Since his assumption of power in March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev has embarked upon a program of far-reaching economic and social reform. One of the key factors determining the ultimate success or failure of Gorbachev’s efforts will be his ability to persuade the Soviet military to go along with these changes.

The military represents a powerful force in Soviet society. As the institution most directly responsible for maintaining Soviet security, it plays a key role in defining the nature of the external threat faced by the Soviet Union. The military is also an important claimant on scarce Soviet resources. The defense industry has priority access to the best raw materials, the most advanced machinery and the most qualified workers. Thus any successful reform over the long run is likely to run up against powerful military interests. Similarly, any arms control agreement will need the military’s support.

There are growing signs that Gorbachev sees a deep interconnection between his program of economic restructuring and the need to restructure military policy. Since coming to power he has made a number of important changes in the military-security area that could have important consequences not only for civil-military relations in the U.S.S.R. but for broader East-West relations. As the United States looks to shaping the U.S.-Soviet agenda in the aftermath of the fourth Reagan-Gorbachev summit, it may be useful to examine these changes in some detail.


Gorbachev’s current relations with the Soviet military must be seen against the background of developments in the late Brezhnev period. Under Brezhnev the influence and power of the military had significantly increased; indeed, the early Brezhnev years have aptly been termed the "golden age" of the high command. During this period (until about 1975) the concerns of the armed forces were given precedence and requests for resources were rarely challenged. The presence of the military was also institutionalized in the Politburo in 1973 (with the promotion of Marshal Andrei Grechko to that body), giving it a direct voice in the highest decision-making body.

Relations with the military deteriorated, however, in the latter half of Brezhnev’s rule as the rate of Soviet economic growth declined from four percent in the 1960s to a little more than two percent in the late 1970s. This slowdown accentuated critical resource allocation decisions and prompted the Soviet leadership to cut back on the rate of growth of defense spending. Whereas Soviet defense spending had increased at a rate of four to five percent in the period 1965-1975, it dropped to two percent from 1977-1983, with investment devoted to the procurement of new weapons showing no growth at all during the same period. During that period, by contrast, U.S. defense spending visibly increased, especially after the election of President Reagan in 1980.

The slowdown in Soviet defense spending lasted too long to have been caused by technical problems or bottlenecks. Rather it appears to have been the result of a deliberate policy decision to peg the growth rate of defense spending to that of the economy as a whole. The decision, however, exacerbated party-military relations. Alarmed by the U.S. buildup, the Soviet military sought to exploit the political uncertainties surrounding Brezhnev’s failing health to press for a greater share for the defense budget. Tensions grew to the point where in October 1982 Brezhnev was forced to defend his policy in an unusual meeting in the Kremlin before the entire top leadership of the military and Ministry of Defense. Brezhnev’s speech had a strongly defensive tone. It seems to have been designed to impress upon the military leaders the need for spending constraints while at the same time reassuring them that their interests would not be neglected. Noting that the Soviet armed forces were equipped with the most modern weapons, Brezhnev stressed that the Central Committee was "taking measures to ensure that they [the armed forces] have all they need."

Brezhnev died several weeks later, but his death by no means put an end to these tensions. The military, led by Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, then chief of the Soviet General Staff, continued to press for greater defense spending, emphasizing the need to meet the increased threat posed by the American military buildup. Indeed, Ogarkov’s continued stridency—and particularly his willingness to challenge the civilian leadership publicly on this issue—appears to have been one of the prime reasons for his sudden dismissal as chief of the General Staff and first deputy defense minister in September 1984.

Ogarkov’s dismissal appears to have been designed to remove him as contender for the post of defense minister (the minister, Dimitri Ustinov, was known to be ill). Parallels to the case of Marshal Georgii K. Zhukov, who was dropped from the Politburo and lost his position as defense minister in 1957, are readily apparent, but there are also important differences. Unlike Zhukov, Ogarkov was not disgraced. He continues to hold an important position as head of the Western Theater of Military Operations and remains a member of the Central Committee. However, his current responsibilities are operational, and he is no longer in a position to challenge the civilian leadership on matters of policy as openly and as forcefully as before.

The occasion of Ustinov’s death in December 1984 provided another indication that the military’s influence was on the wane. The man picked to succeed Ustinov, First Deputy Defense Minister Marshal Sergei Sokolov, while a professional military officer, was a colorless and relatively undistinguished member of the old guard whose past record suggested that he could be counted on not to make waves or challenge party authority. As defense minister he maintained a low profile and rarely spoke out publicly on important defense or arms control matters. His lack of influence was underscored by the fact that unlike his two predecessors, Marshal Grechko and Ustinov, who were both full members of the Politburo, Sokolov was excluded from the top ranks of the leadership and was only a candidate member of the Politburo until his forced retirement in May 1987.


Unlike his predecessors, especially Brezhnev and Khrushchev, Gorbachev came to power with no strong ties to the military. Before coming to Moscow in 1978 he had spent most of his career as a provincial party leader in Stavropol, a position that would have given him little opportunity to interact with the military. Moreover, for much of the early period in Moscow he was primarily in charge of agriculture. Thus he had little background in defense and military affairs, although as "second secretary" under Konstantin Chernenko he undoubtedly gained greater familiarity with and insight into military matters.

