China on the Offensive
How the Ukraine War Has Changed Beijing’s Strategy
NO one is likely to deny that since August 1945, when the first atomic bomb was used, the nature of warfare has changed. In the United States the great importance of the change was quickly appreciated, and as nuclear weapons have developed the doctrine for their employment has been continuously revised. In the Soviet Union, by contrast, the first years following the American acquisition of nuclear weapons were marked by the ostensible rejection of any belief in their exceptional importance. Since 1953, however, the Soviet Union has come to grips with the problems posed by the existence of these weapons. In this article we shall examine how Soviet military thinkers have radically altered some of their hoary ideas about warfare and how differences on military policies played an important rôle in the political crises terminated by Malenkov's demotion in February 1955. By contrast, Zhukov's dismissal in October 1957 probably arose from differences on political rather than military policy.
Soon after Stalin died in March 1953, Russian military leaders began to incorporate the problems logically raised by the existence of nuclear weapons into more or less public discussions of military matters. Until that time Soviet ideas on warfare had been formed by combining the lessons of World War II with Marxian theories. The Soviet concept, in essence, was that modern war was necessarily a war of attrition in which political factors played a major rôle. Stripped of excess verbiage, "the teachings of Marxism on war" said that the morale of the fighting front and the home front had grown in importance since the time when mercenary armies fought with forces in being without appreciable accretions in strength through mobilization. Although the validity of this idea was widely recognized, the Marxists pretended to a monopoly of the concept.
In Stalin's version of this view of war, surprise was minimized; the factors emphasized were those that would be of greatest importance in a war of attrition. In 1942 Stalin listed certain "permanently operating factors," as they were called, which he said determined victory or defeat in war. These factors were the stability of the rear, the morale of the army, the quantity and quality of divisions, the army's weapons, and the organizing ability of the commanding officers. Nothing but these permanently operating factors counted in the final result. Transitory factors, such as the use of military surprise, could not in themselves determine the outcome of the war. Under such a theory, surprise attack with nuclear weapons could not be decisive.
While Stalin lived, this theory was imposed as dogma on all Soviet military thinking. It fostered complacency and a false confidence in Soviet strength and hampered an open-minded examination no less of the country's military opportunities than of her difficulties. It was more the tone than the content of Stalin's formulation that was harmful. What Stalin said was so truistic that it had little practical utility. Who could deny that a country with a larger, better-equipped, better-led force, a country which enjoyed superior morale and had a superior industrial base, would win a war with a country notably inferior in all these respects? But, since such a discrepancy between the capability of warring nations is rarely found, Stalin's dogma is of limited use as a guide for achieving the proper military posture.
Stalin's dogma was not merely too general to be useful; it was positively harmful, because it was interpreted to mean that the Soviet Union was and always would be superior to other nations in the permanently operating factors, and would therefore automatically win any war in which it became involved. When the Soviet authorities stated that the Soviet Union would always be superior in the permanently operating factors, they meant that the political advantages inherent in a socialist society more than compensated for its inferior economic strength.
Thus, Soviet morale had to be superior, for Soviet citizens love the state in a way impossible for the victims of capitalism, and they fight and toil more valiantly in the knowledge that theirs is the just cause. Socialist leadership was better because it rested on Marxism; Soviet military science was better because it was Marxist. The Soviet Union also had important material advantages because it was a Marxist state. It could mobilize for war more rapidly and thoroughly than the capitalist countries because its economic organization was better planned and more efficient.
All this was not so much a theory of war as an elaborate ritual of reassurance. Complacency this was, but not the kind of complacency that breeds apathy. Convinced that History helps those who help themselves, the Soviet leaders imposed great sacrifices upon their people in order to create a formidable military establishment. But was it formidable in the age of nuclear weapons?
The Soviet military establishment had been designed in accordance with Stalin's theory that the Soviet Union could win a war of attrition against capitalism, and that only a war of attrition was possible. It was not admitted that the employment of nuclear weapons might compress the effects of years of normal attrition into a few days. Under Stalin the Russian military leaders could neither analyze the situations where defeat was probable nor devise measures to reduce its likelihood. To establish an adequate military posture in spite of the dogma that your side will inevitably win is to do it the hard way--if indeed it can be done at all.
After Stalin's death some of his successors still felt that the old way was the only way; others wanted to break the fetters of the past. The innovators won the argument after a hard fight. Its course can be followed in the pages of Voennaia mysl' (Military Thought), the organ of the general staff, which has only a limited circulation within the Soviet Union.[i] At first the controversy was confined to its pages, but when the issue was finally resolved, in early 1955, in favor of a revision of Stalinist military thinking, the whole military press reflected the change in the official line.
