Another Look at the USSR’s “Defensive” Doctrine

March 1, 1988

There are great hopes in the West that fundamental changes are taking place in the Soviet Union. Only two years ago, Mikhail Gor­bachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, de­clared that “in the military sphere, we intend to act in such a way as to give nobody grounds for fears, even imagined ones, about their securi­ty.”

Many Soviet leaders in the past have expressed similar sentiments, which at the time were taken at their face value. Invariably, some Soviet action—Hungary in 1956, Berlin in 1961, Cuba in 1962, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979—shocked Western publics back to reality.

Now the “new political thinking” in Moscow is said to have brought about the following:

•Soviet military doctrine now has a purely “defensive” character.

•The Kremlin’s military forces are to be maintained at a level of “reasonable sufficiency.”

• Society, industry, and the Sovi­et armed forces are being “restruc­tured.”

Assertions of changes under way in the USSR currently appear in the Soviet press, are broadcast by Sovi­et shortwave to the West, and are topics of conversation when NATO political leaders and scholars are in­vited to Moscow to meet with se­lected members of the Soviet General Staff and research institutes.

Suggestions that Kremlin leaders are placing increased emphasis on raising the living standard of the So­viet people rather than on a con­tinued military buildup are having considerable impact on NATO de­fense planners. Some believe that deep cuts in both Soviet and NATO military forces can soon be accom­plished.

In May 1987, a resolution of the Warsaw Pact Political Consultative Committee proposed that “author­itative” spokesmen from the War­saw Pact and NATO get together to discuss their respective military doctrines. This sparked further op­timism as to what might be achieved with respect to arms control and force reductions.

But if changes concerning Soviet military posture are really in the making, then significant modifica­tions to Soviet military doctrine should ensue as well. Before de­fense planners act on the assump­tion that a new era has begun with regard to the Kremlin’s military pol­icies, they should reexamine basic Soviet military concepts and the current Soviet force structure.

Soviet Military Doctrine

By Soviet definition, military doctrine is the military policy of the Communist Party. It has two sides, political and military-technical. The political side is dominant and is for­mulated by the Party. The military-technical side is based on the find­ings of military science. Although the armed forces have primary re­sponsibility for the military-tech­nical side, final decisions are made by the Party leadership, not by the military.

Military doctrine is concerned with the essence, aims, and char­acter of a potential future war, the preparation of the country and its armed forces for it, and the methods by which it will be fought. Provi­sions of doctrine have the force of law. Doctrine is not the same as mili­tary strategy, which executes the dictates of doctrine and is subordi­nate to it.

While Soviet leaders now assert that their military doctrine has a “purely defensive” character, a re­view of Soviet publications suggests otherwise.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, statements found in Soviet military textbooks propounded the “offen­sive” nature of their military doc­trine. For example, the Soviet Of­ficer’s Handbook stated in 1971 that “Soviet military doctrine is offen­sive in character.” Another book is­sued by the Soviet Academy of Sci­ences stated that “our military doctrine carries an offensive [nastu­patel’nyy] character.” There was no pretense that Soviet military doc­trine was otherwise.

This was to change not after Gor­bachev rose to power but in 1981, following the 26th Party Congress. A second edition of the work pub­lished by the Academy of Sciences appeared. The earlier statement was altered to read: “Our military doctrine, as already pointed out, carries a defensive [oboronitel’nyy] character, with the aim of guarding the gains of socialism.” Emphasis on the “defensive” character of So­viet doctrine has continued since.

Resolving Contradictions

For a time, it appeared that there was a contradiction between strat­egy and doctrine. A 1986 textbook explained that military strategy stresses strategic offensive opera­tions. But how could this be if doc­trine is defensive

A 1987 book written for Soviet officers resolved this seeming con­tradiction. Military doctrine has two sides, the political and the mili­tary-technical—and only the politi­cal side is “defensive.” This accords with declarations Kremlin leaders have made for decades. The 1939 Soviet attack on Finland, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan—none had been offensive with respect to doctrine. Even the placement of nu­clear-armed missiles in Cuba in 1962 was termed “defensive.”