Gorbachev’s rapid rise to the position of general secretary coincided with a number of incidents that exacerbated party-military relations and that most probably influenced his general attitude toward the military and defense issues. The first issue was the deployment of the intermediate-range SS-20 missile; this appears to have been undertaken at the urging of the military in 1976-77, largely for military-technical reasons, without serious consideration of the long-term political implications for relations with Western Europe. The deployment proved to be a serious miscalculation. Rather than enhancing Soviet security, it resulted in the emergence of a new nuclear threat to Soviet territory—the deployment of NATO’s Pershing 2 and cruise missiles—and led to a serious deterioration of Moscow’s relations with the West. The decision to deploy the SS-20 appears to have been increasingly seen as a mistake by many in the upper echelons of the Soviet leadership, including Gorbachev himself, and as an example of the dangers of allowing purely military-technical considerations to drive policy and take precedence over broader political objectives. It thus probably reinforced Gorbachev’s belief, emphasized at the 27th Party Congress and often since, that security is primarily "a political task," which cannot be assured by military-technical means alone.

Party-military relations were also exacerbated during this period by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Rather than resulting in a quick victory as the military apparently had predicted, the invasion proved to be a serious military and diplomatic blunder, which damaged Moscow’s relations, not only in the Third World but also in the West, without bringing any appreciable military or political benefits. The political costs of the invasion, both at home and abroad, probably underscored to Gorbachev the risks of allowing Soviet policy to be dictated primarily by narrow military considerations. Moreover, the case of General Ivan Pavlovskii, who had been sent to Afghanistan on a fact-finding mission several months prior to the invasion and was rumored to have retired in disgrace one year later, strongly suggests that the military was held responsible for the miscalculation.

The third incident contributing to party-military tensions was the shooting down of the Korean Air Lines passenger jet in September 1983. The incident revealed major weaknesses in the Soviet air defense system. Moreover, it occurred just at a time when relations with Washington were beginning to improve, disrupting what looked like the beginnings of a promising thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations. The initial confusion and mishandling of the affair further damaged Moscow’s credibility in the eyes of the world. The fact that the Far Eastern air defense command was shaken up soon after the incident strongly suggests that the party was dissatisfied with the military’s handling of the affair.

Taken together with the conflict over defense spending, these three incidents appear to have prompted an effort by the party to reassert greater control over the military and defense matters. The dismissal of Ogarkov appears to have been the first concrete step in this process. It is highly likely that these incidents contributed to Gorbachev’s general belief that the military factor had been given disproportionate weight in Soviet affairs, and that Moscow needed a more flexible foreign policy that relied more heavily on political-diplomatic means—two central tenets of Gorbachev’s "new thinking."


Indications that the effort to reassert party control over the military would continue or even intensify were visible almost from the moment Gorbachev took over as general secretary. During Chernenko’s funeral in March 1985 there was a conspicuous absence of military representatives on the Lenin Mausoleum—a departure from past practice that seemed designed to emphasize civilian supremacy. In addition, the new party program adopted at the 27th Party Congress in February 1986 considerably strengthens the role of the party in military affairs. The key passage states:

It is under the Party’s guidance that policy in the area of the country’s defense and security and Soviet military doctrine, which is purely defensive and directed at defending against an attack from without, are developed and implemented.

This reference to the party’s role in the formulation of security policy and military doctrine was not contained in the 1961 program. As if to underscore the point, the new program notes that "the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] considers it necessary in the future to strengthen its organizing and directing influence on the life and activities of the Armed Forces."

The increased role of the party in military affairs has been emphasized by military leaders as well. Writing in the party’s theoretical journal Kommunist, for instance, Army General Alexei Lizichev pointed to the "natural increase under the new historical conditions of the party’s leading role in the life of Soviet society." This precept, he bluntly added, "fully applies to the Armed Forces as well—with a consideration of the specific nature of the missions they carry out."

Under Gorbachev, moreover, the military has continued to be excluded from the top ranks of the Politburo. Like his predecessor Sergei Sokolov, the new defense minister, General Dimitri Yazov, remains only a candidate member of that body. In addition, the military has lost two of the most important civilian spokesmen for its interests: Ustinov and Grigori Romanov, who was dismissed from the Politburo in July 1985. Their departure has deprived the military of important allies within the top leadership, a development that is all the more important because of the current lack of direct military representation in the Politburo. Within the Central Committee, moreover, the number of military representatives has remained relatively stable.

Gorbachev has also gradually begun to make some important changes in the top ranks of the military. Two of the most important changes were the retirement in 1985 of General Alexei Yepishev, head of the Main Political Administration, and Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, commander in chief of the navy, both of whom had close ties to Brezhnev. (Gorshkov, who died in May 1988, had held his position for nearly 30 years.) They were replaced by two officers about 20 years younger, General Alexei Lizichev and Admiral Vladimir Chernavin. Like Gorbachev, neither fought in World War II. They thus represent a new generation of officers, whose outlook is no longer dominated by the experiences of the war.

A second wave of changes came in the summer of 1986 in the wake of Gorbachev’s trip to the Soviet Far East in July. Soon after the trip Vasili Petrov, the senior first deputy minister of defense, was retired. He was replaced by Piotr Lushev, commander in chief of the Soviet forces in East Germany. At about the same time two other deputy defense ministers, General Vladimir Govorov and General A. T. Altunin, were transferred. Govorov’s replacement as head of the Main Inspectorate was General Ivan Tretiak, commander of the Far Eastern Theater of Military Operations.

