Commentary Magazine

Soviet Global Strategy

In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Carter at one point addressed himself to the Soviet leadership:

The Soviet Union must answer some basic questions: Will it help promote a stable international environment in which its own legitimate, peaceful concerns can be pursued? Or will it continue to expand its military power far beyond its legitimate security needs, using that power for colonial conquests?

That the President could seriously raise such questions, with the record of over six decades of Soviet history at his disposal, suggests that while he may have learned by now that the Soviet leaders prevaricate he has yet to find out who they are and what they want.

A few evenings spent with a standard manual of Marxism-Leninism and a good history of the Communist party of the Soviet Union would help the President answer his questions and save him (and the rest of us) from some more costly mistakes. What he would quickly learn—for he is said to be an apt pupil—is that: (1) in the Soviet case, “legitimate” concerns are not synonymous with “peaceful” concerns or “defense”; (2) the Soviet leadership is unable, for sound ideological, political, and economic reasons, to “promote a stable international environment”; (3) its “legitimate security needs” do require “colonial conquests.”

These facts are what they are, not because the Soviet leaders will them so but because they themselves are the victims of a system which they lack the power to alter—except at the risk of bringing the whole structure down. The sooner those in charge of our foreign policy abandon their unbearable moralizing and come to grips with the imperatives of the regime which fate has chosen to be our adversary, the better for all concerned.

Here, then, are some rudimentary answers to the questions posed by the President.



To begin with the ideological factors behind Soviet foreign policy: Marxism-Leninism is by its very nature a militant doctrine, the child of the age of Social Darwinism, which views history as the record of uninterrupted class warfare and which advocates the continuation of class war as a means of abolishing, once and for all, classes and the exploitation of man by man. The kind of “stability” of which the President speaks and which he implies to be the desirable objective of all foreign policy can be attained, according to this doctrine, only after capitalism has been liquidated. The liquidation of capitalism, however, calls for a long period of instability, including international wars, which, according to Lenin, are an inevitable concomitant of capitalism.

Secondly, Marxism-Leninism is an international doctrine. As it perceives them, the phases in the evolution of mankind are global in scope and cannot be contained (except transitionally) within the limits of the nation-state or served by its “legitimate security needs.” The fundamental international, or, rather, supranational, character of the doctrine is symbolized by Communism’s permanent slogan since 1847, “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” In 1917, the Bolsheviks (and this held true of the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks as well) were not fighting for a change of regime in Russia, but for a world-wide revolution. It deserves note that one of the earliest declarations of the Petrograd Soviet (then still firmly in the control of “moderate” socialists), issued in March 1917, was addressed to the “Peoples of the Entire World” and called on them to rid themselves of their “ruling classes.” This attitude was never repudiated by Lenin; nor has it ever been repudiated by his successors.

Now it is possible to minimize such ideological considerations with the argument that history is replete with instances of movements which, having laid claim to universality, nevertheless adjusted themselves to more modest roles: several religions, including Islam, provide good examples. But apart from the fact that accommodations of this nature have always occurred as the result of a universalist movement running into resistance that it could not overcome, Communism is not only a faith, it is also the program of a powerful secular government. It is precisely this fusion of a universalist historical doctrine with the most mundane aspirations of a great imperialist power that lends Communist Russia’s global ambitions such force. For behind the lofty ideals of a classless society loom also the very vulgar interests of a ruling elite which finds in them a rationale for power and privilege.

The most painful reality that the Soviet leadership confronts every day of its existence is that it has no generally acknowledged mandate to rule. It lacks the legitimacy of ancient tradition; nor can it derive its authority from the personal charisma of a great living leader. This committee of colorless, self-perpetuating civil servants pretends to rest on a popular mandate and to this end every now and then stages mock elections, but the ritual of choosing without having a choice surely deceives only simpletons. Such mandate as the Bolshevik regime can reasonably lay claim to derives entirely from history, namely, from the assertion that it represents the vanguard of the majestic force of progress whose mission it is to accomplish the final social revolution in human history. Once this particular claim is given up—as it would be were the Soviet government to acknowledge the international status quo as permanent and accommodate itself within its present sphere of influence—the question of legitimacy would at once crop up. For indeed, who has given the Communist party of the Soviet Union the right to monopolize the country’s political authority as well as its human and material resources?—none other than the goddess of history who has challenged it to the noblest mission ever assigned to man. The regime, therefore, must press onward and outward, it must win, or at least appear to win, incessant victories against “capitalism” so as to maintain the illusion of a relentless forward movement, commensurate with its mission. The alternative is to risk having its political credentials subjected to scrutiny and possible disqualification.

