Power Projection, Soviet Style

Dec. 1, 1980
It was not too long ago that one rarely heard about the “projection” of Soviet military power. Now we seem to be talking of it often. Our President was seized of the problem sufficiently to assert that the invasion of Afghanistan had made a “dramatic change” in his “opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are.”

In the future, historians may well point out that the Soviet Union at the threshold of the 1980s found itself in a position at last to prosecute a foreign policy that had always harbored expansionist goals. Western critics are already telling us that American intercontinental nuclear superiority was frittered away in a feckless attempt to convince Soviet leaders that they should adopt Western notions of arms control and deterrence. Even our allies no longer accept without reservation US political and economic leadership of the industrialized world. The post-Vietnam, post-Watergate malaise that infected US foreign and domestic policymaking in the ‘70s lingers on. Even if this is exaggerated, from the Soviet point of view the environment for projecting power and influence has changed.

But history may choose not to be kind to either one of us. Soviet aggressiveness and apparent recent successes, when compared to current US helplessness and impotency, may be distorting our view. The fact is that the USSR’s record at projecting its power beyond the Eurasian periphery is a mixed one. Soviet staying power has not been great. Given the rate at which former colonial powers have been withdrawing during the last quarter of a century, it is amazing that the Soviet Union has not done much better.

So what caused the sense of fundamental change that has seemed at times recently to be so palpable? It is worth the effort to look at the nature of the change that seems to be in the air, the factors underlying and affecting Soviet attitudes toward using military power abroad, and the implications of this for US policymakers.

The Nature of the Change

First, what has not changed? Certainly the priorities in the minds of Soviet leaders have not changed. The maintenance of power at home for an entrenched, bureaucratized elite and the security of the Soviet homeland remain first concerns, even obsessions. The pretentions of an internationalist ideology and the lure of opportunities of the Third World do not move the current Soviet regime to accept grave risks. They prefer to cultivate options to be exercised in the safest possible environment. This does not mean that ultimate Soviet objectives are not served; it simply means that they are not served by every Soviet action everywhere. Soviet leaderships have never been particularly daring. But they have had a tremendous capability for shoving unattainable goals into the future and for opportunistically grasping whatever can be safely snatched in the percent. This is not new, but understanding this would help Western observers to comprehend broader Soviet foreign and military policies as well as Soviet policies and activities associated with the projection of military power.

Three very important things have changed. First, the Soviet-US military relationship has changed. Most important in this relationship is the dramatic shift in the balance of strategic nuclear military power. This shift is vital because it involves the threat of Soviet territory, and changes all Soviet military calculations involving the security of the homeland. Second, there has been an important change in global perceptions of US resolve. Soviet leaders could hardly fail to notice that the US has been unwilling or unable to counter projections of Soviet power and that allies of the US have been less than inspiring in their support. Third, mainly because of the changes just noted, the Soviet evaluation of the dangers attendant to a generally more aggressive policy in the world has changed, and is probably stillis changing. It is correct to note that the Soviets tend to be careful, pragmatic people who meticulously calculate potential risk against potential opportunity. But this means that it is just as important to examine possible opposition to Soviet aggressiveness at all levels of conflict and peacetime relations as it is to look at the Soviets themselves.

The Military Dimensions

By far the most significant “projection” of Soviet military power lay in the increasingly widespread perception of the USSR as at least the equal of the US as an intercontinental nuclear superpower. Further, this is not merely a perception. The fact is that the Soviets have relentlessly built an awesome arsenal during an era of arms control. Perversely, the West might have exaggerated the impact of the Soviet strategic buildup by expecting too much of strategic arms control. There was an erroneous notion abroad in the West that the Soviet behavior at all levels of conflicts and peacetime relations would be modified to be more acceptable if they were only recognized as a truly equal superpower. An increased sense of security in the strategic nuclear relationship has only made Soviet leaders more confident and assertive in a continued competition for world power and influence.

In the broad “correlation of forces” in the world that Soviet spokesmen constantly talk about, the strategic nuclear development that has made the USSR a superpower is clearly the most important achievement of the past two decades. In fact, it is only in military power that the USSR has “arrived.” The economic, political, and social aspects of the correlation of forces may come along in due course, but success in these realms is still off in the future and must arrive in the wake of Soviet military power.