A third round of changes occurred in early 1987. These affected key positions in the ground forces, air force and navy as well as the General Staff. Significantly, they took place shortly after Dimitri Yazov, the head of the Far Eastern Military District, was appointed deputy defense minister in charge of personnel (February 1987). Like Tretiak, Yazov appears to have caught Gorbachev’s attention during his trip to the Soviet Far East.

In short, since the summer of 1985 Gorbachev has carried out a major reshuffling of the top leadership of the armed forces, including ten out of 16 deputy defense ministers. In addition, he has replaced the chief of the Strategic Rocket Forces, the heads of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, Poland and Hungary, as well as the commanders of the Moscow and Byelorussian military districts.

The most important changes, however, came in the wake of a highly embarrassing penetration of Soviet air defense by the young West German pilot, Mathias Rust, who landed his small Cessna 172 on Red Square on May 28, 1987. The incident led to a stiff rebuke of the military, which was criticized by the party for a major "dereliction of duty." This was followed by a number of important personnel changes, including the retirement of Defense Minister Sokolov and the dismissal of Marshal Alexander I. Koldunov, the head of the Soviet Air Defense Forces.

The retirement of Sokolov was not entirely unexpected. As noted earlier, Sokolov was clearly an interim appointment. And at 75 he was nearing retirement age anyway. But the Rust affair provided a convenient opportunity for Gorbachev to ease him out and put in his own man.

The choice of Deputy Defense Minister General Dimitri Yazov to replace Sokolov, however, came as a surprise to many observers. A relatively junior officer with a background in personnel, Yazov is typical of the new generation of officers whom Gorbachev seems to favor. As commander of the Far Eastern Military District he earned a reputation as an efficient commander and a strong supporter of perestroika, or restructuring. His writings have focused on ways of improving efficiency, raising troop morale and adapting high technology to military affairs—all themes stressed by Gorbachev as well.

In choosing Yazov, Gorbachev bypassed several more senior and better-known officers such as Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the current chief of the General Staff; Marshal Viktor Kulikov, the commander in chief of the Warsaw Pact forces; and General Piotr Lushev, the first deputy defense minister. Equally interesting in this regard was the appointment of General Ivan Tretiak to replace Koldunov as head of the Soviet Air Defense Forces. Tretiak is a close associate of Yazov and their career paths have been closely intertwined. Both served together in the mid-1970s in the Far Eastern Military District, where Yazov was Tretiak’s first deputy. When Tretiak was promoted to head of the Far Eastern Theater Command in 1984, Yazov replaced him as head of the subordinate Far Eastern Military District. And, as already noted, both men were recalled to Moscow, where they again worked closely together as deputy defense ministers for the Main Inspectorate and for personnel.

These two institutions—the Main Personnel Directorate and the Main Inspectorate—appear to be the key institutions through which Gorbachev has sought to conduct the process of perestroika in the armed forces. Initially the military appears to have regarded the idea of perestroika as something that applied to the rest of society, but not to them. But at the January 1987 Central Committee plenum Gorbachev explicitly made clear that the process included the military as well. Since then the issue of perestroika has been given increased attention in the military press. While the main emphasis has been on increasing discipline and raising troop morale, the military has also been called upon to admit previous shortcomings.

The Rust affair and Yazov’s appointment marked an important turning point in this process. Since the Rust incident the military has come under increasing criticism, both in the civilian and military press. The tone and tenor of these criticisms make clear that the party leadership is less than happy with the pace of perestroika in the military. In a speech in July 1987, for instance, Yazov openly complained about "negative tendencies" in the military, and called upon the military to show a greater willingness to admit past mistakes.

The bluntest criticism, however, came from Boris Yeltsin, the Moscow party leader who was dropped from the Politburo by Gorbachev in early November. At a party meeting of the Moscow district air defense cadres in June 1987, Yeltsin launched a blistering attack on the air defense leadership, accusing them of "bureaucratism, nepotism, personal capriciousness, and cliquishness." Despite the decisions of the 27th Party Congress, Yeltsin complained, the district leadership had continued to act "as if the decisions of the Central Committee did not apply to them." The article reporting this attack also noted that a number of officers had been expelled from the party in connection with the Rust affair. Both the intensity and the openness of such criticism was unusual.

In effect, Gorbachev used the Rust affair to enhance party control over the military and intensify pressure for perestroika. At the same time, Yazov began to put his own men in key positions in the highest echelons of the armed forces. For instance, Yazov’s successor as deputy defense minister for personnel, General Dimitri Sukhorukov, the commander of the Airborne Forces, had preceded Yazov as commander of the Central Group of Forces in Czechoslovakia in 1979-80. Another Yazov associate, General Mikhail Sorokin, replaced General Tretiak as chief of the Main Inspectorate; Sorokin had preceded Yazov as first deputy commander of the Far Eastern Military District.

Service in the Soviet Far East, in fact, has become an important springboard to promotion: six of the current deputy defense ministers held senior posts or commands there in the 1970s. The elevation of these officers, each of whom apparently has some tie to Yazov, has strengthened the "reformist" element in the top ranks of the Ministry of Defense. Indeed, as Gorbachev accelerates his campaign to restructure and rejuvenate the top ranks of the armed forces, it would not be surprising if other holdovers from the Brezhnev era such as Marshal Kulikov, and possibly even Ogarkov, are retired.


Under Gorbachev the military’s influence on arms control and security policy has also decreased. The military remains an important player, but in contrast to the Brezhnev period it is no longer able to dominate the policy process. At the same time the role of the Foreign Ministry and International Department of the Central Committee has increased in the formulation of national security policy. Many of Gorbachev’s major arms control initiatives, in fact, appear to have been worked out by a small group of trusted civilian advisers in the Foreign Ministry and International Department with only limited involvement of the military.

