Paper Bear

Paper Bear

Mini Teaser: Rather surprisingly, William Odom's Collapse of the Soviet Military provides the most comprehensive and serious examination to date of the Soviet military's unexpected passivity during the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

by Author(s): Anatol Lieven

In the twentieth century, and as far as I am aware in all history, there have been only two cases of the overwhelmingly non-violent abandonment of what had been a vast empire: the British and the Soviet/Russian. Of these, the latter was, on the face of it, by far the more surprising. The British Empire had been gravely weakened by the Second World War, which Britain had effectively lost before she was saved by the Soviet Union and the United States. Even before that war broke out, the British Empire in India at least had been badly undermined by Indian nationalism and the ostensibly liberal and democratic ideology of the British people and state. Having lost India--the strategic, economic and emotional core of the Empire--the expensive, irrelevant bits and bobs that remained hardly seemed worth saving, even if Britain had been economically capable of doing so. The Suez debacle cruelly underlined the new realities. In the final steps, imperial retreat was crucially affected by the deep unpopularity in the electorate of using military conscripts for imperial policing duties.

The Soviet Union, by contrast, was not supposedly burdened by a sense of liberal conscience or by democratic pressure from the population. In the common Western analysis of the 1980s--and to a very considerable degree in reality--the population of its empire was thoroughly insulated from subversive ideas by the totalitarian state; for the same reason, the communist ideology, however tarnished in the eyes of East Europeans, continued to hold sway over the population of the Soviet Union itself. The economy, however grotesquely incompetent compared to that of the West, could go on providing living standards that were not only adequate in themselves, but so obviously superior to those of the previous generation as to constitute a source of legitimacy.

Finally, the huge Soviet armed forces, though falling behind the West technologically, were more than adequate not only to repel any outside attack (had any been likely) but to suppress any conceivable mass discontent within the empire. And they were supposedly adequate not just in terms of weapons and numbers, but in terms of moral readiness, ideological commitment and disciplined obedience to the orders of the state.

Why the Soviet military didn't assert itself in the years leading to the Soviet Union's disintegration is the essential question that Lt. General William E. Odom seeks to answer in his latest book, The Collapse of the Soviet Military. This impressive work is the most comprehensive and serious study of its subject to date, and probably will remain so for a considerable time to come. It is distinguished by its intelligent analysis, extremely interesting and revealing personal sources, and frequently even by its objectivity and balance. This was something of a surprise, because in contemplating General Odom's long and distinguished career as a soldier, an analyst and director of the National Security Agency, balance and objectivity concerning the Soviet Union and Russia are not necessarily the first virtues that come to mind.

The first quality of General Odom's account, however, stems from his past obsessions, and that is that it takes Soviet communist ideology and its role in the armed forces seriously. In doing so, his work on this occasion distinguishes itself both from the old Western "convergence" school, which saw the Soviet system and that of the West as growing more and more alike, and those historicists who regard the Soviet Union, and especially Soviet external policy, as overwhelmingly a continuation of Russian national and imperial traditions. Odom stresses the importance of Marxism-Leninism, inculcated in the military by the Party's military representatives, the 80,000-strong corps of political officers (zampolits, formerly politruks), in shaping not only the armed forces' overall vision of the world and ambition for something like world conquest, but also their specific attitudes to the waging of war (out of Clausewitz via Marx and Lenin). Moreover, the doctrine of inevitable hostility and rivalry between capitalism and communism was so fundamental a part of the state and military ideology that when Gorbachev replaced it with his talk of "common human interests" and "the common European home", it unraveled the raison d'tre of both state and military, in a way unimaginable for any non-ideological state. As Odom writes:

"The role of the official ideology was critically important for the military's own justifications and claims on resources. Certainly it changed over time, especially in the post-Stalin period, but it was not becoming irrelevant, as sometimes believed. Rather, it was increasingly internalized. Hypocrisy and corruption certainly endangered it, but that was true in Stalin's time."

Marxism-Leninism led the Soviet Union into ideologically-based adventures in Africa, Cuba and elsewhere, which strained still further its inadequate economic capacity and led to heavy investment in a "blue water" navy of no real strategic worth. These moves in the 1970s contributed directly to the Reagan administration's decision to launch a massive U.S. high-tech armament program with which the Soviet Union could not compete, and which was probably the key factor in persuading Gorbachev to launch his reforms, and the party and military hierarchies to support them.

