HOW THE SOVIET UNION THINKS ABOUT NUCLEAR WEAPONS AND NUCLEAR WAR
David Holloway, 1987
David Holloway is Professor of Political Science and Senior Research Associate at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University. Previously he was a Visiting Professor at the Peace Studies Program at Cornell University and Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Edinburgh. Professor Holloway’s extensive writings on the Soviet Union include the influential The Soviet Union and the Arms Race.
Whiteley: Professor Holloway, in reflecting about Soviet thinking on crisis and security in the nuclear age you’ve identified four themes. I’d like to give those to you one at a time and ask you to share your insights. First is the influences of the past.
Holloway: I think Soviet thinking about war and about crisis has been dominated by one experience in particular, and that was the German invasion of the Soviet Union on the 22nd of June 1941. Stalin had received many warnings that Hitler would attack but he discounted them. He thought they were disinformation. He didn’t believe that Hitler would attack and he refused to bring Soviet forces up to full readiness for fear that that would actually provoke the attack by the Germans. And what has happened since the war is that the memory of being caught by surprise, and the disastrous initial phase of the war when the Red Army had to retreat almost to Moscow, this has made the Soviet leaders determined never to be caught by surprise again, and to pay particular attention to the problem of a surprise attack.
Whiteley: The second part of this history is what you’ve called Khrushchev’s erratic behavior.
Holloway: Yes, Khrushchev came to office in 1953; he really succeeded Stalin, and he was the ruler at the time when the Soviet Union was acquiring its force of long-range bombers and long-range missiles. And he believed that this now gave him the possibility of making major political gains in his relationship with the United States, and he threatened to use nuclear weapons. He rattled his rockets in the hope that this would enable him to extract concessions from the U.S. - over Berlin for example. But all it did was to pull the Soviet Union into dangerous crises in Berlin, and then in Cuba. And I think the Soviet leaders who removed him from office in 1964 felt that what he had done was very dangerous. He had acted in a provocative way which created the risk of war at a time when the Soviet Union in fact did not have forces which matched those of the United States. And if it had come to war they believed that they would have (I think) - that they would have been defeated.
Whiteley: Another part of this early history that you’ve commented upon is Soviet thinking about how a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States might begin.
Holloway: That’s right. When the - when Stalin died the Soviet military began to discuss the problem of surprise attack. The fact is that 1941 had been one of Stalin’s great mistakes, one of his failures of policy, and while he was alive he would allow no discussion of 1941, the fact that the Germans had caught him by surprise. But when he died they began to talk about the danger of a surprise nuclear attack, and the policy that their military people recommended was that the Soviet Union should be able to preempt; that is if the Soviet Union received warning that somebody was about to attack, in particular that the United States was about to attack, then the Soviet Union should strike first to try to break up the American attack before it got off the ground. In other words, not to repeat what had happened in 1941, not to wait too long before bringing their forces into action.
Whiteley: A second theme in Soviet thinking about crisis and security that you’ve identified is their perception of their strategic alternatives as they see them. What are they?
Holloway: Well, I think there are three strategic options. The first of these is the option of preemption that I’ve just mentioned: Breaking up an attack before it gets off the ground. The second option is the option to retaliate after being attacked, in other words to have a force that could ride out a nuclear attack by the United States and then retaliate after that. And the third option that they’ve shown a lot of interest in is the ‘launch on warning’, a prompt launch option. That is, if they received warning that American missiles were already in the air on the way toward Soviet targets that they should be able to launch their force before the American warheads arrived on target. And I think what’s interesting in Soviet thinking is the - not so much that you have these three options, but the progression in their thinking on these options. Initially in the Khrushchev period they paid a lot of attention to preemption; this seemed to be a very important part of their strategic thinking. And the reason it was important was it was basically their only option; they did not believe that they had a force that could ride out an American attack. They were much weaker, they had a much smaller intercontinental force than the United States. If the U.S. had attacked first then they were not sure they would have anything left to retaliate with.
It’s only about 1966 (1965, 1966, 1967) that with their build-up of intercontinental ballistic missiles that they begin to feel sure that they have a secure retaliatory force, an assured retaliatory capability, and then they begin to place much more emphasis on the idea of parity, on the idea of being able to retaliate, and I think preemption becomes much less important in their strategic thinking. And at the same period they begin to talk about ‘launch on warning’ (the ability to launch their missiles even while an American attack is underway, while the American missiles are in the air), and they start to build early warning systems that would give them as much warning as possible - a 30 minute warning of an attack - and they’d begin to deploy missiles (their own missiles) that they could launch within a few minutes to give them the possibility of launching before an American attack came in.
