FOLLOW-UP: THE FAILURE OF KHRUSHCHEV’S MORAL STRATEGY
In the comments section of Richards Brief post, Dan of tdaxp asked, in reference to my crticism of the assertion by Dr. Chet Richards that Afghanistan represented a ” proximate cause” of the Soviet Union’s collapse, that I explain further my contention that:
“Thirdly, Dr. Richards vastly overestimates the role of Afghanistan in provoking the Soviet collapse. While the war in Afghanistan certainly did not help matters for the Soviets, the cost of battling mujahedin was fractional compared to the vast sums the Soviets were spending as a percentage of GDP on military and state security services. Morally, the regime had crippled itself in the mod-1960’s when Brezhnev-Kosygin-Suslov reversed Khrushchev’s attempts to morally reconnect the regime with the Russian people and imposed a creeping ” neo-Stalinist” orthodoxy that became more sterile as the Politburo grew grayer. Afghanistan was a product of the Soviet leadership’s total moral isolation and the regime’s economic implosion, not the cause.”
In 4GW theory, a school of thought that draws deeply from the ideas of the late Colonel John Boyd, moral conflict is a more important (i.e. decisive) domain in which to orient strategy than the physical or mental. As DNI puts it on their website:
“The focus (Schwerpunkt) of the non-state player’s operations is to collapse the state morally, that is, to rob it of its will to continue the fight. What is new is that one of the states in question may be a distant superpower and the non-state participant a transnational, ideological group”
Now for some background in Soviet history to provide the context that explains why I think Dr. Richards has Afghanistan ” backwards” as a cause when it is really an effect of a preexisting moral collapse of Soviet power.
Nikita Sergeievitch Khrushchev is generally misunderstood by the Western public and not a few scholars. Most people recall Khrushchev as a dangerous buffoon who banged his shoe at the UN and blinked during the Cuban Missile Crisis that he recklessly provoked. This is, in my view, a serious misreading of a very ruthless Soviet politician; one who rose under Josef Stalin and succeeded him as ruler of the Soviet Union while supposedly better men like Kosior and Voznesensky went to unmarked graves.
Khrushchev came to power after Stalin had throroughly terrorized Soviet society for nearly thirty years, slaughtering some 20 to 61 million citizens along the way, the final figure depending on what kind of yardstick of moral responsibility one cares to use. After orchestrating the 1954 coup against Beria, Khrushchev was always more than simply primus inter pares but he never enjoyed Stalin’s undisputed power, instead checking his Presidium rivals through his dominance of the Central Committee of the CPSU and his support in the early years from the marshals of the Red Army. To understand Soviet foreign policy in the Khrushchev era one must realize that he was also manuvering against internal rivals – first Beria and Malenkvov, then Molotov and Kaganovich and finally Suslov, Kosygin and Brezhnev.
Stalinism had thoroughly demoralized Soviet society as evidenced by the near total collapse of Soviet armies during the initial phase Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Were it not for the politically obtuse racial barbarism of the Nazis that provoked a desperate resistance and the placement of SMERSH and NKVD machine gun units to prevent Red Army units from retreating, it is doubtful the USSR would have survived WWII. After the war, Stalin and Beria set about reimposing the terror system and many historians believe that Stalin was at the point of initiating a new, mammoth, antisemitic, purge when he suddenly died in March 1953.
Khrushchev, who was of the generation that experienced both the Bolshevik Revolution and the savage Russian Civil War, sought to revive the status of the CPSU, rehabilitate its reputation and secure his own position by restoring the Soviet Union to the true ” Leninist” path, relegating Stalin’s crimes to an aberration. He did so through a contradictory program of:
Peaceful Coexistence with the West – competing through space and economic development
Support for ” Wars of National Liberation“ – and leaders like Nasser, Castro, Nehru.
Consumerism, Soviet style – de-emphasizing heavy industry, slashing conventional military budgets, investing in light industry for consumer goods and agrarian development of ” virgin lands” to raise Soviet living standards.
In short, Khrushchev’s program which he brought about by tactical shifts and improvisation, ran against many key tenets of Stalinist thought. As erratic as Khrushchev may have seemed at the time, his policy was ” Re-Legitimization” of the regime; to try and bring real benefits to the Soviet citizen either materially by raising living standards, culturally by relaxing censorship or in terms of prestige and national pride by achievements like Sputnik and ICBMs. He tried to portray the Communist Party as a another victim of Stalin’s homicidal paranoia by stressing the events of the terrible 1937 “Yezhovschina ” – ignoring of course Stalin’s Ukranian genocide or Collectivization, both of which had left Khrushchev’s own hands dripping with blood.
All of Khrushchev’s rivals except (ironically) Beria and Kosygin were either die-hard Stalinists like Molotov and Suslov or nostalgic neo-Stalinists like Brezhnev who wanted a velvet glove, ” soft” version of the dead dictator’s U.S.S.R. While Khrushchev’s program in terms of its parts were incompatible, he was popular outside of the Nomenklatura and secret police ranks whose prerogatives and status were made insecure by his quixotic reforms. Some of Khrushchev’s ideas, at least in the Soviet central planning context, made a good deal of sense and ideologically at least, his foreign policy, however provocative, was far closer to Lenin’s than Stalin’s imperial realpolitik ever was.
Brezhnev, prompted by Mikhail Suslov, eventually reversed all of Khrushchev’s reforms, he tightened up censorship, broadened the powers of the KGB, poured 25 % of Soviet GDP into military industry ( even Stalin would have balked at that figure !). The Nomenklatura that Stalin once terrorized into robotic obedience, Brezhnev bought off with an indulgence of widespread corruption. The Soviet populace, as Hedrick Smith recorded at the time, were left deeply alienated, cynical and in despair.
Then in December 1979, an ailing Leonid Brezhnev, who was then only capable of working 2-3 hours per week, met with Stalin’s last Politburo appointee, Mikhail Suslov and his fellow septuagenarians, Andropov, Gromyko, Ustinov and Chernenko and gave his feeble assent as General Secretary of The Communist Party of The Soviet Union to the invasion of Afghanistan.