For our purpose here, we must recognize that intercontinental nuclear power has a positive as well as a negative effect on the projection of more limited Soviet military power. We in the west quickly understood the negative, or deterrent, effect: Advocates of Soviet expansionism could invoke Soviet superpower status, but had to consider that a threat directly to the Soviet homeland was involved. For a while, they had to consider a greater threat to the Soviet Union than to the United States. The Soviets, however, also understood the positive effect of nuclear deterrence. After all, Soviet territory has always been under some kind of potential threat. The fact that US territory was for the first time placed at immediate risk in a crisis militated in favor of the projection of Soviet military power.

To some extent, Soviet strategic power neutralizes US power. Certainly the current strategic balance must give US decision-makers pause in any potential confrontation where US and Soviet interests merge. A threat to bring down nuclear devastation in any unequal relationship is one thing and may be credible. A threat to commit mutual suicide where vital national interests are not clearly at stake is quite another thing and may not be believable at all.

Next, we should look at the natural capacities for the projection of Soviet military power that geopolitics and history have engendered. These capabilities are “spin-offs” of Soviet continental power and are inherent in the massive forces maintained in the USSR and at here periphery. After all, Soviet history teaches that “projection begins at home.” Ask the East Europeans, the Baltic peoples, the Finns, the Mongolians, and, of course, the Afghanis.

The Soviet view of war is a continental view. The war that Soviet forces, Soviet propaganda, and Soviet doctrine address is a big war. Forces are justified and built for dominating the Eurasia landmass, but the doctrine for doing this can hardly be called defensive. The Soviet intention is to carry the conflict away from Soviet borders. Disposition of military force in mass at the periphery is required, and is worth the enormous price to the Soviet economy. So manpower and equipment for “projecting” beyond Soviet borders are taken for granted in the Soviet order of things. In other words, Soviet policymakers and planners may not build forces to use in Budapest, Prague, or Kabul (or Belgrade or Ankara), but military forces are in place if they so choose to use them.

Similarly, Soviet naval and air forces are available for roles beyond the Eurasian periphery. They are justifiable in terms of strategic offensive and defensive roles and for continental conflict, but their utility at the lower end of the potential conflict spectrum become increasingly clear as the full implications of the changing nuclear balance were understood and the Soviet view of the US as a competitor changed.

For example, the Soviets have not built naval forces to intervene against significant opposition. That is not their game. But they were quick to understand the implications of the nuclear age for denial, interposition, showing the flag, and “gunboat diplomacy.” The seas are the backyard of the US, just as Eurasia is the natural turf of the resident superpower on the continent. If the US could use the threat of escalation to make a credible peacetime presence and a military policy on the Continent, it should be no surprise that the Soviet Union discovered that the naval flag of an intercontinental nuclear superpower might similarly yield high returns on limited investment. Just as the US does not really have to pretend to be the dominant land power in Eurasia, the Soviet Union does not have to be, and probably cannot be, a traditional seapower.

Soviet naval construction is impressive enough, and we understand it fairly well. The important unanswered questions about Soviet naval policy for the remainder of this century do not have as much to do with naval hardware as with the increasing license for the expression of naval power that the Soviets seem to be finding. This license is directly related to the unwillingness of the US to behave like a great naval power. There are surely limits to how much the Soviet Navy can and will do (just as we seem to be finding limits of our military policy in Europe), but those limits are far from clear. Whatever the limits might be, the nature of the opposition is a critical element in determining them. To the extent that the Soviets act like a traditional seapower, and especially to the extent that they choose to project naval power in the manner of classical great naval powers, they do so because they are not firmly opposed by their primary competitor who is, after all, a natural superpower. On the Continent the choice of who dominates the conventional military balance is theirs, and the exercise of the superiority is subject to the restrictions of the nuclear age. On the high seas the choice is ours, and we are subject to similar restrictions. But if the US chooses not to exercise its advantage in the naval arena, we can expect the Soviet Union to be ever more aggressive at projecting her naval power.

