Examining the European powers’ preparation for World War I (WWI) enables us to reconstruct the process of the development and adoption by their power elites of the fateful decisions which, on the one hand, put an end to the Viennese world order, and, on the other, were a prelude to the extremely eventful early years of the 20th century. The most important aspect of this preparation was the activity of the Entente and the Triple Alliance members’ military leadership which put significant effort into the planning of campaigns in Europe and Asia.

The purpose of this article is to examine the key issues of Russia’s military planning utilizing comparative and typological methods, which allow us to bring to light both the general common traits of the major powers’ General Staffs and the peculiarities characteristic of the Tsarist empire’s military and political leadership’s strategic thinking.

It is worth mentioning that the leading figures in the debate of the military planning process carried out by the Russian General Staff on the eve of WWI were the well-known military historians Andrei Menardovich Zaionchkovskii (1862-1926) and Nikolai Nikolaevich Golovin (1875-1944), though a large-scale reconstruction of this process only became possible after specialists were given access to particularly important previously classified documents from the Russian Federal Archives. It was on the basis of these sources that the works of Bruce Menning, William Fuller Jr., Hew Strachan, John Steinberg, Andrei Iur’evich Pavlov, Viacheslav Kornel’evich Shatsillo, Ol’ga Viacheslavovna Pavlenko and others were written.[1] While Russian historians focus on Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia’s (1868-1918) government’s adherence to its obligations to its allies, which impelled its forces to launch divergent offensives in East Prussia and Galicia somewhat prematurely, Anglo-American historiography stresses the unavoidable nature of the Russian Command’s large-scale miscalculations in the opening period of the war which were brought about by Tsarist Russia’s general socio-economic backwardness, inter-departmental and inter-personal competition in the upper echelons of power and the geographical isolation of the country, which made it difficult to conduct a genuine coalition war in partnership with the other members of the Entente.[2]

Development of Plans for Campaigns in Europe before the Russo-Japanese War

The reform of the Russian Empire’s armed forces in the 1860s and 1870s, which were made necessary by the introduction of universal military service and a military districts system provided the necessary prerequisites for the planning of future campaigns, which, it was assumed, would be conducted both against traditional geopolitical adversaries such as Great Britain and new enemies such as a united Germany. It is no accident that War Minister Dimitrii Alekseevich Miliutin (1816-1912) had already developed a plan of action for Russia in the European theatre against a possible coalition of powers in 1873.[3]

Russian military planning took on a targeted character under the influence of the Chief of the General Staff, Nikolai Nikolaevich Obruchev (1830-1904), who aired his views on plans to conduct a war against Germany and Austria-Hungary after they had signed an alliance treaty in 1879. The increase in the numbers of Russian forces together with the formation of reserve units, changes in their deployment and accelerated railway construction compelled the General Staff to re-examine plans for campaigns in the European subcontinent in 1883, 1887 and 1890. In contrast to its predecessors, this last mobilization schedule (the fourteenth) already foresaw two options: the first in the event of Germany directing its main attack against Russia, and the second if Berlin were to direct its entire forces against France.

The Franco-Russian Military Convention, concluded in 1892 and ratified in 1893, played a significant role in the refinement of subsequent mobilization schedules. According to the Convention, Russia was obliged to help France in the event of an attack on it by Germany (or supported by Germany), and Paris was committed to carry out its duty as an ally if there was an attack on Russia by Germany or Austria-Hungary supported by Berlin. In the event of mobilization commencing in the countries of the Triple Alliance, St. Petersburg and Paris were also to begin a rapid concentration of armed forces, with Russia providing not less than 700,000 to 800,000 men, and France 1,300,000 soldiers and officers.[4]

A notable feature of the 1900 plan, which was formulated under the direct leadership of War Minister Aleksei Nikolaevich Kuropatkin (1848-1925) taking into account the formation of the Franco-Russian alliance in 1892 and 1893, was the creation of an intermediate court of control and command in the strategic theatre – Front Command. Henceforth all armies on the western borders of the Russian Empire were united in two geographically adjacent groups: the Northern Front against Germany and the Southern Front against Austria-Hungary.

