Soldiers and the Soviet State: Civil-Military Relations from Brezhnev to Gorbachev

Soldiers and the Soviet State: Civil-Military Relations from Brezhnev to Gorbachev

by Timothy J. Colton

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How much power does the Soviet military exert on the politics of the Kremlin? This is one of the most controversial questions in the study of the Soviet Union, here addressed by eight top Western specialists on Soviet politics and security policy. While the authors assert that the civil-military relationship has been less turbulent than often believed, they also point


How much power does the Soviet military exert on the politics of the Kremlin? This is one of the most controversial questions in the study of the Soviet Union, here addressed by eight top Western specialists on Soviet politics and security policy. While the authors assert that the civil-military relationship has been less turbulent than often believed, they also point out that Gorbachev's reforms threaten the system of buffers that have until now shielded the military-industrial world from disruption and change.Introduced by Timothy Colton's essay, "Perspectives on Civil-Military Relations," the volume discusses civil-military relations in relation to political change (Bruce Parrott), the KGB (Amy Knight), resource stringency and civil-military resource allocation (Robert Campbell), the defense industry (Julian Cooper), response to technological challenge (Thane Gustafson), social change (Ellen Jones), and consequences of external expansion (Bruce D. Porter). Gustafson has written a concluding chapter, "Toward a Crisis in Civil-Military Relations?"

Editorial Reviews

Covering a 25-year span, separate chapters are devoted to the major factors affecting the civil-military relationship: politics, economics, technology, society, and foreign relations. The contributors don't claim a magic key to prediction, but their analysis shows elements of continuity and stability in civil-military relations that make both current and future events more fathomable. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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Soldiers and the Soviet State

Civil-Military Relations from Brezhnev to Gorbachev

By Timothy J. Colton, Thane Gustafson


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07863-2


Perspectives on Civil-Military Relations in the Soviet Union


The purpose of Soldiers and the Soviet State is to take a fresh look at the balance between civilian and military institutions in the Soviet Union. Our immediate concern is with the shared understandings and patterns of influence prevailing under L. I. Brezhnev, the top Soviet leader from October 1964 to his death in November 1982, and under his successors, principally M. S. Gorbachev, who became general secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985. Besides scrutinizing specific events, we wish to reopen a long-standing debate over general analytical approaches to Soviet military politics. As conflict heats up over Gorbachev's attempts at reform, it is imperative that Western scholars and governments think lucidly about the bond between soldiers and the state he is trying to reinvigorate.

The Significance of Civil-Military Relations

Who rules—the statesman, whose vocation is politics, or the soldier, whose calling is war but who is capable of turning his arms on his own government? How great is military influence in politics, and how complete is the civilians' sway over defense decisions? How weighty a claim does national security exert on the community's resources and on its imagination? Answers to these and related questions tell us much about the nature of the state, even in lands such as the United States and Great Britain where they have long since been settled and passed into the realm of unexamined belief. The contract between military officers and civilian politicians is an essential clause of the operative constitution of every society save the aberrant handful that do not have armies.

In the Soviet Union, military-political issues gain import from the immense attachment the political authorities themselves have had to military might. This goes back to the regime's birth in violent revolution, its abundant experience of invasion and cold war, and its imperial ambitions, which would be unattainable without potent armed forces. In the present as in the past, the party "considers the protection of the socialist fatherland, the strengthening of the country's defense, and the maintenance of state security to be one of the most important functions of the Soviet all-people's state," in the words of the latest version of its program. The armed services, about five million officers and enlisted men strong, still take the biggest bite out of the national budget, digesting proportionately more resources than those of any other industrial power. Coordination of the defense effort and maintenance of "party leadership of the armed forces," as party doctrine phrases it, are chronic worries for the Soviet bosses.

Granted that the civil-military connection is perennially topical, a compelling case can be made for looking closely at how it stands right now. If useful information has come out in a miscellany of specialized Western publications, no major, integrative work on civil-military relations in the USSR has been published since the 1970s. What makes this omission glaring is that the Soviet system as a whole has at this very time been buffeted by unusual and at times dramatic stress.

In politics, the long Brezhnev era, which opened with such self-assurance and optimism, reached its end with a leadership enfeebled and rudderless and with pessimism spreading within the political class. The long overdue transfer of power to a new generation ignited dissension within the Soviet establishment more intense than any since the heyday of N. S. Khrushchev in the 1950s and early 1960s. The succession, moreover, was fought out against a backdrop of mounting concern about the country's ills. In economics, the gradual slide of growth rates became a drop in the latter half of the 1970s, precipitating a searching debate about resource allocation, technological innovation, and economic reform. The regime also awakened to a plethora of social problems and pathologies, new and old, ranging from the housing shortage and alcoholism to youth anomie and ethnic friction. In addition, as the souring of detente with the United States, the 1980–81 upheaval in Poland, and the miring of the Soviets in Afghanistan went to show, challenges and setbacks were plentiful in foreign relations.