The first public indication of a conflict behind the scenes was an article written for Military Thought in November 1953, by its editor, Major General Talenskii, a general staff expert on military history who had formerly been editor of Red Star, the daily organ of the Ministry of Defense. When he opened what was obviously the most far-reaching discussion of military theory in the Soviet Union in a quarter century, it was clear to Soviet readers that he was speaking for others beside himself.
Talenskii's arguments were couched in the language of Marxian philosophical generalization, but the conclusions were down to earth. His main point was that the battle was what counted. Attention had to be focused on the armed conflict itself, which the Soviet Union might win or lose, depending on the situation. Talenskii made three main points. First, the military planner had to abandon his slavish adherence to the permanently operating factors as the only possible basis for all military planning. Second, he had to restrict the discussion to military factors and avoid all the political considerations which automatically led to the conclusion that the Soviet Union would win. Third, he had to insist on the essential identity of the principles of warfare for both sides.
Talenskii dealt with Stalin's dogma concerning the permanently operating factors by flatly stating that it did not constitute a law of war. Talenskii and his supporters rejected not the importance of making the Soviet Union superior in these factors, but the unquestioning assumption that the Soviet Union, by virtue of being a socialist state, must always be superior in them. No longer was the phrase "permanently operating factors" to be regarded as an abbreviated article of faith, and by early 1956 it disappeared from the Soviet military press.
Talenskii's second argument was a corollary of the first: military people and military science ought to stick to military matters and leave political considerations to the Party. Marxist-Leninist teachings, he said, are not within the purview of military science. In the past, reference to Marxist-Leninist teachings automatically led military theorists to the conclusion that a socialist state had the advantage in war because, by definition, a socialist state was superior in political strength to its capitalist enemies. Talenskii's abandonment of the assumption of inevitable Soviet victory was a most important step toward realism.
Talenskii's third point was the essential identity of the principles of warfare for both sides. The Stalinist view was that a socialist society was governed by basic social laws different from those governing a capitalist society. It followed that the war activity of these two kinds of society was also governed by different laws. Talenskii firmly insisted that, in armed conflict, the same laws governed both sides. The consequence of this position was again to focus attention on the battle and to push aside the social and political differences between capitalism and Communism.
In rejecting the rigid dogmatism of the Stalinist approach, what was Talenskii putting in its place? Victory, he said, is to be accomplished by successive blows of cumulative force delivered by a Power superior in the basic economic, political and military potentialities. Although Talenskii's preferred war is the extended war of attrition, he makes it unequivocally clear that in certain conditions the issue might be decided in a short time. But he does not substitute one dogma for another. In harmony with the new realism, he does not insist that the war of the future must be won or lost in the first phase: given the proper measures in air defense and intelligence, a surprise attack need not decide the outcome during the initial stage of the war.
In his article of November 1953, Talenskii made no explicit connection between the possibility of a short war and the employment of nuclear weapons. During the ensuing year, this connection was made in passing by others in the many pages of Military Thought. But it was only after the clear-cut victory of the new view early in 1955 that the connection between surprise attack, nuclear weapons and the possibility of a short war was made sharply and prominently in the general press.
The proponents of the new view did not win easily. Talenskii's views were described as anti-scientific and anti-Marxist. For espousing "naked" strategy he was compared to Douhet and Fuller. The majors and colonels who discharged these damning epithets in Talenskii's direction could hardly have done so if Talenskii's views had already represented official thinking about war. Any doubts on this score would have been dispelled by Marshal Vasilevskii's statement in an article in Red Star for February 22, 1954, that Soviet military science was based on the permanently operating factors which determined the fate of war. Vasilevskii reiterated his rejection of the new trend in Red Star for May 7, 1954, where he quoted Stalin as having demonstrated "that the outcome of war is determined not by the collateral factors but by the permanently operating factors." Vasilevskii's stand on the tried and true Stalinist formula was echoed in the pages of Military Thought, in Red Star, and in books on military doctrine. In fact, in mid-1954 Talenskii was relieved as editor of Military Thought.
The turning point came after Malenkov was demoted. In February 1955, after Marshal Zhukov had become Minister of Defense, the new editorial board finally agreed to print an article by Marshal Rotmistrov, "On the Rôle of Surprise in Contemporary War," which spelled out the full implications of Talenskii's cautious statements of November 1953. Talenskii had said that his formulation of the basic law of war did not "exclude the possibility of a decisive defeat in a limited time of one or the other opponent, given the existence of certain conditions." Rotmistrov's formula was positive: "It must be plainly said that, in the situation of the employment of atomic and hydrogen weapons, surprise is one of the decisive conditions for the attainment of success not only in battles and operations but also in the war as a whole."
