The Collapse of the Soviet Military

By Kipp, Jacob W. | Naval War College Review, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Collapse of the Soviet Military


Kipp, Jacob W., Naval War College Review


Odom, William E. The Collapse of the Soviet Military. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1998. 523pp. $35

This book should be one of two books on the reading list of those who wish to understand the current crisis of the Russian military. William Odom, a retired U.S. Army general and Soviet specialist, brings excellent credentials to this study. His research is extensive. His approach to the collapse of the Soviet military is deeply rooted in the history of the Soviet state and its military system.

Odom argues that the military collapse of the Soviet Union was at the very heart of the disintegration of the Soviet system. His book is broken down into two unequal parts. The first provides an indepth, historical perspective on the origins, development, and crisis of the Soviet military and its commanding place in the Soviet system. In the second part, Odom examines the efforts under Gorbachev to reform the system, efforts that led to a deepening crisis, internal conflict, and collapse. The author emphasizes the role of MarxismLeninism in providing an ideological framework for defining threats to the Soviet state and in rationalizing the militarization of state and society.

The first five chapters cover the Soviet military from its birth, during the period of revolution and civil war; examine the role of the military in the mature party-state system that emerged under Stalin; discuss the model of preparation for mass, industrial war, which dictated huge standing forces based upon conscription; and the permanent war economy, which ensnared the national economy in constant preparation for war even as it stifled innovation and economic growth under "mature socialism."

Some will take issue with Odom's emphasis upon ideology as the core, driving factor in the formation of Soviet military strategy. They may prefer to emphasize the critical role of personalities in dictating particular shifts in direction of military policy. Examples would be Khrushchev's cuts in conventional forces and his gamble on strategic nuclear arms; Brezhnev's willingness to fund military programs across the board, even at the risk of contributing to economic stagnation, and his decisions to embark upon the Afghan adventure, even against the advice of the Soviet General Staff, and to avoid direct military intervention in Poland in the face of the challenge from Solidarity; or the distinct role of Admiral Sergei Gorshkov in creating an oceanic navy to challenge the U.S. Navy for command of the seas.

Odom treats Afghanistan as a continuation of Soviet policies of force projection into the Third World, not noting the very different character of Soviet intervention. He is not alone in this argument; it is one articulated by the late General Dmitri Volkogonov, in Autopsy of an Empire: The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime. Volkogonov made a compelling case for the limitations imposed by Marxism-Leninism upon the possibilities of systemic reform. It is a theme that Andrei Kokoshin, deputy defense minister and secretary of the Security Council, also emphasized.

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