The Cold War Soviet Army was both the Soviet Union’s most important military tool and the Communist Party’s main guarantor of power. The Red Army emerged from World War II as the most powerful land force in the world. The Soviets’ navy and air force, however, paled in comparison to those of their Western counterparts. The Soviet Red Army occupied the majority of Eastern Europe in 1945, making Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria unwilling satellites of the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War, the Red Army was the key factor in guaranteeing control of local communist governments there. From 1948 to 1949, the Red Army subsequently cut off Berlin from the West, precipitating the Berlin Airlift. After Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchev, his successor, shifted Soviet military emphasis from land forces to nuclear weaponry. Khrushchev also began training and supporting proxy forces against the West.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Army ensured continued communist rule over Hungary in 1956, helped build the Berlin Wall in 1961, crushed the infant Czechoslovakian revolution in 1968, and clashed with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) along the Soviet-PRC border in 1969. By the early 1970s, the Soviet nuclear arsenal also reached rough parity with the West. The Soviet Army, however, faced its greatest challenge in fighting the Afghanistan War (1979–1989).
At the end of World War II, the Soviet Red Army, immense and battle-hardened, was the most powerful land military force in the world. The force that took Berlin alone consisted of 110 infantry divisions, 11 tank and mechanized corps, and 11 artillery divisions, making it larger than all the World War II American land forces in Europe and Asia combined. The Red Army had also learned valuable lessons in fighting the German Army from 1941 to 1945. This experience paid off in the form of great operational skill, experienced leaders, and a cadre of elite, battle-tested units.
In 1946 Stalin renamed the Red Army the Soviet Army and supervised its continued mechanization. He envisioned an army capable of conducting deep penetrations with ground support aircraft, mimicking the Germans’ strategy during the early part of World War II. Stalin planned to use his army as a counterbalance to the Americans’ atomic monopoly. He believed that the threat of this massive force invading Western Europe would prevent American atomic blackmail. This approach remained in place until Stalin’s death in 1953.
The Soviet Army played a more active role in Soviet politics after Stalin’s death. For example, Khrushchev enlisted the help of World War II Red Army hero Marshal Georgi Zhukov, whom Stalin had pushed out of the spotlight, to ensure his ascension as premier. Khrushchev made Zhukov minister of defense as a reward for his help. Khrushchev, like Stalin, grew to fear Zhukov’s power, popularity, and ambition and in 1957 removed the old marshal from power.
When Khrushchev became premier, he set out to make the Soviet Army more effective by curbing the worst excesses of the Stalinist system. He reduced the army from 5.3 million men to 3.6 million men as a way to cut expenses and invested more resources in nuclear weapons. These changes, however, unwittingly led to independence and autonomy movements in Soviet satellite states. Soviet leaders subsequently called upon the army to force Eastern bloc governments to toe the line. For example, the Soviet Army brutally suppressed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 by using 30,000 men supported by armor to fight for ten days, mostly in Budapest.
Efforts to bolster the Soviet Army came to fruition in the late 1950s as it developed into a fully armored and motorized force. New tanks replaced World War II–era tanks, and Soviet industry supplied the army with huge numbers of armored personnel carriers (APCs). While its equipment and numbers were impressive, however, the Soviet Army still relied on the same basic structure and strategy of Stalin’s Blitzkrieg-style vision of warfare. This doctrine may have served the Soviet Army well in a general—and conventional—war, but it would prove to be woefully inadequate in future conflicts, such as the war in Afghanistan. Moreover, the officer corps retained older leaders wedded to old doctrine. This problem was so endemic that many Soviet generals in the 1980s and 1990s had been serving since before the German invasion, calcifying Soviet military strategy and doctrine.
