An expert's point of view on a current event.

Why Russia Keeps Turning to Mass Firepower

Russian artillery is an old tradition with brutal uses.

By , a visiting assistant professor at Colgate University.
Mobile artillery moves through Red Square
Mobile artillery moves through Red Square
Mobile artillery parades through Moscow’s Red Square on Nov. 7, 1957. Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Russia’s War in Ukraine

Russia did not intend to fight a war like this. After their initial dash toward Kyiv failed, Russian forces have resorted to grinding sieges, encircling Mariupol and other cities in Ukraine’s east.

Russia did not intend to fight a war like this. After their initial dash toward Kyiv failed, Russian forces have resorted to grinding sieges, encircling Mariupol and other cities in Ukraine’s east.

With it has come a return to a familiar practice in Russian doctrine for centuries: the use of massed heavy artillery. In contrast to U.S. doctrine, which emphasizes the relatively precise use of high explosives, Russian doctrine emphasizes massed firepower—and has for generations.

Russian artillery has been technologically inventive and intellectually interesting since the early 18th century, when Russian Field Marshal Peter Ivanovich Shuvalov developed several experimental forms of cannons. During the wars of the 18th century, Russian artillery was consistently better than that of powers such as Prussia. Russia was already interested in amassing big guns: Regulations adopted during the reign of Elizabeth Petrovna in the 1750s recommended concentrating them in combinations of 16 or 24. The Imperial Russian Army maintained its focus on technological and theoretical excellence during the first half of the 19th century. Although Russian artillery was not modernized as much as it should have been during the latter half of that century, it remained creative: For instance, the Russian army was supposedly the first to make use of indirect fire in combat, during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

There is an intangible dimension to the Russian feeling for their guns. According to legend, following the catastrophic loss at Narva in 1700 to the Swedish Empire, Peter the Great ordered every church in the country to give some of its bells to make new cannons to replace the artillery, which had all been lost to the Swedes. Ever since, Russian cannons have been considered holy, and Russian artillery has received special status. This is why, according to the story, 18th-century Russian cannon crews defended their pieces to the death. (Cannons and bells were in fact made in the same way, often by the same factories; one can easily be melted down and recast into the other. A well-cast bronze or brass cannon hums when fired, like a tuning fork.)

The army of which these guns were the central jewels was inextricably part of Russian society, which was what is called a service state. In a service state, social status is not inherent but contingent on the performance of duties to the sovereign. For many people, this service was martial, and it was not optional; Russian nobles were first permitted to decide whether they wanted to serve or not in 1762. Early modern Russian society was characterized by the extensive use of force by those in authority and sullen acceptance, passive resistance, or violent revenge by those underneath. Societal changes coincided with the survival of these patterns of thought—new skins on an ancient animal.

At once the instrument and the victim of coercive state power, the tsarist army was pervaded by brutal, arbitrary discipline. This was not a weak army or an incompetent one: The Russian Empire emerged as a great power in the 18th century by virtue of military conquest. But ordinary infantrymen were treated terribly even by contemporary standards, poorly supplied, poorly paid, and frequently sent ill-prepared onto the battlefield. In the 19th century, Russia maintained huge forces; these armies were often inadequate to the tasks they were intended to perform but so large that they were impossible to modernize or reequip without dislocating the economy entirely.

All armies work around their flaws. If Russia’s artillery was historically good, this may have been because that was an area in which it was less difficult for individuals to make improvements even when the rest of the army struggled to reform.

The Russian commitment to large guns outlived the tsars. The Soviet Red Army was built around artillery and used it to great effect during World War II. The goal then was to soften up things for the infantry, knocking out enemy defenses with heavy artillery barrage—and with understandably little regard for German civilian casualties.

As one element of his explanation for the Russian army’s shockingly bad performance in Ukraine, the military historian Antony Beevor argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin clings to a distorted idea of the Soviet victory in World War II. It is surely the case that experiences of successive invasions in 1237, 1707, 1812, 1918, and 1941 informed the Russian conviction that they are encircled by enemies; that the Soviet victory in the “Second Great War for the Fatherland” (the one against Napoleon being the first) has assumed a fetishistic importance in modern Russia; and that, for Putin’s supporters, “Nazi” means opponent of Russia.

