Strategy in the Soviet Union: Schizophrenia and Military Power

The Soviet Union presents a number of conundrums for an analysis of its strategic thought. As the Condoleezza Rice (yes that Rice, who was a brilliant Sovietologist before becoming the first black woman Secretary of State, not the media remembers that) essay points out, the Soviet Union is a completely unique case study among the Modern countries we have studied. The distinctive interactions of the political and military leadership of the Soviet Union show almost a schizophrenia about military power, military organization and nation-state politics during its brief but violent history. [1] 

From the very beginning of the Revolution, there was an almost love-hate relationship between the Communist Party and the Red Army in Russia. Lenin, Stalin and their successors instinctively knew that the Red Army was the only organization in Russia able to challenge the power of the Communist Party and therefore it represented a threat that must be monitored and controlled. However, as the case studies presented, the Soviet Union also needed a strong military capability, first to secure the gains of the Revolution, then to defeat the Nazi invasion, and finally to furnish the Soviet Union with some vestige of international power and respectability during the Cold War. The Communist Party was unsure of what type of military to have, since their ideology argued against a professional standing army in favor of a “people’s militia.” When this strategy proved unsuitable during the Russian Revolution, a gradual change to a professional army secured the Communists in power and provided security for the fledgling socialist paradise.

However, the Communist Party under Stalin continued to be unsure of what the role of military power was in the overall context of diplomacy and strategy and Stalin’s paranoia made rational strategy nearly impossible. This schizophrenia clearly contributed to the Great Purges of the 1930s that wiped out most of the Red Army officer corps and nearly lost the war when the Wehrmacht invaded in June 1941. Only the tremendous manpower reserves, bad strategic decisions by Hitler and the Russian winter prevented the Germans from capturing Moscow and Leningrad. Stalin’s ruthlessness and incompetence caused the Soviet Union tremendous difficulties and only after professional soldiers such and Zhukov, Konev and Rokossovskiy came to the fore did the Soviets begin to consistently win victories. This strained relationship continued into the Cold War, but to a lesser degree, with the bureaucratic in-fighting of the 1950s when nuclear weapons and ICBMs replaced much of the conventional ground forces of the Red Army.[2]

In addition to the strained relationship between the Communist Party and the Red Army, the Soviet Union was faced with the need to reconcile nation-state politics with exporting world socialist revolution. From the very beginning, Soviet leaders had to reconcile their desire to export the “revolution of the proletariat against their capitalist oppressors” {my saying} against the need for domestic security and international diplomacy. As both of the authors discussed, this was not always easily done, and the Soviet leadership often appeared to sacrifice their “revolutionary principles” to meet the exigencies of the day. The best example was the alliance with the ultimate capitalist/imperialist nations of Britain and the United States to defeat the Nazis in World War II. [3] 

After the war, European decolonization offered the Soviets an opportunity they couldn’t refuse to export their revolution and the Soviets embarked on almost an imperial spree of establishing Third World client states both to suit their ideology and to diminish the power and influence of the West in a rapidly growing part of the world. However, like all empires, this one came at a material price that the Soviets had an increasingly hard time maintaining as their own economy began to tank in the 1980s. The invasion of Afghanistan was the final straw that ended almost 20 years of Soviet expansion and greatly contributed to the fall of the Communist system.[4] 

However, one advantage that Communist ideology did give to the Russians was a more seamless and long-term view of politics, diplomacy, military power and economics as means to export the proletariat revolution. Stalin clearly did a better job at thinking about and acting upon a coherent post-World War II strategy and the Red Army ended up with considerably more territory than they would have if FDR had listened to Churchill and met the Russians east of Berlin and Prague.[5] 

But in the end, the Communist system could not support itself, and as the Soviets fell further behind the West economically and technically, the Soviet bloc fell apart because the military machine and economic needs could no longer be reconciled in the face of the Reagan buildup and the information revolution.

[1] Paul Kennedy, ed., Grand Strategies in War and Peace, ed. Paul Kennedy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), 145. 
[2] Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox and Alvin Bernstein, ed., The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States and War (New York: Cambridge University Press: 1994), 506-507, 511-512; Kennedy 156-157. 
[3] Kennedy, 152-153. 
[4] Kennedy, 159-162. 
[5] Kennedy, 153-154.