SIMPLY UNDERSTANDING THE RUSSIANS IS NOT ENOUGH
Condoleezza Rice, 1985
Whiteley: Professor Rice, why have the Soviets acquired such a massive military force in the decade since World War II?
Rice: Well, there are two very important things to remember about the Soviet Union when talking about its acquisition of military force, and that is that both ideologically, because it is a Marx/Leninist state that feels not very comfortable in an international system which is dominated by capitalist states, and historically a state that prior to the Soviet government (even the Russian Empire) has experienced a number of attacks on its territory, it has a very strong sense that it should be able to defend itself against all comers, if you will. The experience of World War II simply reinforced that, and the competition with the United States has enhanced that and hardened that feeling that the Soviet Union must be able to preserve the peace, as they see it, through its own strength.
Whiteley: Let’s take first the experience in World War II. What’s salient?
Rice: I think the most important thing is that the Soviet Union was caught, in spite of massive outlays in the 30s, it was caught with insufficient military power in the early days of the war, and it suffered greatly at the hands of the German war machine in those first days. That experience has meant that the Soviet Union places now a premium on not being surprised again, and on being ready this time, being mobilized for war, not having to mobilize the entire country.
Therefore, you get a kind of garrison-state mentality we call it, or a mobilization mentality where you must always be prepared to defend yourself.
Whiteley: What are the implications of the Marxist/Leninist ideology for their military build-up.
All of those are basic tenets of Marxism/Leninism, and I think that those basic ideas underlie a lot of the Soviet military build-up - that they must be permanently prepared for competition with the West, that it’s never going to go away.
Rice: I think the implication, and it’s not really a day-to-day thing (and I don’t think the Soviet leaders think in a day-to-day fashion about Marx/Leninism), but what you see is that the idea of permanent competition, permanent conflict, that the two systems can co-exist, but they will never co-exist comfortably. All of those are basic tenets of Marxism/Leninism, and I think that those basic ideas underlie a lot of the Soviet military build-up - that they must be permanently prepared for competition with the West, that it’s never going to go away.
I think that the notion of the Soviet Union as bent on world domination is a bit simplistic, though certainly I don’t think that one can dismiss the idea that any great power - and particularly one that has this particular history and ideology - will want to see the world in its own image. I think it is something in the nature of great powers to want that. But we mustn’t confuse aspirations and capabilities.
Whiteley: What about the notion of Russia as an evil empire bent on world domination?
Rice: I think that the notion of the Soviet Union as bent on world domination is a bit simplistic, though certainly I don’t think that one can dismiss the idea that any great power - and particularly one that has this particular history and ideology - will want to see the world in its own image. I think it is something in the nature of great powers to want that. But we mustn’t confuse aspirations and capabilities. There are at least three things - three elements in the international system - that make the Soviets cautious and that, in my estimation, will keep them cautious. The first is American power, which they respect and understand that there is a limit to what the United States will tolerate from the Soviet Union in international politics. And it’s one reason that deterrence is not yet an outworn concept. The second is that the Soviets themselves have limited resources. We are seeing, I think, right now a period of overextension. They are extended in Afghanistan, they find themselves with insecurities in their own bloc, they have an economy that needs tremendous help, and so their own resources are limited. And thirdly, it’s a very complicated international system out there. And you may want to see the world in your own image, or made over in your own image, but I doubt very seriously whether Marxism/Leninism has very much to do with Syria and Israel’s conflict in the Middle East, or with the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeni in Iran. And so the Soviet Union is entering a competition in a very complex international arena where they can’t simply shape the course of events.
Whiteley: And they’re hemmed in on the one hand by the limits of their own resources, and hemmed in on a second side by the power of the United States.
Rice: That’s right, and on a third side, if you will, by the fact that the international system is just very complicated and you can’t dictate the course of events even if you would like to.