Of course, it is entirely true that, long before Gorbachev came to power, very few Soviet people, civilian or military, felt the really fervent communist faith of the early Soviet years, and that for soldiers what counted was Soviet patriotism rather than communism as such. But then again, communism was an essential part of Soviet patriotism, historically coterminous with the Soviet state. As the event proved, when communism collapsed, neither the state itself nor its armed forces could long survive. In Odom's words, "By 1987, [Gorbachev] had promulgated revisions in the official ideology that effectively destroyed the traditional method of defining the Soviet Union's main adversaries"; and again, "To have adopted deterrence theory and its concepts of what constitutes military stability would have required Soviet leaders to abandon the ideological foundations of their state's legitimacy and purpose."

The Soviet Union could have survived far longer of course had it not been for Eastern Europe. In most of the Soviet Union itself, it is not wholly true that, in Odom's words, the military was "the embodiment of the creation, sovereignty and stability of the Soviet Empire", or at least it was only true insofar as the military was "a component of the Communist Party." The army in fact was never used for the purpose of domestic repression under Brezhnev, in part because the only post-Stalinist use of the military for that purpose--at Novocherkassk in 1962, when soldiers fired on protesting workers--had been so bitterly unpopular with the armed forces that it had seriously alarmed the regime. By contrast, the ultimate military basis of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe had been obvious at least since 1956.

In this context, one factor in the Soviet collapse that Odom rather surprisingly fails to mention is Poland. In 1981, the threat of Soviet invasion was still just real enough to persuade General Jaruzelski to impose a state of emergency and suppress Solidarity. But as we now know, the Soviet regime and armed forces themselves were desperately unwilling actually to launch such an invasion, and had not in fact made up their minds whether they could do so. They were well aware that a repeat of Hungary in 1956 (for much of the Polish army would certainly have fought back) would have had the most catastrophic effect on their international position as well as on internal dissent and military morale. The Jaruzelski military regime, however, was clearly a stopgap, a desperate attempt to buy time by replacing party with military authority in the hope that, somehow, the economy would grow enough to buy off worker discontent.

As the 1980s progressed, it became increasingly clear that this hope was a chimera, and that sooner or later massive political discontent was bound to resurface again in Poland, facing the Soviet regime and armed forces with the same dilemma as before. This was an additional reason why Gorbachev felt he was racing against time to carry out serious reforms; but it was also true that the decision peacefully to abandon Eastern Europe in 1989-90 had to some extent been prefigured by the hesitation over Poland in 1980-81. Indeed, the looming threat of another Polish revolt is one reason why we may doubt Odom's suggestion that, had it not been for Gorbachev, the Soviet Union could have survived for several more decades.

Odom does, however, do justice to another episode of great importance, the war in Afghanistan. He describes the increasing demoralization, drug addiction and corruption of the troops in ways that do indeed suggest that this was "Russia's Vietnam." The unclear goals and prolonged suffering of that war helped give General Lebed and other officers, like their U.S. counterparts, a permanent distaste for such operations. Odom quotes the book by Gorbachev's aide, Anatoly Chernyayev, stating that the issue of war was placed on the general secretary's agenda as soon as he took office, by a "deluge of letters" to the Soviet leadership from servicemen and their families calling for its immediate end. This is even more revealing than Odom himself perhaps realizes; for it indicates that Soviet society was becoming culturally demilitarized, and no longer instinctively loyal to the state's military goals. The fact that people felt able to write such letters also of course shows the relative loosening of Soviet police control, even before Gorbachev launched his reforms.

At the core of Odom's book is a detailed, almost blow-by-blow account of the relationship between Gorbachev and the military, from the awareness of growing U.S. superiority that helped trigger the reforms, through the struggles over disarmament talks in the middle and late Eighties, the increasing use of the military for internal security, and the August coup, to the shattering of military unity and the final collapse. Much of his account is based on his own conversations with leading Soviet military and civilian figures, both at the time of the events themselves and subsequently. His access to these figures is one of the book's great strengths, both in terms of argument and vivid narrative.

One very important point to emerge is Gorbachev's complete ignorance of military affairs. From the mid-Eighties, this ignorance translated into almost active hostility. On top of the military's drain on state resources and resistance to reform came the humiliation of the Mathias Rust affair of May 1987, when a German student pilot landed a propeller-driven plane on Red Square after penetrating all the Soviet air defenses. This both infuriated Gorbachev and gave him the chance to replace hardline conservatives in the high command. However, instead of appointing young, committed military reformers, Gorbachev, whether out of calculation, ignorance or indifference, replaced them with undistinguished, safe, middle of the road figures like Marshal Yazov, who (he may have calculated) were no threat to his position. But they were also incapable of instituting real change. As Odom correctly notes, Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader to have had no direct military experience (all of his predecessors had served as military commissars in the Civil War or the Second World War); and paradoxically, despite the highly militarized nature of the Soviet system, it was also highly compartmentalized, so that Party and State officials outside the military field could well pursue their entire careers without having to gain even the most superficial knowledge of military affairs.