When, in April of 1955, the editors of Military Thought officially endorsed the major points of Talenskii's position and rejected the criticisms of his opponents, it was something of an anticlimax, for the belated publication of Rotmistrov's article in February 1955 had already spelled the end of the orthodox Stalinist view of military doctrine.
One is immediately struck by the timing of the Rotmistrov article. Its appearance, signifying that the bitter and extended controversy had been decided in favor of the innovators, was practically simultaneous with the demotion of Malenkov, the elevation of Khrushchev, and Marshal Zhukov's assumption of the post of Minister of Defense in February 1955. Zhukov's dismissal from that post last fall is probably not a sign that the strategy then adopted will now be dropped in its turn. The strategy officially adopted in 1955 was based on Khrushchev's conviction that the Soviet Union must be ready for a nuclear war even though the likelihood of such a war was small. Both Malenkov and Khrushchev apparently agreed that Soviet policies, including military ones, had to be changed to meet the requirements of the nuclear age.
But they differed as to what these changes should be. Malenkov thought that Soviet policies should be based on the assumption that the United States was effectively deterred from initiating war on Russia. Five months after Stalin's death, Malenkov, in a major speech, pointed to the basis for the Soviet policy of deterrence and, at the same time, proposed a radical redirection of Soviet economic policies. He announced that the Soviet Union had developed an H-bomb (though it had not yet exploded one); and he said that the time had now come to force the development of light industry. Malenkov was suggesting, but not quite saying, that the new Soviet strength had changed the situation so radically that one could revise the traditional Soviet formulation that war was inevitable as long as capitalism existed. If existing Soviet strength was enough to keep the peace, greater attention to Soviet consumer needs was justified. If the United States was deterred from making war because of Soviet strength, Malenkov's often-repeated statement that all international problems could be settled by negotiation was a reasonable hope.
An obscure writer, M. Gus, in the November 1953 issue of Zvezda made explicit what was implicit in Malenkov's position. He wrote that it was possible "to paralyze the law of the inevitability of war," and he advocated a foreign policy for the Soviet Union which would involve "wise compromise" and "expedient and necessary concessions." This revision of doctrine was immediately rejected in the following issue of the magazine, and in other places prominent Party and military writers reiterated the standard position that war would cease to be inevitable only when capitalism was destroyed.
Although no one after Gus has ever flatly said that war is no longer inevitable, many prominent Soviet leaders made speeches whose tone was consistent with this assumption. On Lenin's anniversary in January 1954, Pospelov made a speech in which there was not a single word about the danger of war or the warlike plans of the capitalists. In March of 1954, Mikoyan said in Erevan that the danger of war had receded largely because the Soviet Union possessed the atomic and hydrogen bombs. The United States now had to face the possibility of the destruction of American cities, and was therefore more inclined to negotiate with the Soviet Union. These paragraphs in Mikoyan's speech were excised from the accounts carried by the Moscow press. In the same month, Malenkov made his famous plea for an end of the cold war.
Malenkov and his group were proceeding from the assumption that the destructiveness of nuclear weapons had created a real opportunity for reliance on a policy of deterring the United States. But they went beyond the mere statement of a theoretical position; they came into open collision with others on the subject of the military budget. In March 1954, Malenkov, Pospelov, Pervukhin and Saburov made speeches in which they said that the armed forces of the Soviet Union possessed everything necessary to carry out their functions. Khrushchev, Bulganin, Molotov, Kaganovich and Voroshilov were clearly ranged on the other side of the argument. Using the old formula about capitalist encirclement of the Soviet Union, they insisted again and again that the armed forces had to be further strengthened.
Any doubts as to the existence of fundamental differences between Malenkov and his opponents were dispelled in April 1954 when Malenkov, probably under duress, suddenly abandoned the line that peace might be preserved through fear of the "destruction of world civilization," and substituted for it an orthodox prediction that, if war came, only capitalism would collapse. In the same statement, he also reversed his position on the armed forces and called for an increase in military strength. From that time forward, Malenkov's opponents were unchallenged in their general assertions that the capitalists wanted war, and their more specific warnings against surprise attack with nuclear weapons. Khrushchev and Bulganin having warned in a general way that the Soviet Union should be prepared for any surprises, their supporters spoke explicitly of the danger to the Soviet Union if the capitalist enemy succeeded in a surprise nuclear attack. Clearly, if it was at all possible for such a surprise attack to win a war, it would be reckless to rely on American fear of the "destruction of world civilization" to protect the Soviet Union. Soviet prospects for deterring the United States had improved, but possession of nuclear weapons did not guarantee immunity from attack.