Stages of Reform of the Russian Army, 1905-1912

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 had a decisive importance for the future development of war planning, bringing about two waves of reform in 1905-1908 and 1909-1912.[5] The first of these mainly concerned the higher organisational structures of the army and navy. The result was the formation of the State Defence Council (GSO) and the Main Directorate of the General Staff (GUGSh), led respectively by Nikolai Nikolaevich, Grand Duke of Russia (1856-1929) and Infantry General Fedor Fedorovich Palitsyn (1851-1923). Both these structures played their role in the development of war plans, the organisation of the intelligence service and raising the troops’ level of mobilization readiness. Three additional innovations were also brought into being in the course of the reforms that had an influence on strategic planning: the creation of military inspection services, the establishment of the Supreme Attestation Commission and a reduction in the period of active military service.

The second series of reforms, initiated by War Minister Vladimir Aleksandrovich Sukhomlinov (1848-1926), were aimed at deeper changes of a strategic character. In particular, reserve units started taking part in regular gatherings and manoeuvres alongside regular forces. 128 infantry battalions were redeployed from border regions to the interior governorates of the Empire, railway construction was accelerated (by 1914 seven mainlines to the western borders had been constructed), and fortifications on the western border along the line of Kovno – Grodno – Belostok – Brest were modernized.[6]

The Main Factors of Military Planning in Russia

In the process of these reforms, which had both positive and negative consequences, Russian military strategists had to take into account three key factors: distance, time and the number of mobilized troops. Although historians continue to debate their relationship and significance, it is unquestionable that these, together with the evaluation of the general geostrategic situation of the Tsarist Empire, lay at the heart of plans for future campaigns.

It is well known that Russia, like Germany, was surrounded by potential hostile states. On the eve of the war, Tsarist strategists considered Sweden to the north, Romania to the southwest, the Ottoman Empire in the basin of the Black Sea and China and Japan to the east to be among these, along with the two Central powers. In order to neutralise the threat to the empire’s capital and to maintain control over the Baltic coast, the formation of the 6th Army was envisaged, and in order to cover the south and to work together with the Black Sea Fleet the plan was to make use of the newly-formed 7th Army. At the same time troops of the Caucasian Military District, which, during the period of mobilization were combined into three corps, were designated for action against Turkey. The strategic plan for a campaign in the South Caucasus foresaw three possible scenarios: the first and least likely of these saw Russia waging war against the Ottoman Empire only; the second involved preparation for a campaign against Turkey acting in concert with a coalition of Russia’s enemies (as in the Crimean War of 1853-1856); the third, which was actually carried out in practice, was conditional on the Turks maintaining neutrality at the onset of military action on the European fronts with a subsequent attack on Russian positions in the South Caucasus and on the Black Sea. This third scenario provided the chance for the Russians to redeploy not less than two corps from the Caucasus to the European theatre. In this event they would be replaced by the 2nd Turkestan corps dispatched from Central Asia via the Trans-Caspian railway and by transport vessels across the Caspian Sea. The main aim of the Caucasian Army was holding the Russian Empire’s southern borders.[7]

An examination of Russia’s military plans regarding Turkey would be incomplete without mentioning the plan to land a contingent of 200,000 Russian troops on the Upper Bosphorus and the Black Sea coast of Asia Minor in the region of the port of Trabzon, which was being seriously considered by Tsarist strategists from late 1913 to early 1914 in response to German General Otto Liman von Sanders’s (1855-1929) infamous work in Constantinople. Despite the favourable opinion of Nicholas II and a host of ministers, for example, the foreign minister Sergei Dmitrievich Sazonov (1860-1927), the huge cost of landing expeditionary forces in Turkey along with the reserved attitude of the other members of the Entente to such projects compelled Petersburg to rule out the “military confinement of the Turks”.[8] As Sukhomlinov pointed out in his memoirs, “landing on the Bosphorus is an expensive plaything, and, moreover, might become a dangerous diversion for some time to come”.[9]