The Kremlin’s military doctrine is rationalized in the ‘just war” tenet of Marxism-Leninism. Capitalist nations wage “unjust” and “aggres­sive” wars, unless they are allies of a Communist nation. World War II was an unjust war by all participants until Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union. Then it became the Great Patriotic War. In this period, the war was “just” for all nations fighting Hitler’s forces. “Just” wars, the only type of wars in which the “peaceloving” Soviet Union would engage, by definition must be “defensive” wars.

Once a nation becomes involved in war, the military-technical side of doctrine requires that offensive ac­tions be taken. Lenin’s words are still quoted in Soviet texts and should be heeded by NATO plan­ners:

“If we, in the face of such forces that are constantly actively hostile to us, would have to give a pledge, as has been proposed to us, that we would never resort to certain ac­tions that in military-strategic rela­tions might turn out to be offensive, then we would be not only fools but criminals. . .. When fighting, one must not ‘wear down’ the enemy, but destroy him.”

At the same time that Soviet mili­tary doctrine became “defensive,” the leadership also became modest about Soviet development of new weapon systems. Marshal Ogarkov had this to say:

“We know, for example, that the United States built the world’s first atomic bomb in 1945 and proceeded to use it to threaten the Soviet Union, which did not develop a sim­ilar weapon until four years later. What is more, the United States was the first to test an even more power­ful hydrogen bomb in 1952, while the USSR followed suit in 1953. The Americans also were first to build nuclear-powered submarines armed with ballistic missiles in 1960, while the USSR followed suit in 1967.

This list of strategic weapons could go on and on.”

Such statements bring to mind George Orwell’s 1984. What is pre­sented as “truth” one day is re­moved from books the next, and a new “truth” is substituted. Prior to the 26th Party Congress, the Kremlin leadership had been very proud of its military research and development capability. A 1980 re­port contained the following:

“By 1947, the production of nu­clear weapons did not represent a secret for us. In 1949, a nuclear bomb was created and tested in the Soviet Union, and, in 1953—earlier than in the United States of Amer­ica—Soviet scientists created a thermonuclear bomb.”

After the Party Congress in 1981, Washington was accused of devel­oping new weapons that contributed to the arms race. There were no more statements in the Soviet press about specific weapon systems initi­ated by Soviet scientists.

Some in the West have suggested that the Soviets build up militarily in reaction to real or imagined Western actions. But the foregoing suggests that the action-reaction thesis sim­ply doesn’t explain the continued Soviet military buildup. As former US Secretary of Defense Harold Brown has said: “When we build, the Soviets build. When we stop building, the Soviets build.”

“Reasonable Sufficiency”

NATO nations are now placing great hopes on Soviet statements about maintaining armed forces at the level of “reasonable sufficien­cy.” This expression is thought to have originated at the Party Con­gress in February 1986 when Gener­al Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev stated, “Our country stands for re­moving weapons of mass destruc­tion from use, for limiting the mili­tary potential to reasonable suffi­ciency [razumnoy dostatochnosti].”

Calls for “reasonable sufficien­cy” were gradually given increased notice in the Soviet press. In Febru­ary 1987, Marshal Sokolov, then Minister of Defense, called atten­tion to this statement by Gor­bachev: “The Soviet Union is ready to renounce its status as a nuclear power and reduce all other arms to the minimum of reasonable suffi­ciency.”

This concept of “reasonable suf­ficiency,” emerging at a time when there are hopes in the West for a meaningful arms-control agreement with Moscow, is being carefully studied. But it is still not clear what Soviet spokesmen actually mean by “reasonable sufficiency.”

All Soviet authors make clear that Soviet nuclear forces must be able to deliver a retaliatory strike on an opponent. In August 1987, Lev Se­meyko, a retired colonel formerly on the faculty of the Frunze Military Academy, wrote that “the concept of reasonable sufficiency is oriented to the future” and implies “long-term action.” It is not expected to be fully implemented until “nuclear weapons and other types of mass-destruction weapons” are elimi­nated.

Thus, while it may appear that the Kremlin has found a new concept, the words have a familiar ring. The United States has long sought to have an “assured second strike,” meaning a strategic nuclear force that could survive a Soviet first strike and deliver a retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union. Moscow has maintained that they must pos­sess sufficient nuclear forces “to give an aggressor a crushing re­buff.”