It is unlikely that Malenkov believed war was ruled out by the existence of nuclear weapons and that, as long as the Soviet Union had some sort of nuclear striking force, her interests were securely guarded. It is equally improbable that Khrushchev and his supporters believed a nuclear attack by the United States to be imminent. More likely, Malenkov expected that a combination of Soviet nuclear strength and conciliatory policies could assure peace for a long time with no necessity for important changes in the Soviet military posture. Khrushchev, in turn, probably reasoned that, although a United States attack upon the Soviet Union was unlikely, the Soviet Union had to be prepared to meet such an attack, and that the better prepared the Soviet Union, the smaller the likelihood of such an attack. This he expressed at the Twentieth Party Congress, in February of 1956, when he revised the formula of "inevitable war" to read that war was not "fatalistically inevitable."
Khrushchev's position was the more traditional and more cautious of the two. It took into account the worst that might happen. Military planners like to be prepared to deal with a presumptive enemy's capabilities irrespective of his good intentions or self-restraint. During the spring of 1954, Khrushchev frequently pointed to the irrationality of American behavior and warned that the Soviet Union must depend on its own strength, without relying on the enemy's desire for peace. The military posture required to deter a potential enemy from nuclear attack is not identical with that required to fight an actual enemy in nuclear war. The bare minimum required to deter the United States would be the capacity to inflict great damage on the United States. For deterrence alone, the survival of the Soviet retaliatory force was sufficient; it would not be essential to protect Soviet cities. But Khrushchev's position necessitated a more elaborate and more expensive military establishment. If one granted that deterrence might fail and the Soviet Union be compelled to wage a nuclear war, then a major objective must be to minimize destruction in Soviet Russia. This would require elaborate warning systems and extensive defense measures, both active and passive. The only real limit on expenditure for such a posture is the extent of available resources.
The most recent Soviet developments in weapons are the fruits of the decision taken some years ago to have not only a deterrent capability, but also a war-making capability. The requirements the Soviet leaders have placed on the ballistic missile demonstrate that the missile is not viewed primarily as a blunderbuss with which to threaten the United States, but as a weapon intended to destroy military targets. As early as 1956, Major General Pokrovsky characterized the missile as an excellent weapon because (1) it could be developed to high accuracy, (2) launching platforms could be readily built and easily concealed, and (3) the missile, once it had been launched, was difficult to detect and intercept. After the official announcement of a successful test of a long-range ballistic missile, the chief of the Soviet Air Force, Marshal Vershinin, repeated these points, emphasizing the reliability and accuracy of ballistic missiles. Other Soviet military writers have also stressed that accuracy is an essential requirement for the ballistic missile.
All these reflections on the military value of the ballistic missile as the most perfect weapon of surprise reinforced the conviction that surprise could make a vital difference. It was precisely this need to prepare for more than deterrence and to prepare against surprise nuclear attack that was spelled out for the first time in Marshal Rotmistrov's article, published in February 1955, immediately after Malenkov had lost out to Khrushchev. Rotmistrov stated that the Soviet Union must be ready to strike a preëmptive or forestalling blow, in case the United States was about to attack. In the public media, only General Shatilov, in his speech of May 1955, preserved this emphasis on beating the opponent to the punch, when he referred to surprise as a "double-edged weapon." Several other Soviet generals, including air force generals, restated Rotmistrov's position more guardedly when they said that the Soviet Union must be able to deprive the enemy of the fruits of surprise and be prepared to do more than trade blow for blow. Quite obviously, whatever the formulation of the problem, the emphasis was on the conduct of nuclear war, and not only on the deterrence of it.
More was to be gained from strengthening the Soviet armed forces than a better military capability to meet a possible, but unlikely, threat from the United States. In 1954 the United States had a clear preponderance in air nuclear strength and warned that it was prepared to employ that strength, not only in the event of a direct attack upon the United States, but also in the event of Soviet aggression anywhere in the free world. Since that time the Soviet Union has increased its nuclear air strength, thereby increasing the damage the United States might suffer in responding to Russian aggression by an attack upon the Soviet Union. Thus, Khrushchev and his colleagues may reason, American retaliation against Soviet aggression becomes less certain and perhaps uncertain. Consequently, new opportunities open up for Soviet expansion. Whether the Soviet Union will assume the terrible risk of exploiting such opportunities by making war for limited objectives no one can say. But without a military establishment roughly equivalent to that of the United States in nuclear strength, the Soviet leaders would never be in a position to even consider running such a risk. Greater military strength increases the policy alternatives among which Soviet leaders can choose. That, by itself, could be a sufficient argument in the Soviet Union. Coupled with the other considerations described above, it won the day against Malenkov.