Gorbachev has brought many simmering problems to a boil by encouraging candid discussion of them and proclaiming the need for perestroika, the "reconstruction" or "rebuilding" of inherited policies and structures. He asserts, as he put it in a landmark speech to the party Central Committee in January 1987, that "unresolved problems began to pile up" in Soviet society under Brezhnev. "The country's leadership, chiefly for subjective reasons, was unable in good time and in full measure to see the necessity of changes and the danger of the growth of crisis phenomena in society, or to work out a clear line for overcoming them." Worse, it clung to "authoritarian appraisals and opinions" conceived under I. V. Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s, "when our society faced quite different problems." The Soviet Union, in Gorbachev's judgment, cannot move forward until such dogmas are confronted and revised.

Suppose that Gorbachev and Western specialists are correct about the Soviet system under Brezhnev not measuring up to the political, economic, technological, social, and international problems of an advanced society. It is hard not to wonder whether these exogenous changes and the surfacing of "crisis phenomena" have affected the equilibrium between the party and the armed forces, its ultimate tool for neutralizing enemies and threats. In many other countries, armies have become politically radicalized during times of national crisis. The issue is all the more timely now that Gorbachev is attempting to reverse Soviet decline.

Now, too, after an initial phase in which Gorbachev seemed to pay little attention to military issues, his policies are impinging directly on military personnel and programs. In his January 1987 address on the malaise of the Soviet system, he reiterated the regime's commitment to the "vitally important task" of national defense and affirmed officers' "special role" in it, but he also underlined their "enormous responsibility before the people" and made a cryptic comment about them, too, "living by perestroika." Only four months later, he dealt the army high command its sharpest slap since Khrushchev's sacking of the great wartime marshal, G. K. Zhukov, thirty years before. The Politburo abruptly retired Defense Minister S. L. Sokolov and replaced him with one of his lower-ranking deputies, D. T. Iazov. It accused Sokolov and the commander-in-chief of Soviet air defenses, A. I. Koldunov, of "gross derelictions" of duty for failing to prevent the deep incursion into Soviet air space of a light airplane piloted by a West German teenager, Mathias Rust.

The leadership took advantage of the affair to make wider claims on the officer corps. Gorbachev linked military to civilian incompetence by observing that the Rust incident "reminds us how powerful and alive negative phenomena turn out to be in our society, even in the army." Some civilian critics were less restrained. General Iazov, the new minister, declared in blanket terms that Soviet officers "have still not profoundly grasped the essence of perestroika" and "have not defined their role and place in it," insisting that this change forthwith. Changes on a number of levels were quick to follow. Western audiences saw the most graphic sign of them in Gorbachev's address to the United Nations General Assembly in December 1988, where he committed the Soviet Union to unilateral demobilization of 500,000 troops and major revisions in its military doctrine.

Stirring though such headlines may be, it is necessary to reach behind them to underlying patterns and determinants. In planning Soldiers and the Soviet State, the editors have been mindful of a tendency among Western analysts to swing from one extreme to another in their evaluations of the Soviet military's role. During most of Brezhnev's reign, for example, and for several years afterward, it was standard to assert that the army's star was on the rise and, indeed, that there was a drift toward military hegemony in Soviet politics, either solo or with civilian collaborators. Today the thesis of incipient military dominance is out of fashion, and some are rushing to invert the picture, seeing discord pure and simple as the dominant feature of the civil-military relationship.

There is more to gain, in our view, from taking the long view and working toward more systematic and verifiable explanations. Without pretending to the definitive analysis that will have to await historical hindsight, we scan the Brezhnev era for clues to the present, investigate major aspects of recent military politics, and engage in some cautious forward projection. Our findings are targeted as much on the generalist reader and student of public policy as on the initiated Sovietologist.

The Comparative Context

If by theory is meant a construct that elegantly spells out all the pertinent variables and causal relationships, it has to be said that there is no such thing as an accepted global theory of civil-military relations. Perhaps for this reason, most university departments of political science pass over the subject in their curricula, subsuming it under courses on strategic studies, policy formation, and public administration. The well-known Handbook of Political Science, synopsizing the state of the discipline, has no chapter on it.

True, the reality of military coups and governments, to say nothing of the intricacies of relations in civilian-dominated polities, has spawned a voluminous literature and a bevy of models and theorems. Nonetheless, many of the most thoughtful observers despair of arriving at all-embracing conclusions. Donald Horowitz, in a review of coup theories, finds that they often become obsolete before they are rigorously tested: "Theoretical emphasis has shifted so rapidly that there has scarcely been time to gather material that might support or refute the explanations being propounded." One of the most daunting problems is that civil-military relations, rather than being a seamless whole, display such variation from country to country and situation to situation.

