September 2016

Russian Reflections and Military Renaissance

The Breckinridge legacy
Volume 100, Issue 9

Maj Joseph P. Steinfels

Capt Rafael Naranjo, PMC

Our former Commandant rendered these words in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in July prior to being confirmed as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The words are instructive for many reasons. They not only challenge current thought about the global security environment, but also resonate within Marine history, calling to mind the legacy of then-Capt James C. Breckenridge who took up his post as Naval Attaché in Petrograd and began a lifelong study of the problem of Russia in military and international affairs. Thousands of Marines have walked the halls of Breckinridge Hall at Quantico, knowing only the great leader for whom the building is named was an instrumental part of the first intellectual renaissance of the Corps in the 1920s and 30s, giving the Corps amphibious operations and the Small Wars Manual, (Department of the Navy, Washington, DC: Government Printing Officer, 1940). Gen Breckinridge was also a visionary Marine leader who understood Russia and the role it sought to take on the world stage. His legacy is well worth the attention of the present generation of Marine officers who face another Russian problem, “post-Cold War,” but rooted in a longer tradition.

Breckinridge’s many writings for the Marine Corps Gazette, as well as his personal writings contained in the Gray Research Center, allow us to gain a new perspective on Russia. The point of departure for the present work is Breckinridge’s own understanding of Russia. He watched the Czar’s empire go through the tremendous changes of the 1917 revolution while he served as the Naval Attaché to Petrograd. This basis of knowledge not only forms the backdrop for a review of another intellectual renaissance of the Marine Corps in the 1980s and 1990s under Gen Alfred E. Gray, but also grounds our understanding of the present era of Russian relations with the West. Having already learned from Russia twice before, can we do so once again? We examine the Russian actions of 2014 through the lens of General of the Army, Valeri Gerasimov, the Chief of the Russian General Staff. His article, “The Value of Scientific Prediction,” has wrongly been called a “doctrine” based on a western desire to mirror image, lessening significance while hoping to improve understanding.2 The Marine Corps, like the U.S. military at large, needs to regain a focus on Russian affairs. It must also develop a vision of the future informed by a deeper understanding of the past. In the present instance, Breckinridge lights the way.

The First Military-Intellectual Renaissance: Breckinridge on a Russian War of Ideas

In the years immediately following the First World War, Breckinridge wrote extensively about his experiences as the Naval Attaché to Petrograd. In reflection on his experiences in Russia, he thought America largely misunderstood Russia and her people. This led Western societies to underestimate Russian thought. In “Russia, Leading up to Present Conditions,” an unpublished report written shortly after the October 1917 Revolution, Breckinridge framed the historic revolution against the character of Russian society and the void of power in the Baltic region following the First World War.3 Pointing to the chaotic environment of the revolution, Breckinridge observed,

Three influences began to manifest themselves; one was the criminal element, which since the abolition of law and police had grown to imposing proportions; another was the arrival of internationalists and opportunists of every degree of mental instability or crookedness, and the last was German propaganda, which left no stone unturned in assisting the other two, for the greater the chaos in Russia the less chance would there be of reestablishing the old east front, which since the collapse of the [German] government was no longer a fighting factor.4

Ideas influenced action, the action in turn influenced ideas in an environment of chaos brought on by revolution. The chaos brought about by military defeat facilitated the introduction of disruptive new ideas, themselves aimed at military as much as political effects. War had expanded to the realm of ideology, terror, and crime.

Between 1927 and 1928, Breckinridge wrote a three-part series of articles published in the Marine Corps Gazette, entitled, “A Russian Background.” The purpose of this series was to provide readers with a general understanding of events occurring in the Soviet Union in light of Russia’s turbulent history. Breckinridge used S.F. Platonov’s History of Russia to frame his thoughts and work.5 Ten years after writing “Russia, Leading up to Present Conditions,” Breckinridge opened the first part of “A Russian Background” with the words:

The history of human development runs true to itself all over the world, the chief differences seeming to lie in the degree of education possessed by the people and, hence, in the methods they pursue, whether by vote or bayonet.6

What Breckinridge observed in this quote, he treated in his discussion of trends from Russian history. Russia, while a culture rich in heritage and traditions, never experienced an Enlightenment in the same sense as other European countries had done centuries before. Breckinridge correctly posited in the conclusion of his work what would become painfully obvious for the next 63 years: “[T]he real renaissance (for Russia) was not born until February, 1917.”7 In the wake of the revolution, Soviet Russia under the red banner of “scientific communism” was deeply exploring a future methodology for the conduct of war at the Frunze Academy. Great debates during this interwar era gave birth to Soviet operational art, the term itself having been bequeathed by Czarist Russian officers.

