The Evolution of Soviet Military Doctrine, 1945-1984

IN EXPLORING the evolution of Soviet military doctrine in the nearly four decades since the end of World War II, one might wish to encompass the scope indicated by Fritz Ermarth’s definition of military doctrine––that is, “a set of operative beliefs and principles that in a significant way guide official behavior with respect to military research and development, weapons selection, deployment of forces, operational plans, arms control, etc.”1 However, a comprehensive examination of such a large topic is obviously beyond the capabilities of this article. Therefore, I shall focus on the single most important aspect of Soviet military doctrine––the question of the nature of a future major war and how to fight it. Clearly, the Soviet military leaders see this as the essential question, for they have defined military doctrine as

. . . the sum total of scientifically based views accepted by the country and its armed forces on the nature of contemporary wars that might be unleashed by the imperialists against the USSR, and the goals and missions of the armed forces in such a war, on the methods of waging it, and also on the demands which flow from such views for the preparation of the country and the armed forces.2

With the demise of détente and the resurgence of intensified rivalry between the two superpowers in the 1980s, the Soviet view of the nature of a major war––and the factors producing the view––command inherent interest. Historically, the power of visions of future war cannot be disputed in the development of military history. From the German Schlieffen Plan in World War I to the French Maginot Line in World War II to American counterinsurgency in the Vietnam War, ideas about future wars have played a key role in influencing the actual conduct of war. These visions also reveal much about the nature of the states that produced them. Thus, as I attempt to trace the evolution in the Soviet image of war in the postwar era, I shall also discuss those factors that helped produce change.

In understanding the Soviet view of war, it is necessary to overcome our own innate, deep-seated ethnocentrism. As Raymond Garthoff has counseled, “In order to establish the strategic thought and doctrine of an alien military culture, it is first necessary to escape the confines of one’s own implicit and unconscious strategic concept.”3 This is an important caveat, for Soviet military doctrine––which is primarily the domain of military professionals in the Soviet Union, not civilian theorists as in the United States––is far from simply a pale reflection of American military doctrine. There are fundamental differences not only between Soviet and American politics but also between Soviet and American military doctrines––differences that must be initially understood before any meaningful analysis can proceed. Thus, Roman Kolkowicz recently observed:

It is clear by now that there are several fundamental disparities between Soviet and American approaches to strategy, foreign policy, and the uses of force in pursuit of the national interest. The main reason for the persistence of these conceptual, perceptual, and doctrinal disparities lies in the asymmetrical nature of the two belief systems and in cultural, historical, and political factors. We are dealing with two orthodoxies, mutually exclusive by their nature, each claiming a monopoly on “scientific” truth.4

Reflecting the advanced industrial superpower status achieved in the postwar era, Soviet decision making is a complex, multidimensional process. No single factor––whether ideology, technology, or international military environment––can adequately describe the process and its outcome.

Soviet military doctrine serves a series of peacetime interests of both a symbolic and substantive nature, which may have limited relevance in wartime. As a functional equivalent of ideology for the party, military doctrine serves as a bureaucratic rationale for extensive development and acquisition of new weapons by the military. Military doctrine serves to enhance the morale of the military by asserting and demonstrating the possibility of victory in a nuclear war. By emphasizing the powerful and diverse threats facing the Soviet Union, it legitimates the need for a strong Soviet state and military. Furthermore, intentionally or otherwise, such views may serve to influence Western and Chinese military behavior.

Soviet observers have made it clear that, in wartime, doctrine will necessarily be superseded by other considerations. Thus, Major General S. Kozlov has written:

Although war is a continuation of politics, with the onset of war a distinct change occurs. During war, military doctrine … withdraws somewhat into the background. War is to be guided primarily by military political and military strategic considerations.5

In this context, it is important to emphasize that in wartime, with all its uncertainties and fatefulness for the future of the nation, it is precisely the political aspects of the doctrine that will come to the fore. Therefore, the professional military men, who largely set the terms of the doctrine, will be overshadowed to a large extent by civilian party leaders with their own agenda. On this point the Soviet military is clear: while it will have significant input in the technical sphere, the ultimate questions will be decided by the political leadership. A well-known Soviet textbook puts the issue this way:

Politics determines the priority and strength of blows inflicted on the enemy, measures taken to strengthen allied relations within the coalition and general strategic plan of war…. Politics, by taking into account the strategic possibilities at its disposal, must determine the speed and intensity of military actions, and also forces and means it is necessary to mobilize in order to attain the aims intended, etc. In doing so, politics takes into account not only the aims of war but also of the post-war settlement and subordinates the conduct of the war to attainment of these aims.6

The critical question then becomes the nature of Soviet behavior in crisis. The record in the nearly forty years since the end of World War II has shown that Soviet political leaders (with the exception of Khrushchev) have been cautious and conservative in crises. They have shown a marked aversion to the high degree of risk-taking manifest in Soviet military doctrine. These leaders also have placed high priority on the maintenance of their empire, intervening in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) and pressuring General Vojtech Jaruzelski into imposing martial law in Poland in 1981. But these actions represented little risk of confrontation with the West. Only once in thirty-eight years did the Soviet Union use force outside the Warsaw Pact––in Afghanistan in 1979––where and when there was no chance of Western military intervention. And in other crises––China in 1969, the Middle East in 1973, and Poland in 1980––the Soviet Union clearly contemplated military intervention but did not proceed to carry it out. Even in Cuba in 1962, under the volatile Khrushchev, the Soviet Union backed away from confrontation. Thus, the overall record of the Soviets is far more conservative and cautious than the tone of their doctrinal pronouncements.