In addition to its universalist ideology and the ordinary political self-interest of the ruling elite, Soviet expansionism also has solid roots in Russian history. Because of the inherent poverty of Russia, due to adverse climate, soil, and other related factors, the country has never been able to support a population at a level of density common in more temperate zones. Throughout their history, Russians have colonized areas adjacent to their homeland in the northern taiga, sometimes peacefully, sometimes by conquest. Of all European countries, Russia has not only the oldest and most persistent tradition of imperial expansion, but also the record of greatest tenacity in holding on to conquered areas.

Thus, ideology, political survival, and economic exigencies reinforce one another, impelling Russia toward conquest. Each new territory acquired becomes part of the national “patrimony” and is, sooner or later, incorporated into the homeland. Each demands a “buffer” to protect it from real or imaginary enemies, until it, too, becomes part of the homeland, and, in turn, requires its own buffer.



The theory of détente, promoted by the Soviet regime since the mid-1950′s, would seem to contradict the thesis that expansionism and international class war are indispensable to Russian Communism. As presented to the West (the matter is handled quite differently within the country), the theory, calling for peaceful coexistence between diverse social systems, seems to accept the prospect of a nonviolent evolution and a common, “convergent” end-product. In reality, détente is merely a tactical adaptation of a general strategy, which does not run contrary to the principles enunciated above. To explain why this is the case, one must say a few words about the essential characteristic of Communist politics as formulated by Lenin and elaborated upon by his epigones.

Lenin’s historic achievement is to have militarized politics. It has been aptly said that Lenin stood Clausewitz on his head by making politics the pursuit of war by other means: war is the aim, politics a means, rather than the other way around. This being the case, the application of political strategy and tactics is determined by an essentially military assessment of what is known as the “correlation of forces.” The latter, in Communist theory, embraces not only those factors which in Western terminology are included in the concept of “balance of power” but also economic capabilities, social stability, and public opinion, i.e., elements that, although not military in the strict sense of the word, nevertheless have considerable bearing on a nation’s ability to wage war.

From this point of view, the decision whether to press one’s offensive against the “class enemy,” internal as well as external, or to hold back, must be based on a cool appraisal of the contending forces. In a speech delivered in May 1918, in which he reiterated that “final victory is possible only on a world scale,” Lenin admonished his followers not to rush headlong into battle under all circumstances:

We possess great revolutionary experience, which has taught us that it is essential to employ the tactics of merciless attack when objective conditions permit. . . . But we have to resort to temporizing tactics, to a slow gathering of forces when objective circumstances do not favor a call for a general merciless repulse.1

In the eyes of the Soviet leadership, the phenomena which in the West are labeled “cold war” and “détente” and perceived as antithetical are merely tactical nuances of one and the same strategy, alternately applied, depending on “objective circumstances.” In the case of the détente policy launched in the mid-1950′s, the decisive objective circumstance was the enemy’s complete nuclear superiority which placed him in a position to destroy much of the Soviet Union at will. This particular circumstance did not in the least obviate the necessity of waging international class war, but it did call for the adaptation of one’s battle plans: confrontation had to be avoided and indirect methods of combat given preference—at any rate, until such time as America’s nuclear threat could be safely neutralized.

The end objective of Soviet global policy is, of course, a world from which private property in the means of production has been banished and the constituent states are, with minor variations, copies of the Soviet state. It is only in a world so fashioned that the elite ruling Soviet Russia would feel secure and comfortable.

This objective does not, as is sometimes thought, require that the USSR physically occupy the entire world, a task which is beyond even the capabilities of its large military and security forces. The term “hegemony” conveys very accurately the kind of international arrangement with which the Soviet leadership would be satisfied. The concept is of Greek origin and was originally coined to describe the dominance enjoyed by one or another city state, and especially the Macedonian kingdom, over Hellas. Possession of “hegemony” did not then and does not now entail physical conquest: rather, it signifies the ability of the hegemonial power to assert its interests within the area over which it claims hegemony by the threat of coercion, or, if that fails to produce the desired effect, by its actual application. Britain enjoyed hegemony over a good part of the globe in the 19th century; the United States had it between the end of World War II and its withdrawal from Vietnam. Germany launched two world wars in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain European hegemony. Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated concisely the ultimate aspiration of Soviet policy in a speech to the 24th Congress of the CPSU in 1971 when he boasted, somewhat prematurely: “Today, there is no question of any significance which can be decided without the Soviet Union or in opposition to it.2 Implied in this statement is the rejection of the notion that Soviet interests are anything less than global in scope and can be confined within the boundaries of a national state or even a bloc of states. It goes without saying that the assertion of a similar claim by the United States would be rejected out of hand by the Soviet Union (as well as by American liberals) as a manifestation of the crassest imperialism. This is but one of many examples of the Soviet Union laying down the rules of international politics in a manner that entirely favors its own side.