Like German officers of the post-World War I era, officers of the Red Army debated the merits of a strategy of annihilation versus one of attrition, both terms having been borrowed from the writing of the German military historian, Hans Delbrück.8 Each school of thought drew on the experiences of officers from the Russo-Japanese War, First World War, and Russian Civil War of 1918–1920. All were also influenced by the writings of Marx and Lenin.

The debate came to a head in 1926 at the Frunze Academy.9 Championing the school of annihilation was Mikhail Nikolaevich Tukhachevsky. A deep and critical thinker, Tukhachevsky authored several works during the interwar period supporting the strategy of annihilation or destruction.10 An equally deep thinker was the chief proponent of the school of attrition, Aleksandr Andreevich Svechin. In Strategy, Svechin appears to have been the first to use the phrase “operation art,” found in a series of lectures from 1923–24 at the Frunze Academy.11 Both Tukhachevsky and Svechin would fall in Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s, and their work would not become widely known, even in Soviet circles, until after Stalin’s death.

The Second Military-Intellectual Renaissance: Arms and Ideas in Operational Art

It would take until the 1970s–80s before Soviet work would become known to Americans, mainly due to its incorporation into the doctrine of AirLand Battle by the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force. The new work drew on translations made available by the U.S. Air Force in the 1970s.12 Driven by a sense of urgency, the U.S. military had launched into a new intellectual renaissance, once more studying a potential enemy to elevate its own capabilities. The chief products of the second American military-intellectual renaissance were maneuver warfare, the operational level of war, and operational art. These ideas entered into both Army and Marine Corps doctrine. A number of scholars, including participants in that Cold War development, attribute the changes to a new appreciation of Soviet interwar military theory, aided by “Sovietologists” who concentrated on the USSR’s contribution to combined arms doctrine and theory.

Drawing new ideas from its foremost rival for the future, the American military nevertheless was also learning from an enemy of a bygone era. The interwar origins of the “new” concepts were not strictly Russian but rather also German. In practical terms, many of the ideas have roots in both nations’ military traditions, being refined on the battlefields of the First World War. In the years immediately following the war, under the Rapallo Treaty of 1922, the two former enemies began collaborating in the development of cutting edge technologies and concepts.13

Many American military thinkers, still ignorant of Russian/Soviet military science in the 1970s and 1980s, focused on learning from German military art. The distinction between art and science, often convoluted, nonetheless became apparent in the German emphasis upon spontaneity and individual initiative, in contrast to the Soviet quest for a precise theory of military affairs. Scholars have debated for decades now the authenticity of German “Blitzkrieg” as operational art, but the effectiveness of initial German operations in the Second World War remains beyond dispute. In the interim, the Soviets had purged their ranks of the theorists of operational art. The hard lessons of wartime losses motivated them, belatedly, to revive their interwar doctrinal efforts.

As the U.S. Army was defending Germany with the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War, AirLand Battle was the product of attempting to understand the Soviet methodology to fight it. The United States developed its own operational art in both emulation of and competition with the Soviets.14 AirLand Battle incorporated the concept of operational art directly into Army doctrine.15 Operational art became more prevalent in the American military lexicon when GEN Norman Schwarzkopf, USA, first used the phrase in a briefing on Operation Desert Storm in 1991.16 In difference, the emphasis on “mission type orders” in maneuver warfare, as described by MCDP 1, Warfighting, has clear origins in the German tradition of Auftragstaktik.17MCDP 1 became Marine Corps doctrine as the result of the second “Marine Corps Renaissance” from the late 1980s into the mid-1990s. Of the many reasons for the Marine Corps to base their doctrine on the German example, one was the appeal of small unit tactical actions using maneuver in place of the attrition of the Vietnam War experienced and excoriated by many Marines.18 Also featured prominently in MCDP 1, however, is the emergence of the operational level of war, intellectually connecting Marine Corps Warfighting to the U.S. Army’s AirLand Battle doctrine of the early 1980s. In the process of adapting their doctrine to the Soviet threat, U.S. military thinkers absorbed many of the same concepts and terminology but took the adversary’s doctrine to a new level while imbuing it with the flexibility and initiative inherent in maneuver warfare.

