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Mary Glantz
Temple University


Traditional historical analysis of Soviet naval matters has generally fallen into either of two camps. The first has viewed the Soviet Union as a continental power that has maintained a navy almost exclusively for naval support of ground forces. The second school contends that the Soviets for at least a brief period tried to achieve a blue-water fleet that could challenge the United States around the globe in some fashion.

Both of these schools share one tendency: the tendency to examine Soviet naval strategy on the basis of tangible results—that is an analysis of things such as ships constructed and fleets deployed. This approach falls short in a significant way: it cannot determine Soviet strategic motivation because of the unavailability of sources. Therefore, this method involves a high degree of inductive reasoning (or inference): i.e., the Soviets built aircraft carriers, like the United States, therefore their strategy reflected a desire for global reach. This kind of analysis, however, involves distinct pitfalls. American students of the Soviet navy can fall very easily into the trap of mirror-imaging. But, there may be a variety of reasons for the appearance of new weapons systems or their employment. Ex-post facto analysis, thus, involves a high degree of guesswork.

With the emergence of new archival and hitherto unavailable resources, historians are now better able to attempt to analyze Soviet naval strategy by studying the internal debates over the military art within key Soviet journals. By looking at a few select journals, which were generally unavailable prior to the 1990s, analysts can better determine the nature and course of the strategic debate--and in the Soviet Union strategic debates resulted in the formulation of strategic policy.

The purpose of this paper is to make use of these new resources, and through a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the material to propose an analytical framework for the study of Soviet strategic thought and policy formulation.

An Assessment of Soviet Open and Closed Source Literature

Several elements characterize the development and evolution of strategy in the Soviet Union. Among these are the debates that occur before the public eye; an analysis of military history and its lessons for contemporary military planners; and mirror-imaging of foreign powers. All of these elements are part of a comprehensive process towards the formation and implementation of new strategic concepts.

In addition, policy debates took place in certain professional military journals. Examination of articles that appeared in these journals reveal the debate that took place among the military leadership about future military doctrine and strategy. The quantity and content of these articles reflected the evolution of military strategy, so their study promised positive results.

The most important journal for the examination of these strategic trends is the official, closed journal of the General Staff of the Ministry of Defense, Voennaia Mysl' (VM). The articles on military strategy appearing in its pages reflect current trends in military development and debates over what future development should be. Thus, by analyzing the role of naval strategy in the articles on military strategy, and by simply noting the volume of writings (and of course the subject matter) on maritime topics, it is possible to postulate changing attitudes toward naval strategy.

Another important journal is Voennaia istoricheskii zhurnal (Vizh). Using the lessons of history, Vizh "explains" current strategy to military officers and provides the historical context for contemporary debate. Thus, there is a lag of a few years after the VM debate, but the quantity and content of articles in Vizh provides a good indication of recent doctrinal, strategic, and operational concerns.

The trends revealed by these two journals identify six periods in the evolution of Soviet strategic naval thought. It is not surprising that most of these periods parallel those relating to general Soviet military strategy. They are roughly, 1945-1957; 1958-1968; 1968-1972; 1972-1978/80; 1978/80-1985; and post-1985.


During the immediate post-war period, naval strategy was predicated on support of conventional ground combat power. The Soviets were increasingly concerned with atomic weapons, but Soviet military doctrine still stressed the predominance of the operational art over strategy in war. This meant a focus on navy support of the primary combat arm: the army. The writings in VM reflect this trend. There are not many articles focusing on purely naval topics, and those that do tend to stress the subsidiary role of the Soviet fleet. In a 1955 article entitled "On Supremacy at Sea," D. Shadtsov wrote:

Supremacy at sea is not necessary only for its own sake, but only to the end of securing the successful resolution of the tasks placed before the navy by the state for the course of the war.