The allocation of resources to the armed forces, to heavy industry and to light industry was a function of the military posture adopted. A posture directed primarily to deterrence would obviously leave more resources available for light industry. Shepilov, however, in a Pravda article of January 24, 1955, pointed directly to the consequence of Malenkov's policy for weapons procurement. If the Soviet Union had adopted the policy of the "pseudoe-conomists," said Shepilov, the result would have been to "surrender the privilege of the forced development of heavy industry, machine construction, energy, chemical industry, electronics, jet technology, guidance systems, etc. to the imperialists. . . ." The progression of items from the general category of "heavy industry" to "guidance systems" made it clear that Malenkov was being charged, among other things, with failure to push the development of guidance systems which are an essential component of satellites, long-range missiles systems and active air-defense systems.
Since Malenkov's deposition in February 1955, the Soviet armed forces have greatly improved their capability both to deter and to wage nuclear war. The ground forces have received large quantities of improved equipment; the strategic air force has been expanded; active and passive air-defense measures of impressive proportions have been taken; the possession of a longrange ballistic missile has been announced, and this claim is supported by the successful launching of two heavy satellites which testify to Soviet advances in power plant and guidance systems.
It was between the launching of the first and second satellites that the Soviet war hero, Minister of Defense and member of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, was dismissed from all his high offices. This dramatic event seems to have been connected with the problem of army-Party relations rather than with questions of military policy. The armed forces have participated in high-level Soviet politics since Stalin's death. They played a rôle in the elimination of Beria and in reducing the influence of the secret police. The air force excepted, they evidently sided with Khrushchev during 1954 in the struggle against Malenkov's conceptions. Significantly, Marshal Zhukov was immediately promoted to the Ministry of Defense and to alternate membership on the Party Presidium--both offices never before held by a field general. As the army forces increased in strength, Party control declined. In fact, Zhukov publicly charged the political officers with interference in proper military training. The political lectures which had been separate and under the control of the political officers were now combined with regular military training; the whole of the soldier's education, political and military, became the direct responsibility of the regular officer, who could call upon the political officer for assistance.
In June 1957, when Khrushchev evicted Malenkov, Kaganovich and Molotov from the Party Presidium, the generals publicly endorsed the change; indeed both Zhukov and the military press were more extreme in their charges than anybody else. Zhukov now was elevated to full membership in the Presidium. The best clue to the reason for his dismissal five months later is the absence of any successor to Zhukov in the Party post of Presidium member. The Party's ascendancy is demonstrated.
Zhukov's removal from power does not portend major changes in Soviet strategic thinking. Since 1955, billions have been spent on making the Soviet armed forces fit both to deter and to wage a nuclear war. The military parade on November 7 emphasized tactical weapons designed for both purposes. The very magnitude of the investment in the present military posture makes it doubtful that the Soviets will turn back to what Malenkov advocated --primary reliance on deterrence.
Yet the strategy imposed by present conditions cannot be completely satisfactory to the Soviet leaders. The strategy of fighting a preëmptive war--getting in the first blow against an opponent poised to strike--as advocated by General Rotmistrov and officially adopted in 1955, is essentially a strategy of the second-best. For under these conditions, it is the opponent who chooses war; the Soviet Union simply makes the best of it in seeking by earlier action to blunt the opponent's first blow. As long as the Soviet Union has no hope, in its first strike, of hitting the opponent's striking forces effectively enough to preclude retaliation, the initiation of war is an act of extreme desperation. If the Soviet Union could create a weapons system permitting the elimination of our striking force without fear of effective retaliation, the Soviet leaders could attack if and when they pleased.
If the Soviet Union should continue to gain technologically while the NATO alliance made little progress, the Soviet Union would be able to make war without fear of the consequences. It will be difficult to attain the ability to eliminate the opponent's nuclear striking forces in a single blow. But that is the goal which the Soviet leaders must strain to reach. If they should acquire such preponderant military strength, they would have policy alternatives even more attractive than the initiation of nuclear war. By flaunting presumably invincible strength, the Soviet Union could compel piecemeal capitulation of the democracies. This prospect must indeed seem glittering to the Soviet leaders.
[i] With the exception of a partial account by Mr. N. Galai in the June 1956 issue of the Bulletin of the Institute for the Study of the U.S.S.R., no comprehensive account of the debate appears to have been published outside the Soviet Union.