However, Beevor points to the use of massed heavy guns and rockets as evidence for the dominance of World War II in Russian thinking and claims that they repeat the patterns of earlier combat. He argues that when the Russian army shelled Aleppo in 2016 and Grozny in 1999, these actions demonstrated “how little their urban-conflict doctrine, unlike that of Western armed forces, has evolved since World War II.”

But “unsubtle” don’t necessarily mean “archaic.” And “archaic” doesn’t necessarily mean “militarily unsound,” if it works. Between 2000 and 2016, Russia used artillery as the center of its tactical and operational approach in the Chechen wars, the war in Syria, and earlier wars in Ukraine. During these wars, Russian military theorists developed and refined their ideas, but they did so in a more artillery-centered direction than Western armies.

As the current war in Ukraine demonstrates, an army that is unable or unwilling to invest in its manpower must compensate with something else. This was one of the reasons the 18th- and 19th-century tsarist armies focused on firepower. The Russian army of today has made a similar decision.

Even before any choice is made, this use of massed heavy artillery carries the danger that civilians will be harmed. Russian doctrine uses massed fire in addition to precision munitions because a conventional round is cheap and cannot be jammed but also because their artillery theorists believe that massed fire carries a mathematical probability of kill with which tactical success can be predicted statistically—without ever seeing the target. An indiscriminate effect has been priced into Russian artillery norms from the beginning and the way this army conceptualizes the use of these norms.

During Russia’s second war in Chechnya, a consensus emerged among the Russian leadership that massive devastation and civilian fatalities were acceptable if they preserved Russian troops. Firepower was encouraged not only in order to limit Russia’s own casualties, which had been a sucking wound during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, but also as a show of force. The recent war in Syria reinforced this trend.

These city-cracking guns are brutal. Recalling walking through Grozny in February 2000, the BBC’s Andrew Harding described the city as having been “flattened totally, block by block, ruthlessly, efficiently, deliberately.”

Yet structural weakness and apparent poor training can vitiate any advantage these big guns are supposed to provide. Before this war began, observers already expected a war between Ukraine and Russia to involve a lot of artillery. But serious weaknesses are now apparent in the way the Russian army is fielding its firepower. Its artillery strikes have been poorly directed, not agile enough to do effective counterbattery fighting and sluggishly responsive.

To be sure, after its astonishingly bad performance at the beginning of this war, the Russian army has been learning and improving. Its old emphasis on artillery is beginning to show again, and the war has now settled into a series of artillery duels, in which success will depend on the accuracy and power of each side’s big guns. The Russian army not only has more big guns than Ukraine’s, but it has also been making local progress by focusing overpowering artillery strength in small areas.

But Ukraine and Russia draw on the same military traditions. Ukrainian artillery is also good, and their fire control system is excellent. As one observer wrote in February before the invasion, “To be successful, the [Ukrainian armed forces] will have to inflict significant artillery losses on the Russian forces throughout their depth and degrade their ability to fight the kind of war that Russian forces prefer”—and they have done so.

Russia has been using up about 50,000 rounds a day; although Ukraine cannot match this, eventually Russia’s big guns will wear out. Russian infrastructure and manufacturing are in terrible shape, and I do not believe local tactical improvements can overcome this. Sanctions mean that factories cannot get needed materials. A lack of available manufacturing can be inferred from the vast numbers of Soviet-era tanks and guns that the modern Russian army fields, as counted by open-source research blogs such as Oryx.

Given the probable weakness in Russian manufacturing, every artillery piece or big gun that wears out or is destroyed is one the Russians cannot replace.

Ukraine has also been consuming ammunition at an awesome rate; it is receiving replacements from its allies, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has requested aid in the form of long-range ordnance. (One interesting result of Ukraine’s present alliances may be a future shift not only to a synthesis of Soviet-influenced and Western artillery norms but also to the use of Western ordnance.) The current phase of the war may be decided by the wear on Russian and Ukrainian artillery and how many shells the Russians have stockpiled.

Russian artillery doctrines are not a remnant from World War II frozen in time but part of a tradition that emphasizes great firepower and technological innovation that is both centuries-old and informed by experience in Russia’s recent wars. If the Russian army is facing a long, grim fight in Ukraine now, it’s not because massed, indiscriminate fire is archaic but because Putin so thoroughly botched the beginning of this war.

Lucian Staiano-Daniels is a visiting assistant professor at Colgate University.  His book on the historical social anthropology of early seventeenth century common soldiers is upcoming from Cambridge University Press.

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