If politics is warfare, then it requires strategic guidance. The strategy that one employs in the pursuit of global objectives cannot involve exclusively military weapons, but must embrace the entire spectrum of instrumentalities. Strategy of this type has been labeled “Grand” or “Total,” and it suits a totalitarian country much better than it does a democratic one. The Soviet Union has indeed been organized by Lenin from the beginning for the waging of total war and it is to this end that the Soviet government has taken into its hands a monopoly of national powers and resources. There exists in the Soviet Union a mechanism of vertical and horizontal integration that not only enables but also compels the management of that giant political conglomerate to attempt a coordinated national and international policy. The proprietors of the Soviet Union have to seek to integrate politics, economics, and propaganda (ideology) to an extent inconceivable in the West where each of these realms is controlled by different groups and tends to pull in separate directions.



Let us cursorily survey the ingredients of Soviet Grand Strategy. Space precludes any discussion of the many aspects and nuances of Soviet political strategy. Its guiding principle, however, can be succinctly defined: it is to rely not so much on the forces at one’s own disposal (i.e., foreign Communist parties and their “fronts”) as on allies one is able provisionally and temporarily to detach from the enemy’s camp on individual issues (e.g., nationalism, “peace,” “racism,” “anti-Zionism,” etc.). This technique, originated by Russian opposition groups in the Czarist underground, has proved very successful when applied to international relations. Its essence can best be conveyed in the words of Lenin himself. In 1920 the Communist leader was faced with unrest over his cautious foreign policy from hotheads in the Third International. These people wanted a direct assault on the entire capitalist West. To them Lenin said bluntly:

The entire history of Bolshevism, both before and after the October Revolution, is full of instances of changes of tack, conciliatory tactics, and compromises with other parties, including bourgeois parties!

To carry on a war for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie, a war which is a hundred times more difficult, protracted, and complex than the most stubborn of ordinary wars between states and to renounce in advance any change of tack, or any utilization of conflict of interest (even if temporary) among one’s enemies, or any conciliation or compromise with possible allies (even if they are temporary, unstable, vacillating, or conditional allies), is that not ridiculous in the extreme? . . .

After the first socialist revolution of the proletariat, and the overthrow of the bourgeoisie in some country, the proletariat of that country remains for a long time weaker than the [international] bourgeoisie. . . . The more powerful enemy can be vanquished only by exerting the utmost effort, and by the most thorough, careful, attentive, skillful, and obligatory use of any, even the smallest, rift between the enemies, any conflict of interests among the bourgeoisie of the various countries and among the various groups or types of bourgeoisie within the various countries, and also by taking advantage of any, even the smallest, opportunity of winning a mass ally, even though this ally is temporary, vacillating, unreliable, and conditional.3

The success of this policy has been in large measure due to the fact that the “international bourgeoisie” not only refuses to acknowledge the manipulative intentions behind Soviet conciliatory policies but feels confident of its own ability to fish in the political waters of the Soviet Union by pitting nonexisting “doves” against equally spurious “hawks.”

The Soviet economic arsenal is not rich enough to serve as a major weapon of Soviet global strategy. In its expansion, the USSR consequently relies much less on investments and trade as a means of spreading influence than was the case with the other great powers in the classical age of modern imperialism. Soviet economic leverage is exercised mainly through military and economic assistance carefully doled out to countries judged to be of strategic importance. Aid of this kind creates all kinds of dependencies, including the willingness of the recipient to host Communist administrative personnel. It is very instructive to analyze statistics of Soviet economic assistance to Third World countries because the figures give a good insight into the relative importance that Moscow attaches to them. On a per-capita basis, among the greatest beneficiaries of Soviet aid since 1954 have been South Yemen and Afghanistan. More recently, the USSR and its clients have poured vast sums of money into Turkey, a member of NATO, and Morocco. Significant increases in Soviet assistance are usually reliable indicators of Soviet strategic interests in a given area: judging by recent aid patterns, the Mediterranean enjoys very high priority in its mind.

In its relations with the advanced industrial powers, the Soviet Union is at a great disadvantage in attempting to exploit economic leverage, but even so it has had some success in making Western Europe and Japan dependent on its good will.

One form of leverage is the debts incurred in the West by the Soviet bloc during the period of détente. These are estimated today at $60 billion, one-quarter of it owed by the USSR, the remainder by the countries of Eastern Europe. The external indebtedness of the Soviet Union cannot be considered excessive, given that country’s natural resources and gold reserves, but the same cannot be said of the “Peoples’ Democracies” such as Poland, whose foreign obligations exceed those of its patron state. Western bankers have gladly lent vast sums to Eastern Europe on the assumption that any defaults would be made good by the Soviet Union. In so doing they have chosen to ignore official Soviet statements which repudiate any such obligation. Moscow’s position on this issue, recently reiterated at an East-West conference held in Vienna, holds that “every country must repay its own debts.”4 Loans of this magnitude induce among Western bankers solicitude for the economic well-being and benevolence of their Eastern European debtors, and makes them beholden to détente, regardless of its political costs.

