Soviet Military Doctrine : Under Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev

Gorbachev's Era (1983-89)
This era saw perhaps the most sweeping changes in Soviet military doctrine. In the early part of this period, the doctrine changed very little from what it had been under Brezhnev. In the mid-1980s, Gorbachev's perestroika (restructuring) markedly accelerated changes in military doctrine. An emphasis on the strategic defense, rather than preemptive offensive conventional strikes, marked the doctrine emerging from this period.
Many factors drove changes to this "defensive" military doctrine. That change in the doctrine was inevitable in the comments of then Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, regarding the connection between domestic and foreign events:

"The achievements of our foreign policy would be much more impressive if we could assure greater internal stability. The numerous misfortunes that have befallen our country recently, the critical situation in the economy, the state of ethnic relations and natural calamities are reducing the chances of success in our foreign policy. The policy of reform thanks to which our country has restored its good name is undoubtedly giving rise in the world to a feeling of compassion and a desire and readiness to help us. But it should be frankly said that if our domestic troubles are multiplied by conservatism and ill will, intolerance and selfishness and clinging to dogmatic principles of the past, it will be more and more difficult for us to uphold the cause of peace, reduce tensions, fight for broader and irreversible disarmament, and integrate our country into the world system. That is why our diplomats are not living with their heads in the clouds. Their thoughts are turned to the harsh realities of our domestic life."

Military planners and politicians firmly believed that escalation to a nuclear war would destroy the Soviet state. They saw that their previous preemptive doctrine created a deadly paradox. Rapid conventional success against NATO on any axis might accelerate NATOs decision to nuclear first use exactly what preemption was trying to preclude. Thus, the previous Soviet strategic concept contained the seeds of its own destruction. Secondly, in the 1970s and early 1980s, NATO leaders perceived the Soviet buildup as threatening and destabilizing. As such, NATO responded with deliberate political and military measures. The resultant NATO buildup in technologically superior forces, and the political will for rapid reinforcement, decreased the Soviets likelihood to win a conventional war in the initial period. Additionally, the NATO buildup forced the Soviets to ensure their industry and technology kept up with the NATO response. The result was a draining military competition with the civilian economy that economically and technologically drained the Soviets. The maintenance of a military capability to carry out a preemptive doctrine was a burden the Soviet economy could not endure. Third, the economic drain exerted indirect costs. The Soviets became politically and economically isolated from the most advanced countries of the world that they needed to enhance technology and hard cash transfers. The direct costs imposed by the military demands for the workforce, material, and technology exacerbated the Soviets decline on the world's stage. Finally, the Soviet Union's internal politics were in turmoil during this period. The impact of Marxist-Leninist ideology virtually disappeared from the formation of military doctrine. The Soviets put their view of others on a "back burner" as they concentrated on their view of themselves.

In 1985, the Soviet political leadership redefined the military doctrine to support the pressing political, economic, and societal concerns. Under the new doctrine, the conduct of the defensive operation was a precursor to the preparation of strong conventional counterstrikes, followed by a concentrated counteroffensive. The military strategists presented the defensive phase as a temporary measure to buy time in the initial period of a conflict. The Soviets would use this time to mobilize, reinforce and move rear echelons forward for the counteroffensive. The official presentation of the new doctrine focused almost exclusively on the initial period of the defense, with little said about the counterstrike and counteroffensive periods. The doctrine shifted away from the aggressive nature of the Brezhnev years. In its place was a so-called "defensive doctrine," with the weapons associated with it being of "reasonable sufficiency." The new doctrine led to the Soviet military developing plans to conduct a more prolonged initial defense.

Within the new military doctrine; however, was the provision to switch, perhaps suddenly, from the general strategic defensive to a counteroffensive. The transition to the counteroffensive marked the end of the initial period of war. This required that the strategic defensive must make up an "intentional positional defense by Soviet armies and fronts to exhaust and halt the maneuver component of an attacker's strike force." To achieve a sufficient correlation of force for the counteroffensive to succeed, the Soviets needed more forces beyond those prescribed in the new defensive doctrine. This put a premium on the mobilization of strategic reserves and forward movement of follow-on echelons. Once forces from the strategic reserve moved forward, they would exploit the success achieved by the early front counterstrikes. Without fire superiority, the surprise, maneuver, and decisiveness of the counterstrike were impossible. Enemy deep fire systems and reconnaissance had to be destroyed, mostly by air, so that the maneuver forces had freedom of action.

The new doctrine, therefore, emphasized the importance of the initial period of war. The new doctrine mandated answering a NATO attack with a "devastating rebuff." The doctrine was unclear whether this "rebuff" was limited to a counteroffensive only, or might be expanded to a full-scale strategic offensive operation. In 1987, Defense Minister Yazov called for a decisive offensive to follow a counteroffensive. By late 1989, when the new military doctrine emerged, he said, "Until recently, we planned to repel aggressions with defensive and offensive operations. Now, however, we are planning defensive operations as the basic form of our combat action."

Central to this new "defensive doctrine," however was a concept of military art prevalent throughout all Soviet military doctrine evolution. Victory only came by defeating the enemy, and the offense was the mode of operation that defeated the enemy. The Soviet military said little publicly on issues related to the debate over the counteroffensive. Hines and Mahoney feel the military's reticence may have stemmed from the atmosphere of uncertainty and fluidity characterizing Soviet military affairs after the December 1988 announcement of unilateral force reductions. Michael M. Boll asserts that the "Warsaw Pact continued to exercise with simulated nuclear weapons in sharp contrast to the doctrines reorientation emphasizing defensive preparation. He argues it is likely that the Soviets announced defensive position was more "in the realm of intent  than to an immediate reform." The General Staff was probably trying to forego any further policy surprises and were pursuing a course of flexibility and prudence. Officially, they embraced the defensive; but, in their minds, they continued an offensive spirit.