Conceptual Approaches to Civil-Military Relations

It is possible, nonetheless, to make at the outset of this book certain conceptual distinctions, less exacting than synoptic theory but helpful in charting the terrain and introducing the literature on Soviet military affairs. A beginning is to delineate three broad domains of civil-military relations. Each is defined by the arena within which the military wields influence. They are not mutually exclusive; traffic may and very often does occur simultaneously in more than one arena.

In the first and narrowest domain, the object is defense policy. The mode is problem solving, the formulation and implementation of adequate measures for protection against foreign enemies. The stakes in the second arena may be thought of as concerning societal choice. Military and nonmilitary elites in this instance grapple with problems and divisions within civilian society. Economic, technological, and sociocultural in nature, these issues are loosely related to military security as such, but may, if conditions are right, attract the army's attention and become bound up in its dealings with civilian officials and groups. The issue in the third domain is the most gripping: sovereign power. The question here can be baldly put as whether soldiers or statesmen are to be supreme in the state. Notice that in each province civil-military transactions may be broadly conflictual or cooperative and may tie civilian and military leaders in complex political tangles with one another and with third parties.

In his seminal work The Soldier and the State, published in 1957, Samuel Huntington outlined a framework for fitting together types much like the ones adumbrated here, and for giving them historical referents. Traditionally, Huntington said, governments in the West have been most intent on political superiority and have opted for subjective civilian control over the warrior class. This meant maximizing the power of a civilian group or groups vis-à-vis the military leadership by patronage, surveillance, class- or kinship-based recruitment, or some other intrusive device. Subjective control became politically less palatable as society industrialized, mass politics grew, and the desire of social groups to deny military support to their opponents squeezed out their wish to get it for themselves. But its greatest liability was that it was militarily inefficient and self-defeating. For Huntington, the growing scale, complexity, and destructiveness of mechanized warfare in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries virtually dictated that governments delegate management of their armies to a technically proficient, meritocratic, and cohesive corps of experts in violence.

The new settlement Huntington labeled objective civilian control, a marriage of mutual acceptance of "autonomous military professionalism" in the army's own sphere with a recognition of civilian primacy in politics at large (in the arenas I term societal choice and sovereign power). If subjective control "achieves its end by civilianizing the military, making them the mirror of the state," objective control does so "by militarizing the military, making them the tool of the state." The officer corps, now the preserve of skilled professionals rather than aristocratic amateurs, would under conditions of objective control make most routine administrative decisions within its functional area, and would advance policy demands on the basis of its corporate bias. It would not be invited or admitted into other conflicts, for purpose of which it would be rendered "politically sterile and neutral."

Huntington's scheme is not without its problems and grey areas. It has been objected that military professionalism is a more elastic concept than he allowed, that it differs in content from one culture to another, and that it does not always produce optimal efficiency. Nor, as Huntington recognized, does professionalism in and of itself define a watertight boundary between military and civilian concerns or a single point of equilibrium between military and civilian organizations. This is true even of the politics behind defense policy, where both military influence and civilian checks constantly have to be asserted and affirmed through active effort.

Civilian politicians, for one thing, remain responsible for national budgeting and financial management and normally compare the marginal utility of the expenditures recommended by their military advisers to spending on social and other programs. They also, in most modem states, retain a military personnel role, reserving the right to select the most senior officers and to review appointments at lower levels. A final complication is that in many industrial societies, especially since the Second World War, important civilian organizations, interested in national security but not part of the uniformed military, also help mold defense programs. Examples would be weapons contractors, regional lobbies, civilian think tanks, nonmilitary intelligence services, and voluntary associations engaged with strategic affairs or arms control. For the military to deal effectively with all these forces and problems in its surroundings, professional autonomy, as Huntington was aware but did not emphasize, is not an absolute. Objective control does not preclude soldiers acting prudently, within the rules of the political game, to maintain and advance the interests of the military establishment and its component parts.

If objective control is accompanied at the best of times by zones of ambiguity, its breakdown involves their degeneration into zones of combat and confrontation. Using the categories of The Soldier and the State, civil-military crisis is most likely under two sets of conditions. First, military and civilian organizations may fall out if either side concludes that the other, be it due to mismanagement, denial of resources, or some other reason, is doing an unacceptably poor job of safeguarding national security. A bungled war, a gross discrepancy between defense budgets and security needs, heavy-handed civilian interference in internal military decision making, or creation of an anti-army militia may spark this recognition. In a second pattern, military radicalization follows governmental failure within the normal core of civilian jurisdiction. Military leaders here come to perceive, usually after years of grief, that the politicians and civil service are so corrupt, inept, or disorderly that the very survival of the state they are sworn to defend is in jeopardy. They will be hastened toward this conclusion if convinced that their own institution, by contrast, is operationally efficient and politically chaste.


Excerpted from Soldiers and the Soviet State by Timothy J. Colton, Thane Gustafson. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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