The other economic weapon is energy, of whose strategic importance the Soviet leadership had become aware long before it even dawned on Western politicians. In addition to placing itself in a position to impede the flow of Middle Eastern oil (of which more later), the USSR has sought to make Europe and Japan dependent on direct Soviet energy supplies, especially natural gas. To this end, it has established the practice of repaying in gas the costs of transmission pipes supplied by foreign concerns. West Germany is said to rely already for one-quarter of its natural gas on Soviet resources; and if negotiations now in progress for further cooperation in this field are successful, its dependence will increase further. What this development portends became apparent during the October 1973 war when the Soviet Union abruptly suspended gas deliveries to Veba, Germany’s largest energy company, apparently in order to pressure that country not to support Washington’s pro-Israel policies.

A list of all the other instrumentalities which the Soviet Union employs in its global strategy would be long and diverse. Among them would have to be included such seemingly unpolitical matters as family relations. The broadening of contacts between relatives separated by the border between East and West Germany which followed the Helsinki accords, provides the Communists with useful political leverage, the fear of their disruption being often cited by Bonn circles as a strong reason for preserving détente.



Of all the instrumentalities at the Soviet Union’s disposal, it is the military that occupies pride of place. Soviet imperialism (this also held true of Czarist imperialism) is a military phenomenon par excellence, and in proportion as Soviet combat power grows, both absolutely and in relation to the West’s, it tends to push into the background the political manipulation on which the regime has had heavily to rely earlier. Increasingly, Soviet spokesmen call attention to the shift in the military balance in Russia’s favor as a decisive fact of the contemporary world, and boast of the ability it gives their country to frustrate America’s attempts to respond to Soviet initiatives.

It is sometimes difficult for people who are told of the low living standards of the Soviet Union’s population and of the inefficiency of its economy to believe that such a country can present a serious military threat to the West. They ignore the fact that wealth and technical inventiveness, in which the West has an indisputable lead, do not make for military might unless they are harnessed in the service of defense. They further ignore that, conversely, a relatively poor country, as long as it has more than a minimal industrial-technical base, can offer more than a military match for its neighbors once it decides to allocate the necessary resources for war. Japan is an industrial and technological power of the very first rank. Yet because it has chosen to rely for its defense on the United States and forgo a military establishment commensurate with its economic power, its armed forces are one-half in size and a fraction in effectiveness of those of Israel, a country with one-thirtieth of Japan’s population and one-fortieth of its GNP. As concerns the Soviet Union’s low living standards, it should be obvious that when a country with its huge industrial plant cannot satisfy its population’s needs for consumer goods, the reason must be sought not in incapacity but rather in the deliberate diversion of industrial resources to other than consumer needs. In other words, the fact that its population suffers a low living standard attests not to Russia’s inability to threaten us militarily but rather to the opposite.

Russia has always tended to devote a disproportionate share of its resources to the upkeep of the armed forces: in the reign of Peter the Great, for example, more than nine-tenths of the state budget was allocated for that purpose. A large military establishment helped conquer new territories for Russia’s growing population as well as to maintain order within the empire. High Czarist functionaries were well aware how much of the international influence that imperial Russia enjoyed was due to its ability to threaten small and great powers along its immensely long frontiers.

The principal weakness of pre-1917 Russian armies was a low level of supporting industry and transport, and of all those other non-military factors that World War I revealed to be of decisive importance in modern warfare. The lesson was learned by the Bolshevik leaders who studied with admiration Germany’s extraordinary performance in that war; as soon as they seized power they put into effect the home-front mobilization measures initiated by Germany but made even more effective in Russia by the abolition of private property and the introduction of the universal obligation to render state service. Stalin’s Five Year Plans, for all the noise about constructing socialism, were as thoroughly military in their intent as were Hitler’s Four Year Plans.

The conglomerate nature of the Soviet regime makes it eminently suitable for purposes of military mobilization. If the Soviet government so decides, it can lavish on the defense sector of the economy manpower and resources in the quantities and qualities required, and let the consumer sector fend for itself. The mightier the industrial base, the more rapid under these conditions can be the expansion of the armed forces, inasmuch as the allocations to the civilian sector can be kept relatively constant while the bulk of the growing surplus is turned over to the military. And, of course, there are no recalcitrant legislatures or inquisitive media to raise questions about the need for such heavy defense outlays.