The Political Dimensions

There is an important internal political dimension to the maintenance of a global Soviet military image. Part of that image is the ability to wield conventional Soviet military power. The “threat” is important in Soviet internal politics, and so is the ability to meet the threat. Though it is sometimes hard to believe, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan can be depicted as threats in Soviet politics. In any case, Soviet citizens are not left with doubts about their government’s resolve and capacity to use the Soviet elephant gun on the mice that might dare to nibble at the Motherland’s periphery. NATO and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as a result, then look more manageable.

The exercise of Soviet power helps to compensate for domestic political and economic inadequacies, and it helps to promote the legitimacy of the Soviet system. Anyone who knows Soviet history knows that a regime that failed to maintain massive military forces would fail to tap a vast reservoir of support from the populace. Military power is the medium in which love of the homeland, patriotism, national paranoias, and the Soviet form of rule are mixed.

Soviet support for Wars of National Liberation helps promote in the Soviet polity the image of a country, and a leadership, at the head of a righteous “going concern.” Maybe we have little, and are progressing slowly, but we are on the side of history and of change, or so the Soviet citizen is encouraged to think. Failures in the Third World can be played down, but there is a genuine need for a success now and then. A few ships, or even aircraft, in distant areas have meaning in Soviet domestic politics as well as on the international scene. Ships that can be said to discourage a greater navy from acting decisively, or which can be present, even unopposed, at some minor time of Third World troubles, can yield significant internal political benefits for a regime that needs all the legitimacy it can muster.

The politics of managing Third World clients also has important military facets. Economic and cultural “projections” of Soviet influence have fleeting utility. The Soviet model is simply not as attractive to risen Third World leaders as Marxist-Leninist pronouncements and Soviet weapons are to rising ones. Third World leaders are, however, interested in the military instruments needed to stay in power. Military aid and advice are, therefore, a vital part of Soviet/Third World relations, and are relevant to potential projections of Soviet military power. Clients become tied to Soviet weaponry, spare parts, and even doctrine and tactics. In crises the critical needs of dependent regimes and the compatibility of Soviet equipment combine to make Soviet participation more logical and more likely.

The presence of Soviet power abroad has international political impact, but the exercise of Soviet power on the international scene is not an end in itself: there must be meaning internally in the USSR. In the final analysis, all the perceived risk and the benefits promised in any potential opportunities must relate back to those first concerned of an aging leadership striving to maintain power in a nation where the security of the homeland is a national obsession.

The Doctrine Dimensions

In the USSR, doctrine is where the military and political dimensions converge. The above discussion of political and military facets of Soviet policy suggests that there is a distinction in the Soviet mind between distant projections of military power and the more or less “natural” extension of Soviet military capabilities at the periphery. Soviet military power in the nuclear age is relevant in any significant crisis on the globe, but it is far more relevant in some than in others. Soviet doctrine indicates that the leadership has a keep appreciation of the difference between the aura of Soviet power on the ground in Eurasia and the longer-range “spin-off” of nuclear superpower status. Perhaps the Soviets were quicker to appreciate this difference than were US policymakers because in the postwar era the US began as a universally relevant and potent global power and gravitated backward to something less, while the USSR began as a dominant continental power and grew to be much more than that.

In any case, Soviet leaders seem to understand both the limits and the opportunities for the use of military power far from Soviet borders. They cultivate and entertain military options at long distances, but they judge such options more in terms of opportunities than in terms of necessities in the service of Soviet national interests. Such necessities exist only in Eurasia and in the intercontinental nuclear equation.

Though ultimate Soviet goals to dominate world affairs never surrendered, though internationalist ideology and a global superpower image are useful in Soviet politics, and though we will undoubtedly be faced with future uses of Soviet military might in the Third World, there is no formal Soviet military doctrine for the projection of power. There is, however, a clear understanding that Soviet military power has, as Soviet spokesmen say, an “external function” in support of Soviet foreign policy.