In contemporary conditions supremacy at sea can only be achieved by joint forces of the navy, their air force, and the ground forces.1

In a 1957 article on the theory of naval art, Iu. Ladinskii stressed that the navy could not achieve its goals alone, but only in cooperation with other armed forces.2


This is the Khrushchevian period of Soviet military strategy (which outlived Khrushchev himself). This period encompassed the revolution in military affairs and the changes in military doctrine marked by the emergence of nuclear missiles and submarines. Missiles became the primary delivery vehicle for nuclear bombs, and in 1959 the Soviets decided that nuclear weapons were the main threat to the Soviet Union in the event of war. Consequently, the Soviet leadership created the Strategic Rocket Forces and introduced nuclear weapons into all branches of the armed forces. Sokolovskii's important work, Voennaiai strategiia [Military Strategy], stressed a single nuclear option in war. Nevertheless, Soviet military strategists still believed combined arms operations to be relevant to final victory. But, the conduct of strategic strikes became the main means of winning wars.

Throughout much of the period, however, combined arms operations remained important. This, in combination with the emerging importance of strategic nuclear weapons, had a definite impact on Soviet naval strategy. This impact was reflected in the journal debates of the time. Of five Voennaiai mysl' articles on military strategy in this period, three dealt with the navy, and these focused primarily on strategic submarine missions.

In 1963, V. Jruchinin in "Contemporary Theory of Strategy on the Aims and Missions of Armed Battle" (Sovermennaia teoriia strategii o tseliakh i xadachakh vooruszhennoi bor'by) wrote:

Strategic groups of the navy, consisting in its basis of unified submarine forces and naval rocket aviation, is capable of destroying groups of enemy naval forces, and above all strike carriers and rocket submarines, but also disrupting sea and ocean lines of communication of the enemy coalition independently as well as in combination with aviation and strategic rocket forces. On the coastal axes of continental theaters, fleets can enter into strategic groups consisting of several forms of armed forces, and participate in the destruction of coastal groups of the enemy and seize his straits, islands, and other important objectives and regions.3

Similarly, M. Povalii in a 1967 article, "The Development of Soviet Military Strategy," wrote:

The qualitative development in the navy, and especially the principle changes relating to its strategically designated forces, led to changes in the combat capabilities of the fleet. It was necessary to decide what would predominate in the actions of the fleet--operations of large-scale unions of surface ships or actions of nuclear missile submarines and rocket [raketonosnoi] aviation, comprising now the basic strike forces of the fleet. This question was decided in favor of the nuclear missile submarines and rocket aviation. They will play the main role in the resolution of the fleet's mission.4

In the same period, five articles on purely naval topics appeared in the pages of VM. Each of these reflected the continued stress on the navy's role in cooperation with and in support of the ground forces. For example, in a 1965 article examining the Soviet navy in the Great Patriotic War, Sergei Gorshkov drew lessons from contemporary naval strategists. One of these lessons was that: "victory in battle with a stronger enemy can be attained only through the common effort of all aspects of the armed forces."5


The period 1968-1972 in the history of the Cold War was marked by the implementation of the United States' Flexible Response strategy in Vietnam. This policy had significant implications for Soviet military strategy as it meant that future war need not be (and probably would not be) nuclear. Thus, Soviet strategists debated whether their strategy should be based upon the possibility of a nuclear, a conventional, or a war employing both elements. In addition, the Soviets believed that Khrushchev's assertion to the West that "we will bury you" could be realized. The combination of these factors had an impact on the development of Soviet naval strategy. Primarily, the impact was one of confusion; naval strategists struggled to define their missions in a war that might not have been dominated by the nuclear missile submarine.

Not many of the articles in Voennaia mysl' in this period dealt with naval strategy, and those that did wavered between focusing upon strategic missile forces and conventional forces. For example, in 1969 V. Zemskov wrote that in conventional war it was important to gain air and sea supremacy in the initial attacks.6 In 1970, A. Rudakov reasserted that "in contemporary conditions . . . the decisive means of armed battle is the nuclear missile."7

It was not until the end of this period of strategic turmoil that a new strategic vision for the navy begins to emerge. In three articles on purely naval matters written in 1972, Soviet strategists began to shift their focus to a navy capable of multi-faceted missions. N. Shatrov wrote: "It is considered that on the whole, the surface fleet retains its former universality, that is the ability to resolve an extensive range of multifarious battle tasks in armed battle on the sea."8 Similarly, Gorshkov discussed the U.S. military doctrine that demanded a navy capable of performing in both nuclear and conventional wars.9

By the end of this period, the Soviets decided that all forces, including the navy, had to be prepared to fight in either nuclear or conventional wars, or both.


