Commentary Magazine

The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union, by Edward N. Luttwak

War & the USSR

The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union.
by Edward N. Luttwak.
Appendices by Herbert Block and W. Seth Carus. St. Martin’s. 242 pp. $14.95.

Some years ago, before the events giving birth to Solidarity in 1980, I had occasion to chat with a Pole visiting this country. Though himself a member of Poland’s ruling party, he not atypically launched into a violent denunciation of the Communists, the Soviet Union, and all associated phenomena. He concluded his diatribe with the exclamation, “Thank God the USSR is a Communist country!” When I expressed my astonishment at this seemingly paradoxical remark, he stated his conviction that if the Russians lived under a sensible system rather than Communism, they would long since have conquered the world.

Whatever one makes of my visitor’s opinion, the episode is quite pertinent to the message of Edward Luttwak’s book: that it is the sins of omission and commission (mostly the former) on the part of the Western world, rather than the inherent viability of the Soviet system, that is responsible for the shadow cast over the world by the USSR. Moscow’s ideological attractiveness has long since waned; Marxism-Leninism has become fossilized; the Soviet economy is on the brink of stagnation; the standard of living is lower even than that of any of the European satellites. Nevertheless the Soviet empire, already the biggest in history, is still on the march, still trying, often successfully, to expand its areas of domination. In Luttwak’s view, this has been made possible largely through the military preponderance which the USSR has achieved over the Western democracies—and achieved with their permission, as it were:

Over the last thirty years, we have witnessed great political and economic changes that should have resulted in the consolidation of a decisive Western military superiority over the Soviet Union: the dissolution of the Russo-Chinese alliance, the postwar recovery of Western Europe and Japan. . . . But all these favorable changes have been offset by the spectacular growth of Soviet military power, the product of an armament effort of entirely unprecedented dimensions.

Luttwak rejects the notion that when it comes to power, economic, moral, or other factors can outweigh military ones. By military standards, “the Soviet system is roughly five times as efficient as the alliance that embraces the United States, NATO, Europe, and Japan, since the combined GNP’s of those countries are roughly five times as great as the Soviet, while their conjoint power is at best equal.” The rulers of the USSR, in Luttwak’s formulation, have finally given up the hope, still alive in Khrushchev’s period, of outstripping the U.S. in economic development and ideological appeal, and have placed all their bets on their vastly expanded military establishment. (An appendix by W. Seth Carus on the evolution of Soviet military power since 1967 presents startling statistics on the growth and modernization of practically every branch of Soviet military forces.) What is more, following the logic of its military superiority, the USSR in Luttwak’s view has now passed the stage of prudent expansion and has entered upon a course of unabashed, warmaking imperialism.

The “conjunction of a long-term regime pessimism with current military optimism is the classic condition that makes deliberate war more likely,” Luttwak writes. But against whom would this war be directed? Luttwak is almost as reassuring as the advocates of a nuclear freeze (if the comparison may be forgiven) in discounting the possibility of a Soviet preemptive strike against the U.S. or an all-out invasion of Western Europe. We must remove “from consideration all war schemes that would require the Soviet Union to use nuclear weapons and those which would entail any significant probability of a nuclear response by the victim.” He then goes through a series of involved political, military, and psychological calculations from which he concludes that “the People’s Republic of China has now become the Soviet Union’s ‘main enemy’ and therefore the most likely target of war schemes aimed at enhancing its strategic security.”

His premise is undeniable. For their own, and quite different, reasons, Moscow and Beijing may cool off their dispute and even effect a temporary rapprochement. But the prospect of the Chinese colossus achieving a solid industrial base and a correspondingly powerful military establishment remains a constant and gnawing worry to the Kremlin, dwarfing any concern it may loudly profess over “Pentagon warmongers.” It is not for nothing that the Soviets have 46 divisions lined up along the Chinese border, and a number of SS-20’s targeted on the People’s Republic.

The actual war scenario sketched by Luttwak envisages Soviet forces carrying out a blitzkrieg against the poorly equipped and organized People’s Army, and then occupying China’s sparsely populated northwest. In view of the Soviets’ enormous superiority in nuclear weapons, the Chinese presumably would not dare to use theirs, either against the invader or on targets within the USSR.