It was ideas again in the spirit of Breckinridge that brought the necessary change. Warfighting as a philosophy complemented the logic of war being treated as both an art and science. Drawing on a wide range of sources from Clausewitz and system theory to Sun Tzu, the new doctrinal publication articulated and advocated initiative for the lowest level to fight through the point of friction. Although not directly influenced by Soviet methods, maneuver warfare eventually merged with Army doctrine in AirLand Battle, in what some have called “a Hegelian synthesis.”19

By striving to learn how to deconstruct the Soviet style of fighting, the U.S. military came to reshape its own doctrine in large part along similar lines, though with key differences due to very different strengths and weaknesses, including geography and manpower. A generation later, we now must once more undertake a similar effort. The days of massive East-West confrontation on the continent of Europe faded with the end of the Cold War. Current constraints on the U.S. military portend the need for a very different response to Russia. As in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, moreover, the U.S. military comes at the problem from a prolonged involvement in counterinsurgency and “nation building.” Like Breckinridge, and the Army’s TRADOC, the Western defense enterprise today must learn the current Russian methodology for war while reflecting on how best to adapt itself.

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A New Military-Intellectual Renaissance? Learning From Current Russian Methodology

In March 2014, Russian troops appeared in Crimea with the intention of securing the Peninsula for the Russian Federation. Almost immediately, Europe and the world were inconveniently confronted by renewed Russian aggression. Interest in the Russian methodology of military thought spiked as military professionals sought to “frame the problem,” leading to the search for the latest Russian “doctrine.” The Russian move into Crimea along with actions of Ukrainian separatists in the east of the Ukraine backed by Russia were foreshadowed by General of the Army Valeri Gerasimov in his January 2013 speech before the Russian Academy of Military Science, entitled, “The Value of Scientific Prediction.”20 Gerasimov has broadly explored Soviet and Russian innovations throughout history to inform his thoughts but specifically examined recent Western conflicts to determine their patterns.

With examples such as American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, NATO operations against Libya, and the Arab Spring, Gerasimov discerned a pattern in the Western use of military operations as a tactic or technique in the attempt to control chaos. Gerasimov explains,

In recent conflicts have emerged a new means of military action that cannot be considered purely something of military means. As an example, operations in Libya saw the use of a no fly zone, sea blockade, and wide use of private contractors in close cooperation with armed groups of opposition. We should admit if we clearly understand the essence of traditional military actions as conducted by our regular armed forces, our knowledge of asymmetrical forms and means of battle is superficial. Coming from this reality, the role of military science should be increased and it should develop a common new theory for the above mentioned actions.21

Chaos, however, could be employed as a military system as part of a strategy when used in conjunction with other systems such as law, politics, economics, and culture (see Figure 1). In essence, Gerasimov demonstrated it is far easier to instill chaos, pulling the appropriate “system levers” when required, than to control it as in the western model of the last 14 years in counterinsurgency operations. What Gerasimov said about Russian views of war in “The Value of Scientific Prediction” were certainly not new, whether in Russia or the West. Like the Cold War, Western understanding of the Russian character and their conduct of war had been forgotten. Breckinridge had said it first: Soviet methods flourished in chaos and drew strength from the circumstances created by socio-political and military crisis.

Looking back to Breckinridge’s work nearly 100 years ago, we see a Marine who instructed his Service and the wider public on Russia while preparing to lead an interwar intellectual renewal in the Marine Corps. The lessons acted on during that broad awakening served the Marine Corps in good stead in the coming conflicts. In similar fashion, the reading of Soviet doctrine in the late Cold War helped the West bring that long-running confrontation to a successful end, with the material and intellectual efforts undertaken to renew the military in the 1980s helping to avert the need for war. As the security environment of Europe continues to demonstrate to the world, failing to understand Russia now could find the United States and her allies miscalculating Russian intentions at a critical time now or in the future and therefore facing an unacceptable fait accompli.