Thus it happens that neither détente nor the arms-limitation agreements accompanying it, SALT I included, have produced a dent in the upward curve of Soviet defense appropriations. A recent study by William T. Lee, a specialist with long CIA experience, estimates that the share absorbed by the defense sector of the Soviet Gross National Product has grown from some 12-13 per cent in 1970 to perhaps as much as 18 per cent in 1980; and since the Soviet GNP during this decade has also kept on growing, the absolute amounts given to defense have risen yet more impressively.5 Incidentally, in the same period (1970-79), U.S. defense expenditures as a share of the GNP have declined from 7.5 per cent to 4.6 per cent, and in constant 1972 dollars, from $85.1 to $65.0 billion.



Although the Soviet military seem determined to catch up to and surpass the United States in all the service branches, they assign the central role to strategic-nuclear weapons. These the Soviet military theorists regard as the decisive weapons of modern warfare. All the available evidence furnished by theoretical writings and observable deployments indicates that the Soviet General Staff does not share the prevalent U.S. view that nuclear weapons have no place in a rational strategy except as a deterrent. There exists a high degree of probability that in the event of general war the Soviet Union intends to use a part of its strategic arsenal in a devastating preemptive strike which would make an American retaliatory strike suicidal and possibly inhibit it altogether. The stress on large throw-weight combined with high accuracies of its ICBM’s is a good indication that the Soviet Union intends to develop a first-strike capability.

The refusal of the American scientific community, which has been largely responsible for the formulation of U.S. nuclear strategy, to take seriously Soviet nuclear doctrine can charitably be described as an act of grave intellectual and political irresponsibility. Owing to it, in the coming decade the United States will find all three legs of its “triad” under growing threat which will not only make it difficult to respond to aggressive Soviet moves, but will also free the Soviet Union from those restraints which had inspired it to adopt the policy of détente in the first place. Once the nuclear balance will have become highly tilted, American crash programs will likely be discouraged by the same exponents of unilateral restraint who have helped bring the imbalance about, on the grounds that at this point any sudden moves would be “destabilizing” and could provoke the Soviet Union into a preemptive strike.

The strong Soviet commitment to the process of so-called “arms limitation” does not invalidate the contention that it operates on a first-strike doctrine. As has become evident since 1972, SALT I has had no significant influence on the development of Russia’s strategic offensive forces. The same may be said of SALT II which, if ratified, would exert only a minimal effect on future Soviet deployments, while inhibiting and in some cases precluding important U.S. responses (such as long-range cruise missiles and protective shelters for the Minutemen missiles). Adopting for negotiating purposes the American “Mutual Assured Destruction” doctrine, the Soviet Union has been able to push through, at a relatively small price to its own deployments, severe restrictions on those of the United States.

Nuclear missiles, however, have not only a military utility: they are equally and perhaps even more useful as a means of political and psychological suasion. Russia’s growing nuclear arsenal inculcates in influential Western circles a sense of all-pervasive fear which induces a spirit of accommodation. Once the view gains hold that there is no defense against nuclear weapons, it becomes not unreasonable to advocate avoidance of disagreement with another nuclear power as the highest goal of foreign policy. The following sentiments expressed by Congressman Jonathan Bingham of New York are quite typical of this body of opinion:

Above all, we must remember that the Soviet Union remains the world’s only other superpower—the only country in the world capable of destroying us. Maintaining good relations with the Soviet Union must be our paramount objective.6

I wonder whether Congressman Bingham has thought through the implications of his words. For he is, in effect, urging that we subordinate all our national interests as well as our ideals of freedom and human rights, and whatever else many of us regard as “paramount,” to another criterion, namely, survival; and that in line with this criterion, we should seek accommodation with that country which can deny it to us. (Only we: there is nothing in this passage to suggest that the Soviet Union has a similar obligation toward us, the only country in the world capable of destroying it.) When this kind of thinking becomes prevalent, a nation loses the freedom to act in self-defense: psychologically, the white flag of surrender is up and sending unmistakable signals to the adversary. It takes little imagination to picture what effect this kind of thinking must have on the Soviet leaders: it virtually incites them to keep on increasing their nuclear preponderance, given that the greater their theoretical capability to destroy the United States, the louder the voices in the United States demanding that accommodation with the Soviet Union be made the “paramount” objective of national policy.



Soviet global strategy is implemented by means of pressures exerted at various points of the globe in a bewildering succession of shifts that makes it difficult to discern patterns and causes some observers to interpret it as a mere exploitation of random opportunities. But this is not the case. Just as Soviet defense strategy calls for the disposition of forces around the Queen of the chessboard, namely, nuclear-tipped missiles, so its territorial strategy aims at the enemy’s King, the United States. The latter is the only country with the wealth and power to frustrate Soviet intentions: the fall or even isolation of that “citadel of international imperialism” would allow the rest of the world to be picked up at will. A world in which the United States carries no weight comes automatically under Soviet hegemony. The reduction of the United States, therefore, is as essential to the Soviet Union as the elimination of Carthage was to Rome.

