Joseph Stalin supposedly claimed that “quantity has a quality all its own,” justifying a cannon-fodder mentality and immense casualties. The problem is, Stalin never actually said that, but it fits our stereotype about the Russian military so neatly that everyone believes he did.
When it comes to war, Russia is commonly perceived as favoring quantity over quality and winning mainly by overwhelming its opponents with hordes of poorly trained soldiers. You can hardly find any account of Russia’s wars that does not use terms like “hordes,” “masses,” and even “Neolithic swarms.” Quantity, it is believed, made quality almost irrelevant.
German generals propagated the myth of a Red Army comprised of faceless masses of troops, motivated only by NKVD rifles at their backs and winning only through sheer force of numbers. Many Western histories accept this view, and it is standard fare in Hollywood, notably in the 2001 Enemy at the Gates. The story was also standard fare during the Cold War, when the intelligence community frequently overestimated the quantitative side of Soviet capabilities while belittling its quality.
True, some analysts argued for a more nuanced approach. For instance, Michael Handel in 1981 wrote that “To claim that the USSR is emphasizing quantity over quality in military equipment is to foster a dangerous misconception” [emphasis in the original]. We also know that the “missile gap” and “bomber gap” were artifacts of faulty intelligence analysis.
However, when you crunch the numbers, it turns out that Russian superiority has not been as great as most people believe. In fact during World War II, the U.S. Army often had about the same numerical advantage over its enemies as did the Red Army. A better understanding of the past might shift our perceptions of the present.
Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks