Counterfactual History: Soviet Aggrandizement in the 1980s

It’s difficult for Americans to appreciate the fact that the 1980s were probably the most dangerous years in the history of human civilization. There was no shortage of commentators exclaiming the miraculously “peaceful” dissolution of the USSR, but few dwelt on the fact that matters could have easily gone the other way had the Soviet Union  followed the historic pattern of empire and attempted to reverse decline through expansion. In his 1983 book The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union Edward Luttwak correctly diagnosed the terminal illnesses plaguing the communist superpower, and argued that it was highly likely that the Soviet Union would attempt to consolidate its position by invading the remote western provinces of China and setting up client governments in the newly conquered territories. Here’s how he made his case (to ease the writing of this post, I sometimes drift back and forth between the past and present tenses):

The Soviet Union represented a continuation of the historic Russian Empire. While the other continental empires of Europe broke apart under nationalist pressures in the early 2oth century, the Russian empire managed to survive with a new political philosophy that was distinctly transnational in character, subordinating nationalism to the worldwide class struggle and placing the Russian nation – at least theoretically – at the service of the other peoples within the empire. When the USSR was still young, in the 1920s and 30s, non-Russian Soviet citizens were undergoing a voluntary Russification as the elites from the more backward nations gravitated to Russian culture. This process came to a screeching halt and reversed into a pattern of disaffiliation after Stalin resurrected Russian nationalism during World War II. “Having triumphantly survived the advent of the National Idea by issuing the promissory note of a transnational future, the Soviet Union began to default on the payments in 1941.” (p. 7-8) Thus, the Soviet Union became an empire true to form: one nation ruling over many, increasingly reliant on repression to hold everything together.

Despite this, Soviet leaders were still very optimistic about the future of their state in the first decades after World War II. They were not able to put the nationalist genie back in the bottle, but they were still confident that they could inspire the loyalty of all Soviet citizens through economic development. And so, they ruthlessly sacrificed current wealth to invest the savings toward infrastructure and industry, the type of projects that central planners assume will deliver untold riches a couple decades down the road. Soviet citizens were forced to endure a low quality of life on the promise that everything would dramatically improve once these long-term investments started to bear fruit. But it was not to be:

…after forty-odd years of central planning the great intellectual discovery was made, if only gradually and perhaps never completely: that central planning could indeed serve well in wartime to produce arms and ammunition in response to fixed specifications and quantity targets, but that it could not channel the right amounts of the right resources into the very many, very varied and always changing paths of peacetime economic development.” (p. 24)

Economic liberalization was impossible; the entire Soviet system was built upon the massive hordes of middle-ranking bureaucrats and party functionaries that central planning relied upon. Were they to be marginalized by economic reform and their allegiance shaken, the Soviet Union might disintegrate completely [which is, incidentally, exactly what happened]. With a bleak pessimism about the long-term prospects of their regime overcoming the Soviet leadership, they turned to that timeless instrument of a despairing great power: imperial aggrandizement. They might be poor, but Soviet citizens could at least take pride in their country’s awesome military might and its great power on the international stage.

The offensive military capabilities of the old Russian empire were extremely limited. Russia’s vast geography, backwardness, and stiflingly hierarchical society combined to handicap its ability to project power, though its defensive potential was enormous, as the Napoleonic wars and the “Great Patriotic War” showed:

When the poverty of Russian management, tactical rigidity and the vast distances that had to be crossed to come to grips with an enemy are taken together, the great disparity between Russia’s strength in defeating invasion and her own weakness in offensive operations is sufficiently explained. (p. 17)

The Soviet armies that won World War II were large and well-equipped, but their operations were still characterized by an inflexible reliance on mass and firepower, unleashed only in meticulously planned offensives that followed a regular sequence (i.e. artillery preparation, followed by armored thrusts to a well-defined objective, followed by infantry to consolidate the gains); in other words, a doctrine that was the very opposite of the dynamic and independent maneuver of the German blitzkrieg. It was an appropriate doctrine for an army that could sustain massive losses in men and material, and which had mediocre leadership due to the purges, and it was more than adequate for victory – which is the only thing that really matters – but it was not very efficient.

What a difference a few decades can make. The Soviet buildup between 1950 and 1980 was the greatest armament in human history, in every dimension of military power, in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Everyone appreciated the size of the Soviet military, but not the extent to which it was such a geometric improvement over its World War II ancestor. Soviet weapon systems were slightly less advanced than their NATO counterparts, but the shortcomings were so minor and the numerical advantages so great that the proper operational doctrine could make any lingering Western advantages irrelevant. Prototype technologies confined to a handful of demonstration platforms are not much use when the enemy can field six main battle tanks for every one of yours.

Doctrinal advances were even more significant. By the early 1980s Soviet forces were trained to fight like their old German enemies, with mechanized formations able to execute deep, enveloping thrusts to isolate enemy concentrations and defeat them in detail. Nearly the entire Soviet army became mechanized, including the airborne units, giving it the ability to rapidly maneuver and exploit breakthroughs in the enemy line; any NATO forces that managed to hold a section of frontage would soon find themselves surrounded as Soviet armor poured around their flanks.

Regarding nuclear weapons, the American delusion of mutually assured destruction quickly gave the USSR an advantage in every dimension of strategic delivery, to the point that a “splendid first strike” was no longer inconceivable. In Luttwak’s words:

For all the intellectual plausibility of the American theory of deterrence, the Soviet Union showed that the universal rule of strategy still applied: one may not unilaterally quit the competition without penalty, and there is no such thing as cost-free competition. (p. 52)

Similarly, U.S. conventional forces were still decaying in the years following Vietnam, increasing the relative magnitude of the concurrent Soviet build-up. At the time, numerous American commentators dismissed concerns about eroding military power by invoking America’s economic superiority. But that would have been relevant only in a war of very long duration – which World War III certainly would not have been – and it assumed that the industries would survive long enough to be mobilized.

Luttwak cites two examples to demonstrate the increased competence of the Soviet military: First, the assistance mission led by Lieut.-Gen V.I. Petrov that was sent to prop up the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia in 1978. Soviet forces did not engage in direct combat (the locals and a contingent of Cubans handled that), but Petrov orchestrated a counter offensive on every front, clearing the Somalis out of the Ogaden, suppressing the Eritrean rebellion in the north, securing the rail link between the capital and the port of Assab, and strengthening the writ of the regime across the country, all simultaneously. Most commanders would have been more methodical and concentrated on one task at a time.

Next was the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan which was an undeniable success despite the insurgency that would later consume the country. Elite airborne units executed a coup de main in Kabul that decapitated the Afghan regime while the main body of Soviet forces was still far to the north. What was remarkable was that they were confident enough to launch the operation at all; had the Afghans managed to summon the armor garrisoned near Kabul and deployed it to the airport where the Soviet were inserting, the result would have been a massacre.

But not even  their awesome military power could rescue the Soviet leadership from its gloom. For one, the build-up exacerbated internal tensions within the empire because its expense fell disproportionately on the non-Russians who did not share in the psychological benefits of empire. Second, the armament was purchased through ruthless efficiencies in the economy – even greater than those endured in previous decades. Thus, Soviet military power was not so much a function of what the Soviet Union did as of what the United States chose not to do. When American defense budgets began increasing during the Reagan administration, the Soviets feared that their only claim to greatness was beginning to evaporate. The clock was ticking, and the conditions were ripe for imperial aggrandizement.

…once the internal condition of society is in a state of disequilibrium, once its leaders acquire the physical capacity for conquest, once military institutions are created which have no sufficient role in self-defense strictly defined, all manner of reasons and all sorts of rationalizations will emerge to make expansion seem attractive and to make its costs and risks seem worthwhile. (p. 74)

Self-defense is a ubiquitous rationale for imperial expansion, the need to secure a frontier being invoked to explain the conquest of the hostile lands opposite, the same pattern repeating again and again as the frontier rolls forward. In the Soviet case, the question was where would it occur, and what form would it take?

Expansionist empires are more dangerous than expansionist nation-states because there is no theoretical limit to the former’s aggression, only physical limits inherent to the instrument used to carry out expansion and the difficulty and expense of ruling – if not conquering – large and politically sophisticated populations. However, this difficulty can be alleviated through the use of client states: “…the Leninist client-state do for the empire of the Russians what their client-princes did for the Romans: they provide the security benefits of imperial expansion without the administrative and political burdens of direct rule.” (p.78)

Luttwak groups the possible targets according to what the Soviets wanted to accomplish. For the long-term security of the Empire, the continuing independence of Western Europe was the principle threat, for the freedom of the West kindled nationalist sentiments in the Eastern European client states, which in turn kindled nationalist sentiments within the non-Russian populations of the Soviet Union itself. But the independence of Western Europe was guaranteed by the United States:

…the great extra continental power that has intervened successfully ever since the Second World War to subtract Western Europe from the Soviet sphere of influence. In addition, the American intrusion has, as we have seen, an indirect effect yet more serious for the Kremlin, since it is the protected freedom of Western Europe that continuously undermines the stability of the client states of Eastern Europe; and this in turn threatens not only the external security of the Soviet empire but also its own internal security. American power in Europe must thus amount to a basic security threat to the Soviet Union, quite independently of any military threat as such. (p. 89)

However, the Soviets would not consider a direct nuclear attack on the U.S. unless they felt themselves in a dire emergency. Rather than destroy the guarantor of Western Europe’s independence, a more sensible policy was to gradually undermine the NATO alliance, driving a wedge between the U.S. and the European allies. This was the primary objective of Soviet grand strategy ever since the formation of NATO, but it could have been well-served by a short and sharp military operation on the extreme flanks of the Alliance, namely in northern Norway or northeast Turkey. These poorly defended regions could be seized in one night by a well-planned invasion, after which the USSR could declare a “unilateral armistice” and offer to open immediate negotiations, which of course would be inconclusive. If NATO agreed to such negotiations, confidence in the alliance would be shattered beyond repair. If it decided to take military action to retake the lost territories, political considerations about “demonstrating unity” would no doubt mean that the task force would be a multinational hodgepodge, thus guaranteeing failure and the collapse of the alliance.

However, even though a lighting operation on the fringes of NATO could  reap enormous political benefits for the Soviet Union, it also involved a great deal of risk. It was possible that the U.S. might decide to mount its own counteroffensive, unencumbered by NATO politics. It might even launch a retaliatory action against Soviet interests elsewhere in the world. Whatever the case, the risk of escalation was beyond the level acceptable for imperial aggrandizement. Anyway, by the early 1980s Soviet diplomacy was succeeding in pulling Western Europe away from the United States; there was no point to risking that progress in a blitzkrieg on the desolate frontiers of NATO. Thus, Soviet planners were likely to aim elsewhere.

Carving out small client states from Iran’s many disparate nationalities and unstable politics offered some possibilities for consolidating the Soviet hold on the Caucasus, but for the long-term security of the empire, the major threat – aside from the U.S. – was China: “…the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic are both Great Powers in a world that now counts only three, and they are adjacent, while the third is removed from both.” (p.92) In other words, the two communist powers were destined to be enemies.

At the level of grand strategy, any Soviet war scheme must start from two premises: that China is not destroyable, and that it cannot be occupied in its totality to be remade to order, a la Afghanistan or for that matter 1968 Czechoslovakia. This leaves only one feasible goal for a Soviet war: if an independent China of growing power can be neither tolerated nor destroyed, then it must be divided. (p. 102)

The Soviet Union’s most attractive option for imperial expansion that would consolidate the security of the empire was an invasion of remote Chinese provinces, such as Xinjiang and Qinghai, to break them away from Beijing and establish Soviet puppet governments within them. This type of venture would dramatically shift the military frontiers to the benefit of Moscow, rob China of its Asian Great Power status by denying it the borders of Tibet (which would become independent again after Soviet operations cut Chinese communication with it), destroy important military and scientific facilities, and increase the prestige of the Soviet Union while damaging that of the United States, Beijing’s tacit ally. It would reaffirm Soviet dominance over all the other client states, and would demonstrate to Western Europe that America could not protect its allies, encouraging them to drift ever closer to the Soviet orbit.

Soviet military capabilities were more than adequate to handle the campaign; after the border wars of the late 1960s, the USSR launched a massive construction project in the Far East to build the infrastructure necessary to support a major war. The PLA remained dependent on masses of conscript infantry, while the Soviets had mechanized everything. China’s nuclear arsenal was a risk, but it was too small and too inaccurate for anything aside from city-busting, giving the much larger and more versatile Soviet arsenal escalation dominance.

Luttwak closes out with an ominous warning:

If in the Kremlin the fatal conjunction between regime pessimism and military confidence is indeed affected, and it at the same time it is also believed that the nations of Western Europe and Japan will simply refuse to respond seriously to anything short of a direct attack, thus undermining both the capacity and the incentive of an American response, the Soviet Union will be set on the road to war – a war neither Western nor nuclear but quite possibly catastrophic all the same. The pieces are even now on the board; the game could begin at any time. (116)

***

So, why a 3000+ word post [I commend anyone who has read this entire thing] about an obscure, 26-year-old book full of failed predictions? Two points come to mind: First, the strategic forecasts of Luttwak remained valid until the fall of Soviet Union. There was nothing inevitable about Gorbachev and his efforts to reform the Soviet economy and cool tensions with the West, as the attempted coup against him later demonstrated. To illustrate the point further, ponder for a moment whether or not most Russians – and perhaps Gorbachev himself – regret the chain of events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I don’t doubt for a moment that they would have preferred imperial expansion through military aggression instead of the political apocalypse that Gorbachev led them to. Because of this, the book is interesting in its own right.

Second, the logic of Luttwak’s analysis is not exclusive to the Soviet Union. The conditions that made the USSR ripe for expansion – pessimism about the future of the regime combined with a confidence in military capabilities – can exist in any empire or great power. Where those operative circumstances are identified, strategic planners must conduct similar analyses to determine how and where the ailing power will lash out. And though it is not wise to base any sort of prediction on a single factor, it is nonetheless interesting to consider how the phenomenon Luttwak describes is manifesting itself today. For example, is America’s foreign adventuring over the last decade symptomatic of lost confidence in everything aside from its military capabilities? Does China’s relatively restrained behavior for the past couple decades indicate the opposite situation? And if China’s growth should stall and its communist leaders revert to nationalism to hold on to power, how and where will they expand?

***

And with that, I promise not to write anything about Luttwak again for a while.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “Counterfactual History: Soviet Aggrandizement in the 1980s

  1. Pingback: NerveAgent on Luttwak and Russian Aggrandizement « The Committee of Public Safety

  2. One thing to consider. During the 80’s, the USSR was going bankrupt. Their main asset, oil, had declined significantly in price, and they could not produce enough grain to feed their people. They had to pay for billions in grain while their oil revenue was decreasing. Gorbachev’s strategy was essentially to open up to the West so they could entice loans and keep the regime in place. Shortly before the breakup, a massive loan from hundreds of western banks fell apart, rendering them bankrupt. Although it didn’t work, Gorbachev’s strategy definitely wouldn’t have worked if they had invaded somebody.

    • True enough, but keep in mind Luttwak was writing in 1983, when Andropov was still in charge. The argument of the book was not that expansion would solve all of the Soviet Union’s problems; only that, as a declining empire, the Soviet Union was prone to such behavior and the West needed to be ready in case it happened. Also keep in mind that by invading China, the USSR could have dramatically altered the military balance opposing them. This would have allowed them to restructure their military establishment, freeing up money for things like food and economic development.

  3. I think there was a definite worry in the 80’s that, in the US, bell-bottom pants were going to come back in style and little else.

    We elected a movie star as President, for Christ sakes. A movie star with Alzheimer’s, no less.

    Of course militarily it may have been a different matter.

Comments are closed.