The Strategic Rocket Force (SRF) grew to be an integral part of the defense of the Soviet Union in the 1950s. The SRF became an independent military branch in 1959, charged with command and control over the Soviet Union’s burgeoning fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The SRF, as it turned out, proved to be too small and inaccurate to deter the Americans during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
After the humiliating Cuban Missile Crisis, Alexei Kosygin and Leonid Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev in 1964. Brezhnev decided to build up both nuclear and conventional military forces. The consequent buildup of the SRF led to the introduction of the SS-11 missile system in 1966, followed by the SS-9 in 1967 and the SS-13 in 1969. By 1970, the Soviet Union outnumbered the United States in ICBMs 1,299 to 1,054. Subsequently, the Soviets developed a more powerful family of the SS-17, SS-18, and SS-19 ICBMS, now armed with multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Thus, the Soviets had reached nuclear parity, if not superiority, with the United States.
While the SRF increased in size and capability, the Soviet Army remained active. It invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to quell an uprising, which lasted less than one full day. The Soviet Army also supported other communist regimes and proxy insurgencies, including those in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea), the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam), and Cuba.
Despite the West’s view of monolithic communism, the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s led to a border clash in 1969. This schism was ostensibly due to ideological differences, but other issues were also involved. PRC leader Mao Zedong believed that he should have become the international leader of communism after Stalin’s death. Khrushchev, however, had no intention of according Mao such status.
The Soviet war in Afghanistan, which lasted from 1979 to 1989, had many correlations to the American experience in Vietnam. After a Marxist party overthrew the Afghan government in 1978, the Soviet Army moved in to support the failing communist regime in December 1979 with one airborne and four motorized rifle divisions. Thus, Soviet mechanized forces secured the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. The Soviet-backed Afghan government controlled only the country’s urban areas, however. The Afghan guerrillas, or mujahideen, put up a fierce fight that Soviet politicians and military planners had failed to foresee. Opposition increased during the first four years of the war as the Soviet Army attacked the mujahideen in remote and rugged mountainous areas. Analogous to the Viet Cong’s use of Cambodia and Laos, the mujahideen used sanctuaries in Pakistan and Iran as safe havens, while the Soviet Army tried valiantly to combat this unconventional style of warfare.
Soviet forces began to use massive airborne operations for rapid movement and attack as well as scorched-earth tactics to starve and terrorize guerrillas. These tactics, however, only served to strengthen the resolve of the mujahideen. When Konstantin Chernenko became Soviet premier in 1984, he decided to change tactics in Afghanistan by attacking the support network and infrastructure of the Afghan resistance, including supply lines and safe havens. Although for a time these tactics appeared to be somewhat effective, the mujahideen’s will to resist remained intact.
In 1986, the United States decided to send the Afghan guerrillas Stinger antiaircraft missiles and other high-tech weapons. With their new American weapons, the mujahideen began to shoot down roughly one Soviet aircraft per day. The Soviet Army could not sustain such losses, nor could it continue to effectively attack the guerrillas without helicopters. This led to the Soviet Army’s use of mechanized ground forces to attack the guerrillas, but the army lacked the mobility to combat the elusive mujahideen. As with Vietnamization, the Soviets began to turn the battle over to the Afghan communists. The last Soviet troops left the country on 15 February 1989.
When Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded Chernenko in 1985, he ushered in a completely new era. In 1987 Gorbachev agreed with President Ronald Reagan to destroy all intermediate-range nuclear missiles. In July 1991, Gorbachev and President George H. W. Bush signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), drastically reducing the superpowers’ strategic nuclear warheads.
References: Jones, Ellen. Red Army and Society: A Sociology of the Soviet Military. Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1985. Reese, Roger R. The Soviet Military Experience: A History of the Soviet Army, 1917–1991. New York: Routledge, 2000. Schofield, Carey. Inside the Soviet Military. New York: Abbeville, 1991. Seaton, Albert, and Joan Seaton. The Soviet Army: 1918 to the Present. New York: New American Library, 1987. Suvorov, Viktor. Inside the Soviet Army. New York: Macmillan, 1982.