In September 1917,
Vladimir Lenin wrote: "There is only one way to prevent the restoration of the police, and that is to create a people's militia and to fuse it with the army (the standing army to be replaced by the arming of the entire people)."
 At the time, the
Imperial Russian Army had started to collapse. Approximately 23% (about 19 million) of the male population of the
Russian Empire were mobilized; however, most of them were not equipped with any weapons and had support roles such as maintaining the
lines of communication and the base areas. The Tsarist general
Nikolay Dukhonin estimated that there had been 2 million deserters, 1.8 million dead, 5 million wounded and 2 million prisoners. He estimated the remaining troops as numbering 10 million.
While the Imperial Russian Army was being taken apart, "it became apparent that the rag-tag Red Guard units and elements of the imperial army who had gone over the side of the Bolsheviks were quite inadequate to the task of defending the new government against external foes." Therefore, the
Council of People's Commissars decided to form the Red Army on 28 January 1918.
[a] They envisioned a body "formed from the class-conscious and best elements of the working classes." All citizens of the Russian republic aged 18 or older were eligible. Its role being the defense "of the Soviet authority, the creation of a basis for the transformation of the standing army into a force deriving its strength from a nation in arms, and, furthermore, the creation of a basis for the support of the coming Socialist Revolution in Europe." Enlistment was conditional upon "guarantees being given by a military or civil committee functioning within the territory of the Soviet Power, or by party or trade union committees or, in extreme cases, by two persons belonging to one of the above organizations." In the event of an entire unit wanting to join the Red Army, a "collective guarantee and the affirmative vote of all its members would be necessary."
 Because the Red Army was composed mainly of peasants, the families of those who served were guaranteed rations and assistance with farm work.
 Some peasants who remained at home yearned to join the Army; men, along with some women, flooded the recruitment centres. If they were turned away they would collect scrap metal and prepare care-packages. In some cases the money they earned would go towards tanks for the Army.
The Council of People's Commissars appointed itself the supreme head of the Red Army, delegating command and administration of the army to the Commissariat for Military Affairs and the Special All-Russian College within this commissariat.
Nikolai Krylenko was the supreme commander-in-chief, with
Aleksandr Myasnikyan as deputy.
Nikolai Podvoisky became the
commissar for war,
Pavel Dybenko, commissar for the fleet. Proshyan, Samoisky, Steinberg were also specified as people's commissars as well as
Vladimir Bonch-Bruyevich from the Bureau of Commissars. At a joint meeting of
Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, held on 22 February 1918, Krylenko remarked: "We have no army. The demoralized soldiers are fleeing, panic-stricken, as soon as they see a
German helmet appear on the horizon, abandoning their artillery, convoys and all war material to the
triumphantly advancing enemy. The Red Guard units are brushed aside like flies. We have no power to stay the enemy; only an immediate signing of the peace treaty will save us from destruction."