiently to eventually turn the tide of the war. Stalin was prepared to accept casualties on a scale far beyond what any other logical world leader would (or could) due to public opinion and pressure. For Stalin there was no such consideration. Victory was a non-negotiable concept and nothing short of total annihilation of the Soviet State and its people would stop them from fighting for it. Stalin claimed that, despite their losses, he had “sufficiently prepared the country for war”. He was right.

Germany attempted to use military means to achieve political ends; the collapse of Soviet power and a subordination to German rule. But this objective turned quickly towards the annihilation of the Soviet State. Mass, on the scale understood and embraced by the Soviets, combined with their ability to adapt their operational approach, was sufficient to overcome even the most cunning and well-crafted manoeuvrist plans – and the ideology underpinning the Soviet approach to war and society was central to achieving this. No amount of limited German military force was going to be sufficient to bring the Soviets to their knees. The operation on both sides became a dangerous zero-sum game.

So what can 21st century middle powers learn from this case study? Probably more than you think.

First, when considering how middle powers can apply limited capabilities against a larger, albeit tactically less-proficient adversary, we must assess how the adversary could generate industrial mass, and how long it would take to apply that mass on the battlefield.The application of an anti-access/ area denial (A2AD) logic seems to be too tactical and may be inappropriate to the circumstances should our adversaries decide to apply mass on a soviet-like scale. However, understanding and shaping our adversary’s potential industrial capacity and restricting their ability to mobilise a large population quickly would of course be helpful. Achieving this is beyond the scope of military power alone and will require alliances, but is nevertheless critical to limiting the generation of mass in future.

The application of an anti-access/ area denial (A2AD) logic seems to be too tactical and may be inappropriate to the circumstances should our adversaries decide to apply mass on a soviet-like scale.

Second, we must understand our potential adversary’s logic for war; including their historical and societal ideology. What military or diplomatic pressure would be required to force a reasonable political decision? It is of little use to apply one’s own worldview and beliefs when assessing how to bring about the demise of an adversary. What motivates them politically and as a nation? What logic do they apply to decision making and why? This is difficult to predict, but studying our potential adversaries through the lens of history during a time of competition can give clues about how adversaries might act during conflict.

Middle Powers, by definition, cannot – alone – force a super-power to bend to their will, but they can deter and influence them. Hitler mis-judged Stalin’s understanding of military and political leverage, and the Russian people’s will to fight. No amount of tactical force could bend Stalin’s political will in the same way that France, for example, were forced into a position of surrender just a few years earlier. France arguably acted as any logical western power would under the same circumstances. They surrendered well before their military, let alone their people, were annihilated in order to preserve their long term national interests. This same German methodology clearly did not work against Stalin.

The application of limited military power against a nation-state who utilises mass as a central tenet of war is difficult. Middle powers must understand their adversary and be very careful in deciding how and when to use military power to pursue political ends. This includes shaping activities, alliance management, and diplomatic communication in a time of competition. If mass really does have a quality all its own, as this case study suggests, then smaller nations must choose their alliances carefully, apply other elements of national power early, and seek to avoid conflict until their military power is sufficient to deal with the threat appropriately.

3 thoughts on “Countering Mass as a Middle Power: A Case Study

  1. Great article and analysis. The Russians indeed applied exceptional mass using a “whole of nation approach”.

    The point on knowing how your adversaries think and make decisions is so critical. Viewing competitors though our own cultural lenses is dangerous.

    Cheers to the Chesterfield. Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting article from a historical perspective. However, media and more importantly, information would be the distinguishable factor in modern day. Therefore, ‘Russia’s’ Whole Force approach would be quickly undone when their forces will to fight is broken apart – manoeuvre. It was not such a factor in WW2.


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