Now we don’t know, I think, really whether that is actually their policy to launch on warning. It may be they feel they should just say this because that would create uncertainty in American minds about whether the missiles would be there if America attacked, but nevertheless they have the capability to do it. They have the early warning systems and they have the missiles that could be launched quickly enough.
Whiteley: A third theme you’ve identified in Soviet thinking about crisis and security is the role of command and control. What is that role and how has it evolved?
Holloway: The history is that the Soviet Union has been worried that if their central leadership were knocked out of action early in a war, or if it were cut off from its forces, then they would not be able to wage a war, or they might not even be able to retaliate. Khrushchev says in his memoirs somewhere, you know he said I know it’s all very well we have command bunkers, but listen, what happens if the people in the command bunkers are cut off from the forces. What if they’re blinded, then you know, they can’t retaliate. And what the Soviet Union seems to have put great effort into is protecting its leadership so that it could be sure the leadership would survive in the event of war, and therefore be able to order retaliatory, and be able to conduct operations even if struck first. And secondly to create redundant communication systems that will enable them to communicate with their forces. And thirdly, and I think very importantly, to insure that the decision to use nuclear weapons rests with the political leadership and not with the military, and to prevent the unauthorized launching of nuclear weapons by the military without the proper command from the supreme high command.
Whiteley: It’s your assessment that the Soviet Union was vulnerable to a firststrike from the United States from roughly 1956 till 1966. How has that experience influenced their thinking?
They see parity as an absolutely major gain in their strategic position, and I think it makes them concerned about American attempts to try to, as it were, regain American nuclear supremacy or preponderance.
Holloway: Well, I think it has influenced their thinking in this way - that they are profoundly relieved to have reached a relationship of what they call parity, and they define parity as meaning a relationship in which either the United States or the Soviet Union could retaliate even if attacked first. I mean they use the term parity to mean what we mean by mutual deterrence, essentially. It makes them determined not to return to that, I mean not to lose parity. They see parity as an absolutely major gain in their strategic position, and I think it makes them concerned about American attempts to try to, as it were, regain American nuclear supremacy or preponderance. Because they feel - their view of what happened in the arms race is that from 1945 to 1955 or 1956 they had no weapons that could strike the United States. Then for another ten years they had weapons that could strike the United States but they were not sure they could use them if the U.S. struck first because they mightn’t survive an attack. From the mid to late 1960s they feel now we have a force that certainly can retaliate. But they want to make sure that the U.S. knows that because they want to make sure the U.S. is not - understands that the Soviet Union could retaliate.
Whiteley: A fourth theme you’ve identified in Soviet thinking about crisis and security is how in fact they have used their nuclear weapons and the delivery capability they have for them. What in fact has been their behavior? It’s a striking fact that in no crisis has the Soviet Union, as far as we can tell, raised the alert status of its nuclear weapons. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis I believe that the Soviet Union did not put its nuclear forces (its strategic nuclear forces) on alert.
Holloway: It’s a striking fact that in no crisis has the Soviet Union, as far as we can tell, raised the alert status of its nuclear weapons. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis I believe that the Soviet Union did not put its nuclear forces (its strategic nuclear forces) on alert. And at that time the warheads were stored separate from the missiles and the bombers; the bombers and the missiles were not kept fueled, and the Soviet Union took no steps apparently to make those forces ready, or if it took steps they were only minor steps. And I think one reason may be that Khrushchev knew at the time of the Cuban Crisis that if he started to get his forces ready the Americans would see that, and the Americans would see preparation for nuclear war on the part of the Soviet Union that might look very provocative. And it might tempt the United States in the heat of a crisis to strike first because the U.S. might calculate that if it struck first it could destroy most of the Soviet strategic forces.
I think they see arms control as an important and integral part of their overall national security policy, that arms control can limit or restrain technological developments in certain areas, force developments on the American side that they don’t like or want to block.
Whiteley: As part of reflecting on Soviet thinking on crisis and security issues I’d like to present to you two topics and ask you to share your insights into their perceptions. First, what is the role of arms control?