Returning to an analysis of factors of strategic planning, it is worth pointing out that the large expanse of the Russian Empire had its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand it made it possible for the Tsarist command to concentrate its main forces deep within its borders, from where it would be able to launch a decisive blow against the enemy. But the choice of such an approach doomed the Russian forces to passive defence, at least during the opening period of the war. At the same time, large distances and poorly developed logistical infrastructure complicated a swift general mobilization. This would have been a precondition for taking an offensive military action beyond the borders of the Russian Empire, on which the Russian and French General Staffs had agreed before.[10]

The dilemma that had arisen, in turn, underlined the importance of the time frame for deployment of land armies at the fronts. While German intelligence estimated that it would take thirty days for the Russian forces to mobilize in 1906,[11] French representatives at inter-ally military meetings from 1911 to 1913 came to the conclusion that the period, which their ally required to organize an attack, had gradually shortened. According to the Tsarist General Staff’s calculations in 1911, the mobilization period was sixteen to eighteen days, and in 1913 – only thirteen to fifteen days. At the same time, however, the time taken for additional contingents from the Caucasian Army and Turkestan to arrive at the theatre of military action had increased to forty days, while the Germans were ready to mobilize their forces against Russia within twelve days, and the Austrians within sixteen days.[12]

Data received by the intelligence services played a significant role in the evaluation of troop numbers (the third factor in the military planning mentioned above). Russian intelligence suggested that Austria-Hungary had between 625 and 673 battalions that would be capable of withstanding the 728 battalions along the line of the South-Western Front.[13] GUGSh had less accurate information regarding the likely numbers of German forces on the Eastern Front at the onset of military action. Their overall number up to spring 1911 had been estimated at twenty-five divisions including reserve units, but three years later, based on information received from French intelligence, it was anywhere between sixteen and twenty-five divisions.[14] As we know, the German forces that opposed the Russian attack on East Prussia during the summer and autumn of 1914 actually amounted to only fifteen infantry and one cavalry division, which were engaged in the border battle with twenty-six Russian divisions (seventeen and a half infantry and eight and a half cavalry divisions).

Key factors of Mobilization Schedules 18 and 19

The “strategic pessimism”, with which, in the opinion of a contemporary historian, the officers of the General Staff were infused,[15] characterised all the mobilization schedules they formulated right up to 1912. In practice, war against the more economically and culturally developed Germany became only possible for Russia by choosing one of two alternative strategic plans: the permanent deployment of large forces in the border districts relying on a system of fortification, or concentrating armies in the rear governorates of European Russia. It is no accident that mobilization schedule 18, prepared by the General Staff in 1910, focused on the second option, and therefore had a defensive character, taking into account the danger of an attack on the empire by Turkey and even Japan. The authors’ of schedule 18 and War Minister Sukhomlinov himself pointed out the excessive expense to the treasury of modernizing forts on the borders of Germany and Austria-Hungary.[16]

Severe criticism of the adopted plan from a wide range of military leaders, above all the commander of the Kiev Military District, Mikhail Vasil’evich Alekseev (1857-1918) and the Quartermaster-General of GUGSh, Iurii Nikiforovich Danilov (1866-1937), gave rise to lively debate. The essence of the disagreement was the choice of strategic priorities. While Alekseev claimed that the main aim of a Russian attack had to be the capture of Budapest, followed by Vienna, Danilov argued the necessity of a concentrated strike against German forces in East Prussia, the subsequent occupation of Königsberg and the “straightening out” of the Polish Salient. In Danilov’s opinion, a chance to carry out an East Prussian operation had arisen thanks to a sixty-day “window” opening for the Russians as a result of the main German forces being diverted for the attack on Paris. The empire’s top generals reconciled the two ideas at a meeting on 21 February (5 March) in a compromise that was approved as mobilization schedule 19. This plan entailed advancing military units to the western borders for the onset of offensive operations in two different directions – to the northwest against Germany and to the southwest against Austria-Hungary without waiting for the completion of general mobilization. The general opinion was that it proposed an incomparably more active involvement of the Russian armies than its predecessor, though it did have two scenarios – A and G.

