I do not know Cornish’s source, but there is a misconception working here. The operation on the Aa was raid, not an army-level offensive. It involved three Russian divisions and it lacked a clear understanding of intent and purpose. Neither Gourko, Brusilov, nor Danilov mention this operation in their post-war writings. That should provide some indication of the level at which the operation was planned and executed. Knox mentions the attack in passing after the fact (volume 2 pages 517-18):
At Riga we learned something of the fighting that had taken place southwest of the town in the month of January. The operations were in three phases:
( a ) A Russian offensive, January 5th-10th.
( b ) A German counter-offensive, January 22nd-25th.
( c ) A further German counter-offensive January 30th-31st.
On the night of January 4th-5th, the 2nd and 1st Lett Brigades, eight battalions strong, broke through the enemy lines without artillery preparation, the bomb throwers moving in advance to cut the enemy’s wire. The 3rd Siberian Division on the right of the Letts failed in its surprise attack, and further right the 4th Special Division refused to leave its trenches. The Letts were not properly supported, but the fighting up to the10th resulted in the Germans being forced back a few kilometers.
On the 22nd the enemy, by a severe bombardment, drove the Russians back to a line slightly in advance of that occupied previous to the original Russian attack. On January 31st, after some days’ rest, he launched strong infantry attacks, which were repulsed with the bayonet. On the 31st he subjected the Russian line to a severe bombardment.
Radko, who had been everywhere in the thickest of the fighting, encouraging his men, waxed enthusiastic at dinner on February 10th over the “success” of his surprise tactics. He said that if he had had three or four corps in reserve he would have gone far. He issued a triumphant order, with elaborate instructions for the carrying out of further surprise attacks by night without artillery preparation, the enemy’s wire to be cut by hand.
Some members of Radko’s staff were less enthusiastic. On the active front from the Gulf to the village of Sarkanaiz the Russians had never less than ninety-two battalions, while the enemy had only twenty-two to twenty-five battalions on January 5th, and his strength never increased beyond sixty-four to seventy-one battalions. There is no doubt that the enemy was completely surprised, but the reason for undertaking the operation was not clear, for the Russians had insufficient troops of good quality on the spot to develop a real success. As it was, the attempt was only a raid, and it failed in the primary object of a raid--the improvement of the raiders’ morale--for it cost in Russian life and morale before the end of the month at least six times the damage it caused the enemy.
Operations of this nature are completely in line with the authority of an army commander. Gourko (page 272), speaking of plans for 1917 (as acting Chief of Staff at STAVKA), states “…we should prepare earlier for, and undertake, active operations on every front on a comparatively small sector of fifteen to twenty kilometers, not intending to penetrate the enemy’s position very deeply. The idea of such operations was to hold the Austro-German troops whose positions were on their east front.”
Radko’s operation fits this description. It failed as a pinning effort as shortly afterwards the Germans transferred two divisions from this area to the Western Front (Der Weltkrieg band 11 pages 404-405).
I feel this action highlights the current problems of the Russian Army and doesn’t indicate a resurgence of capability. Of the three Russian divisions involved, one succeeded, one failed, and one didn’t every try. The likely reason behind these results is personal leadership (though I can’t prove it at this time). The ability to create a professional force by means of discipline and training was, for now, lost and individual leadership/example was the only way to motive troops to follow orders. The highpoint for the army was the Brusilov Offensive; with the consistent criticism of that operation being the excessive Russian causalities after the initial period of success had ended.
RE: Plans for 1917. I have not found anything to indicate that Southwest Front was the planned Spring offensive; it was certainly one part of a larger plan. Danilov (page 528-529) states the plan under discussion at the December 1916 meeting (held at Mohilev) had the main effort with the North and West Fronts. The planned line of operations was Mouraviovo-Kovno (the book is in French, so I need to check to see where Mouraviovo is as the name isn’t familiar). The Southwest Front was never seen as decisive (for good geographical reasons) and never figured as the main effort during the war. The Southwest Front attacks were likely supporting attacks; the same role assign to it in 1916 before Verdun.