The next military renaissance must likewise stay ahead of the next crisis. Being “formed, trained and equipped” is not good enough to prepare for the unknown future of an increasingly turbulent world. Developing institutional intellect and the ability to deal with a peer competitor has not been the American way of war for some time. It begins with remembering we must first understand the environment to interact and change. To cope with the challenges we have been presented with today and tomorrow requires study and intellectual honesty about the unknown, while having the courage to change. In doing so, we reduce our chances of miscalculation because we made an effort to learn from Russia. As Gerasimov’s thoughts demonstrate, the Russians learned from observing us, just as Breckinridge learned from observing them. The next intellectual renaissance for the Marine Corps must be born of the will to change and to innovate as we have always done. The Breckinridge legacy points the way forward.


1. Gen Joseph F. Dunford testimony as nominee for CJCS to the Senate Armed Services Committee, 9 July 2015. See:

2. General of Army Valeri Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. See: for original article, “The Value of Scientific Prediction,” translated and edited by LtCol A.M. Del Gaudio.

3. J.C. Breckinridge, “Russia, Leading up to Present Conditions,” (Quantico, VA: USMC Archives J.C. Breckinridge, Gray Research Center, Box 16, Folder 26).

4. Ibid, 6.

5. S.F. Platonov would have been known to Breckinridge as he was a well-known Russian scholar of history in Petrograd until his retirement in 1916. See: S.F. Platonov, History of Russia, (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company 1928), VI.

6. J.C. Breckinridge, “A Russian Background: Part I,” Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: December 1927), 229.

7. Breckinridge, Part III, 124.

8. See: Hans Delbrück, The Dawn of Modern Warfare, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1990).

9. Jacob Kipp, The Operational Art, Development in the Theories of War, edited by B.J.C. McKercher and Michael A. Hennessy, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996), 69.

10. For more on Tukhachevsky’s writings, see: M.N. Tukhachevsky’s Selected Works, 1928–1937, (Moscow, USSR: State Publishers, 1964).

11. Aleksandr A. Svechin, Strategy, (Minneapolis, MN: East View Publications, 1992), as well as Jacob Kipp, The Operational Art, Development in the Theories of War, 61.

12. In the 1970s, in an effort to better understand the Soviet threat, the United States Air Force translated selected Soviet works to better understand Soviet thinking. For the Soviet/Russian conception of operational art in English, see: V. YE. Savkin, The Basic Principles of Operational Art and Tactics, (Moscow, USSR: State Publishers, 1972).

13. “In 1922 the German-Soviet rapprochement was complete with the Rapollo Treaty, which established diplomatic and trade links between the two nations.” See: James S. Corum, The Roots of Blitzkrieg, (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1992), 170.

14. Scholar and author COL David M. Glantz, USA(Ret) was the former founder and Director of the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office who was charged with examining Soviet Military development in the 1980s.

15. Headquarters United States Army Training and Doctrine Command TRADOC Pam 525-5, Military Operations: Operational Concepts for the AirLand Battle and Corps Operations, (Fort Monroe, VA: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986).

16. Svechin, 23.

17. Chapter 4 of MCDP 1, Warfighting, examines maneuver warfare and mission tactics or mission type orders. See: Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: 20 June 1997), 71 and 87.

18. In the late 1970s and 80s, the Battelle Corporation conducted several conferences, interviews, and exercises with former German general officers from the Second World War. Amongst the exercises conducted were the participation of German general officers in a Marine command post exercise at 1stMarDiv.

19. Kenneth F. McKenzie, The Event Horizon: The Marine Corps and the Dialectic of Maneuver Warfare and AirLand Battle, (Washington, DC: 1992). See:

20. General of Army Valeri Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. See: for original article, “The Value of Scientific Prediction,” translated and edited by LtCol A.M. Del Gaudio.

21. Ibid, 2.

22. Ibid. A translation from the original Russian chart.