Influences on Soviet Military Doctrine

A complex set of factors––including international military environment, international political environment, foreign military doctrines, military history, technology, ideology, and internal political, social, and economic constraints––influences the creation of Soviet military doctrine. Of the external factors, the international military environment is perhaps the most critical.

The perceived strategic balance with the United States and theater balances in Asia and Europe are of the greatest concern to Soviet military planners. Such sentiments were noted by Michael McGwire:

Soviet military doctrine has evolved in response to what have been seen as a series of direct threats to the state’s existence . . .. Nuclear testing aside, Soviet actions and the doctrines behind them must be seen as responses to the perceived threat posed by American decisions.7

Comparable views have been expressed by Benjamin Lambeth, who has observed that “we may safely suggest that shifts in Soviet military doctrine––if not in the hardware base that supports it––of ten display notable consistency with changes in the external strategic milieu.”8 Similarly, the kinds of weapons available and the question of deterrent stability have been significant factors for determining military doctrine.

Where the effects of international political environment are concerned, assessments of war probability, over time, condition the leadership’s political component of doctrine. Periods of growing perceived threat may yield one set of conceptions, while periods of international calm may lead to another.

Far from being created in a void, Soviet military thinking has been often influenced significantly by foreign military doctrinal writings. Clausewitz had a definite and profound influence on Soviet military thinking. So, too, did German military theory with its stress on blitzkrieg warfare.

Soviet military history has been an important factor in shaping current doctrine. Past experiences are crucial because of their impact in molding Soviet perspectives. World War II, with its twenty million Soviet deaths, profoundly influenced Soviet attitudes. As one writer has observed, “lessons learned by the Soviet military leadership during World War II … provided the most important impetus to the development of modern Soviet military doctrine.”9

In addition to these major influences on Soviet doctrine, two autonomous factors––technology and ideology––have played a serious role in shaping Soviet views. Technological innovations, in particular, have played a key role. As John Erickson has written, “Thanks to developments in armaments and technology, we are seeing for the first time an adjustment in the previous Soviet views that rapid escalation to the use of nuclear weapons was inevitable.”10

Simultaneously, Marxism-Leninism, while declining in importance, still represents “something more than officious ritualism.”11 Ideology helps frame the context and terminology of the strategic culture. Its primary impact has been indirect, rather than direct.

Finally, the internal political, economic, and social constraints and the nature of Soviet decision making have a considerable influence on the nature of Soviet military doctrine. Perhaps Benjamin Lambeth has best analyzed and summarized this situation:

Soviet doctrine is constantly buffeted within the contained universe of Soviet decision making by countervailing institutional claims….Consequently, it tends to constitute something of a “committee compromise” among the most divergent interests of the military, political, and defense industry elites, and also to mirror, through its occasional internal contradictions, those conflicts which remain unresolved or seem endemic to the Soviet system.12

Thus, Soviet military doctrine arises from the interaction of a multitude of often conflicting pressures––pressures that have varied in magnitude and impact in the years since 1945 through the Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and post-1982 eras.

Soviet military doctrine during the last years of the Stalin era from 1945 to 1953 was influenced substantially by Soviet experiences during World War II. Repeatedly, Soviet writers have emphasized the formative impact of the war on military doctrine during those postwar years. A future major war was seen as cast in the mold of World War II––that is, as a protracted land war in which ground troops, supported by tanks, artillery, and planes, would play the decisive role.13

In this conventional context, the role of nascent nuclear weapons remained ambiguous. The Soviet military had been working on rocket technology in the 1930s and had exploded an atomic bomb in 1949. These ventures would be followed by a Soviet hydrogen bomb in 1953. As a result, a certain amount of theoretical attention was paid to nuclear weapons during the last years of the Stalin era, as the Soviets developed methods for military operations using nuclear weapons and principles regarding troop operations following nuclear strikes.14 Nevertheless, Stalinist military doctrine generally emphasized conventional land war over possible nuclear air war.

A major war, Soviet leaders believed, could be launched either by a surprise attack by capitalist powers on the Soviet Union or by gradual escalation of local wars into a major war. If the war were initiated by a surprise attack, though, a number of factors would affect the outcome. In 1950, Stalin indicated, “Now the outcome of the war will be decided not by such an attendant moment as the moment of surprise but by the permanent operating factors of war as the stability of the rear, morale of the army, quantity and quality of divisions, armaments of armed forces and organizing ability of commanders.”15 These factors, not surprise, would determine the course of a lengthy war, which, he believed, would inevitably result in a victory for the Soviet Union.

Finally, in the projected inevitable clash between capitalism and socialism, both offense and defense would play a key role, as they did in World War II. Victory was seen as resulting from the accumulation of successful battles fought along continuous and slowly changing fronts. Frontal breakthroughs would be achieved by the deliberate massing of soldiers and equipment on the main axis of attack, with a high density of men, tanks, artillery, and planes in the strike sectors, followed by envelopment and thrusts to the rear. Ground forces would be predominant in the European theater of a future war. Defense would be significant, especially in the early stages of the conflict.16

Above all, it is important to remember that while military commanders had significant input into military theory, it was Stalin who ultimately put his imprimatur on all views of a future war. Stalin’s pronouncements were particularly viewed as the final authority during the postwar years when there was endless praise for Stalin for winning World War II.17


While World War II in significant part laid the basis for Stalinist orthodoxy, strikingly there was no examination of the major failures of 1941 and 1942. Furthermore, foreign military doctrines were assiduously ignored in this xenophobic era of the Zhdanovshchina, a purge of all foreign influences and “rootless cosmopolitanism.” And, most strikingly, despite the advent of nuclear weapons and rockets that would become the decisive factors in modern warfare, modern weapons that would revolutionize major warfare were totally ignored in the doctrine. This omission is curious, since rockets and nuclear weapons had already been used by the end of World War II and the Soviets were since engaged in a major effort to develop rockets and nuclear weapons.18

But a series of other factors did strongly influence the formation of Soviet military doctrine. Most important was the nature of the political system. In the highly authoritarian system dominated by an aging, increasingly paranoid Stalin (whose launching of the Doctors’ Plot in 1952 seemed to set the stage for a renewal of mass purges before his death cut preparations short), the psychology of the leader assumed decisive significance. Claiming credit for wartime victories (Georgy K. Zhukov, who directed Soviet forces in World War II, was demoted in 1946 to a provincial military command), Stalin elevated to doctrinal status those features that he believed responsible for victory. He ignored new developments (technology), the role of surprise, foreign developments, and the failures of 1941 and 1942, regarding these as irrelevant to war victories. Yet, ever the pragmatist, Stalin did promote a major nuclear program as insurance against future developments.

Despite Stalin’s xenophobic attitudes, the international military environment also was a major factor in influencing Soviet military doctrine. During this period, U.S. superiority in strategic nuclear weaponry and air power was a major fact of life. It prompted a Soviet emphasis on strong conventional defenses and possible offensive counterattack into Europe from advantageous Soviet bases in Eastern Europe.

Similarly, the international political environment was also an important factor. On one hand, socialist gains in Eastern Europe and China greatly strengthened the Soviet position and ended threatening “capitalist encirclement.” Yet the emergence of the superpower United States––dominant in Western Europe, unharmed by the war, and armed with nuclear weapons––posed new and dangerous threats to the Soviet Union. In this context, active defense was logical with reliance on tested ground forces and advantageous geography during the cold war.

Marxist-Leninist ideology also played a role. Stalin was influenced by Marxist concepts of inevitable wars arising between capitalism and socialism and of the irradicable enmity of the capitalist West.

In addition, objective constraints and historical experiences were significant factors. World War II remained Stalin’s dominant frame of reference, while reconstruction projects mandated massive demobilization of the army and prudent defensive strategy during a period of weakness.

The Khrushchev era witnessed rapid and radical changes from the status quo achieved during the last years of Stalin. These changes were significant ones in Soviet military doctrine, freed from the straitjacket of postwar Stalinism. The dominant motif of the period was a recognition of the revolution in military affairs wrought by the advent of nuclear weapons and missile technology. Especially during the 1953-58 period, there was a major debate within the party and military leadership over the images of a future major war. According to Major General S. Kozlov, there was an “agonizing reappraisal of previous experience and, mainly, an adaptation of new weapons and means of conflict to old views and concepts.”19 The very conception of war changed. Both Georgii Malenkov (1954) and Nikita Khrushchev (1956) declared that war was no longer inevitable between capitalism and socialism. And war, if it did come, would no longer be a protracted conventional conflict between massed ground forces in Europe. Instead, war would result from the inevitable escalation of a conventional war to nuclear war and would be dominated by a short, intense massive exchange of nuclear weapons delivered by rockets and planes.20

The implications of this shift for various forces and tactics were considerable. A definite downgrading and partial demobilization of the ground forces and tactical air forces occurred as the conventional option was derided as obsolete. Airborne, tank, and motorized forces gained prominence at the expense of the infantry. The Strategic Rocket Forces replaced the ground forces as the dominant armed service by the early 1960s. Major General V. G. Reznichenko and Colonel A. Sidorenko clarified the changing nature of warfare during this period when they declared:

There will also be a different way of breaking through the enemy’s defense. The method used will no longer be that of “gnawing through” as was the case in past wars. The defense will be dealt nuclear strikes and will then be attacked from the line of march, at high tempo, by tanks and mechanized troops. The use of nuclear weapons will create favorable conditions for the rapid advance of troops. They should be able to utilize quickly the results of nuclear weapons, penetrate boldly through breaches in the enemy’s combat formations, avoid both frontal attack on strong points and straight line movements, carry out flexible maneuvers, and deal decisive blows to the enemy’s flank and rear.21

Given the powerful destructive qualities of nuclear weapons and new-found predominance of the offense over the defense, the role of surprise was greatly enhanced in the minds of Soviet military men. Marshal Pavel Rotmistrov in 1955 perhaps most directly highlighted the new emphasis on surprise:

Surprise attack, employing atomic and hydrogen weapons and other modern means of conflicts, now takes on new forms and is capable of leading to singularly greater results than in the past war. … Surprise attack with the massive employment of new weapons can cause the rapid collapse of a government whose capacity to resist is low as a consequence of radical faults in its social and economic structure and also as a consequence of an unfavorable geographical position.22

By 1964, Colonel Lyutov would suggest that the role of surprise “has grown so much” that it has become “one of the most important principles and conditions ensuring the attainment of success in combat.”23

There was a sharp reduction in the projected duration of the war and significant increase in the importance of the initial period of the war. No longer, as under Stalin, would a future war likely last years nor would the initial indecisive phase cover a period of months.24 With both sides striving to seize the initiative at the beginning, the first period of the war would be not only important but very short, certainly less than a month.25

Overall, then, the Khrushchev era saw a marked shift in attitudes toward a major war under the impact of the atomic revolution in military affairs. Any significant conflict carried serious possibilities of escalating into a world war, which would surely be a war dominated by nuclear weapons. In the process, Stalin’s five permanent operating factors of warfare and traditionalist vision of refighting World War II were replaced by a new, modern vision of nuclear warfare.


During this period, international factors were very influential. The Khrushchev era was a period of U.S. strategic nuclear superiority. Combined with a strong American theater nuclear force projection in Europe, this imbalance in strategic nuclear capability canceled Soviet conventional superiority on the ground. Too, in a political environment of high tension and cold war (focused on Cuba and Berlin, in particular), the American threat had to be taken seriously. Soviet nuclear strategy gave the armed forces a credible war-fighting strategy via preemption. And foreign military doctrine and experiences suggested particular tactics in the nuclear sphere. The Soviet policy of preemption, blitzkrieg offensive strike, high-speed maneuver force, and strong firepower was not unlike a nuclear version of German blitzkrieg tactics. There were also some echoes of Western “massive retaliation” theory.

Domestic trends also were significant factors affecting military doctrine. Khrushchevian populist reformism, coupled with advances in technology, emphasized modernity and international competition with the advanced United States, deemphasized “obsolete” ground forces, and stressed “modern” areas of accomplishment––especially rockets and nuclear weapons. Stress on consumerism, coupled with war-induced demographic difficulties, favored decreases in conventional ground force size and role, with increased emphasis on cheaper nuclear capabilities.

A number of factors had less impact than in the past. Marxist-Leninist ideology was altered as Khrushchev denied the inevitability of war and conceded massive devastation from nuclear war. Much Stalinist military thinking was attacked explicitly and derided as obsolete in this period. While World War II experiences remained important and the sources of the 1941-42 failures were analyzed, World War II took a back seat to the “revolution in military affairs.” And Russia’s traditional “defensive mentality” was under attack as Khrushchev claimed socialism was now in the ascendancy.

The Brezhnev era saw some changes in Soviet military thinking on a future major war, but these changes were far less dramatic than the radical shift from the Stalin period to the Khrushchev period. The clear consensus of the Khrushchev era that a major war, given the massive nuclear stockpiles and large number of missiles on both sides, would ultimately involve a large-scale exchange of nuclear weapons as a key part of the war continued under Brezhnev’s rule.26

What changed during the Brezhnev era was the emergence of a new appreciation of the possible use of conventional weaponry in a major war. Now a possible conventional phase was postulated at the beginning of the war. Too, Soviet military thinking came to anticipate that there would be a significant conventional phase at the end of the war. The discussions of these conventional, nonnuclear phases led to the publication of such articles as that written by Colonel B. Samorukov in 1967, titled “Combat Operations Involving Conventional Means of Destruction.”27

Perhaps the most discussed concept during the era was that of a possible conventional phase at the beginning of a war. Although a modern war would “undoubtedly” be a nuclear war, it would probably begin with a short conventional phase. This opening, conventional phase might be somewhat longer if “a certain balance of forces” existed.28

The probability of such a phase was discussed by many Soviet authors. While Marshal N. Krylov felt that “the variant is not excluded,” Colonel General M. Povaliy found it “completely possible”; and Lieutenant General M. Kiryan thought that “a future war may be unleashed either by conventional or by nuclear weapons; having begun with conventional weapons, at a set stage it may grow into a nuclear war.”29

Given the omnipresent danger that the enemy would initiate a nuclear strike, the conventional phase of operations would have some very specific characteristics. Time would be of the essence in destroying the enemy’s advance defense lines, eliminating the maximum number of enemy tactical means of nuclear attack, and seizing critical targets that would disrupt the defensive position of the enemy.30

The duration of such a conventional phase was uncertain, depending on the concrete conditions existing at the time of the war. As Marxism-Leninism on War and Army (A Soviet View) declared, “The war may start as a conventional one and may only gradually grow into a nuclear one.”31 The possibility of a fairly long conventional phase, while deemed unlikely, was not ignored. Thus, Major General V. Zemskov theorized in 1969:

In time a conventional war can be of long duration. This is understandable if one considers that the difficulty of a constant and powerful armed effort against the deep regions permits the retention of large resources of manpower and material and restoration of the losses of the armed forces in manpower and equipment. As a result, more and more forces can be deployed in the theaters of military operations. This will make it possible to continue military operations for a more or less lengthy time.32

Similarly, there was in this period enhanced recognition of a conventional phase and conventional role in ending a nuclear war. Colonel General N. A. Lomov wrote in 1973:

According to universal recognition, a nuclear war can be a quick one. But there is also the viewpoint that after the exchange of massed nuclear strikes and exhaustion of nuclear stockpiles, a war will not end but enter a new stage and can be continued with conventional weapons.33

Under these conditions, then, a key role is necessarily reserved for the ground forces.

In addition to these views on conventional war, some moderate changes were observable in the Soviet view of the role of surprise in a future war. On one hand, there was continued emphasis, as in the Krushchev era, on the importance of surprise in an era of large stockpiles of nuclear weapons and ICBMs and IRBMS. A surprise attack by the enemy continued to be viewed as the most likely and dangerous scenario for the start of a world war. But surprise could not be decisive in an era in which the Soviet Union had amassed an enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons and missiles.34

Given these Soviet perceptions of a future war, it is hardly surprising that Soviet authors insisted on the primacy of the offensive over the defensive posture. Indeed, the defense was seen as having only limited utility, unlike in World War II where it was widely used on a strategic level. Major General N. Sushko observed in 1966:

Soviet military doctrine has always considered the offensive the main means for completely crushing of the enemy and for attaining victory. . . In nuclear war the role of active offensive operations increases even more. The sphere in which defense is used grows smaller. Clearly defense must be resorted to only in extreme situations and then only on a tactical or limited operational scale.35

The actual length of the projected war was seen in a broad range of time. A largely nuclear war might be concluded in the short period of time as the use of Strategic Rocket Forces permitted the achievement of key strategic goals very quickly. On the other hand, a conventional phase to the war, especially at the end, could greatly lengthen the war.36


The external international influences during this time were strong and varied. The international military environment provided a critical context for Soviet thinking. The achievement of strategic and theater nuclear parity with the United States represented a major Soviet accomplishment with significant impact on doctrine. For the first time, the Soviet Union possessed a credible offensive nuclear capability with the ability to deter nuclear escalation at each step on the ladder. This capability gave conventional forces new opportunities and called into question any American use of nuclear weapons in Europe.

The international political environment also had significant impact on Soviet thinking. During this period, the Soviet Union had markedly improved its position in international politics. The decline in international tensions and the diversion of American attention to Vietnam lessened the danger of external nuclear attack.

Changes in Western military doctrines had an impact on Soviet thinking. Beginning in 1961, the United States had started to move away from massive retaliation toward flexible response. Inevitably, the Western move away from exclusive and mass use of nuclear weapons to selective use of nuclear weapons would have a significant impact on Soviet thinking. It would reinforce the Soviet awareness of, and interest in, a conventional option.

Domestic factors also had a significant effect on Soviet thinking. The economic constraints under which the system functioned were especially important. This period was one of expansive economic growth for the Soviets. The demographic difficulties of the early 1960s vanished, and vast Siberian energy resources were coming on line. Significant growth rates made a guns and butter economy possible. This economic situation permitted a significant expansion of both nuclear and conventional forces.

The changes in the nature of the Soviet political system were even more important. The Khrushchev era saw massive and, at times, erratic reforms in all areas of politics, including reforms often injurious to key actors in the political system. The Brezhnev ascendancy in October 1964 marked a significant departure from Khrushchev’s “harebrained” scheming. Now the emphasis was on a conservative, pluralist, bureaucratic decision-making process in which all bureaucratic actors benefited. In particular, all major bureaucratic actors, including the military, secret police, heavy industry, and light industry, eventually received representation on the Politburo and significant real appropriations increases yearly. In this context, a conventional option would enhance the role of the ground forces and once again make them a more integral and legitimate actor in the decision-making process.

Several other factors were of lesser importance. Russian historical experience was relevant in that Russia had suffered two devastating German invasions in this century. This experience seemed to mandate a continuing need for a large conventional force––and thereby a conventional option in a major war. The current doctrine represented a modification of previous Khrushchevian doctrine rather than a rejection of it. The elements of continuity with the past exceeded the differences. In the absence of any significant military activity, military training and experience of relevance were confined to Warsaw Pact exercises such as “Okean” and “Dnieper.” The impact of Marxism-Leninism was relatively limited.

Thus, a series of factors played a role in creating a change in Soviet thinking.

1982+: Possible New Trends

In more recent times, a possible new trend in Soviet thinking is the emphasis on the inevitable and necessary use of nuclear weapons to ensure the success of Soviet forces engaged in theater warfare. Soviet military experts seem to recognize that defensive capabilities have achieved such levels that purely conventional means may be inadequate to achieve victory. Soviet Chief of Staff Nikolai Ogarkov stated in 1982:

At the present time, as is known, there is rapid development of diversified means of combating tanks, including airborne (antitank) weapons. Moreover [these weapons] have already achieved such qualitative and quantitative levels that this urgently demands attentive study of tendencies and consequences of their development. It is dangerous to ignore this tendency.37

Perhaps this line of thought explains why several recent Soviet statements in military publications have ignored any mention of a conventional option and have stressed the inevitable and massive use of nuclear weapons at the theater level as necessary for victory.38 Krasnaya Zvezda had an editorial comment in March 1983 on this subject:

Artful maneuver, conducted at a high tempo with diverse formations of order of battle, and with maximal exploitation of the results of employment of nuclear weapons at all states of combat operations, has become the determinant of success.39


A number of factors can be seen as pushing the Soviet Union in the direction of a new stress on the use of nuclear weapons. The Reagan military buildup threatens hard-earned Soviet strategic parity with the United States and could give the United States a strong first-strike capability against Soviet land-based ICBMs by 1990. Deployment of Pershing II poses a similar if lesser threat in Europe. As in the 1950s, the best Soviet defense against an emerging American threat is deterrence through assertion that escalation to, or preemption by, nuclear weapons in Europe is inevitable. The Reagan buildup and tough rhetoric have led Soviet leaders to see a considerably higher threat from the United States than during the Carter years. “Capitalist militancy” calls for firm, credible doctrine to instill more realism in unregenerate American hawks.

Domestic influences are also in play. Anticipated low economic growth, minimal labor force growth, and energy problems would suggest a move away from large, massed, labor-intensive conventional armies and toward cheaper nuclear forces. Significant technological improvements in American strategic forces and conventional defense would argue for a move from less effective Soviet conventional options and toward more deterring nuclear options. In some ways, this new doctrine echoes the earlier doctrine of the Khrushchev era. And succession crises tend to lead to increased external influence and fear of the West.

Some factors have had minimal effects. Western conventional options and selective nuclear options are derided by possibly emerging Soviet doctrine. The influence of ideology is minimal at best. And recent Soviet military experiences in Afghanistan seem of little relevance.

Like the system from which it sprang, the Soviet view of future war has undergone major changes over time. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union visualized the next war as basically a rerun of World War II with protracted land campaigns in which ground forces and conventional weapons predominated. In many ways, this view reflected the immobilism of Soviet politics in the last years of an aging leader. Under Krushchev, as in many other areas, a radical change occurred, with the new war conceptualized as a largely nuclear war in which the Strategic Rocket Forces predominated. Under the more conservative Brezhnev, a broader concept of war visualized a possible conventional phase either at the beginning or near the end of the war. This view, too, reflected the broad bureaucratic pluralism characteristic of the Brezhnev era. And, in the last two years, there have been tentative indications of a renewed emphasis on the nuclear character of a future war. Overall, then, it appears that Soviet military doctrine has undergone significant changes in its view of a major war in response to a variety of internal and external pressures.

University of Denver


1. Fritz Ermarth, “Contrasts in American and Soviet Strategic Thought,” in Soviet Military Thinking edited by Derek Leebaert (London: Allen and Unwin, 1981), p. 51.

2. Cited in Benjamin Lambeth, How to Think about Soviet Military Doctrine, p. 5939 (Santa Monica, California: Rand, 1978), p. 4.

3. Raymond Garthoff, Soviet Strategy in the Nuclear Age (New York: Praeger, 1962), p. xi.

4. Roman Kolkowicz, “U.S. and Soviet Approaches to Military Strategy: Theory vs. Experience,” Orbis, Summer 1981, p. 319.