Gorbachev has consciously sought to increase the arms control expertise within the Central Committee apparatus and Foreign Ministry. Within the International Department of the Central Committee a special section dealing with arms control has been created, headed by Lieutenant General Viktor Starodubov, who served on the Soviet delegations to the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) and the talks on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF). A new Arms Control and Disarmament Directorate, headed by Viktor Karpov, the former head of the Soviet Union’s delegation to the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START), has also been set up in the Foreign Ministry. Karpov’s deputy is a military officer, Lieutenant General Konstantin Mikhailov, who previously served on the Soviet General Staff.

The strengthening of the arms control expertise in the Foreign Ministry and International Department is designed to ensure that nonmilitary views are institutionalized into the policy process and has given Gorbachev an independent source of information on defense and security matters. At the same time Gorbachev has sought to enhance policy coordination and break down the rigid compartmentalization between the military and the other bureaucracies involved in national security affairs that existed under his predecessors. In sum, Gorbachev has sought to integrate the military more into the broader policy process, while at the same time strengthening the party’s—and his personal—control over the process.

In addition, the role of scientists and outside experts, particularly those in think tanks such as the Institute for the Study of the U.S.A. and Canada and the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), has increased. While not policymakers themselves, many of these outside experts play important roles as advisers to Gorbachev and as conduits of new ideas on arms control. Moreover, the link between the think tanks and the policy process has been strengthened by the creation within the Foreign Ministry of a new Scientific Coordination Center. Headed by Vladimir Shustov, one of the ministry’s top arms control specialists, the center is tasked with coordinating academic research on arms control and integrating it into the policy process.

The overall effect of these changes has been to create competing centers of threat assessment and to reduce the military’s ability to dominate the formulation of arms control and security policy. At the same time, the military’s requests for new weapons systems are being subjected to more careful scrutiny and weighed against other competing economic and political priorities. Increasingly, the military is being called upon to prove its case and justify demands for new weapons systems. In short, the days when the military could automatically be assured of receiving "all it needed to defend the homeland" (the standard formulation during the Brezhnev years) are over.

Yet while the role and influence of the civilian officials in the formulation of defense and security policy have increased, they do not as yet constitute the type of institutionalized defense and arms control "counter-elite" that exists in the United States. Their involvement is to a large extent ad hoc and often depends more on personal relationships than on formal channels. Moreover, while highly knowledgeable about Western defense policies, many of these officials lack detailed knowledge of the Soviet force deployments. To be truly effective and influential players they need greater access to military information, and their role needs to be more deeply institutionalized in the policy process.

As part of Gorbachev’s overall approach to security, arms control has also received greater attention. In the past, especially under Brezhnev, a buildup of the U.S.S.R.’s military power was seen as the main guarantee of Soviet security; arms control was of secondary importance. Under Gorbachev, arms control is seen as a major instrument for enhancing Soviet security, and especially for reducing the economic burden of the arms race. Indeed, Gorbachev appears to see a direct connection between a reduction of the military burden and his ability to revitalize the Soviet economy. He has thus been willing to adopt a more flexible position than his predecessors on a number of key arms control issues, especially intermediate-range nuclear forces.

In general, the military has supported Gorbachev’s arms control policy. However, it has had reservations about some specific aspects of his policy. Regarding the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, for instance, the Soviet military appears initially to have taken a very tough stand, demanding a total ban on SDI, including research. Gorbachev was reportedly able to win military support for an agreement that would allow some SDI research—a change signaled in the Soviet proposal put forward in the START talks—only by agreeing to press for a higher ceiling on missile warheads. The military now appears to have modified its attitude toward SDI. While it still remains strongly opposed to U.S. deployment of SDI, the top military leadership sees the program much more as a long-term challenge than an immediate one. There is a growing sense that U.S. domestic pressures, above all budgetary constraints and growing reservations in Congress, may force a cutback in the program. In addition, the Soviets recognize that Reagan’s successor is unlikely to have the same high degree of personal commitment to the program. These considerations have contributed to a modification of the Soviet attitude toward SDI that could eventually pave the way for conclusion of a START agreement once other, technical issues are resolved.

The military appears to have had some reservations about the wisdom of the Soviet extension of its moratorium on nuclear testing and the impact this could have on the U.S.S.R.’s military position. There are also clear differences over conventional arms control between some of the civilian analysts and the military. While some civilian advisers have advocated unilateral cuts, pointing to Khrushchev’s unilateral reductions in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a precedent, several top military leaders have rejected such cuts, arguing that Khrushchev’s reductions were ill conceived and caused serious damage to Moscow’s security. At present there appears to be no clear consensus on this issue, but it would not be surprising if Gorbachev did eventually make some unilateral reductions in Soviet conventional forces in central Europe in order to give the talks on conventional arms control new impetus.

Marshal Akhromeyev is likely to play a critical role in brokering the Soviet negotiating position on conventional arms control as well as in working out the Soviet approach to strategic arms. Akhromeyev has emerged as a key player and spokesman for the military on arms control issues. He was included in the Soviet delegation to the Reykjavik and Washington summits. His designation as head of the working group on arms control in both instances may have been designed to reassure the military that their interests would be protected, as well as to dissipate any military criticism of the final outcome.