According to option A, which would become the guide for action in the event of Germany launching its main forces against France while leaving only a few corps in the east to cover the border with Russia, Austria-Hungary would be the main opponent, against whom the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 8th armies would be concentrated on the South-Western Front along the line of Ivangorod – Liublin – Kholm – Dubno – Proskurov, while the 1st and 2nd armies, which were the best in terms of personnel and armaments, would be deployed at the boundary of Shavli – Kovno and the Neman, Narev and Western Bug rivers against Germany. Plan G would come into force should Germany prefer to throw its main forces into battle with Russia. According to this plan, in addition to the 1st and 2nd armies, the 4th army would be sent to the German front. However, GUGSh officers and the command staff of the border districts considered the second scenario as the less likely of the two.[17]

Regardless of the obvious differences in the choice of targets of attacks in the west, it is significant that both plans almost identically formulated the task of overcoming East Prussia, although Plan A’s aim was to achieve a decisive defeat of Austria-Hungary, while Plan G’s intention was to prevent Austrian forces reaching the rear of the Russian forces conducting operations on the German front. But no plan mentioned organising an attack by Russian forces from the Polish Salient towards Berlin during the first weeks of the war, which the French had constantly been requesting.[18]

At first glance the plans for divergent advances on the North-Western and South-Western Fronts looked doomed from the outset, but the Tsarist command believed that the general strategic situation in the opening period of the war would give the Russian armies a good chance of carrying out both offensive actions. The General Staff firmly believed in the superiority of the forces available to the command of the South-Western Front over those of Austria-Hungary. As for Germany, the success of East Prussian and then, perhaps, Vistula-Oder campaigns were reliant on German divisions being distracted by overcoming French defences.[19] As Sukhomlinov was later to recall, in 1912 he had a notable conversation with the French Chief of Staff, Joseph-Jacques Joffre (1852-1931) concerning the future war. “We were of one opinion – the German plan was to first defeat France with a number of decisive strikes, and then to descend upon Russia. From this we concluded that our task was to advance simultaneously on Germany from the east and west”.[20]

Other conditions for the implementation of this plan were the favourable geographical positioning of the Polish Salient, which could be used as a launching pad for offensive operations in Central Europe, a liberal government coming to power in Sweden on the eve of the war that was inclined to maintain neutrality, and the neutrality of the Ottoman Empire, if only during the first months of military action.[21]

Plans for the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets

In the pre-war years the headquarters of the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets were, respectively, Helsinki and Sevastopol. From the beginning of the war both fleets came under the operational control of the General Headquarters, whose leadership’s preparation of directives was subject to the Naval General Staff’s strategic studies. The situation in Russia’s two main theatres of naval warfare had both similarities and differences.[22]

Common to both fleets was the secondary nature of their activities to those of the army, which were dictated by GUGSh as being dependent on developments on the North-western, the Caucasian and subsequently the Romanian fronts. Also the natural geographical isolation of the Baltic and Black Sea basins hindered the free access of Russian military vessels to the open sea, limiting them to performing only coastal defence duties. However, unlike the Baltic, where German naval forces would give the Russian fleet (which was being restored after the catastrophe in the Far East) almost no chance of gaining the upper hand, the Russian command had the chance to oust the Turkish warships from the Black Sea basin.

The Naval General Staff’s planning of its strategy to defend the Gulf of Finland and approaches to the capital mainly involved minefields and submarine operations with the necessary cooperation at sea with Great Britain.[23] The main importance of the Black Sea for communications with partners in the Entente, as well as guaranteeing Russia’s trade and economic interests and strengthening its geopolitical position on approaches to the Mediterranean dictated the development of plans involving more intense activity in blockading the Bosphorus, conducting landing operations at strategically important ports (Trabzon, for example), as well as the elimination of the battleship Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau, which Germany had sent to the aid of its ally. But in the end, naval minister Ivan Konstantinovich Grigorovich (1853-1930) had not approved the operational plan developed by the Black Sea Naval Staff by the outbreak of war, and this prevented the fleet from moving into action immediately after the Ottoman Empire entered the war.[24]