It appears that General Secretary Gorbachev’s “reasonable sufficien­cy” is much the same as had been stated twenty years previously. In March 1966, General Secretary Leonid I. Brezhnev told the 23d Par­ty Congress that “the armaments of Soviet troops are maintained at the level of contemporary require­ments, and their striking power and firepower are fully sufficient to crush any aggressor.” In his speech at Tula in January 1977, Brezhnev stated that the allegation that the Soviet Union is “going further than is sufficient for defense . . . is ab­surd and totally unfounded.”

During his brief tenure as the Par­ty’s General Secretary, Yuriy V. Andropov made a similar state­ment: “The defense capabilities of the Soviet Union and the countries of the socialist community are sup­ported at the necessary level.” There does not appear to be any real difference in the meaning of “fully sufficient” as stated by Brezhnev and “reasonable sufficiency” as used by Gorbachev.

The Revolution in Military Affairs

The Soviet concept of doctrine goes back to the early 1920s. After Joseph Stalin consolidated his hold over the Soviet military in the 1930s, however, all discussion of military doctrine ceased. Stalin alone was the military “genius,” the source of all wisdom. This situation continued until his death in 1953.

While Stalin was alive, nuclear weapons were scarcely mentioned in Soviet writings, despite the fact that a massive nuclear program was under way. Within months after his death, the restricted journal of the Soviet General Staff, Military Thought, began a series of articles on the impact of nuclear weapons on military science.

By 1959, the Kremlin had con­cluded that the nuclear-missile weapon would be the decisive factor in future war. Therefore, it deter­mined that the Soviet armed forces must achieve superiority over its probable opponents in such weapon systems. This was a doctrinal deci­sion leading to the formation of the Strategic Rocket Forces in 1959.

The new military doctrine de­manded a new strategy. This was formulated in the late 1950s and ap­proved by the Party. Marshal V. D. Sokolovskiy, a former chief of the General Staff, headed a group of au­thors who presented the new strat­egy in an unclassified form to both the armed forces and the population as a whole in the book Military Strategy, first published in the sum­mer of 1962, shortly before the Cuban missile confrontation.

Soviet strategists at that time an­ticipated that any future war with NATO forces would begin with a massive nuclear exchange. After all nuclear weapons were exhausted, the war would continue with what­ever weapons were available until the final victory of communism was achieved. The slogan, “revolution in military affairs,” was used to im­press on the military, as well as the population as a whole, that the methods and consequences of war had changed.

By the latter half of the 1960s, the buildup of the strategic nuclear forces was well under way. Nuclear weapons were available in greater quantities and in different sizes.

Soviet military doctrine was then modified to include the possibility of a nonnuclear phase; that is, a war might begin with only the use of conventional weapons. It was antic­ipated that the conflict would esca­late after several days, or perhaps weeks, to general nuclear war.

Even with this modification to doctrine, nuclear forces continued to have first priority in the Soviet military structure as “the main means of containment of the ag­gressive aspirations of imperi­alism.”

The revolution in military affairs has not ended. Marshal Ogarkov in 1985 noted that it “is continuing in our day in connection with the fur­ther development and qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons, rapid development of electronics, and in connection with the signifi­cant qualitative improvement of conventional means and methods of armed conflict” (emphasis added).

That same year, General Colonel M. A. Gareyev wrote that the initial period of war may be decisive. “The virtually unlimited range of the nu­clear weapon delivery systems, making it possible in a short period of time to defeat any grouping of enemy armed forces, has altered the notions of the nature of war.” This is remarkably similar to statements made in the 1960s.

No Immediate Changes

Soviet leaders seek to link the de­fensive character of their military doctrine and the concept of reason­able sufficiency with a warning about the consequences of nuclear war. For example, at the 27th Party Congress in 1986, General Secre­tary Gorbachev stated that it is es­sential “to prevent nuclear war in order that civilization can survive.”

His predecessors have made sim­ilar statements. In the 1950s and 1960s, both G. M. Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev warned that en­tire continents would be devastated if a nuclear war were to occur.