5. Major General S. Kozlov, Officer’s Handbook, translated by U.S. Air Force, 1971, p. 116.

6. B. Byely et al., Marxism-Leninism on War and Army (A Soviet View) (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1974), p. 17.

7. Michael McGwire, “Soviet Military Doctrine: Contingency Planning and the Reality of World War,” Survival, May/June 1980, pp. 107, 112.

8. Benjamin Lambeth, “The Sources of Soviet Military Doctrine,” in Comparative Defense Policy, edited by Frank Horton, Anthony Rogerson, and Edward Warner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p. 203.

9. William Schneider, Jr., “Soviet General-Purpose Forces,” Orbis, Spring 1977, p. 96.

10. John Erickson, “The Soviet Military System: Doctrine, Technology and ‘Style,'” in Soviet Military Power and Performance, edited by John Erickson and E. J. Feuchtwanger (London: Macmillan, 1979), p. 35.

11. Albert Weeks, “The Garthoff-Pipes Debate on Soviet Doctrine: Another Perspective,” Strategic Review, Winter 1983, p. 58.

12. Lambeth, “The Sources of Soviet Military Doctrine,” p. 213.

13. This view of the next major war was confirmed by Major General S. Kozlov in 1964, when he wrote: “In the first post-war period the development of Soviet military theory predominantly proceeded along the traditional path of generalization and analysis of the experience of the past war, of working out on this basis conclusions and recommendations for the conduct of armored conflicts by conventional means. This period may be considered as 1946-1953.” See Major General S. Kozlov, “The Development of Soviet Military Science after World War II,” Voennaya Mysl’, February 1964, p. 29.

14. Major General M. I. Cherdnichenko, “On Features in the Development of Military Art in the Post War Period,” Voenno-Istoricheskii Zhurnal, No. 6, 1970, p. 111.

15. I. Stalin, O velikoi otechestvennoi voine Sovetskogo Soyuza (Moscow: Politizdat, 1950), pp. 43-44.

16. Marshal V. D. Sokolovskii wrote about Stalin in his classic work, Soviet Military Strategy: “He erected into general principles the theory of active defense. . .and the allegation that counterattack is the inevitable form of strategic operation in wartime.” See Marshal V. D. Sokolovskii, editor, Soviet Military Strategy, translated by Herbert Dinerstein, Leon Gouré, and Thomas Wolfe (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 83.

17. Major General S. Kozlov, depicting these years, stated: “Any further development of military theory depended on his pronouncement––direct or implied. If there was no opinion from this authority on a certain problem of military theory, either working it out was not undertaken at all, or, at best, there was an attempt to fit the problem under one of his remarks, even if it were far removed from the subject or made with regard to a completely different matter.” See Kozlov, p. 31.

18. “Stalin. . .launched major programs to develop the atomic bomb and other modern weapons, but he did not permit any thoughts to be given to their effect on the conduct of war. Weapons development and military doctrine existed in separate worlds; the former was pushed at a rapid pace, the latter was stifled.” David Holloway, The Soviet Union and the Arms Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 83.

19. Kozlov, p. 29.

20. Marshal V. D. Sokolovskii has asserted: “Armed combat in ground theaters will also be different. Missile attacks will be primary means of defeating opponent’s ground forces, of destroying his missiles, planes and nuclear weapons. All of this will lead to numerous, completely destroyed, devastated and radioactively contaminated zones.” See Sokolovskii, pp. 299, 306.

21. Major General V. G. Rerznichenko and Colonel A. Sidorenko, “Soviet Tactics on the Nuclear Battlefield,” Voennaya Mysl’, June 1965, pp. 78-79.

22. General Pavel Rotmistrov, “On the Role of Surprise in Contemporary War,” Voennaya Mysl’, February 1955, p. 150.

23. Colonel Lyutov, “Comment” in Voennaya Mysl’, October 1964, p. 37.

24. Marshal Rodion Malinovsky declared in 1961 that during the very early stages of war, the “first massive nuclear blows can to an enormous extent determine the entire subsequent course of war and result in losses in the homeland and among troops which could place the people and country in a difficult situation.” See Lawrence Freedman, The Lessons of the Beginning Period of the Great Patriotic War,” Voennaya Mysl’, No. 8, 1964, p. 26.

25. Marshal Biryuzov commented in 1964 that the initial period of a future war “will evidently be much shorter than in past wars. Of course it would be difficult to determine its duration exactly. However, it can be said with complete certainty that it will not be counted in months, but probably in several days or at least weeks.” See S. S. Biryuzov, “The Lessons of the Beginning Period of the Great Patriotic War,” Voennaya Mysl’, No. 8, 1964, p. 26.