But this objective cannot quite be achieved by a succession of Punic wars: military conflict with its principal adversary is the least palatable of the alternatives open to Moscow because the U.S. nuclear arsenal can never be entirely suppressed and it is always able to inflict, no matter what the balance of power, devastating punishment. Hence, except in the realm of ideological warfare, to which the United States attaches no importance and where the most venomous hate campaign can be carried on with impunity, assaults on the U.S. must assume indirect forms that undermine America’s security without appearing to do so.

This aim is best attained by detaching Europe and Japan from the United States and pulling them into the Soviet orbit: the addition of West European and Japanese industrial capabilities to those of the Soviet bloc would alter immediately and in a most dramatic manner the global correlation of forces in the latter’s favor. Here economic statistics speak for themselves. The annual Gross National Product of the Warsaw Pact countries for 1977-78 was estimated at $1 trillion; that of the United States at $2 trillion; that of Western Europe at somewhat above $2 trillion; that of Japan somewhat under $1 trillion. By this yardstick, the present correlation of economic forces is 5-to-l in favor of the West; but it shifts to 4-to-2 in favor of the Communist bloc once Western Europe’s and Japan’s links with the United States are severed. Even if one allows for a 50 per-cent decline in European and Japanese productivity as a result of such a change (has it not been said that under Soviet domination the Sahara would promptly experience a shortage of sand?), Moscow could still confront the United States as at least an economic equal.

But an assault on Europe and Japan is risky, because they are protected by forces with large U.S. contingents as well as by the U.S. strategic deterrent. Hence, here too an indirect strategy is preferable.

The Soviet Union may be said to be laying siege to Western Europe and Japan in the same manner in which medieval castles were blockaded prior to the introduction of gunpowder—that is, by a systematic effort to cut off the flow of reinforcements and supplies: reinforcements of manpower and material from the United States, and supplies in the form of fuel and metals from the Middle East and South Africa.

In the event of war, there would be activated a giant sea and air lift pouring troops and material from the United States to the European front. To disrupt this flow, the Russians have constructed a powerful ocean-going navy, centered on submarines and concentrated in ports of the Kola peninsula. This navy would have the task of penetrating the Iceland-Faroes-England gap and striking at American convoys.



As political backing for this naval strategy, the Soviet government exerts relentless pressure on the Scandinavian countries, sometimes directly, sometimes through the agency of Finland. To relieve that pressure, Norway and Denmark have for a long time refused the stationing of NATO troops and nuclear weapons on their territory; this act of self-denial has by now become part of the status quo which the Soviet Union jealously guards and is unlikely to permit to change. The integration of Soviet and Finnish railway lines and the construction in Finland of highways pointing in the direction of Norway strongly suggest that in the event of hostilities the Russians would strike fast to seize Norwegian ports and airfields, as Hitler had done in 1940. Sweden, not a member of NATO, is frequently harassed with accusations of violating its neutral status. It was apparently in response to Soviet browbeating that the Swedes consented to supply the USSR with a floating drydock capable of servicing a giant aircraft carrier presently under construction there. This Soviet activity in Scandinavia is given scant attention by the American media although its strategic implications for Europe are not much less than the more familiar Soviet challenge to the oil routes. Nine-tenths of U.S. war supplies to the European fronts would have to travel by sea, so that a serious Soviet threat to the North Atlantic sea lanes would be bound to have significant repercussions on the progress of European operations. (According to testimony by the recently retired commander of the Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Isaac Kidd, the Allied navies could maintain control of the North Atlantic sea lanes in face of this threat but only at a very high cost.)

The other Soviet pincer is directed toward the Middle East and aims at cutting off, in the event of hostilities, fossil fuels and minerals without which the economies of America’s allies would not be able to function. The task here is much more difficult to accomplish than in the north, if only because the Red Army lacks naval and air bases in this area, but the intensity of the effort bespeaks the strategic design. Soviet forces have been positioning themselves over the years near three principal choke-points through which Middle Eastern oil supplies must travel en route to their destinations in Europe and Japan. One of these is the Straits of Bab el Mandeb which guard access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Soviet and pro-Soviet forces stationed in South Yemen and Ethiopia would undoubtedly attempt to seize this waterway in the event of war. To the east lie the Straits of Hormuz, at the entrance of the Persian Gulf. The Soviet Union has a long way to go to gain a stranglehold on these straits, but it should be noted that its occupation of Afghanistan has cut in half (from 1,100 to 550 kilometers) the distance Soviet planes must traverse to reach them. Finally, in Southeast Asia, where it has a friendly client in Vietnam, the Soviet Union is within reach of the Straits of Malacca, a major route for oil tankers on their way to Japan.