Another source of controversy has been the issue of intrusive inspection measures in arms control. The Soviet military has traditionally opposed such measures, fearing that they would be used for intelligence purposes by the West. Since Gorbachev’s assumption of power, however, Moscow has significantly moderated its opposition to intrusive inspection. Important provisions for on-site inspection are contained in the agreement on confidence-building measures concluded at the Stockholm Conference on Disarmament in Europe in September 1986 and in the INF treaty. The Soviets also agreed to Western proposals for on-site inspection of declared chemical weapons sites on Soviet territory. In line with this shift, in October 1987 a group of Western specialists was allowed to visit the Soviet chemical weapons installation at Shikhany in the Lower Volga region.

In the negotiations in Stockholm, moreover, Gorbachev appears to have directly overridden the military, which had opposed Western provisions for intrusive verification measures. His decision to accept on-site inspection, apparently taken at a Politburo meeting in late June 1986, paved the way for the signing of the final accord on September 19. In order to underscore the Soviet military’s acceptance of the principle, the Soviet leadership took the unusual step of sending Marshal Akhromeyev to Stockholm in early September to announce the shift in the Soviet position.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the shift in Soviet policy, however, was Gorbachev’s willingness in September 1987 to allow a group of American congressmen to inspect the controversial radar site under construction near Krasnoyarsk, which the Reagan Administration claims is a violation of SALT II. The congressmen were allowed to roam freely within the facility and take nearly 1,000 photographs. In permitting them to visit and photograph the site, Gorbachev appears to have concluded that the political benefits of defusing the controversy on the eve of a possible summit outweighed the military’s concerns about possible U.S. intelligence gains.

A greater degree of glasnost has also been reflected in the more candid coverage of military issues in the Soviet press. Some Soviet writers have even gone as far as to question the morality of deterrence itself. The more open discussion, particularly the criticism of the military by some writers, has made the military uncomfortable, and lately military leaders have begun to complain openly about the increased dangers of pacifism. For instance, Lieutenant General V. Serebriannikov, a well-known military publicist, accused "certain writers and publicists" of expressing "decadent and cowardly thoughts which sow the seeds of pacifism." Under the guise of glasnost, he charged, these writers "virtually compete with one another to put forward the most sensational and venomous ‘revelations’." In January 1988 Defense Minister Yazov himself joined the fray. In a rare television interview he accused the Soviet press, especially the magazine Ogonyok, of undermining respect for the Soviet army. Such comments reflect growing concern on the part of the military that Gorbachev’s "new thinking," especially the greater degree of glasnost, could undermine popular support for military programs and values.


Another key bone of contention has been defense spending. While the disagreements that plagued Brezhnev’s last years have been more muted since Ogarkov’s ouster, they have by no means disappeared. In July 1985, four months after becoming general secretary, Gorbachev flew to Minsk for an unusual meeting behind closed doors with the top military leadership. Exactly what went on at the meeting is still not known, but Gorbachev reportedly warned the military not to expect large increases in the defense budget.

The party program adopted at the 27th Party Congress also contains a new formulation which appears to give the party greater flexibility in determining defense appropriations. Under Brezhnev the standard formulation was that the military would be provided with "whatever it needed reliably to defend the homeland." The new formulation states that the CPSU will make every effort to ensure that the Soviet armed forces "remain at a level that rules out the strategic superiority of the forces of imperialism." The change is subtle but important. In effect, it suggests that the armed forces do not need to match every Western increase but simply to maintain a defense level capable of deterring "Western aggression."

Recently, Soviet officials have also begun to make a distinction between "parity" (which requires forces equal to those of an opponent) and "sufficiency" (which requires enough force to deter an attack). In a speech in Prague in April 1987, for instance, Gorbachev noted that Soviet defense expenditures would be based on "reasonable sufficiency" (razymnaia dostatochnost), a term that has increasingly found expression in speeches and statements by Soviet officials and leaders, including the military.

While the exact operational significance of the term for Soviet force planning is not clear, as used by Gorbachev and other proponents of the "new thinking" the term seems to be part of a general effort to develop explicit criteria for force planning, putting greater emphasis on maintaining "sufficient" forces for defense. According to the proponents of the new theory, an effort to match every U.S. force development or new weapons system one for one is not only unnecessary but plays directly into the hands of the United States, which in the past has deliberately sought to exhaust the Soviet Union economically through major arms buildups.

Other proponents have argued that "copying various armaments developed and deployed by the aggressor frequently results in lagging behind in the arms race." As military technology becomes more sophisticated, and more time is needed to develop, test and deploy weapons, this lag could even increase, they warn. In this view, a symmetrical response means that the initiator of the arms race (i.e., the United States) can make more effective use of its technological, geostrategic and other advantages, thereby compelling the other side "to conduct the contest on the ‘opponent’s field’ and according to his ‘rules of the game’."

Significantly, the strongest proponents of the concept of reasonable sufficiency are civilian analysts located in several key institutes in Moscow. The attitude of the military toward these new concepts is much more ambiguous. While military representatives appear to accept the idea of reasonable sufficiency in principle, they rarely spell out the concept’s concrete meaning beyond saying it means having "sufficient" forces to repel an aggressor. Moreover, the military continues to insist that the achievement of parity remains the "decisive factor" in reducing the risk of war, suggesting that it is much less enthusiastic about the idea of asymmetrical reductions than are its civilian counterparts. Indeed, military spokesmen often equate parity and reasonable sufficiency.