26. Colonel M. Povaliy in 1967 wrote regarding a major war: “All present-day powerful and long-range means of struggle, including strategic nuclear forces, will be used in the war on a huge scale and the most decisive means of military operations will be employed. According to technical means of armed struggle, this will be a nuclear-rocket war in which the chief weapon of the destruction of the enemy’s military economic potential and of the enemy’s armed forces will be a nuclear weapon and the basic means of delivering it to the target will be rockets of various designation. The broad use of means of mass destruction lends an unprecedented destructive nature to war.” See Colonel General M. Povaliy, “Development of Soviet Military Strategy,” Voennaya Mysl’, February 1967, p. 70.

27. Colonel B. Samorukov, “Combat Operations Involving Conventional Means of Destruction,” Voennaya Mysl’, August 1967.

28. Major General S. Shtik analyzed this variant in 1968: “Modern world war, if launched by the imperialists, will undoubtedly be a nuclear war. However a situation may arise in which combat operations begin and are carried out for some time (most probably for a relatively short duration) without the use of nuclear weapons; then there is not excluded a certain balance of forces, in which combat operations with only the use of conventional weapons can extend over a longer period of time.” See Major General S. Shtik, “The Encirclement and Destruction of the Enemy during Combat Operations Not Involving the Use of Nuclear Combat Operations,” Voennaya Mysl’, January 1968, p. 53.

29. See Marshal N. Krylov, “The Nuclear Missile Shield of the Soviet State,” Voennaya Mysl’, November 1967, p. 17; Colonel General M. Povaliy, “Development of Soviet Military Strategy,” Voennaya Mysl’, February 1967, p. 70; and Lieutenant General M. M. Kiryan, editor, Voenno-tekhnicheskii progress i vooruzhenneyye sily SSSR (Moscow: Voenizdat, 1982), p. 312.

30. Colonel B. Samorukov best analyzed the likely operations during a conventional phase when he observed: “Both sides will evidently concentrate the main attention on destroying as large as possible a number of nuclear means of the enemy and thereby disrupting or weakening to the maximum extent the nuclear strike being prepared by him. . .Both sides will also take every measure to inflict, before the beginning of the use of nuclear weapons, destruction on the most important groupings of the first operational echelon of the enemy, to succeed in overcoming difficult natural obstacles as well as zones and lines of obstacles, especially of high explosives, and to seize objectives which are advantageous for offensive operations with the use of nuclear weapons.” See Colonel B. Samorukov, “Combat Operations Involving Conventional Means of Destruction,” Voennaya Mysl’, August 1967, p. 30.

31. Marxism-Leninism on War and Army (A Soviet View), translated by U.S. Air Force, 1973, p. 233.

32. Major General V. Zemskov, “Characteristic Features of Modern Wars and Possible Methods of Conducting Them,” Voennaya Mysl’, July 1969, p. 19.

33. Colonel General N. A. Lomov, Scientific-Technical Progress and the Revolution in Military Affairs, translated by U.S. Air Force, 1974, p. 73.

34. Marshal N. Krylov best expressed this point of view when he wrote: “Thus in modern conditions, with the presence of a system for detecting missile launchers, an attempt by the aggressor to inflict a sudden preemptory strike cannot give him a decisive advantage for the achievement of victory in war and in any case will not save him from great destruction and human losses. Moreover, in a number of cases, the aggressor will have to pay with even a greater amount of destruction and victims.” See Marshal N. Krylov, “The Nuclear Missile Shield of the Soviet State,” Voennaya Mysl’, November 1967, p. 17.

35. Major General N. Ya. Sushko et al., Methodological Problems of Military Theory and Practice, translated by U.S. Air Force, 1968, p. 74.

36. Major General N. Sushko captured the Soviet view when he wrote in 1966: “Considering the fact that nuclear missile weapons possess enormous power and that in days or even hours entire countries can be wiped from the face of the earth, our doctrine considers nuclear war as fast moving. At the same time it conceives of the possibility that under certain conditions the war might acquire a drawn-out nature.” See ibid., p. 73.

37. Chief of Staff, N. Ogarkov, “Always Ready to Defend the Homeland,” Kommunist, February 1982.

38. These statements have stressed that “in order to break through enemy defenses it is necessary to first overwhelm the enemy with nuclear strikes, aviation, and artillery fire and to complete annihilation with a steadfast attack by tanks and motorized, infantry units. …Preemption was always crucially important, but nowadays minutes and seconds can determine the fate of battle. A small delay in destruction of a nuclear-capable missile or artillery battery [can cause] the entire intelligent purposeful combat decision to become an empty venture. Moreover, delay will cost massive losses of personnel, weapons and equipment.” See Voennyi Vestnik, editorial comment, January 1982.

39. Krasnaya Zvezda, editorial, 5 March 1983.


Jonathan R. Adelman (B.A., Columbia College; M.A. Ph.D., Columbia University) is Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver and serves as Senior Research Analyst for the Foreign Systems Research Center of Science Applications, Inc. Dr. Adelman is the author of The Revolutionary Armies: The Historical Development of the Soviet and the Chinese People’s Liberation Armies (1980) and editor of Communist Armies in Politics.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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