Soviet ideology holds that war is merely a continuation of politics. The Soviets also believe that a nuclear war can be fought and won. Thus it is possible that Soviet leaders might choose to initiate a nuclear war if it would achieve political goals and if there were good prospects of winning. At least this is the argument that is currently being heard around the nation.
While this new-found interest in Soviet military thinking is reasonable and refreshing, it has become hostage to the politics that surround the current U.S. defense policy debate.
For when Soviet views of nuclear warfare are examined in context a significantly different image emerges. ". . . Soviet ideology holds that war is the continuation of politics by violent means . . ."
One can indeed find innumerable references to Lenin's extension of the Clausewitzian idea in both Soviet political and military writings. But these are not prescriptive statements pertaining to Soviet foreign policy. On the contrary, they are descriptive statements about the relationship between war and the domestic politics of the capitalist states (us!). Wars--both international and national liberation--are the continuation of the domestic politics of class-based societies. Soviet ideology holds that Lenin's real insight was the recognition that the domestic politics of class conflict are the root of war--and this certainly cannot refer to Soviet domestic politics!
". . . the Soviets believe that a nuclear war is possible...that it is thinkable . . ."
This theme, too, appears frequently in Soviet political and military writings. But again, it is not raised as prescription of Soviet policy, but as a description of the contemporary international environment. Since war is the continuation of the domestic politics of class-based societies, and since several of these countries possess nuclear weapons (e.g., the United States, Britain, and France), it follows that nuclear war is possible. Soviet ideology could have it no other way. To argue that a singular technology--nuclear weapons--could alter the historical dialectic would be tantamount to heresy. It is important to recognize that this view does not imply that the Soviets view nuclear war as desirable or inevitable-- merely possible, started, by definition, by the capitalist states.
". . . the Soviets believe that they should have the capability to fight and win a nuclear war . . ."
It is true that Soviet professional military writings speak rather unambiguously about developing the military capability to successfully wage a nuclear war. Numerous articles discuss preemptive strikes against enemy nuclear forces so as to frustrate the enemy's attack. The need to improve air defense and civil defense is a topic of frequent discussion, especially in the context of Soviet admissions that no preemptive strike can be expected to be 100 percent successful.
Yet, the apparent interest of the Soviet military in preparing to "successfully" wage a nuclear war says nothing about its desire or willingness to initiate (or wage) a nuclear war--to say nothing of the desire or willingness of the Soviet political leadership. The very discussions that speak of successfully waging nuclear war also note the unprecedented destruction that both sides would inevitably suffer. Soviet professional military writers appear to be much more pessimistic about the level of damage that the Soviet Union is likely to sustain than are some of their American counterparts. Nonetheless, it is the Soviet military's duty to prepare the Soviet armed forces for war--even nuclear war--and it takes that responsibility seriously. As it emphasizes, if the capitalist-imperialists (that's us) decide to unleash a war, the Soviet military will be ready to fight a nuclear war and will try to win.
It is also important to keep in mind that the Soviet military's view of the best deterrent is a military capability that any enemy will unfailingly perceive as unbeatable. This includes all areas of potential military conflict--nuclear and conventional. If Soviet enemies realize that the Soviet Union is prepared to fight and equipped to "win" a nuclear war, then they will never dare start one.
Do Soviet political leaders share these views? Perhaps they do. Statements by Brezhnev and other Soviet political leaders are not inconsistent with the Soviet professional military view as described here. It is possible for Soviet leaders to assert that any side that starts a nuclear war should expect swift destruction, and yet simultaneously hold that the Soviet Union must be prepared to fight and win such a war. Other more "dovish" statements may just be for foreign consumption. Or, perhaps the Soviet political leadership simply permits the military to spin its nuclear strategy, devise its nuclear war plans, and have its nuclear toys for reasons of domestic politics--but with no serious thought of ever putting them to use.
While Soviet military policy and power do present many real challenges to the United States and its allies, let's make sure that we understand what those challenges are as we prepare to meet them.