But the utility of nuclear weapons was recognized. When Nikita Khru­shchev in 1956 announced a major change in one of the basic tenets of communism—that war between capitalism and communism is no longer necessarily inevitable—he added that this was because the forces of communism now have “formidable means” that permit them “to give a smashing rebuff to the aggressors and frustrate their adventurist plans.” The “formida­ble means” were the small stockpile of nuclear weapons then possessed by the Soviet Union.

Primary emphasis from the late 1950s to the present has been given to the deployment of ballistic nu­clear weapons, primarily strategic. This was in accordance with the pri­ority set forth by doctrine. In 1972, the trip to Moscow by the President of the United States was an ac­knowledgment that the Soviet Union was a military superpower—a status gained primarily through its ground-based ICBMs. Without its military power, the USSR would be classified as an underdeveloped na­tion.

In 1981, Marshal Ogarkov wrote that nuclear weapons were so nu­merous that their military effective­ness had been negated. Were they to be introduced in a war, their de­structive power would bring about an end to civilization. It was be­lieved by many in the West that Ogarkov’s writings signaled that the Soviets no longer thought that there could be any possible gain from nu­clear war and were placing in­creased emphasis on conventional weaponry.

Yet the buildup of Soviet nuclear weapons went on. Conventional weapons are also constantly being improved and deployed. Mobile in­tercontinental ballistic missile sys­tems are being deployed. Massive, deep, underground shelters have been prepared to house the leader­ship in event of war. Large signs in major cities provide civil defense in­formation.

The deputy head of the Main Po­litical Administration of the Soviet Army and Navy pointed out that “the concept of new thinking does not go against Leninist teaching on the defense of the socialist home­land.” These same “Leninist teach­ings” were used to justify the Soviet nuclear buildup in the 1960s and 1970s.

When the “reasonable sufficien­cy” standard and the “defensive military doctrine” are examined in context, it does not appear that the use of these expressions indicates any immediate change in the pos­ture of the Soviet forces, either nu­clear or conventional or any com­bination of the two.

For Show

Since the 1960s, Soviet writers have also warned that no weapon, including the nuclear weapon, should be “absolutized.” Marxist-Leninist dialectics emphasize the constant “struggle” between offen­sive weapons and defensive weap­ons.

The ABM system that surrounds Moscow continues to be upgraded. During the December 1987 summit in Washington, Gorbachev ac­knowledged that Soviet scientists have been working on a more ad­vanced strategic defense system. The Soviet Union is now dominant in manned space systems. New gen­erations of Soviet weapons, super­seding nuclear weapons, are cur­rently receiving the Kremlin’s at­tention.

Perhaps even now, Kremlin lead­ers have decided which of the new potential weapon systems will be decisive in a future war and are modifying their doctrine according­ly.

Since Gorbachev became the Par­ty leader, the Soviet military press in some areas has become more re­strictive than ever before. Foreign subscribers can no longer receive two major military journals, Herald of Air Defense and Foreign Military Observer. Fewer books on military matters are being published than previously. Travel restrictions for foreigners have not changed signifi­cantly since the late 1950s.

In 1973, the famed Soviet scien­tist, Andrei Sakharov, urged the West to speak out against “closed countries where everything that happens goes unseen by foreign eyes. . . No one should dream of having such a neighbor, especially if that neighbor is armed to the teeth.” Fifty or so carefully sanitized areas for NATO arms-control verification teams do not change the cogency of Sakharov’s warning.

Prudent NATO planners should note that there is nothing really new in Moscow’s assertions about the “defensive character” of military doctrine or about force levels of “reasonable sufficiency.” Thus far, the so-called new Kremlin policy of “glasnost” (openness) appears to be one primarily of “pokazuka” (for show). Signs of possible change in the Soviet Union do exist. While hoping that such change is in the best interest of all nations, we must not forget the lessons of Soviet his­tory.

Dr. William F Scott retired from the Air Force in 1972 as a colonel. He served two tours in the US Embassy in Moscow, first as Senior Air Attaché (1962-64) and later (1970-72) as Air and Defense Attaché. Since then, he and his wife, Harriet Fast Scott, have made several return trips to the Soviet Union, the last being in 1987. Their next book, Soviet Military Doctrine, will appear later this year. Dr. Scott is presently a consultant to a number of research institutions and is a fre­quent lecturer at war colleges and universities. He is a regular contributor to the March issue of this magazine.