This does not mean, however, that the military opposes Gorbachev’s economic program. While undoubtedly uneasy about the apparent constraints on defense spending, the military recognizes that a strong economy is a prerequisite for the maintenance of the Soviet Union’s status as a first-class power. The crucial issue is not gross output but technological change and innovation, particularly the acceleration of progress in high-technology areas such as computers, microprocessors and electronics. These areas are also considered critical in ensuring that the U.S.S.R. will be able to compete with the United States militarily, particularly in new "cutting edge" military technologies such as precision-guided munitions, sensors and electronic guidance systems, which Soviet military leaders believe will increasingly shape and dominate the military environment.

In effect, the Soviet Union faces a dual challenge: (1) to constrain U.S. progress in the development of sophisticated weapons technologies; and (2) to modernize its own industrial infrastructure in order to compete more effectively in key areas of military competition, especially those dominated by high technology. The military appears to recognize that technological innovation cannot occur without a modernization of the civilian sector of the economy, since many of the key technologies are "dual use" technologies, which must be introduced in a balanced way across the board. Hence the military has generally supported Gorbachev’s program to revitalize the Soviet economy, particularly his calls for "accelerated scientific-technical progress."

Over the last three years Gorbachev has introduced a number of organizational changes which have a direct relevance to the military and appear designed to improve scientific-technical progress and facilitate a better integration of the civilian and military sectors of the Soviet economy. The most important of these include: (1) the establishment in October 1985 of a new Machine Building Bureau of the Council of Ministers responsible for a unified technology policy, headed by I. S. Silaev, a close associate of former Defense Minister Ustinov; (2) the creation of a new State Committee for Computer Technology and Information Services, headed by N. V. Gorshkov, who comes from the defense-related Ministry of Radio Industry; (3) the creation of a new department within the Academy of Sciences oriented toward machine-building and computer technologies, which is intended to achieve better integration of fundamental research in military-related areas; and (4) the establishment of Multi-Branch Scientific-Technical Complexes, which are supposed to integrate efforts at all stages of innovation from fundamental research to industrial production.

In addition, a large number of officials recently appointed by Gorbachev to high economic management posts have previously held important posts in the defense-industrial sector. This includes Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, who was in charge of the armaments sector of the State Planning Commission (GOSPLAN) in the late 1970s; Silaev, who previously headed the Ministry of Aviation Industry; and Nikolai Talyzin, the former head of GOSPLAN. Talyzin’s replacement as GOSPLAN chief, Yuri Maslyukov, served as deputy minister of the Defense Industry, later as first deputy chairman of GOSPLAN in charge of armaments, and as chairman of the Military Industrial Commission of the Presidium of the Council of Ministers. Maslyukov was promoted to candidate membership in the Politburo at the February 1988 Central Committee plenum. Also promoted at this plenum was another member of the military-industrial complex, former Minister of General Machine Building Oleg Baklanov, who was made a Central Committee secretary.

The trend toward putting capable managers who have distinguished themselves in the military-industrial sector into key managerial posts in the civilian economy appears designed to increase the performance of the civilian sector and achieve a better integration of military and civilian economies. At the same time Gorbachev has also recently introduced into the civilian sector a number of practices used in the military sector, such as the state acceptance system (gospriemka) and program-oriented planning in an effort to break bureaucratic resistance to innovation and ensure a higher standard of goods. It remains to be seen, however, whether such organizational and personnel changes will be sufficient to achieve the increased technological innovation needed for the Soviet Union to reduce the growing technological gap with the United States in critical defense-related areas.

Moreover, there are built-in tensions within Gorbachev’s modernization program, which could become more acute over the long run. The program requires large investments in precisely those sectors—machine-building and metal—which are the primary source of both military hardware and consumer durables. Thus his modernization plan is likely to result in greater competition between the civilian and the defense sectors for many resources. Disputes over resource allocation could sharpen, exacerbating tensions with the military.

In the near term, however, this problem is likely to be manageable. Recent Western analyses suggest that the Soviet defense establishment should be able to accommodate the shifts in machinery demand implied by the new industrial program, due to the expansion of the defense industry that occurred in the 1970s. The crunch will come after 1990 when the defense industries have to prepare to produce new generations of weapons. If the modernization program falters or the U.S.S.R. is confronted with a major strategic challenge like SDI, Gorbachev could face increased pressure from the military for more investment in defense-related industries.


Under Gorbachev, Soviet military doctrine has also undergone a number of important modifications. To be fully appreciated, these changes need to be seen against the background of the general evolution of Soviet military thinking in the last several decades. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Soviet military writings reflected a view that nuclear war was a rational instrument of policy, that victory in a nuclear war was possible, and that strategic superiority was obtainable, and desirable. Beginning in the mid-1970s, however, Brezhnev openly began to oppose these views. In a speech in Tula in January 1977 he publicly rejected the idea that there could be any winner in a nuclear war and categorically denied that the Soviet Union was seeking strategic superiority. He also announced his willingness to sign a mutual pledge not to use nuclear weapons first, a commitment that was extended unilaterally in his 1982 message to the U.N. General Assembly.

Brezhnev’s Tula speech was designed to allay growing Western concerns about the goals and implications of Moscow’s military buildup. But it also appears to have reflected a basic political assessment of the reality of mutual assured destruction and the impossibility of preventing a devastating retaliatory strike by the other side. Thereafter Brezhnev, Ustinov and Chernenko increasingly stressed the impossibility of fighting and winning a nuclear war, and categorically rejected the idea that Moscow was striving for strategic superiority. The "Tula line," as it came to be known, coincided with the downturn in the Soviet economy.