Whiteley: An area that you’ve written about and thought about carefully is the role of the Soviet military in influencing foreign policy, and the role of the military in making a number of decisions fairly independently of the political structure. What are you referring to?
Rice: Here I’m talking about the fact that the Soviet Union itself is a very compartmentalized society. It is a society in which the military sphere is the sphere of the military. Now, what do I mean by that? Defense decision-making - and if I can compare this with our own system. The number of actors, the number of responsible actors for jurisdiction, that have jurisdiction over defense decisions in the Soviet Union - small group. Clearly the Politburo. But the real expertise for deciding what weapons to acquire, what strategies to pursue, in the military sense (defense decision-making), we believe that that’s really the jurisdiction of the Soviet professional military in primarily the Soviet General Staff, but also the Army staff, the Navy staff and others. In the United States we’re a very pluralistic society, not very centralized. We tend to get a lot of actors involved in every decision, and the Soviets have no system that has a legislature that is deeply involved in defense spending, as well as a professional military, and then civilians in the defense department. As far as we know there is no counterpart of the civilian in the defense department who is an analyst, on say, strategy or doctrine.
Whiteley: So their system does not employ a civilian overlay of the military structure the way ours does with the Secretary of Defense who is a civilian in a large staff.
Rice: Certainly not with the staff, so that the civilians as far as we can tell are not involved in the day to day operation of Soviet military doctrine, strategy, weapons acquisition. But we mustn’t confuse that with a lack of civilian control in the Soviet armed forces. For historical reasons, and again ideological reasons, there’s a very strong distrust of too powerful a military in the Soviet Union. The former Defense Minister, Dmitry Ustinov, who recently died, was a civilian in that he grew up really through the defense industries complex. He was not a career military operational commander. So there are civilians involved, but they’re involved at a very, very high policy level rather than the sort of day-to-day decision-making that we have civilians involved in our defense department, or even academics, or the RAND Corporation, or sort of pseudo-governmental operations involved.
Whiteley: Would you share your reconstruction of the decision to shoot down a Korean airliner, Flight 007, as an example of the military and its decision-making in contrast to political decisions from the Politburo.
Rice: This is a good example, I think, of this kind of compartmentalization that takes place. Now we don’t know what happened in the Korean Airline incident, but I would argue that the air defense network, the decision to use air defenses to catch an invader (which was how they viewed 007), was a military decision perhaps made by a theater commander, maybe even made by the Chief of the General Staff, but probably (and I emphasize probably) without the acquiescence at that time of the political leadership. I have no doubts that the political leadership was informed later, and no doubts that the political leadership then had to deal with the political consequences of what had happened militarily. But the idea that defense - air defense forces would first have to clear it with a political leader to shoot down an intruder, I think is completely contrary to the Soviet view of the role of the military.
But one man’s defense is another man’s offense. And certainly were I sitting in Czechoslovakia or Poland I would have a hard time seeing the massive force in Europe as simply defensive…
Whiteley: Do they see their military structure as primarily defensive?
Rice: I think they see it that way, absolutely. But one man’s defense is another man’s offense. And certainly were I sitting in Czechoslovakia or Poland I would have a hard time seeing the massive force in Europe as simply defensive -probably even if I were sitting in West Germany. I think the Soviets think of their political motives as defensive. They feel that they are surrounded by hostile powers, they feel that they are in an international system that is dominated by powers hostile to them, and by an international system that, if it could, would destroy the Soviet Union. Therefore, the only way that they can make certain that they will not be destroyed is on the basis of their own strength. That’s their own peculiar version of deterrence. Now the problem is that it sometimes manifests itself in a very offensive or aggressive manner: Invading allies who are recalcitrant, for instance; invading Afghanistan to forestall changes that the Soviet Union does not like. I’m sure, though, that from the Soviet point of view those are all defensive in character.
Whiteley: What role does their alliance structure have in the work of the Soviet military?
