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12 September 2008


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Hopefully she won't use "the football" to rain destruction down upon "the haters."

David Habakkuk

To see the scale of the danger, it is necessary to look back at the evolution of the role of the 'Red SIOP' first in Soviet then in Russian strategic planning. When the first edition of the study 'Military Strategy' published under the name of Marshall Sokolovsky was published in 1962, it made no bones about the centrality of preparation for all-out nuclear war in Soviet strategic planning. A central planning assumption was that war with the West would inevitably be nuclear -- and the optimal strategy was judged to be strategic nuclear pre-emption, which entailed a strong emphasis on the need to gain the advantages of surprise.

As they began to digest the implications of the replacement by NATO of 'massive retaliation' by 'flexible response', which had happened the year before 'Military Strategy' was published, Soviet strategists began to contemplate the possibility that it might be possible to avoid escalation to all out nuclear conflict. The change was already beginning to be apparent in the 1963 edition of Sokolovsky, and was very much more apparent in the 1968 edition. (On this, see Appendix A, 'Identifying the December 1966 Decision', in Michael MccGwire's 1987 study Brookings study Military Objectives in Soviet Foreign Policy.)

Some time before Richard Pipes published his famous 1977 Commentary article entitled 'Why the Soviet Union Believes It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War' the Soviets had come to think not only that it might be possible to keep a war conventional -- but that it was impossible to 'win' a nuclear war in any remotely meaningful sense.

Responding to Pipes in his 1978 paper 'Mutual Deterrence and Strategic Arms Limitation in Soviet Policy', Raymond Garthoff identified a shift from 1969 onwards from pre-emption to launch on warning in Soviet textual writings. Subsequently, he established that a secret directive had been issued in the name of the Central Committee, some time in 1973-4, instructing that military plans should be made on the basis that the Soviet Union would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. (On this and other evidence about the Soviet shift to 'no first use', see Chapter 3 of Garthoff's 1990 study 'Deterrence and the Revolution in Soviet Military Thinking', entitled 'Prevention of Nuclear War in Soviet Policy.')

By the time this study was written, an enterprising graduate student called Kent D. Lee had, with Garthoff's encouragement, obtained the declassification of the entire back file of the confidential General Staff journal Military Thought, as well as other previously classified materials. What emerged was -- to quote Garthoff's 1990 study -- there was 'no strategic doctrine for waging intercontinental nuclear war in the available military strategic literature, open or closed.'

In grasping what happened after 1985, one needs to go back to the origins of Soviet strategic thinking in the immediate post-revolutionary period -- a subject on which invaluable contributions have been made by two scholars associated with the U.S. Army, Jacob Kipp and Bruce Menning (both currently I think working at Fort Leavenworth.) For relatively brief and eminently readable discussions by these two, see their contributions to the 2005 volume Historical Perspectives of the Operational Art, published by the Army's Center of Military History, and available at http://www.history.army.mil/books/OpArt/index.htm.

After 1917, the general staff of the old Imperial Russian Army split. Most joined the Whites, but a minority, which included some very able figures, threw in their lot with the Bolsheviks and taught them to fight -- enabling, for example, the political commissar Mikhail Frunze to become the general who defeated Wrangel. The result was a curious mixture which survived right through to the end of the Soviet period, in which very highly rigorous technical military analysis, heavily indebted to the Prussian General Staff tradition, was combined with a highly simplistic ideological framework.

Back in 1989, when making programmes on the so-called Gorbachev 'new thinking' for BBC Radio, a colleague and I interviewed the military specialist most closely associated with the 'new thinkers', General-Mayor Valentin Larionov, then about to retire from his professorship at the General Staff Academy. One of the first things he told us was that, to understand the 'new thinking', one had to go back to the realisation by Soviet strategists in the Seventies that it was not possible to win a nuclear war. He also talked a great deal about a theorist of the Twenties called Aleksandr Svechin, who he told us had been 'repressed' under Stalin.

Unfortunately, I was then unfamiliar with Jacob Kipp's work. Subsequently however I came across the translation of Svechin's 1927 study Strategy, published in 1992 with introduction material by Kipp and Larionov. The editor was the same Kent D. Lee who had secured the declassification of the Military Thought archive. From Lee I learnt that Larionov 'comes to us already distinguished as perhaps the most outstanding Soviet military intellectual of the post-war period' -- in particular one of the 'fundamental forces' behind the Sokolovsky 'Military Thought' study. So the 'peacenik' general we had interviewed that day in Moscow had earlier been one of the foremost Soviet nuclear strategists.

From Kipp's introduction, I learned about the fundamental argument between Svechin and Tukhachevski. The former stressed two fundamental (if not infrequently ignored) strands in Clausewitz -- the strength of the defence and the importance of the subordination of military strategy to political strategy. His strategy was the military corollary of the New Economic Policy, with its emphasis on the maintenance of the alliance between the workers and the peasantry. By contrast, Tukhachevski was one of those who saw motorisation and mechanisation both as defining the threat to the Soviet Union and as recreating the possibility of the kind of rapid and decisive victories achieved by Napoleon or the elder Moltke.

The conclusion Tukhachevsky drew, as Kipp brings out, was that there was a need for the '''complete militarization'' of the national economy to provide the new instruments of mechanized warfare.' This proposal was turned down by Stalin in 1927. In 1930, however he changed tack -- and the result was forced industrialisation, collectivisation, and the terror, to which not only Svechin but Tukhachevsky fell victim.

