Why the Soviet Union Thinks it Could Fight and Win a Nuclear

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by Richard Pipes

Baird Professor of History, Harvard University Reprinted from Commentary, 1977

A Summary of the Argument by Bill Somers

American and Soviet nuclear doctrines are diametrically opposed. They are products of totally different historical experiences and political and socioeconomic systems. The apparent contradictions in Soviet nuclear doctrine and the dangers of U. S. unilateral adherence to a strategy of mutual deterrence are best understood when put in historical perspective.

The American view of war has been conditioned by the ideas characteristic of a Western commercial society. Underlying it is the notion that human conflict results from misunderstandings that can be resolved by negotiation. Marxism, on the other hand, holds conflict to be normal (and military forces as a political tool and a part of grand strategy. Americans generally regard war as an abnormal situation and want to end it rapidly through technological superiority and with the least possible loss of friendly (but not necessarily enemy) lives. Large peacetime forces are an unwelcome expense.

These contrary views of war were affected differently by the coming of nuclear weapons. In the U. S., atomic and thermonuclear bombs were considered "absolute" weapons, capable of destroying a society or even a civilization, and against which there was no defense. Thus, Clausewitz's dictum that war is an extension of politics was considered dead. Since nuclear war could serve no rational political purpose, the function of strategic forces should be to avert war. Because of the vast destructiveness of nuclear weapons, a "sufficiency" of weapons to retaliate was believed to be enough. Numerical superiority was thought to have little meaning. To ensure a stable balance, in which conflicts could be resolved by negotiation, the USSR should even have the ability to do unacceptable second-strike damage to the U. S. This concept of mutual deterrence, or mutual assured destruction, became U. S. policy and as nuclear delivery capabilities improved, remained the foundation of a somewhat more flexible policy.

These U. S. strategic theories were developed largely by civilian scientists and "accountants," with little contribution from military professionals. The theorists were guided significantly by fiscal imperatives -- the desire to reduce the defense budget while retaining a capacity to deter Soviet threats to U. S. interests. The theories were formulated without reference to their Soviet counterparts, and in the belief that we can "educate" the Soviets to adopt our views.

In the USSR, where strategy is considered a science and the special province of the military, nuclear weapons were not held to be "absolute," except perhaps briefly after Stalin's death. The idea of mutual deterrence was never accepted. Soviet theorists rejected the idea that technology determines strategy. They adapted nuclear weapons to their traditional Clausewitzian view of war as an extension of politics.

The Communist revolution eliminated that segment of Russian society that was most Westernized, and put the peasant class in power. History had taught the Russian peasant that cunning and coercion assured survival; cunning when weak; cunning and coercion when strong. "Not to use force when one had it indicated some inner weakness." That concept of the use of power and the fact that, since 1914, the USSR has lost up to 60,000,000 citizens through war, famine, and purges and survived has no doubt conditioned the development of Soviet nuclear strategy. Soviet nuclear doctrine, expounded in a wide range of Russian defense literature, has five related elements:

• Preemption (first strike).

• Quantitative superiority (a requisite for preemption and because the war may last for some time, even though the initial hours are decisive).

• Counterforce targeting.

• Combined-arms operations to supplement nuclear strikes.

• Defense, which has been almost totally neglected by the U. S. under its concept of mutual deterrence.

Soviet Doctrine is both a continuation and an extension of the Soviet belief that all military forces -- nuclear and conventional -- serve a political purpose as guarantor of internal control and an instrument for territorial expansion. Thus, large military forces are accepted in the Soviet Union as a rational capital investment, regardless of their impact on social programs.

Soviet writing on nuclear strategy has been largely ignored, or has been ridiculed in this country because if its jingoism and crudity, and the obscurity of Communist semantics. It is a strategy of "compellance," in contrast to the U. S. doctrine of deterrence.

But "... the relationship of Soviet doctrine and Soviet deployments (is) sufficiently close to suggest that ignoring or not taking seriously Soviet military doctrine may have very detrimental effects on U. S. security."

Finally, "... as long as the Soviets persist in adhering to the Clausewitzian maxim on the function of war, mutual deterrence does not really exist. And unilateral deterrence is feasible only if we understand the Soviet war-winning strategy and make it impossible for them to succeed."


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