I mentioned that the Soviets feel that this is a world that is hostile to them, that would see the Soviet Union destroyed if it possibly could. This gives them friends that share their ideology - at least the elites in Eastern Europe share this ideology - and that also have a stake in the survival of the socialist world community.
Rice: The principle alliance structure for the Soviet Union is the so-called Warsaw Treaty Organization, which is their European allies. It is an alliance of the most advanced socialist states, the Soviet Union included. Its members are the East European states that we think of as Soviet allies: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Soviet Union and East Germany. That is the alliance. That alliance plays two major roles. The first is it is an alliance against NATO in the military sense, against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or the West European Alliance plus the United States. It allows the Soviets, for instance, to do what we call forward deploy troops. The Soviets have five Soviet - not non-Soviet - but Soviet divisions deployed in Czechoslovakia; they have twenty Soviet divisions deployed in East Germany. These are Soviet troops that are then forward deployed for military operations against NATO. But it also plays a very important political role for the Soviet Union, and by that it’s both political and economic, political, and ideological. It gives the Soviets a socialist community. I mentioned that the Soviets feel that this is a world that is hostile to them, that would see the Soviet Union destroyed if it possibly could. This gives them friends that share their ideology - at least the elites in Eastern Europe share this ideology - and that also have a stake in the survival of the socialist world community. That ideological side to the Warsaw Pact, to Eastern Europe, to all of the various organizations that have been created there. It’s very important to the Soviet sense of security and psychological well-being.
Whiteley: How have they made decisions on weapons deployment? Their strategic forces are very different than ours and appear to be heavily based on both intercontinental missiles and missiles deployed in the Warsaw Pact countries aimed at NATO.
Rice: Yes. The elements that drive a country to deploy certain kinds of forces, develop certain kinds of forces, I think are three whether you’re talking about the Soviet Union, the United States, or whatever. One is what can you do technologically, what do you do best technologically? The Soviets, for a variety of reasons, were able to develop very early on ballistic missile technology, and especially ballistic missile technology from land - so-called intermediate range ballistic missiles, or now intercontinental ballistic missiles. They were not as good at long-range aviation aircraft, bombers and the like, and they were certainly not as good at submarine technology early on. So technologically, because they’re technically far behind the United States in most areas, they were able to mobilize their resources, go after this one technology, and do it fairly well. That is one very important reason that they acquired this particular kind of force - almost 75% of their warheads on land. Secondly, they had a geography that was landlocked. And you might ask yourself what would the nuclear forces of Nebraska look like as opposed to the nuclear forces of Florida. And you would get a picture of why the U.S. and the Soviet Union look so different on this score.
Whiteley: What little access to the ocean they have is not a dependable military advantage?
Rice: That’s right. They could easily be bottled up inside of what, for all intents and purposes, are lakes when you think of American access to the high seas. So it’s not surprising that a continental power would go with land-based forces. But thirdly, the Soviet concept of how to use nuclear forces developed out of the thought of artillery officers. Those are the people who dominated early Soviet thinking about military forces, and ICBMs were thought of as kind of long-range artillery pieces. And so these three things worked together to convince the Soviets that they best secured themselves by creating land-based systems. It was their best technology, it made sense geographically, and it was in accord with their thinking about how to use nuclear weapons. I think, incidentally, that’s changing for a variety of reasons. They are beginning to explore the possibilities at sea, and even in long-range aviation. But for now their heaviest investment is on land, and it makes for a very difficult problem because there’s a great asymmetry then between the way American forces are configured and the way Soviet forces are configured.
Whiteley: What is the role of the Soviet military in internal Soviet politics, both in secessions in leadership and in terms of how one normally conducts the business of the Soviet Union?
An awful lot of Soviet power depends on its military power. They’re going to be listened to. Chief high ranking Soviet military officers also have the advantage of being high ranking party officials. Many of them are members of the Central Committee, one of the high policy making bodies of the Soviet Union.