What I also only only dim saw then were the multifarious implications of the total collapse of the credibility of the simplistic ideological framework in which Soviet thinking had developed -- a collapse which was actually visible at the time. Among other things, the coherence of Svechin's strategic concept had depended upon the premise that the Soviet Union had no reason to fear attack from developed industrial states. It was when following the onset of the depression in 1929 that Stalin abandoned Bukharin's theses on the stabilisation of capitalism that Tukhachevsky's conceptions triumphed decisively.

In the late Eighties and early Nineties, Russians were grappling with the fundamental question of how far the security problems of the Soviet Union were self-inflicted. Involved was both the question of how enmity to it was product of communism -- and also a range of specific questions about Stalin's external policies: in particular, how far they were responsible for the triumph of Hitler, the unleashing of the Second World War, and the Cold War.

Some people I think were in two minds. I vividly remember Larionov, repudiating arguments put forward by Brzezinski in his 1986 study Game Plan, remarking drily -- 'Brzezinski -- our friend -- a Pole.' But I also learned, from an interview done for the 1999 PBS programme 'Race for the Superbomb', that in 1945 -- only eighteen, although he had been wounded at the Battle of Kursk -- Larionov had been present at the famous meeting between Russian and American troops on the Elbe. And he clearly blamed the disappointment of the high hopes of that time on Stalin.

(See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/bomb/filmmore/reference/interview/larionov03.html.)

This was I think a very common response among disillusioned communists at the time. How far the disillusion is now on the other foot comes out in a recent article on the implications of the Georgian War by one of the erstwhile civilian 'new thinkers', Sergei Karaganov. He writes:

'At one time, during the Communist times of the weakening and decay of the USSR, members of the dissident intelligentsia and simply intellectuals were asking the strictly speculative question: what if the country throws off the stranglehold of Communist ideology and the socialist economy and becomes capitalist and free? Most believed that a free and capitalist world would welcome us with open arms. A minority of these unrestrained romantics said that a strong capitalist and economically more effective and free Russia would cause no less opposition than the Soviet Union.

'It appears that the latter came out the “winners” in the argument.

'The basis of the cold war was more geopolitics than ideology.'

(See http://topics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/03/the-traps-of-a-cold-war/.)

Like General Mahmut Akhmetovich Gareev, the evolution of whose views I discussed in a comment on earlier thread, Karaganov has come -- with great reluctance -- to accept that Russia must rely on Western-style notions of 'nuclear deterrence'. He writes:

'We have a stronger but still relatively weak army. It must be made stronger and made elite, so that it always works as it did in Ossetia. It is perfectly obvious that in the event another ''cold war'' begins -- it will be necessary to raise the flexibility and political feasibility of nuclear forces. I am saying this with bitterness. I so much wanted to move the nuclear club onto the sidelines of history for good.'

It is worth noting here that Larionov and other Soviet strategic thinkers had -- like the leading Western expert on nuclear command and control, Bruce Blair, and also MccGwire and Garthoff, come to be deeply concerned about the risks of accidental nuclear war. (See Chapter Four of Garthoff's 1990 study, entitled 'Gorbachev's New Thinking.') Rightly in my view, these people were deeply dubious about the long-term stability of MAD relationships in situations of acute political and military tension.

That the upcoming confrontation may be more, not less, dangerous than the Cold War is the argument of a recent research note by Vlad Sobell of the London-based Daiwa Institute of Research, entitled 'Washington blunders into an unwinnable campaign against Russia.' It also provides a thought-provoking -- if not necessarily accurate -- assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides.

(See http://www.russiablog.org/DAIWA-Georgia%20Russia080908.pdf.)

When I see Sarah Palin announcing that it may be necessary to fight a Russia which is now actively planning for nuclear first-use, in order to enable Georgia to incorporate against their will populations which are only part of the country because of arbitrary decisions by Joseph Stalin, words simply fail me. Perhaps somewhere down in hell, that old Georgian mafioso is splitting his sides laughing.

Old Bogus

I think most citizens think the risk of nukular exchange is over since the Cold War ended.

[sarcasm on] Who would dare challenge the world's ONLY superpower with nuclear arms? Only degenerate terrorists and rogue nations. No one else has anything to fear since we NEVER attack other nations for no reason. [sarcasm off]

Clifford Kiracofe

David Habakkuk,

1. Thank you for the helpful analysis on our neighbor Russia. The Sobell piece you point out is realistic.

Aside from the international context, Russia, and SIOPS, there is also the matter of another neighbor...Mexico

The new US confrontation with Russia takes place within the emerging multipolar context Washington cannot seem to grasp not to mention plan and prepare for.

It is possible the US will be the odd man out as Russia-China-Japan and, logically, the EU begin to go their own way owing to the disintegration of the US into an increasingly dysfunctional, yet threatening, former superpower.

2. For several years some in the US academic community have been discussing the theme of "soft balancing" (diplomatic, economic) by powers who tighten their relations and reject the US bid for global hegemony in a "unipolar" world. Such balancing could take the form of "hard" (military) balancing down the road. Some academics also raises issues about increasing military conflict during a period of "transition" in the international system.

3. Is the United States much weaker -- economically, socially, etc. -- than is generally admitted despite some talk about "imperial overstretch"?

Here is an interesting piece on organized crime in Mexico. Central American gangs already pose a substantial criminal threat today in the US.

Does anyone think that the situation in our neighbor Mexico does NOT directly affect internal security in the US?

"Gruesome gangland-style murders and targeted assassinations of law-enforcement officers have claimed headlines in what Mexicans now refer to as war."

"The chilling reality of Mexico is the mounting evidence that organized crime has become the de facto power in parts of the country, and local authorities can no longer protect citizens and impart justice."

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