Holloway: I think they see arms control as an important and integral part of their overall national security policy, that arms control can limit or restrain technological developments in certain areas, force developments on the American side that they don’t like or want to block. Of course it’s not always successful in blocking the things they want to block. They tried to stop the cruise missiles being deployed in Europe, the Pershing II’s being deployed in Europe, and couldn’t stop it through arms control. And secondly, arms control - there’s an element in arms control that they see as important in providing for the stability of this strategic relationship of mutual deterrence because they argue, in my mind rightly, that this is not a foolproof way of preventing nuclear war; you could have an accidental war. You could have an inadvertent nuclear war started through - in the heat of a crisis, and therefore you should take measures to restrict certain kinds of military activities in order to lessen the dangers of upsetting this relationship of parity. And they propose certain measures which address the things that they’re worried about, namely American anti-submarine warfare activity in areas close to the Soviet Union, but they have not been all that willing to adopt measures that would allay American concerns about Soviet activities: the fact that there are Soviet submarines based off the Eastern seaboard of the United States which could strike Washington with a warning time of maybe eight minutes (something like that). So there are, you know, there are difficult issues in this area.
Whiteley: The second topic is understanding the Soviet reaction to the American Strategic Defense Initiative. Trying to understand their reaction you’ve identified three areas. The first is that if the United States has both a defensive capability and retains its current first-strike capability, that in fact the result will be to enhance the United States’ ability to launch a first-strike on the Soviet Union with a lessened fear of Soviet retaliation. Let me start by saying the one thing that’s clear about the Soviet position on SDI is that they don’t like it at all. What is not so clear is exactly why.
Holloway: This is the first argument - Let me start by saying the one thing that’s clear about the Soviet position on SDI is that they don’t like it at all. What is not so clear is exactly why. They’ve offered different reasons. The first reason they offered is the one that you mentioned that if the U.S. builds up its offensive forces at the same time as deploying an SDI, and if the U.S. struck first against Soviet missile silos, Soviet command and control centers, then the Soviet Union could send only a ragged retaliatory strike, and the American defense (SDI) might be able to deal with that retaliatory strike. So this would be a way of undermining their retaliatory capability and therefore, upsetting the relationship of parity.
Whiteley: A second key to understanding Soviet thinking is that they view that the United States is really developing an offensive space-based attack system.
Holloway: They advanced this reason really after the first reason, and I think because when they discussed the first reason they said, of course this is what the Americans are up to but they won’t be able to do it because we can develop countermeasures. We will always be sure of retaliating. In that case people said why are you so worried, you know, if the system isn’t going to do what you say the Americans want it to do. And they said, well, really what the U.S. is up to is developing space-strike systems that can strike targets on earth from battle stations in space, or can strike targets in space from battle stations in space. But that argument didn’t last I think very long; at least it wasn’t given prominence for very long because there was disagreement in the Soviet technical community about how good an argument it was. And I remember talking to some technical people who said well, actually they didn’t think this was a good argument at all because to use lasers or particle beams on battle stations in space against targets on Earth was really not very effective. There wasn’t all that much you could do. It isn’t such a big threat and therefore it’s wrong to make that the main grounds on which you oppose the SDI.
Whiteley: A third continuing stated concern of the Soviets on SDI is that what will really happen is unleashing new technological developments with uncertain consequences for the parity between the two countries. And I think that that certainly could be a genuine fear because I think the intensity of their reaction to Star Wars springs from the fact that this symbolizes one of their own deepest anxieties about their own system, and that is about the ability of their own economy to generate advanced technologies, to stay in a very fast race in advanced technology.
Holloway: This I think is - this is the argument they’ve offered most recently. After the Reykjavik Summit Gorbachev was asked about the SDI and he said well, we don’t fear it in the military sense, we’re not afraid that the Americans can really break out of parity, but we are worried about causing this explosion of technology which will enable all kinds of new weapons to be developed. And I think that that certainly could be a genuine fear because I think the intensity of their reaction to Star Wars springs from the fact that this symbolizes one of their own deepest anxieties about their own system, and that is about the ability of their own economy to generate advanced technologies, to stay in a very fast race in advanced technology. And I think Star Wars also symbolizes for them an American intention to use technology and economic pressures, and whatever other pressures it has, to really put the squeeze on the Soviet Union. And I think the intensity of their reaction to Star Wars reflects their anxieties about those - what they see as those two main threats or challenges to their power.