Rice: Well there’s great debate on this issue ranging from people who would argue that the Soviet military is completely isolated from politics because they do have these views of the dangers of military take-over, and those who would say the Soviet military is probably the single most important institution in determining who gets elected, or who gets selected by the Politburo. I think the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Clearly they are an important institution. An awful lot of Soviet power depends on its military power. They’re going to be listened to. Chief high ranking Soviet military officers also have the advantage of being high ranking party officials. Many of them are members of the Central Committee, one of the high policy making bodies of the Soviet Union. So they clearly have their say in who is a part, but I think that they have their say through members of the Politburo who listen to them. A Soviet leader can get himself into trouble ignoring the Soviet military. We believe that Malenkov, who succeeded Stalin in 1953 and was eventually replaced by Khruschev, probably neglected heavy industry which was of interest to the Soviet Union, Soviet military forces which was of interest to the Soviet military. So they have their say, and they certainly would probably help to veto someone that isn’t going to serve their interest, but I don’t think they hold the only vote or the only concern.
Whiteley: What role does the Soviet military have in securing its budget on a regular basis?
The Soviets are very security conscious, and so defense is not an anathema to the leadership. It’s an awfully important element for them of good governance. The one thing this leadership has been able to deliver is peace through strength, if you will. So the Soviet military leadership making a case for high defense budgets has something going for it.
Rice: Again, it’s a subject of some debate. I would argue that probably a considerable role in that. First of all, the expertise to know what one needs to acquire is lodged almost completely in the Soviet military as far as we can tell. Now certainly they then must compete, or the Minister of Defense who is sometimes a civilian (right now it happens to be a military man) must then go and compete with other industries for a share of the budget. But he has two things in his favor. The Soviets are very security conscious, and so defense is not an anathema to the leadership. It’s an awfully important element for them of good governance. The one thing this leadership has been able to deliver is peace through strength, if you will. So the Soviet military leadership making a case for high defense budgets has something going for it. The second thing that it has going for it is that Soviet power in the international system is perhaps more heavily dependent on its military - the perception of the Soviet Union as a military power - than is the United States, which is an economic power and in other ways as well. So if I were Minister of Defense in the Soviet Union going in to make one of these bureaucratic arguments with the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of Light Industry, I’d probably be in a pretty strong position. It doesn’t mean it’s their only priority. Recently we’ve seen debates in the Soviet press about what the further course of military spending ought to be. Now that you’ve acquired parity with the United States is it wise to keep just acquiring hardware and technology, or is it more important to invest in the resource base of the economy, in the technology, the long-term planning of the economy? The Soviet military, some of them, even realize that a weak economy is ultimately a threat to the ability of the Soviet military to deliver. So it’s not as if they don’t have priorities to talk about, and competition for resources, it’s just that the military has a very strong argument for what it gets.
Whiteley: What is the role of arms control in the view of the military in achieving national security and sustaining that security?
Rice: Well, I believe that for the Soviets arms control has been, and probably always will be, defense policy first and foremost. It’s not a competitor for defense policy, it’s not a substitute for defense policy. It is an integral part of defense policy and must work with Soviet defense policy to make them more secure. It can do that in two ways. The first is it can get a handle on systems that are destabilizing from the Soviet point of view, systems - American systems - that threaten Soviet forces. And perhaps more importantly the Soviets recognize that the United States is usually out ahead technologically. Maybe it can give them a handle on certain American technologies that it would be a tremendous strain for them to try and support. Star Wars is an excellent example of this anti-satellite technology. Technologies that, if driven, they will match. But they would prefer to get a handle on American technology through the treaty process.
Whiteley: Do they believe Americans can be trusted to live up to the details of treaties that are negotiated?