Luttwak is aware of the vast imponderables in his scheme, but refuses to be daunted by them. What of the huge territory and one billion people that would still remain under Beijing’s rule? Well, “a petty warfare of raids and skirmishes may continue” after Soviet occupation of the outlying region, “but it is unlikely to detain more than a dozen Soviet divisions.” One might well imagine Soviet marshals reading this scenario and sighing: if only things were that simple. What would the West do all the while? Answer: “. . . The relative growth of Soviet military power has greatly reduced the indirect constraint imposed by American military strength upon Soviet conduct toward the Chinese.” But has that constraint entirely disappeared? Would it not be an act of desperation on the part of the Kremlin to embark upon a gamble with such potentially catastrophic consequences? All one can say with confidence is that in this irrational world, Luttwak’s vision cannot be summarily dismissed.

Luttwak’s general point, certainly is well taken: the military preponderance which the Soviets now enjoy has considerably enlarged their scope of opportunities. Any further appearance of weakness on the part of the democracies, combined with exaggerated trust in Soviet prudence, can gravely endanger the security not only of the West, but of many other parts of the world as well. Hence his plea for a much more vigorous armaments build-up by the West. Although some may cry that this is a prescription for a suicidal arms race, in fact Luttwak’s admonition is a useful and much needed corrective to the prevailing view, especially of those who have held that the U.S. does not need to keep up with the USSR in the number and power of its ICBM’s.

The trouble with Luttwak’s formulation of the problem lies in its tendency to put the cart before the horse. It is not so much the arms picture itself as a long-term Western misunderstanding of its psychological and political consequences that is responsible for today’s situation. As Luttwak himself has repeatedly pointed out in his writings, military superiority in its own right avails but little in the game of international politics; to be meaningful, it must be backed up by political will and intelligence. After all, Stalin grabbed Eastern Europe when America had the monopoly of the bomb and its industrial power dwarfed that of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev made the Soviets a powerful factor in Middle East politics, trod heavily on Hungary, and authorized the Berlin Wall when the United States still had a crushing nuclear superiority over the USSR. Had the U.S. in 1945-48 been more aware of its strength, and of Russia’s weakness, it could have, through forceful diplomacy, made Stalin moderate his policies.



Crucial to the book’s argument is the concept of “regime pessimism,” which impels the Kremlin to compensate for its economic and ideological failures by amassing arms and achieving fresh conquests. The effectiveness of that compensatory mechanism depends in turn on Russian nationalism, which in fact if not in theory has become the main rationale of the Soviet system.

But is there any direct connection between Russian nationalism and the imperialist strivings of the Kremlin? Luttwak defines the structure of power in the USSR as follows: “The rule of the supreme rulers over the party which in turn rules over the Russians who collectively rule the non-Russians” (emphasis added). One does not have to be a Solzhenitsyn to question this formulation. The word “ruler,” when referring to the USSR, is used properly only when describing some twenty to twenty-five people at the top of the party pyramid, and, secondarily, those few hundred bureaucats and military figures who sometimes influence the leaders’ decisions. The Ukrainian Shcherbitsky and the Azerbaijani Aliyev, by virtue of their membership in the Politburo, are among the rulers. The mass of Russians, like their fellow citizens of other nationalities, are subjects.

To be sure, most Russians (including not a few dissidents) would be perplexed and pained by the prospect of the break-up of the USSR into ethnic states, while many Ukrainians must secretly wish for real autonomy or even independence for their land. But we have no grounds for believing that the average Russian, any more than the average Georgian or Ukrainian, derives special satisfaction from his rulers’ imperialist ventures abroad. Nor, if they were given the true facts and were not anesthetized by official propaganda, would the mass of Soviet citizens of all nationalities agree that the present level of military expenditures (with all that it implies for their standard of living) is justified by considerations of national security.

In brief, while the regime manipulates Russian nationalism, and very skillfully, for its own purposes, in essence it is no more nationalist than it is “socialist” or “progressive.” The Kremlin does try to flatter the national pride of the Great Russians, but foreign expansion and the piling up of arms are designed to serve as an object lesson to the whole Soviet people: it is under the present system that the USSR has been steadily advancing in power and worldwide influence and has preserved social cohesion, while the democracies, for all their alleged freedoms and riches, have been in disorderly retreat on the international scene and gripped by turmoil at home.



One may disagree with Luttwak on individual points, but it is impossible to deny the originality and boldness of this tour de force. Its general thrust goes far to liberate the reader’s mind from the stale stereotypes that have characterized so much of the recent debate over America’s foreign and defense policies. As with all good books, the lesson it carries goes beyond the writer’s explicit conclusions and recommendations. Luttwak stresses the military side of the issue. An attentive reader will not fail to perceive that only by recouping the drive toward effective unity—political and economic as well as military—which seemed so promising in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, will the Western democracies be able to arrest the drift toward international anarchy and frustrate the designs of those who propagate and exploit it.

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