Collapse of the Soviet Military, The

Collapse of the Soviet Military, The

Whitten, Robert C

The Collapse of the Soviet Military by William E. Odom. New Have, London: Yale University Press, 1998 (pp. 523 – $17.95 paperback).

The collapse (“unraveling” might be more descriptive) of the Soviet Union at the very end of 1991 was as unexpected as it was profound, and “Sovietologists” are still arguing the causes. Although Odom’s treatise is primarily concerned with the military forces, he necessarily analyzes the fall of the Soviet state as well since it was inextricably intertwined with the Communist armed services. With one important exception, the author performs the task very well.

Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1995. One year later, he was faced with a major disaster: Chernobyl. The inability of the government to cope with the accident coupled with Gorbachev’s new policy of glasnost (“openness”) did much to damage the legitimacy of the government just as he was beginning his reforms. Simultaneous with glasnost, the General Secretary launched his economic policy of perestroika (“restructuring”). As Odom emphasizes, Gorbachev understood neither the working of the Soviet economy nor the shocks to which he subjected it. The result was a rapid decline of an already shaky economic base as it precipitately privatized, and one might add, encouraged theft from the State by former officials.

As founded by Lenin, the Soviet state was a garrison state in which, aside from repression, preparation for war was its most important activity. Indeed, Lenin, turning Clausewitz on his head, defined politics as “war by other means.” In view of this political philosophy, it should not be surprising that the Soviet military-industrial complex should constitute an enormous part of the manufacturing capacity of the country. As someone once put it, “the Soviet Union did not have a military-industrial complex, it was a military-industrial complex,” using up at least twenty percent of the economy for military production and possibly as much as one-third according to some analysts. The collapse of the Soviet state brought about the near-collapse of the military-industrial sector. The Russian portion of the residual of that sector survives today only through foreign military sales.

In addition to the trauma caused by perestroika, Odom attributes the collapse to be partially due to the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Soviet experience proved to be much more destructive of the Soviet army than the somewhat similar experience of the Americans in Vietnam. The war in Afghanistan, opposed by many Soviet generals from the outset, was a steady drain on the army in terms of both material and the morale of its personnel. The reputation of invincibility forged during World War II was destroyed; narcotics were brought home on a large scale, and conscription as the main recruiting tool was severely damaged. Efforts to reform the Soviet military system, while given “lip service,” were never seriously undertaken. Neither were attempts to address the issue of returning officers and their families. This reviewer participated in several conferences on military reform in Russia and heard some very bizarre proposals for accommodating returning service personnel.

The major defect in Odom’s analysis of the collapse lay in his down playing of the policies of the Reagan administration. As we now know, Reagan and his associates declared war on the Soviets, low level war to be sure, but war nonetheless. The struggle was economic as well as military. Insofar as trade was concerned, the Soviet economy was an extractive one with energy – petroleum and natural gas – as its primary commodities. The Reagan administration exerted enough pressure on the major oil producers to increase production and drive down prices. Pressure on the Europeans cut the rate of natural gas purchases from the USSR. The result was a substantial reduction in hard currency for purchasing those commodities that the Soviets were unable to produce or produced in very poor quality or quantity.

Returning to military matters, American rearmament and the announcement by Reagan of “Star Wars” subjected the Ministry of Defense to enormous stresses because the general staff had progressed far enough to believe that the U.S. could make it work. Moreover, in an odd sort of way, the intelligence gained from the Walker spy ring may have helped to further convince the Soviets of their technical inferiority. With respect to Afghanistan, Odom neglects the shoulder-fired Stinger anti-air missiles supplied by the Americans, which had the effect of greatly reducing the utility of Soviet air power. Finally, the rapid victory in the Gulf war of the U.S. and its allies over Iraqi forces equipped and trained by the Soviets badly damaged the self-confidence of the Soviet general staff.

In view of the deficiencies of the Soviet armed forces that have come to light, were they a “paper tiger?” Odom asks the question and then answers it by reference to World War II when the army quickly recovered from Stalin’s near-destruction of the officer corps. Moreover, the political command and control of the Warsaw Pact was centralized in Moscow whereas that of NATO was diffuse. This character of the system would have given the Soviets an enormous advantage in a quick strike. The central control also allowed the Soviets to evolve more realistic doctrine for conflict in Europe. NATO, of course, had its advantages as well and, as Odom points out, it is impossible to know the outcome of such a conflict.

Although the criticisms leveled in the foregoing review are important, Odom’s treatise is a major contribution to understanding the collapse of not only the Soviet armed forces but also the Soviet Union itself. The author is a retired lieutenant general, U.S. Army, serving as Director of the National Security Agency just prior to his retirement. He is currently director of national security studies at the Hudson Institute and adjunct professor of political science at Yale University.

Reviewed by Robert C. Whitten

Book Review Editor

Copyright Dr. George Kourvetaris Winter 2001

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