Rice: I would put the problem a little differently. I don’t think they’re so worried about whether we live up to the details of treaties; they’re worried though about whether or not we ratify treaties that we sign. They’ve had more than a few experiences with an American political system that sometimes signs treaties and then cannot ratify them because of the nature of separation of powers in our own system between Congress and the Executive. And there are rumblings sometimes that maybe America is not a very good partner. I must say that the Soviets have given, as far as we can see, their military (through the General Staff primarily) a very, very major role in constructing Soviet arms control policy. So they clearly see it as something that can help them in their defensive arrangements. Whether or not they will see it like that for the long term if we continue to have problems of ratification is a very difficult question. The Soviets were particularly, on the ratification problem - and perhaps didn’t understand very well American politics - on the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II (the SALT II Treaty) when it was negotiated beginning in the Nixon Administration and continuing through the Carter Administration, therefore taking seven years to negotiate. And then it was not ratified; it was never ratified. It was as a matter of fact pulled off the table by President Carter after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But the Soviets argue that that treaty was in trouble before they invaded Afghanistan. Whatever the case, unratified treaty.
Another case is the Threshold Test Ban Treaty which was also negotiated in the Nixon Administration, still sits without ratification in the American Congress. So the Soviets have had, I think they feel, a couple of bad experiences with American politics. They also sometimes don’t admit or don’t see that something like the invasion of Afghanistan makes it very difficult for an open political system to ratify treaties.
Whiteley: You’ve remarked that nuclear weapons are but a symptom of an underlying and pervasive competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. First, what are the bases of that competition? We don’t share common borders, we’ve not had a history of warfare with them.
Rice: Yes. When you think back on what used to cause conflict between states, yes, the U.S./Soviet competition or conflict seems very strange. But common borders, it’s a matter of perception. We have to remember that the world has shrunk considerably, that common borders in the nuclear age really mean very little. So the competition is threefold. It is first and foremost in my estimation ideological - not just Communism versus Capitalism - but two ways of life represented by two very large powers with two distinct blocs, two distinct sets of alliances, that see themselves in competition. Therefore it is very hard for one to accept, or for them to accept together, that they have common ground, because everything becomes a contest of these two systems. You see that in the Third World. Secondly, it is a competition that is military in nature where they play out this kind of competition on ideological grounds through an arms race. I would actually argue that because they can’t go to war the symbolic importance of who is ahead in the arms race is much greater than it might have been for any other states which actually might have played out this competition. And finally the competition is political, and that simply means that they really do, I think, seek prestige and vindication if you will, validation maybe, of their own systems through extending it into other arenas.
Whiteley: You’ve remarked that in a nuclear age simply understanding the Russians is not enough. What would you have your fellow citizens do? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for international understanding. I’m fully in favor of understanding the Soviets better. But if we understand that we have a lot of differences between us, that isn’t enough. We have to figure out, given those differences, accepting those differences, what can we do. And we have to accept that the differences are real; that if I simply understand that the Soviet Union has a feeling that Capitalism wishes to destroy it, that’s not going to solve the problem.
Rice: First let me explain what I mean by understanding them is not enough. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for international understanding. I’m fully in favor of understanding the Soviets better. But if we understand that we have a lot of differences between us, that isn’t enough. We have to figure out, given those differences, accepting those differences, what can we do. And we have to accept that the differences are real; that if I simply understand that the Soviet Union has a feeling that Capitalism wishes to destroy it, that’s not going to solve the problem. So I would have us find those areas of cooperation which really are possible in spite of our differences, where we really do have common ground while accepting that there will be many, many areas where we will continue to compete. I think that the arms issue is an area where we have some common ground, where we’ve made some progress in the past, and where in spite of our differences we must learn to find a way to cooperate. It also means that you can’t seek too rapid solutions to the overall U.S./Soviet problem. We as Americans are solution oriented. We believe if you can find a solution you can implement it. It’s our engineering sense. This is a long-term competition, long term competition in which both sides have a great stake. The idea that you’re going to solve that competition, I think, is very foreign to the Soviet Union. And it means that we’re just going to have to work on managing the competition and keeping it from getting out of hand.
Whiteley: Professor Rice, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the way toward peace in the nuclear age.