Soviet military doctrine, reflecting the realities of Soviet politics and history, is concerned with the big war—it is oriented around major conflict and the security of the homeland. The stakes worth actually fighting for, and worth taking significant risk of escalation involving Soviet territory, are in Eurasia. In distant places the Soviets do not think in terms of military doctrine or strategy. Instead, they deal in an ad hoc matter with a changing, sometimes confusing, environment where they must meticulously balance risk and opportunity. They seek to make such calculations as much as possible in the political realm, and to divorce them from genuine Soviet security concerns.

At their periphery, the Soviets contemplate potential uses of military force as matters closely associated with their continental view of war, and with the foibles and phobias endemic to their history and their form of rule. They think in terms of balancing the risk of action with the risk of inaction. Supreme political and military matters, thus doctrine at the highest level, and involved. Some danger of the “big war” is mixed with the ever-present expansionism that perceptive observers have always sensed in Russia. When Westerners look at Eurasian projections of Soviet military power, they often fall into the trap of justifying them as defensive moves. We should not fail to remember the expansionist impulses that lay behind Soviet calculations: It would help to remember that Catherine the Great was advised in the eighteenth century that “that which ceases to grow begins to rot.”

Conclusions and Implications

The reader at this point may feel that I have de-emphasized distant projections and paid excessive attention to continental projections of Soviet military power. Perhaps I have, but the intention is not to emphasize different priorities in the two kinds of projections of military power, but rather to point out that they have quite different natures. In Eurasia and its maritime approaches, the use of Soviet military power is inextricably intertwined with the totality of Soviet power. At distances from the USSR, the use of military power is much more nearly disconnected from the totality of Soviet power. They prefer it that way but, while it makes Soviet adventures safer, it also makes distant uses of Soviet power more vulnerable and thus necessarily more responsive to resolute opposition.

Nuclear-age geomilitary considerations have altered the distinctions between traditional continental and traditional seapowers, but they have not completely eliminated the differences. It is clear that intercontinental military power overlaps and alters the traditional categories, but it is not yet clear how much or even how this is true, because the intercontinental military balance has not settled out. A major problem is that we have not yet seen the full implications of the change that is currently in the air. The context for the projection of Soviet military power, up close or far away, is changing. The intercontinental nuclear balance continues to shift, and this carries with it a changed relevance of nuclear deterrence to lower-level political and military activity.

The Soviet risk/opportunity calculus in the Third World may be changing. While we have not yet seen formal doctrine or military construction in response to this change, we have seen ad hoc responses and long-term deployments of military hardware. Increasing numbers of out-of-area ship-days for the Soviet Navy, ferrying Cubans, and advising Ethiopians are harbingers of something, if not of Soviet troops on the ground in Africa or Latin America. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is probably different in genre from long distance projects of Soviet military power, but it has important implications in Eurasia and the Middle East. It is patently clear that the threat of triggering US/NATO power is no longer sufficiently credible to discourage continental extensions of Soviet power, if indeed it ever was.

Global perceptions of Western resolve, and perhaps even of Western politico-military economic capacity, are changing. In the Third World, this is potentially of signal importance to the Soviet attitude toward using military instruments of diplomacy. A risk vs. opportunity calculus is meaningless if risk is zero. While it may be generally accurate to assert that the “big-war” syndrome in the USSR can be a constraint in far-flung places, it is only a constraint if the prospect of war is real. Either the threat of escalation to intolerable levels of conflict or the threat of credible opposition in an arena of potential limited conflict must be present. There must be some kind of potential opposition or the most limited application of force by even the most cautious Soviet leadership will inevitably carry the day.

This brings us back home, because it is the nature of the opposition to Soviet expansionism that will be most critical for the real of this millennium. This is particularly true of uses of Soviet naval power. A viable opponent who acts like a great seapower would drastically limit Soviet options on the high seas and in the Third World.

Seven F. Kime is the Associate Dean of Faculty at the National War College, where he is also Director of Elective Studies. He is a US Navy Commander who began his career in submarines, then completed Masters and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard. He has served as an attaché in the Soviet Union and in the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds adjunct professorships at Georgetown and American Universities. The opinions and conclusions presented here are solely those of the author and no not necessarily represent the views of the National War College or the Department of Defense.