Not all Soviet military theorists, however, agreed with Brezhnev. One important holdout was Marshal Ogarkov, then chief of the General Staff, who until the early 1980s continued to maintain that nuclear war could be "won." By 1983, however, he had been brought to heel. Thereafter he became one of the strongest supporters of the view that a nuclear war was unwinnable.

After 1983 Ogarkov explicitly downplayed the role of nuclear weapons, arguing that a further buildup of nuclear weapons was "senseless." As he put it in an interview in the army publication Krasnaia zvezda (Red Star) in May 1984:

The point is that with the quantity and diversity of strategic nuclear forces which have already been achieved, it becomes impossible to destroy the enemy’s systems with a single strike. A crushing retaliatory strike against the aggressor, a strike inflicting unacceptable damage—even with the defender’s remaining limited number of nuclear weapons—becomes inevitable in present conditions.

Ogarkov also rejected the idea of limited nuclear war, terming it "pure fantasy" and "without foundation." He repeated essentially the same message in his 1985 book, History Teaches Vigilance.

The main thrust of Ogarkov’s position was to downplay the importance of nuclear weapons and put greater emphasis on conventional weapons, especially those based on new technologies. During his tenure as chief of the General Staff (1977-1984) he tried to force a reorientation of Soviet strategy and adapt it to this new "revolution in military affairs." There is increasing evidence that coincident with his selection as chief of the General Staff, the Soviet Union adopted a conventional option as a long-term force development goal. This conclusion is reinforced not only by Soviet military writings, which in recent years have increasingly focused on the conduct of a theater war with conventional means, but also by the pattern of Soviet military exercises.

The Soviets no longer, in contrast to the 1960s, expect any future war to be decided in the early phase with the massive use of nuclear weapons, as espoused by Marshal Vasili Sokolovskii in his classic Military Strategy. Rather, they anticipate a long war conducted primarily with conventional weapons.

The Soviets do not exclude the use of nuclear weapons by NATO, but they do not expect such use to be massive. In their view the stalemate at the strategic level makes the unrestricted use of nuclear weapons increasingly unlikely. In a war with NATO the Soviets would try to achieve their military objectives without the massive use of nuclear weapons, and ideally without the use of nuclear weapons at all. Their willingness to adopt a no-first-use pledge reflects confidence in their ability to implement this strategy. At the same time, the Soviets remain concerned that the development of new concepts by NATO such as Follow-On Forces Attack, Deep Strike and the Rogers Plan, which rely heavily on new, high-tech conventional weapons, could offset or negate many of the force improvements they have made over the past decade and give NATO important advantages in the critical early period of any conflict. It is no accident, therefore, that these concepts have been strongly attacked in Soviet propaganda and analysis in recent years.


Gorbachev’s arms control policy should be seen against the background of these changes in doctrine, as well as changes in force posture to make forces more survivable by (1) putting more emphasis on bombers and cruise missiles, and (2) reducing reliance on large heavy missiles in favor of mobile missiles. Viewed in this light, Gorbachev’s willingness to sign the INF treaty makes eminent political and strategic sense. It eliminates an important nuclear threat to the U.S.S.R. posed by the cruise missiles and Pershing 2s, making Soviet territory once again a "sanctuary" from missiles launched from European soil. It also reduces NATO’s capability for nuclear escalation—the main Soviet concern should war in Europe break out—and erodes the credibility of the U.S. deterrent. Furthermore, Soviet advantages in conventional manpower and equipment, not to mention the geographic advantages for rapid conventional reinforcement, remain unaffected. While the U.S.S.R. must dismantle some 400 SS-20s and SS-5s, the targets covered by these weapons can be covered by other strategic systems, particularly the new SS-25 intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are more accurate and mobile, and hence more survivable. Indeed, this is probably one of the reasons the Soviet military was willing to go along with the deal.

At the same time, recent Soviet statements, including those by the military, have increasingly stressed the "defensive nature" of Soviet military doctrine. The main task of the Soviet armed forces is now said to be the "prevention of war." To accomplish this task the Soviet forces will be kept at a level of "reasonable sufficiency," which is defined as a level which "rules out superiority by the forces of imperialism."

These points were officially incorporated into the new party program adopted at the 27th Party Congress. They were also endorsed by the Political Consultative Committee of the Warsaw Treaty Organization at its meeting in Berlin at the end of May 1987. The communiqué stresses that the military potential of both sides should be reduced to levels of "sufficiency," that is, to a level "necessary solely for defensive purposes." The accompanying statement on military doctrine, moreover, calls upon both sides to develop force postures and doctrines to eliminate the capacity for surprise attack—long a prime concern of the West.

To date the changes have largely been declaratory and related to the political aspects of doctrine; they have not altered the military-technical aspects, i.e., operational strategy and tactics (what the Soviets call "military art") which are still geared toward maintaining the capacity to launch a conventional attack against Europe. However, within several Soviet think tanks efforts are being made to try to flesh out some of these ideas. Recently, for instance, a group of Soviet analysts argued that the idea of "reasonable sufficiency" must be applied "at the regional level," i.e., the conventional level, with the goal of preventing either side from carrying out a "local blitzkrieg" or escalating such a conflict with impunity. Others, drawing on lessons from the battle of Kursk, have pointed to the possibility of skillfully resisting a determined aggressor through the use of well-organized antitank defenses. Perhaps most significant, they stress the need to reconsider several widely held tenets of military theory and practice, particularly the idea that "a decisive offensive is the key to victory."