In 1972, Soviet military strategists were struck by the failure of American aims in Vietnam. Regarding the United States Armed Forces as seriously weakened, Soviet naval strategists, led by Rear Admiral Stalbo and Admiral of the Fleet Sergei Gorshkov, launched an effort to create a blue-water surface navy that could challenge the predominance of the U.S. Navy around the globe. This navy would be capable of accomplishing both conventional and nuclear missions.

Striking evidence of this development was a 1973 article by M. Povalii that discussed the failure of the U.S. war effort in Indochina. Povalii also stressed the importance of conventional and nuclear weapons in war by quoting A.A. Grechko (Minister of Defense): "In a future world war if it is unleashed by the imperialists, nuclear weapons will be decisive means of armed battle." The author added, "together with nuclear-missile weapons in such a war will be found the application of ordinary weapons."10

Other articles of this period discuss topics such as the importance of sea lines of communication, getting oil supplies to the NATO countries, and the conduct of synchronized actions in the initial period of war. Finally, in a 1975 article, N. Kusnetsov spent a significant amount of time discussing the new global strategic missions of the navy and the important role that the oceans played in war. He also stressed the importance of aircraft carriers.11

From a purely quantitative standpoint, the shift in importance of the navy to Soviet military strategy in this period was apparent from the relative explosion in the number of articles on strategy that discussed the navy: eight--more than half the total written in this period. A similar growth in interest was reflected in the proliferation of articles on purely naval topics. Thirty seven articles on purely naval topics appeared in the pages of Voennaia mysl' in this eight-year period (as opposed to only 33 in the fourteen years preceding it!). The titles of these articles also reflected a shift to a more global focus for the Soviet navy. A similar burgeoning of interest was evident in Vizh, which in this period published 92 articles on naval topics! The journal debates indicated that the 1970s marked the high point for naval strategy in Soviet military strategy.


By the early 1980s, the United States had begun a military buildup that increased the strength of the navy and the other branches of the armed forces. Simultaneously, the Soviets became bogged down in a land war in Afghanistan. Then, the death of Brezhnev in 1982 left the USSR with no clear leader. Compounding these difficulties was the realization that the Soviet Union was losing the technological race with the West. In this era, the Soviets began to consider defensive aspects of strategy. Hence, this period was marked by mixed pattern of development and inertia in naval strategy.

There was virtually nothing on naval strategy in Voennaia mysl' during this period. In the one article on military strategy that discussed naval strategy, M.I. Bezkhrebtyi observed in 1981:

The operational art of the navy in the capacity of the basic forms of battle actions stipulate the realization of multi-faceted sea operations. Their aims consist of the destruction of submarines, aircraft carriers and other ship groups of the enemy on the sea and in the bases, in order to prevent their strikes on military and industrial objectives, and also to produce favorable strike situations in certain regions of oecanic theaters of military operations. Naval forces, as noted in the encyclopedia, can carry out also amphibious operations and take systematic battle actions in support of ground forces in the carrying out of their operations in shore areas.12

This decline in interest in naval strategy was also reflected in a decline in articles on specifically naval topics in both Voennaia mysl' and Voennoi istoricheskii zhurnal. This decline took place regardless of the increase in naval construction, which reflected decisions taken in the late 1970s.


The post-1985 period, during which President Mikhail Gorbachev began his efforts to restructure the Soviet society and economy, witnessed diminished emphasis on the navy's role in Soviet military strategy. Soviet naval strategy is hardly discussed in articles in Voennaia mysl'. Rather, most articles focus on tactics or amphibious landing operations. The quantitative and qualitative analysis of these key journals reveals that by this period, the Soviets had lost interest in developing a global navy to compete with the United States.


