The Great Bear at War – The Russian and Soviet Army 1917-Present, Chris McNab

The Great Bear at War – The Russian and Soviet Army 1917-Present, Chris McNab

This book covers a century of history, from the emergence of the Red Army in the civil wars that followed the Bolshevik Revolution to the recovery of Russian military strength under Putin. This long period saw the strength and competence of that army rise and fall, reaching a peak under the pressure of German attack in 1941-45, and a low point (at least in the period covered here) during the first invasion of Chechnya.

McNab covers both the campaigns fought by these armies and their structure and organisation. In terms of major conflicts this includes the Russian Civil Wars that followed the revolutions, the Winter War, the Second World War, the Afghan War and the wars in Chechnya. The account of the Afghan War was of particular interest to me, with many themes familiar to anyone familiar with the American experience in Vietnam, including a failure to really understand their enemy and an ability to conquer just about any area in the country but an inability to actually hold on to those areas for any length of time.

The sections on the training and organisation of the army goes into quite a lot of detail, in some cases going down to the leve of the individual platoon. The lack of a sizable group of professional NCOs for most of this period comes as something of a surprise, as just about every other army relies on them to form the backbone of the force. The problems caused by the reliance on a conscript army for much of the period are also covered, with the low pay in the army meaning it was hard to recruit a large number of longer service professionals even when the government of the day wanted to.

At the time of writing in 2023 this book has gained an importance it perhaps didn’t have when first published. The final chapter looks at the creation of the army that invaded Ukraine in 2022, and gives some idea of its strengths and its weaknesses. Putin’s army had enough success behind it to justify their confidence at the start of the conflict, but at the same time we can see some of the underlying weaknesses, including some carried over from the larger, mainly conscript Soviet army.

1 – The Emergence of the Red army, 1917-39
2 – Defining Moment 1939-45
3 – Cold War Army
4 – Descent into Defeat: Afghanistan 1979-89
5 – The Post-Soviet Army: Defeat in Chechnya
6 – Victory and Resurgence

Author: Chris McNab
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 384
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2019

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