The Development of the Regulation on the Preparatory (Pre-Mobilization) Period

Along with mobilization schedule 20, which was ratified in 1913, and effectively repeated the main proposals of its predecessor for the deployment of Russian armies with the additional conditions mentioned above, the development of the Regulation on the Preparatory (Pre-Mobilization) Period was of great significance. By the beginning of May 1912 this document had been prepared by an interdepartmental commission under the head of GUGSh’s mobilization department, General-Major Aleksandr Sergeevich Lukomskii (1868-1939), and had been forwarded to the Council of Ministers after discussion by GUGSh. Its preamble pointed out that “the commencement of military action is always preceded by a more or less prolonged period of diplomatic tension known as ‘the period preparatory to war”.[25] It is significant that for the first time in Russian history a special procedure had been worked out to determine the advent of such a period. The war, naval and foreign affairs ministers were first required to reach a consensus that war was inevitable, their decision would then be examined by an extraordinary cabinet meeting and then forwarded to the emperor for his final endorsement.

On 2 (15) March 1913 Nicholas II approved the Regulation. According to the document, political tensions could arise around Russia’s borders in four regions that might result in armed conflict: on the western border (overall cost of mobilization around 50 million rubles), in the Far East (over 20 million rubles), in the Caucasus (almost 12 million rubles) and in Turkestan (around 13 million rubles). The costs mentioned were the combined expenses of Russia’s five key ministries, those for War, Naval, Interior Affairs, Communications and Finance. In all, this amounted to an estimated outlay of 95 million rubles.[26]

Alongside the formulation of mobilisation schedules and the Regulation on the pre-war period, the “Great Programme for Strengthening the Army” (“Bol’shaia programma po usileniiu armii”) was being prepared. Although this was approved by Nicholas II in October 1913, it took more than half a year to complete all interdepartmental agreements. Finally approved on the very eve of the war, on 24 June (7 July) 1914, and calculated to take four years, its main focus was preparing Russia’s armed forces for only a short war, as most attention was paid to increasing the numbers of first line troops. Its authors’ view, in accordance with the allies’ requirements, was that this approach would provide a decisive success in the opening period of military action. Unfortunately the Great Programme was adopted too late for it to play a noticeable role in military planning.[27] It is, however, worth stressing that the rearmament that had been swiftly carried out during 1914 and 1915 led to the formation of the “new” Russian army in 1916 which was more suited to the demands of the first total war in history.


The main conclusions are that during the two decades prior to the war, Russia’s military plans underwent constant changes on account of 1) the prevailing geostrategic situation (the advent of the German threat, the founding of the Russian-French alliance, the Russo-Japanese War etc.), 2) the increasing economic potential of the Empire while maintaining its dependence on European financial markets, and 3) the creation of modern logistical infrastructure in the governorates on the western border. Among the factors determining the nature of Russian strategic planning on the eve of WWI one must include the spatial aspect, the unique configuration of the Empire’s borders (the Polish Salient), the absence of significant natural barriers (with the exception of the Carpathians) that could impede the “Russian steamroller” moving westwards, and the contained nature of the Baltic and Black Seas.

As the events of late summer/autumn 1914 showed, regardless of reducing the mobilization period, the Tsarist generals were nevertheless unable to overcome the dislocation between pre-war strategic thinking and the real-life management of large numbers of troops across a huge territory. Even the compromise between the supporters of a defensive war of attrition and adherents of an offensive strategy that was achieved in 1912 with the formulation of mobilization schedule 19, which the Staff actually followed in August 1914, did not allow the Russian High Command to make use of the “window of opportunity”, i.e. the geopolitically favourable period, in order to win a decisive victory over the German and Austrian forces in the border battles, particularly in East Prussia.

However, not only Russia’s best generals but other European states’ strategists were also hardly prepared for land and sea operations on the strategic scale typical of the battles of the Great War.

Evgenii Iur’evich Sergeev, Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of World History

Section Editors: Boris Kolonit͡skiĭ; Nikolaus Katzer

Translator: Trevor Goronwy