The above analysis reveals some interesting and important trends in the development of Soviet naval strategy. During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Soviet naval strategy reflected the naval service’s experience in the Great Patriotic War and then evolved to an emphasis on nuclear warfare with missiles.

After a prolonged debate, in the 1970s the Soviet General Staff and its political masters adopted a more aggressive naval strategy. Reacting to perceived U.S. strategic weakness arising from the Vietnam War and growing faith in their own ability to compete, the Soviets began to construct a blue-water, surface navy with global capabilities. Concentrating on aircraft carriers, cruisers, and attack submarines and a powerful nuclear-armed submarine force, the Soviets attempted to challenge U.S. power on the high seas. As strategic realists, they understood that the resulting contest would be of prolonged duration. Therefore, they implemented their strategy incrementally, first seeking to interdict U.S. naval lines of communication; then isolating foreign naval bases abroad; and ultimately challenging U.S. surface naval power.

By the period from 1978/80-1985, however, the Soviets had begun to reduce their emphasis on naval power in the professional journals. This development resulted from Soviet concentration on the ground war in Afghanistan; flagging enthusiasm on the part of the senior leadership of the nation; and growing realization that the USSR could not compete successfully with growing U.S. naval power. Gorshkov’s dream of the late 1960s, which became Soviet military policy in the 1970s, was dashed in the mid-1980s.

Post-1985, in the Gorbachev period, naval dreams were subverted by Soviet self-doubt, a dearth of resources, and uncertainty about the future. By the late 1980s, the Soviets were emphasizing a strategy of national defense.

Where must we go in the future to fully answer this question of the evolution of Soviet naval strategy? This paper surfaces an analytical methodology and exploits that methodology to reach tentative conclusions. The task of future analysts will be to refine the methodology and test these judgments based on additional studies and texts from the Voroshilov General Staff and Frunze Academies, doctoral dissertations by Voroshilov Academy students (which are presently available to the early 1950s), General Staff strategic studies, and finally, the archives themselves.


1. D. Shadtsov, "O gospodstve na more," (On Supremacy at Sea) Voennaia mysl' [hereafter VM] (1955), 4.

2. Iu. Ladinskii, "O teorii voenno-morskogo iskusstva," (On the Theory of Naval Art), VM 7 (1957), 29-37.

3. V. Kruchinin, "Sovremennaiai teoriia strategii o tseliakh i zadachakh voorushennoi bor’by," [Contemporary Theory of Strategy on the Aims and Missions of Armed Battle] VM, 10/1963, 28.

4. M. Povalii, "Razvitie sovetskoi voennoi strategii," [The Development of Soviet Military Strategy] VM, 2/1967, 75.

5. S. Gorshkov, "Soveteskii voenno-morskoi flot v velikoi otechestvennoi voine," [The Soviet Navy in the Great Patriotic War] VM, 5/1965, 75.

6. V. Zemskov, "Kharakternye osobennosti sovremennykh voin i vozmozhnye sposoby ikh vedeniia," [Characteristic Features of Contemporary War and Possible Methods of Their Conduct] VM, 7/1969, 20-27.

7. A. Rudakov, "O stroitel’stve vooruzhennykh sil" [On the Destruction of Armed Forces] VM, 11/1970, 48.

8. N. Shatrov, "Tendentsii razvitiia i primeneniia flotov," [Tendencies in the Development and Application of Fleets] VM, 1/1972, 47.

9. S. Gorshkov, "Voenno-morskoi flot: istoriia i sovremennost," [The Navy: History and Contemporary] VM, 3/1972, 33-47 and 6/1972, 21-36.

10. M. Povalii, "Nekotorye voprosy razvitiia voennogo iskusstva v poslevoennii period," [Several Questions on the Development of Naval Art in the Post-War Period] VM, 1/1973, 65.

11. N. Kuznetsov, "Formy sstrategicheskikh deistvii," [Forms of Strategic Action] VM, 1/1975, 27-35.

12. M.I. Bezhkrebtyi, "Operativnoi iskusstvo v Sovetskoi Voennoi Ensiklopedii" [Operational Art in the Soviet Military Encyclopedia] VM, 2/1981, 39.

23 September 2003