There has been little sign, however, that this new thinking is acceptable to the Soviet military. The military has been reluctant to make major changes in the Soviet force posture and has insisted that the Warsaw Pact must have the capability to conduct "counteroffensive" actions. Such a capability is clearly at odds with a truly defensive posture in which both sides are incapable of launching a surprise attack or conducting large-scale offensive actions.

Nevertheless, if the ideas currently under discussion begin to be applied at the operational level, they could have significant implications for Moscow’s force posture in central Europe and its approach to conventional arms control. If the political leadership really decides that this is the direction in which it wants to move, the military will, however reluctantly, have to adapt. As the INF, START and chemical weapons negotiations have shown, Gorbachev is willing to make decisions that go against narrow military interests when he believes these serve larger Soviet objectives.

Several factors could increase Gorbachev’s willingness to make the kind of asymmetrical reductions that would be necessary to achieve greater stability in Europe. First, the INF treaty eliminating all medium- and shorter-range missiles forces the conventional issue to the forefront and makes the current disparities all the more glaring. As a result, the Soviets will be compelled to address them more seriously than in the past. Second, Western advances in high-tech conventional weapons, such as precision-guided missiles, may eventually erode many of the current Soviet advantages in manpower and equipment, especially if Gorbachev’s reforms do not succeed in reducing the current technological lag with the West. Third, economic factors may push Gorbachev toward reductions, as they did Khrushchev in the late 1950s; it is in the conventional, not nuclear, areas where the savings will be the greatest over the long run. Finally, demographic factors may create incentives for reductions. Given the declining birth rate among the Russian, Ukrainian and Baltic populations, the Soviets may find it increasingly difficult to maintain the current 5.7 million men under arms.

There are some tentative signs, moreover, that Moscow may be beginning to apply some of the general principles currently under debate. The Soviets have recently begun to reconfigure some of their forces in central Europe (emphasizing brigades rather than divisions), as well as change the pattern of some of their exercises. The key question is whether these signs of restructuring represent a natural outgrowth of the Ogarkov reforms, which emphasized greater mobility and firepower, or are the first steps toward a more radical restructuring. In other words, are the changes signs of an effort to make Soviet forces "leaner," or instead "leaner and meaner" by taking out some support structure but retaining a capacity for rapid offensive action?

The answer to this question is not yet clear. What is evident is that there is a debate going on in Moscow over how best to address the issue of conventional arms control. At this point the Soviet position is far from solidified, and it may be some time before it is. However, the West can influence the outcome of the debate by putting forward serious proposals of its own and engaging the Soviets in a broad-ranging discussion on force postures and military doctrine. Discussions such as those between Soviet Defense Minister Yazov and his American counterpart Frank Carlucci, held in Bern in February, are a useful first step. They need to be followed up and complemented by others designed to probe and flesh out some of the concepts like "reasonable sufficiency" and "defensive restructuring."


The foregoing review highlights the evolution in Soviet party-military relations under Gorbachev. How successful Gorbachev will be in maintaining or even shifting further the current balance depends on several factors. The first is Gorbachev’s ability to continue to put his own men in place and gradually extend the personnel changes he has initiated. In order to push through his domestic and foreign policy agenda, Gorbachev will have to conduct a far-reaching purge of the top ranks of the military bureaucracy similar to that which has taken place in the top echelons of the Foreign Ministry and Central Committee Secretariat. One way of doing this would be to lower the age limit for retirement. This would allow him to eliminate a large number of "old war horses" and promote new, younger officers more attuned to his ideas and more willing to carry them out.

A second key factor will be the success of Gorbachev’s economic reform. At present, the military supports Gorbachev’s effort to strengthen the economy, which it sees as a prerequisite for maintaining Soviet military strength, and is willing to accept constraints on defense spending. This could change if Gorbachev’s economic reform falters or there is a major downturn in the international climate. In either case Gorbachev could come under growing pressure from an increasingly restless and disenchanted military, which might, as in Khrushchev’s time, ally itself with other disaffected elements to form a powerful brake on Gorbachev’s policies.

Developments in Eastern Europe could also play an important role. Gorbachev has allowed his East European allies somewhat greater room for maneuvering, both internally and externally, as long as their initiatives do not conflict with basic Soviet policy aims. However, an upheaval in Eastern Europe would significantly reduce Gorbachev’s willingness and/or ability to make any major troop withdrawals from the area. Indeed, many in the Soviet military probably worry that troop reductions could accentuate instability in the region, fueling a new crisis.

Perhaps the most important factor, however, will be the success of Gorbachev’s arms control policy. If Gorbachev can succeed in following up the INF agreement with an agreement on strategic arms and achieve some meaningful constraints on SDI, he will probably be able to keep the military at bay and have a freer hand to pursue his domestic agenda. If, however, he does not achieve some negotiated stabilization of the strategic relationship, he is likely to face growing pressure from the military to devote more resources to defense. Thus, the next several years are likely to be critical, not only for Gorbachev’s political position but also for East-West relations.

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  • F. Stephen Larrabee, a member of the National Security Council staff from 1978 to 1981, is Vice President and Director of Studies of the Institute for East-West Security Studies in New York. The views expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute.
  • More By F. Stephen Larrabee