The aircraft was designed by Nikolai Polikarpov in 1928. 1,000 aircraft were manufactured for Aeroflot under the designation P-5. The aircraft was also taken into the Soviet Air Force's use in 1931. They operated 5,000 aircraft under the designation R-5.
The R-5 became the standard reconnaissance and attack aircraft with the Soviet Air Force, being used in large numbers, with over 100 regiments equipped with the R-5. R-5s served with the Soviet Air Force and Mongolian People's Air Force during the 1939 Battle of Khalkhin Gol fought against the Japanese and, took active part in Soviet invasion of Poland (1939), and the 1939-40 Winter War against Finland, where they were known as the hermosaha ("nerve saw"). The Finns downed and captured several R-5s, but none were taken into operational service. They remained in service during the war against Germany in 1941-45, where they were mainly used as night bombers and liaison aircraft, serving until 1944.
R-5s were also used by the Spanish Republican Air Force in the Spanish Civil War, 31 being sold to Spain. These arrived in November 1936, and were quickly deployed on combat operations, but were found to be slow and were relegated to night bombing. Seven R-5s remained in good condition in March 1939. The aircraft was known as the "Rasante" in the Spanish Republican Air Force.