This research paper will argue that there are four main areas in which Soviet thinking about war, strategy and defense was, and to a large extent is, distinct from Western thinking. Firstly, Soviet and Western thinking were governed by different aims. While the Soviet aim was messianic, the West was content to defend ?national interests.? Secondly, Russian military thinking is more holistic than Western military thinking. This means that the Russians, unlike many in the West, do not draw sharp lines between different sectors such as the military and civilian components. Thirdly, Russian thinking is based on systematic use of previous experience to develop a unitary scientific theory of how to prepare for and win wars. Fourthly and lastly, Soviet military thinking is characterized by certain distinctive cultural attitudes shaped by geography, history, and ideology.

These four areas of distinctiveness: the Ideological, Holistic, Scientific, and Cultural ways of thinking are not chosen randomly. The criterion of significance in this research paper is that these highlighted areas are the most important from a Western security perspective. An understanding of these four areas of distinctiveness was vital to our own survival during the Cold War. They are still relevant today since much of the mode of thinking remains; though the messianic aims of Communism no longer play a major role.
Soviet thinking was based on Marxist-Leninist ideology, and from a Western security point of view the aim of this ideology was important because it meant the advance of Communism and the destruction of Imperialism, especially Capitalism. This aim is based on a theory of history that sees conflict between material interests of classes as ?natural?. In contrast, Western thinking often assumes that people have harmonious interests. The role of war in the Marxist theory is to accelerate an inevitable process towards Communism. War does this by putting nations to test since it aggravates the social contradictions in society. Hence, Soviet military thinking was governed by an aim, the Communist society, and war was seen as a tool that could in certain circumstances advance this goal.

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The significance of this aim in Soviet thinking was to give it an overall coherence that the West was lacking. Everything is purposefully subjected to this aim in a systematic way through the expression and implementation of military doctrine. The overall coherence was dangerous to the West because it gave the Soviets an advantage by allowing them to specialize in one vital area, winning conflicts, while the West spread its resources over many areas. Metaphorically speaking one could say that there is no help in having a team full of good and diverse athletes if your survival depends only on how good your team is at soccer.
At the same time that the ideological way of thinking presented frightening scenarios, it also restrained the Soviets from adventurism. The soviets were unlikely to gamble on a war unless they were sure to win it. The reason being that the setback resulting from a loss would be very serious. It meant that the Soviet Union could not be the revolutionary agent they thought they were.
The second characteristic of Soviet military thinking is their holistic approach to war, security and strategy. This follows logically from the first characteristic of subjecting everything to a single aim. The holistic way of thinking implies that there are no sharp boundaries between the civilian and military sector; no separation of foreign and domestic policy; no false dichotomy between war and politics; and no neglect of intangible assets over tangible assets. A few examples would highlight these previous statements.

Civilian and military life in the Soviet Union was intimately intertwined. The only airline company, Aeroflot, was headed by a military official. All trucks were designed to function in war conditions as well as in peace. Military training was an integrated part of the education system. Lastly, civilian factories were designed so that they may convert to military production if necessary. These examples show that Soviet thinking did not make the same distinction between civilian and military life as many do in the West. The importance of this is that the fighting capability of the Soviet Union was much larger than a simple counting of tanks and planes.
That intangibles are counted as well as tangible assets in the holistic Russian military thinking is exemplified by the Soviet emphasis on ?active measures? to undermine the intangible assets of the West. The aim of these measures is, ?to penetrate the HQ of international Capitalistic organizations, with the aim of aggravating contradictions and difficulties occurring in their activities.? (Donnelly, p 152). The methods are intelligence operation, media penetration to distort perceptions, and front-organizations to skew public and elite opinion. Concrete evidence for these kind of activities is easily found by looking at the financing organizations like the World Peace Council, the Soviet orchestrated demonstrations against the Pershing II, and the campaigns against the neutron bomb. Based on this evidence it must be concluded that Soviet thinking about security is not just a one-dimensional view of military might, but a holistic approach counting intangible assets such as coherence as an integral part of the correlation of forces.

The third characteristic of Soviet thinking about military matters is the scientific approach to the theory of war. By a scientific approach it is meant that the Soviets extensively and systematically studied past wars to learn the ?scientific laws? of war. The knowledge resulting from this study of military art must be considered a great asset. A few examples will give a flavor of this way of thinking.