European and Japanese dependence on South African minerals, though less well known than their reliance on Middle Eastern oil, is nevertheless considerable. America’s allies derive a high proportion of such industrial minerals as chrome, platinum, vanadium, and manganese from Rhodesia and South Africa. The intense involvement of the Soviet Union in the so-called “national-liberation” movements in sub-Saharan Africa, the quick exploitation of opportunities offered by the dissolving Portuguese empire, indicate the intention to deny these resources to the West.



The flanking movement directed at Europe through Africa and the Middle East brings the USSR into contact with Third World countries and demands the formulation of a Third World political strategy. In the immediate post-Stalin years, the Soviet Union relied on alliances with so-called “national-bourgeois” movements, that is, movements that shared with the Soviet Union a common hostility toward the “capitalist” and “imperialist” West without being pro-Communist or socialist. They provided the kind of “temporary” allies whose utilization Lenin had recommended. The policy called for the exploitation of the anti-Western, anti-colonial sentiments of charismatic national leaders, some of them tainted with pro-Axis collaboration, as a means of eliminating the many strands of Western influence which remained in place even after formal colonial ties had been cut.

This strategy proved, by and large, disappointing. The Third World leaders whom the Soviet Union cultivated and supported with munificent aid turned out to enjoy too narrow a power base to serve as reliable allies: the sudden death of one or a successful coup against another could change the political climate in a given country overnight, turning it from a friend into an enemy and, in the process, sending billions of rubles’ worth of aid down the drain. Such disagreeable reversals occurred in 1965 in Indonesia with the overthrow of Sukarno and a year later in Ghana with the removal of Nkrumah. Even worse were the consequences of the change in political orientation accomplished by Sadat after the 1973 war during which the Soviet Union had given him invaluable help. Once Sadat concluded that the concessions he desired from Israel could be procured for him by the United States but not by the Soviet Union, and that to qualify for U.S. support he needed to assume an anti-Soviet stance, the days of Soviet influence in Egypt were numbered. Moscow had to stand by helplessly while its immense investment in Egypt went to naught.

The defection of Egypt was the unkindest blow to Soviet policies in the Third World. Egypt was the linchpin of Soviet Middle Eastern strategy, the political-military base from which Moscow hoped to expand its influence both into East Africa and into the Arabian peninsula. It was the recipient of unstinting Soviet aid. To save its armies from impending disaster, the Soviet Union had engaged in a serious confrontation with the United States. And all this proved in vain once the “bourgeois-nationalist” dictator decided to reorient his foreign alliances.

Following Egypt’s defection, Moscow seems to have undertaken a reappraisal of its Third World strategy, the results of which are becoming increasingly apparent. The new strategy calls for smaller reliance on “bourgeois-national” leaders like Sukarno, Nkrumah, and Sadat, in favor of minor political figures who owe their political status to Soviet backing. Such new Soviet friends in the Third World as the recently deceased Neto of Angola, Colonel Mengistu of Ethiopia, and Taraki and Karmal of Afghanistan are not national heroes with their own power base, however narrow, but smalltime politicians dependent on Moscow’s support. To place them in power—or to remove them from it once they have proven inconvenient—the Russians have not hesitated to resort to gangster-type “executions” by their military or security services. To buttress their influence, they bring in large numbers of permanent Soviet military “advisers,” Cuban mercenaries, and security services from the USSR and Eastern Europe. Once these forces are installed, an infrastructure is created which is fairly impervious to sudden changes in native leadership. Because of the presence of Soviet, Cuban, and East European military and police personnel within their borders, it is unlikely that either Angola or Ethiopia will slip out of Soviet control as easily as Indonesia or Egypt did. To solidify their hold further, the Russians have assisted their hand-picked heads of state in carrying out mass murders of the opposition: according to the late Amin, the Taraki government in Afghanistan during its brief tenure in office executed 13,000 political prisoners. Massacres on a similar scale have been perpetrated in Ethiopia.



Promising as the new Third World strategy is, it is not without drawbacks. In countries in which it intervenes so heavily, the Soviet government assumes deeper commitments and finds it even more difficult to accept with equanimity the prospect of the area’s slipping out from under its control, as its recent actions in Afghanistan have demonstrated. Here even the advanced type of control—hand-picked candidate, surrounded by Soviet military and police advisers, and made secure by extensive bloodletting of opponents—did not suffice and a full-scale occupation was deemed necessary.

