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Journal of Cold War Studies 1.2 (1999) 129-131

Book Review

Soviet Strategic Thought, 1917-91

Andrei A. Kokoshin, Soviet Strategic Thought, 1917-91. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1998. 225 pp.

Andrei Kokoshin is a leading civilian expert in Russia on military affairs. After a distinguished academic career at the Institute for U.S.A. and Canada Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, he served as First Deputy Minister of Defense and Secretary of the Defense Council of the Russian Federation. This book is the result of his research before he joined the government. The book is of wide scope, and the material is well organized around three main topics: the relationship between policy and strategy in Soviet military doctrine; Moscow's assessments of external threats and of the probability of war; and the relationship between offense and defense in Soviet military strategy. Kokoshin devotes a good deal of attention to the vigorous military-theoretical discussions of the 1920s and early 1930s, which involved thinkers with cultural and intellectual ties to the old Tsarist Army (M.V. Frunze, V.K. Triandafilov, A.A. Svechin, B.M. Shaposhnikov, and M.N. Tukhachevsky). The author's admiration of them, particularly of Svechin, is obvious. Josif Stalin's purges, he sadly admits, eradicated this military culture with such brutality that the impact of the loss "is still felt in the Russian military" today (p. 41). The book is short on historical judgments, but it provides an effective indictment of Stalin's dictatorship. According to Kokoshin, Stalin stifled creativity among the military, swept mistakes under the rug, neglected defense in favor of offense, and substituted propaganda for hard-headed military-political assessments.

The book is based almost exclusively on sources published before 1991, and thus its facts and conclusions are necessarily partial, despite the author's obvious erudition and expertise. Regrettably, Kokoshin did not exploit newly released archival materials to update and expand his manuscript, even though he would have enjoyed unusually good access to those materials. The records of the Defense Council, arms control's "big five," and other military-political committees and commissions, not to mention Stalin's military plans and Soviet General Staff memoranda, still await analysis. These sources will undoubtedly help fill the substantial gaps found in this book. Similarly, Kokoshin's decision to focus on the works of uniformed military and civilian "experts" hinders proper understanding of the role of the Soviet political leadership in military affairs.

Kokoshin does not discuss the perennial issue of responsibility for the Cold War, but he concludes that Soviet tactical and strategic plans after World War II were not initially oriented toward an immediate strategic offensive (p. 171). When the Cold War accelerated, however, Stalin returned to his pre-war blueprints to establish the world's largest army and a blue-water navy. By 1950, one of Stalin's fundamental aims was "to create a threat to the United States on the seas that was analogous to the U.S. naval threat to the Soviet Union," in addition to building a credible Soviet nuclear missile capability (p. 172). During Stalin's reign, military officers lived under political diktat: They were not allowed to discuss even the most important issues, such as the nature of nuclear warfare and the mistakes committed during the Second World War. [End Page 128]

Kokoshin examines the limitations of the post-Stalin "renewal" of Soviet military thinking. He claims that, in many ways, the climate for debate in the 1960s and 1970s deteriorated still further. The self-congratulatory, ritualistic language of superiority and inevitable victory prevented sober discussion of the realities of the nuclear age. Nikita Khrushchev ignored much of the advice of his military and had little appreciation for military theories and doctrines. He authorized publication of Marshal Vasilii Sokolovsky's textbook Military Strategy (Voennaya strategiya) in 1962 largely because he wanted "to frighten [the West] to death" (p. 50). Although the Soviet military did learn from its experience in fighting local wars, the level of preparedness for a major war was remarkably low. Kokoshin was surprised...

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