The Soviets operated with three dimensions of military art based on the scale of fighting: tactical, operational, and strategic. Of these three the operational level is the most interesting since it does not have a direct counterpart in Western strategic thinking. The ?deep-operation?, for example, is a concept tied to the operational level. In short, the deep-operation means a large concentration of heavy firepower in rapid advance on the enemy’s rear. By doing this one prevents the enemy from fighting a well defined and well structured war. A proof of its effectiveness was given by the success of the Manchurian campaign in 1945. The key realization of this kind of military thinking is that war is more than the number and sophistication of your hardware. It is also a question of knowledge: Knowledge about how the different parts work together; knowledge of how to exploit your enemy’s weakness not to match his strengths. Soviet thinking about these issues is distinct because in the West the study of war is often rejected with moral aversion. Consequently Western thinking about these matters is less extensive and rigorous.
The scientific use of previous experience to learn how to win wars has led to other more concrete results than concepts like the ?deep-operation.? It also had great consequence for weapon design and force structure. For example, the study of previous wars, especially the Civil War, showed the importance of simple, standardized and compatible weapon systems. The importance of this derives from the costs of learning to use new weapon systems and the increased probability of breakdown as a result of increased technological complexity. Thus, instead of complex and revolutionary weapon development Soviet weapon systems often developed in an evolutionary manner. For example, there is a long line of Soviet tanks from the T-34 to the T-72 which all have great similarities and interchangeable parts. Similarly, airplanes (MiG’s) and guns (such as the AK’s) are designed using past systems as close models. The crucial mechanism in this process of matching weapons to practical needs rather than technological sophistication, is the military representative in the design bureau and factories. These representatives make sure than no new exotic technology is used unless it is deemed necessary by the army. Thus, the different approach to weapon systems is one example of how Soviet military scientific thinking is different from the Western thinking towards high-tech weaponry.
That the scientific approach to military thinking has consequences for the force structure is best exemplified by the reserve system that characterizes the Soviet military. The system is based on rapid mobilization of reserves instead of a large professional standing army. Once again the civil war taught the Soviets the importance of this strategy: large reserves and good lines of communication were crucial to win the Civil War with no fixed fronts. Since the Soviets plan to turn a future war into such a fluid battle the reserve system makes sure that the Soviets can achieve a very favorable force ratio in battle. One Western soldier may be better trained and have better equipment than one Soviet soldier, but this does not mean that one Western soldier can win against four Soviet soldiers. Based on this lesson Soviet military thinking has led to a different force structure than the Western: Large reserves rather than small professional armies.
The last area of difference between Soviet and Western military thought is cultural attitudes. In many ways this is more a source of the other three differences (ideology, holistic thinking, and the scientific approach) than a separate category. For example, the holistic way of thinking can be traced back to the influence of the Greek Byzantine concept of law in Russia. Unlike the Roman concept, the Greek version did not limit the legitimate involvement of the Sovereign. By not doing so it failed to distinguish between the political and private sphere. The concept of deep operations can be traced back to the Russian attitudes to work originating in the Russian harvest in which an intense period of work was followed by less intense work (?storming the plan? is still a very recent concept in Russia). The Russian tradition of ?maskirovka? can be traced back to the culture of ?secrecy? which, as Donnelly writes, ?is built into the Russian mind.? (p. 42). The fact of this is that there are few natural hiding places in the Russian geography so the need for secrecy has to be used in the element of surprise.
Except for these cultural origins of already discussed topics there are also significant cultural differences which justify cultural attitudes as a fourth category of distinctiveness. One example is the Russian attitude towards violence and brutality. The Soviet army was infamous for its harsh peacetime discipline, and even more so for its methods of maintaining discipline during wartime. While most Western military personnel would hesitate before taking civilian hostages, the experiences from the Civil War have taught Russians to use all possible means. Thus, Soviet military thinking was less moved by ethical and moral considerations than Western thinking. If brute force could solve a problem, then brute force was used.
Another cultural attitude which influences Russian thinking is their combined feeling of pride, inferiority, and insecurity. The pride arises from a feeling of being spiritually superior to the Western materialists. It is expressed through the belief in Moscow as the Third Rome and the theory of a superior Slav culture. Combined with this feeling of pride is a feeling of insecurity and inferiority arising from repeated invasions from the West, lastly by Napoleon and Germany. The consequence of these feelings is that Russia will not allow herself to be humiliated with a surprise attack by Western intervention like Operation Barbarossa. Rather than being surprised, it will try to gain the upper hand by itself starting an attack if it feels that war is imminent. The feeling of insecurity and pride thus give a rise to a dangerous mix of uneasy thinking which could explode unless contained. It makes Russian thinking about war offensive rather than defensive.
The four areas of distinctiveness in Soviet thinking about war, security, and strategy creates a formidable challenge to the West. In conclusion one could note two points about this challenge.

The first is that one should not overestimate the quality of Soviet thinking. As Donnelly has pointed out, it is ethnocentric and governed by an unwillingness to admit failures. It is ethnocentric in its approach to war because of its bias towards land operations and relative neglect of wars in other parts of the world under different geographical conditions. Furthermore, it appears to be predictable, thus giving a knowledgeable opponent the opportunity to prepare. Thirdly, the holistic way of thinking may undermine itself in two ways. First, the integration of political and economical life may prove to be so inefficient that there are not enough economic resources to keep up the struggle. Secondly, new technologies require different attitudes (creativity, more education) which may be incompatible with the stability of the political system. So, despite the impressive amount of thought given to military science, it is not flawless.

The second point is that the Soviet challenge still remains despite theoretical flaws and the fall of the Soviet Empire. Significant variables have changed, for example the aim of Soviet thinking is no longer to establish Communism, but establish Capitalism. Nevertheless Soviet modes of analysis still remain in the Russian military. Their thinking is still holistic, governed by a military doctrine formed by a distinct knowledge of the science of war and Russian cultural values. Also, Russian thinking about strategy (at all levels) is very impressive, making it a lesson worth studying for Western military thinkers. So, the conclusion must be the rather obvious statement that Soviet and Russian thinking, and the threat it represents, should neither be overestimated nor should it underestimated. Rather it represents a body of knowledge from which we can learn.
1). Donnelly, Christopher, ?Red Banner: The Soviet Military System in Peace and War,? Jane’s Information Group, London, 1988.

2). Sheer, James, ?Soviet Power: The Continuing Challenge,? Macmillan Press, London, 1987.
3). Mastny, Vojtech, ?The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity,? New York, 1996.
4). Barber, John, and Harrison, Mark, ?The Soviet Home Front, 1941-1945,? New York, 1990.

5). Matlock, Jack F, ?Autopsy on an Empire,? New York, 1995.


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