It is doubtful whether the Soviet Union would have dared to intervene in the Caribbean as it is now doing were it not for a fortunate accident. In 1962, in what he seems to have regarded as a major diplomatic coup, President Kennedy agreed to guarantee Cuba from American invasion in return for the Soviet removal from there of its medium-range ballistic missiles. This guarantee proved so valuable to the Soviet Union, by providing it with a secure base for political subversion and military action in the Western hemisphere, that one is tempted to suspect that the USSR had planted the missiles in Cuba precisely in order to wrest just such an agreement. Cuba provides limited but potentially valuable air and naval bases to Soviet forces. It also furnishes troops and political cadres to carry out Soviet missions in the Middle East, Africa, and Central America. It is altogether the most dependable Third World ally, headed by a megalomaniac whose self-defined historic mission requires him to lean heavily on Soviet assistance.

There remains China. In regard to that country, the Soviet Union seems to have settled, after a certain hesitation, on a defensive strategy. In the early years of their quarrel, some Soviet leaders seem to have desired a quick, preemptive strike against China, but in the end cooler heads prevailed. The prospect of fighting another totalitarian regime, thousands of miles away, in an area poorly served by transport, was not appealing to a regime which, if it is to fight at all, must win quick, decisive victories. Soviet forces presently deployed in the Far East are formidable, to be sure, but they do not appear designed for offensive operations. The Chinese military estimate that in order to present a credible threat to them, the Russians would have to mass along their frontier between 2 and 3 million troops, which is several times the number they have there at present. Soviet missiles, too, are deployed mainly against NATO.



To frustrate Soviet global strategy, it is necessary, first and foremost, to acknowledge that it exists. We must get rid of the notion, widespread among America’s educated and affluent, that the Soviet Union acts out of fear, that its actions are invariably reactions to U.S. initiatives, and that it seizes targets of opportunity like some kind of international pickpocket. We are dealing with an adversary who is driven not by fear but by aggressive impulses, who is generally more innovative in the field of political strategy than we are, and who selects his victims carefully, with long-term objectives in mind.

Secondly, it is essential to overcome an attitude toward nuclear weapons which leaves us increasingly vulnerable to subtle forms of psychological and political blackmail. We once had a similar attitude toward cancer: it used to be thought that the mere mention of this disease brought it about. In fact, however, open discussion of cancer has led to early diagnosis and treatment, and considerably reduced the danger of death from it. Nuclear weapons are a kind of cancer of the international body politic. Awareness of their actual (rather than imaginary) dangers can lead to sensible measures being taken to reduce the risk of nuclear war breaking out and to keep casualties low should it nevertheless happen. Unless we are prepared to confront this danger, the growing Russian preponderance in strategic weapons will leave us in a position where we shall have no choice but to capitulate to Soviet demands whenever they are backed with the threat of war.

Thirdly, we should take an honest look at our alliance system which has deteriorated to the point where its utility seems more psychological than real. For some time now NATO has been a one-way street: the United States underwrites the security of Western Europe against Soviet attack, but its West European allies feel no particular obligation to support the United States in its confrontations with the Soviet Union in any other part of the world. This holds true even of the Middle East where Europe’s interests are, if anything, yet more directly involved. Such behavior encourages the Soviet leaders to act aggressively in the Third World, in the knowledge that here the United States will be confronting them alone, and that such confrontations serve to exacerbate America’s differences with its allies.

Fourthly, we must correct as rapidly as possible the skewed military balance, especially where strategic and naval forces are concerned. If a commensurate effort is undertaken by Western Europe and Japan, and if the mutual obligations of our alliance are made more equitable than they now are, then Soviet expansion into the Middle East and Africa ought to prove costlier and therefore less attractive.

The ultimate purpose of Western counterstrategy should be to compel the Soviet Union to turn inward—from conquest to reform. Only by blunting its external drive can the Soviet regime be made to confront its citizenry and to give it an account of its policies. It is a well-known fact of modern Russian history that whenever Russian governments suffered serious setbacks abroad—in the Crimean war, in the 1904-05 war with Japan, and in World War I—they were compelled by internal pressure to grant the citizenry political rights. We should help the population of the Soviet Union bring its government under control. A more democratic Russia would be less expansionist and certainly easier to live with.


1 V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, (London, n.d.), XXVII, pp. 373, 377; emphasis added.

2 XXIV S”ezd KPSS: Stenograficheskii otchet (Moscow, 1971), I, p. 482; emphasis added.

3 Lenin, Collected Works, XXXI, pp. 70-71.

4 Neue Zürcher Zeitung, October 10, 1979.

5 “Soviet Defense Expenditures in the Era of SALT,” United States Strategic Institute Report 79-1 (Washington, D.C., 1979), pp. 10-11.

6 Victor C. Johnson, co-author, Foreign Affairs, Spring 1979, p. 919; emphasis added.

About the Author

Richard Pipes is professor of history emeritus at Harvard and the author most recently of Russian Conservatism and Its Critics (Yale).

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