The Soviet Approach to Deterrence

  • Lawrence Freedman
Part of the Studies in International Security book series (SIS)


The dogged refusal of the Russians to endorse any of McNamara’s prescriptions for intra-war deterrence or a stable arms race, undermined both confidence in McNamara’s prognoses for the future and the quality of his original diagnoses. The potential convergence of Soviet and American destinies was never as great as assumed by McNamara, but nor was the actual divergence as fundamental or as damaging as his detractors suggested. In his prime, McNamara’s faith in conclusions reached by a process of rigorous analysis, pushing to one side the deadweight of tradition, was contagious. It was not difficult to presume that he and his staff represented the furthest point on some strategic learning curve, to which internal opponents, allies and potential enemies were to be brought by a process of patient education in the realities of the age.


Europe Assure Military Position Defend Mili 
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  1. 1.
    Roman Kolkowicz et al., The Soviet Union and Arms Control: A Superpower Dilemma (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), pp. 34–7.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Interview with Robert McNamara, 15 February 1966, in Documents on Disarmament 1967 (Washington, DC: US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1967).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Richard Pipes, ‘Why the Soviet Union thinks it could fight and win a nuclear war’. Commentary, 64 (1) (July 1977).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    This indictment is forcefully set out in Chapter Three of Colin Gray, The Soviet-American Arms Race (Farnborough, Hants: Saxon House, 1976). Its significance for the strategic debate of the 1970s is discussed below, pp. 364–7.Google Scholar
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    Benjamin S. Lambeth, Selective Nuclear Options in American and Soviet Strategic Policy (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 1976), p. 14.Google Scholar
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    Nikita Khruschev, Khruschev Remembers, vol. 2, The Last Testament (London: André Deutsch, 1974), pp. 48–50. Khruschev also describes how, drawing on the physics he had learnt as a youth, he explained to M. K. Yangel, the head of the Soviet rocketry programme, the rockets might be kept at constant readiness. He illustrated his point using two glasses on the coffee table in front of him.Google Scholar
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    Edward L. Warner, The Military in Contemporary Soviet Politics (New York: Praeger, 1977), pp. 99–100.Google Scholar
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    A. W. Tupolev, the leading designer of Soviet aircraft, presented the case for the manned bomber in terms that would have been appreciated by SAC: A rocket–carrying aircraft can be considered the first stage of a multistage system which has important advantages over multistage missiles. It does not require permanent launch sites or complex and expensive launch equipment. The first stage, the piloted aircraft, is used repeatedly. When necessary, the aircraft can be redirected after a command decision. If the target is relocated, the aircraft crew can make a decision in order to successfully execute the combat mission. Only rocket–carrying aircraft possess these qualities. A. W. Tupolev, ‘Missile–carrying aircraft’, Aviation and Cosmonautics (June 1962).Google Scholar
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  12. 12.
    The book went through three editions — 1962, 1963, and 1968. A translation of the first edition was published with an introduction by Herbert Dinerstein, Leon Gouré, and Thomas Wolfe of RAND as Soviet Military Strategy (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963). The third edition, with full details of all amendments from previous editions was pubhshed under the same title with an introduction by the editor, Harriet Fast Scott (London: Macdonald & Jane’s, 1975).Google Scholar
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    This idea was given credence following an interview given by Khruschev to C. L. Sulzberger of the New York Times in September 1961. Sulzberger reported: Khruschev believes absolutely that when it comes to a showdown, Britain, France and Italy would refuse to join the United States in a war over Berlin for fear of their absolute destruction. Quite blandly he asserts that these countries are, figuratively speaking, hostages to the USSR and a guarantee against war. Quoted in Horelick and Rush, op. cit., p. 94.Google Scholar
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    Quoted in Raymond L. Garthoff, ‘Mutual deterrence and strategic arms limitation in Soviet policy’. International Security, III:l (Summer 1978), pp. 129–30. Garthoff provides a number of similar quotes.Google Scholar
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    Leon Goure, Foy Kohler, and Mose Harvey, The Role of Nuclear Forces in Current Soviet Strategy (Miami, Florida: Center for Advanced Studies, University of Miami, 1974). Fritz Ermarth has referred to two very unpleasant features in Soviet military doctrine: ‘a strong tendency to preempt and a determination to suppress the enemy’s command and control systems at all costs’. ‘Contrasts in American and Soviet strategic thought’, International Security, III: 2 (Autumn 1978), p. 152.Google Scholar
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    Dennis Ross, ‘Rethinking Soviet strategic policy: inputs and implications’, The Journal of Strategic Studies, 1:2 (May 1975), pp. 3–30, argues that the Soviet Union has opted for deterrence through denial (convincing an enemy that an attack will be unsuccessful) rather than punishment.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Goure et al., op. cit., pp. 35–6.Google Scholar
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    Garthoff, op. cit., p. 126.Google Scholar
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    Quoted by Gouré et al, op. cit., pp. 119–20.Google Scholar
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    Leon Goure, War Survival in Soviet Strategy (University of Miami Press, 1976) takes this more seriously.Google Scholar
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    Warner, op. cit., p. 152.Google Scholar
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    Garthoff, op. cit., p. 137.Google Scholar

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© The International Institute for Strategic Studies 1983

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  • Lawrence Freedman

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