“Quantity is a quality all its own.” This quote is attributed to Joseph Stalin, and considering Soviet military performance during World War II it certainly fits. But can we apply the same view to modern conflict? Consider Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Russia could certainly win if they deployed massive numbers of troops. But that isn’t realistic. Stalin isn’t in charge for one, and Russia created this war.
Once Germany invaded, Stalin mobilized millions of people who wanted to defend their homeland from an army that was killing, raping, and burning their way through the motherland. Those who survived Stalin’s famines now faced a German starvation campaign. Adolf Hitler wanted not only to defeat the communists, but to subjugate and eliminate the Slavic race. Soviets feared Stalin and, prosperity-wise, had little to live for relative to today’s Russians. Marching into Stalingrad with little training, equipped with a uniform and bullets but not enough rifles to go around was still preferable to the alternative. Now, it is the Ukrainians whose back is against the wall, and they are fighting like hell. If Vladimir Putin wants to remain in power he has to conscript as many citizens as possible without turning the population against him and inviting a coup. Russians don’t seem all that threatened by their Ukrainian neighbors. If they were, Putin would be enlisting volunteers and not recruiting prisoners. People do not want to fight and die in a country that isn’t a threat.
Stalin didn’t wait for the Germans to invade; he imprisoned or killed much of his military talent in purges. Communism crushes innovation and efficiency, so Soviet military engagements often were meat grinders. Throwing wave after wave of men at prepared defenders is more feasible when you have massive numbers of troops who are – hopefully – armed with bolt-action rifles and have little to live for. After all, it was Stalin who reportedly said that it requires much more bravery for a Soviet soldier to retreat than it does to charge, given the machine-gunners whose job it was to mow down anyone who falls back. In 2022, Russian forces are clearly incompetent. Despite advantages in manpower, equipment, and being on the offensive, they have accomplished little. Clearly Russia does not have a training pipeline that produces good non-commissioned and commissioned officers, and Putin keeps having to fire commanders. When the United States goes to war, we replace lots of peacetime generals and admirals with warfighters, so that is to be expected. But we haven’t seen increasingly effective generals as the campaign drags on so it is likely that Russia has already shown us their best and now the metric is how close the general is to Putin and how brutal he is willing to be. Even if an effective leader rose to the top, conquering Ukraine would take more troops than Russia can muster, and even if Putin could raise such a force, the logistic failures we have witnessed so far in the campaign would only be magnified.
World War II would have gone on far longer and at a much greater cost if it weren’t for a constant stream of American ships crossing the Atlantic with Lend-Lease aid. The post-war landscape would have looked very different as the Red Army could not have conquered vast swaths of eastern Europe without our help. After the war, much of their technology came from copying American systems and relied heavily on captured German scientists and engineers. It is hard to type “Russian” and “quality” in the same sentence with a straight face. No Russian ground, air, or naval force has done well against the Ukrainians. They have lost significant quantities of armor, aircraft, artillery, missiles, and are now reportedly running low on artillery rounds. Everything will have to be replaced and in the case of tanks and especially aircraft this will take a long time. Until something changes the best Russia can manage is targeting civilians and infrastructure, threats of nuclear escalation, and a terrorist campaign by Wagner Group mercenaries. This is not an effective strategy to break the resolve of the defenders. Now, Ukraine has a pipeline of weapons and training from the West that has proven effective and have the invaders on the run in many areas. Even though Russia has 100 million more people and millions of Ukrainians have fled the country, sheer numbers are not an advantage. To Stalin, quantity had a quality all its own. Vladimir Putin needs both.