Whiteley: With the emergence of new leadership in the Soviet Union symbolized by the ascension of General Secretary Gorbachev, you’ve identified a series of new themes that are emerging about Soviet thinking and their view of the world on issues of crisis and security. I’d like to present those to you one at a time and ask you to share with us your insights. First, that there is a view that security is to be found more importantly in political actions than in military technological actions. Just amassing more military power does not make you more secure because you can’t be sure that you could win a nuclear war.
Holloway: I think this is a crucial element in the new thinking, and it reflects the idea that in fact it’s impossible to guarantee your own security just by a force of arms, by building up military power, because - largely because of the nature of nuclear weapons. Just amassing more military power does not make you more secure because you can’t be sure that you could win a nuclear war.
Whiteley: A second and related point is some emerging realization that there will be no winners in a nuclear war.
Holloway: Yes, Gorbachev has said this very clearly that in a nuclear war there would be no victors; that the problem of security is not getting forces that will enable you to win a war against your enemies, because you can’t do that in a nuclear war. The basic question of security is whether the human race is going to survive.
Whiteley: A third theme you see emerging in their writing and speaking is the realization that at this stage in the development of the nuclear age security for both the United States and the Soviet Union must be mutual.
Holloway: Yes, Gorbachev has said that in that relationship the only kind of security you can have is mutual security, because if one side feels insecure then it’s going to take measures and do things that are unpredictable or that will make the first side feel insecure as well. So the only kind of security you can have in that relationship is when both sides feel secure. And this really is new in Soviet thinking. The earlier Soviet view was always the stronger the Soviet Union is in military terms the more secure the Soviet Union will be, and the more accommodating the West will be.
Whiteley: A fourth theme appears to be more ideological, and that is the emergence of a line of reasoning that says the future of the human race takes precedence over the march of the working class toward socialism.
Holloway: This particular theme reflects a debate that has taken place in the early 1980s, since the collapse of détente. And that debate has been about is progress toward socialism a strengthening of the Soviet Union and its power in the world - does that mean the world becomes more peaceful. That was the Soviet view under détente that the stronger the Soviet Union is the greater will be the relaxation of tension, but that didn’t happen, and we got more tension in the early ‘80s in spite of growing Soviet power. So this new position, it reflects a debate about the relationship between peace and socialism. And I think it’s potentially very significant because Gorbachev is saying that the interests of securing peace, of avoiding tension in dangerous crises are superior or take precedence over the interests of advancing the cause of socialism.
Whiteley: Is the Soviet Union still interested in world domination?
Holloway: Official Soviet ideology looks forward to the day when there’s a complete transition to socialism. But I think what this new position says is that in fact we’ve got to worry about stability, we’ve got to worry about equilibrium because the main task that we have in our policy is not to get into a nuclear war. We’ve got to prevent a nuclear war.
Whiteley: A fifth theme is that the world is seen an increasingly interdependent terms. Moreover, that many of the problems require cooperative solutions.
Holloway: This is an important theme in Gorbachev’s speeches, comes from the Soviet writings in the 1970s, and of course Western thinking too, that there are major problems like ecological problems, problems of the environment, problems of famine, food supply which can be solved only on a global basis.
Whiteley: How do you square this analysis with the Soviet reaction to the Chernobyl event?
Holloway: Well I think the Chernobyl event showed their initial reaction was the old atavistic reaction of deny that anything happened. But in fact then they moved to be much more open than they have ever been before about any disaster. And they have agreed and signed agreements about notification of accidents at nuclear plants, and I see Gorbachev as using that to point out just how you can’t confine these things within individual states. They are global in their consequences.
Whiteley: The sixth and final theme is that the Soviet Union is paying much more attention to other world power centers than simply the United States and its relationship with the United States. What do you see evolving?
Holloway: What is evolving is not a downgrading of the Soviet/American relationship, but rather the view that in the 1970s the Soviet leaders paid too much attention to that relationship and neglected their relations with Japan, China, and Western Europe; subordinated those to their policy toward the U.S. And that one result of that was that by the late 1970s there was a kind of ganging up between China, the United States, Japan and Western Europe against the Soviet Union. And Soviet policy now takes the position (the Soviet leaders take it) that really they need to encourage good relations with these other centers of power both for their own sake and as a way of exerting some influence on American policy.
Whiteley: Professor Holloway, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into Soviet thinking about crisis and security as part of the quest for peace.
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