This is a pattern that repeated itself under Boris Yeltsin. Neither he, nor the "young reformers" like Gaidar and Chubais, nor Chernomyrdin, had any experience of working in or with the military, and until very recently showed no serious interest whatsoever in military affairs. Instead, most of Yeltsin's military appointments appear to have been made with only two considerations in mind: personal loyalty to Yeltsin, and a quiet life.

As the Soviet system crumbled, the distance between the political and military leaderships was vastly widened by the use of the army as a "force of order" in Tbilisi, Baku, Vilnius and elsewhere. The soldiers--and especially the elite paratroops, who were used on all three occasions--noted with intense bitterness the way in which Gorbachev and the Politburo had ordered them to use force (but only verbally, never in writing) and then, when the operations proved bitterly unpopular, had sought to shuffle responsibility onto the military. This background played a critically important part in the behavior of the military during the coup of August 1991, which Odom describes in very useful detail. Unlike their equivalents in Pakistan, Chile and elsewhere, the vast majority's greatest concern was not to preserve the Soviet state but to keep out of politics. Hatred of Gorbachev personally for his repeated "betrayals" of the military also contributed greatly to the people's willingness to listen to Yeltsin's duplicitous and opportunist promises.

Both Odom's narrative and his conclusions on most of the themes of his book are eminently sound. While some of his arguments sound like special pleading for his past positions, this does not always invalidate them. Thus although he greatly exaggerates the ability of political authorities to force modern soldiers to fight, Odom is correct in saying that even the manifold weaknesses of the Soviet armed forces might not have stopped them from launching an initially successful offensive into Western Europe--though he certainly exaggerates the potential political will to do any such thing. He is sound on the internal rot of the armed forces from bullying, demoralization and corruption, though he could have said a good deal more about the impact of a general demilitarization of attitudes throughout Soviet society, a feature that the Soviet Union in its last decades--and contemporary Russia--has of course shared with the modern West.

Nonetheless, it must be said that General Odom in the past has linked his name to some of the grossest Western exaggerations of both Soviet and Russian military capacity and, by implication, intentions as well. I vividly remember how, on arriving in Washington early in 1996, after more than a year of covering the Chechen War, I found Odom still arguing in print that too many lessons should not be drawn from Chechnya, that Russia had not used its best units there and that it still had formidable offensive units in reserve--all of which was nonsense and had been shown to be such by Western reporters who had actually witnessed the war on the ground. And during Odom's time with the National Security Council, his portrayals both of the Soviet Union's civil defense capacity and of the military potential of the DOSAF (the Voluntary Society for the Support of the Army and Fleet) reserve training scheme were among the most inaccurate pieces of Western analysis of Soviet military realities. Odom argues that it all turned out for the best because higher U.S. military spending to meet the Soviet threat eventually forced Gorbachev to begin his reforms--and there is a great deal of truth in this. But that is not how the argument for higher spending was presented to the American people, and if Odom really believed his arguments of the time, he was in serious error, and he should now have the grace to acknowledge that.

Finally, I must say that having read 398 pages of Odom's book with great admiration, the last six reminded me why he and those like him are still to be treated with caution. Having spent much of his book convincingly demonstrating just what was so very unusual about the Soviet ideology, state, economy and armed forces, at the very end he launches into a hurried, shallow and deeply unconvincing attempt to show why all this was part of structural patterns in Russian history supposedly going back to "the late fifteenth century." God help us, he even includes that most shopworn and empty of all clichés, which can now be heard trotting along several pages in advance: Gogol's inevitable troika.

This sort of historicizing seems to be almost a psychological compulsion with many writers on Russia, as if, say, no account of contemporary U.S. foreign policy could be complete without a reference to King Philip's War, or of French without an analysis of Richelieu's German policy. In part it is the result of sheer ignorance on the part of Soviet and Russian specialists who simply do not know enough about other parts of the world and their histories to make valid comparisons outside the Russian field. This is a pity, because in many other ways Odom's account is a model of its kind.

Essay Types: Book Review