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Conflict and Cooperation: The U.S. and Soviet Navies in the Cold War

Colloquium on Contemporary History June 12, 1996 No. 10

Opening Remarks
Dr. Edward J. Marolda
Senior Historian
Naval Historical Center

In March 1971, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., the Chief of Naval Operations, informed a hushed Senate Appropriations Committee that if the United States Navy were to fight the Soviet Navy in a conventional war, "we would lose." Just before his retirement in 1974, he observed that "we stand now at our point of greatest weakness and, in my estimate, in our greatest jeopardy." The admiral added: "The United States has lost control of the sea lanes to the Soviet Union." Zumwalt's successor, Admiral James L. Holloway III, at the end of his tour in 1978, concluded that the U.S. Navy retained only a "slim margin of superiority. . . in those scenarios involving our most vital interests." Persuaded by these and other naval leaders that the Soviet Navy was on the move around the globe, an alarmed Congress lavished resources on the Navy Department in the 1980s, enabling Secretary John Lehman and his chiefs of naval operations to build their almost 600-ship fleet.

Now we are told by journalist Gregory L. Vistica, in his recent work, Fall From Glory: The Men Who Sank the U.S. Navy, that for over two decades during the late Cold War the Navy's leaders "had chosen to perpetrate a lie;" to wit, that they knew that the Soviet Navy was a "paper tiger" but hid that fact from the American people. Hence, the battle lines have been drawn on this issue. Few individuals have been as close to that subject as some of the men and women with us today, on the dias and in our distinguished audience. We look forward to your insights on this critical topic.

As the title of our conference indicates, however, at times cooperation also characterized the Cold War interaction between the U.S. and Soviet navies. Both sides recognized that an unanticipated incident at sea, involving the heavily armed naval vessels of the two superpowers, could have lead to global conflagration. The Incidents at Sea Agreement and similar measures resulted from that cold-eyed assessment.

Happily, the days of Cold War confrontation are over. Indeed, we are here today - Russians and Americans--to recognize the current mutual friendship of our two peoples and to honor the 300th anniversary of the proud Russian Navy.

Captain First Rank V. Zaikin
Naval Attaché, Embassy of the Russian Federation

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great pleasure and a privilege for me to have been invited to comment on the coming Russian Navy anniversary--300 years of its history as a regular force.

On October 20, 1663, the Boyar Duma adopted by a special decree Peter the Great's proposal of the first law on the Russian fleet and this day marked the official date of the establishment of the Russian Navy.

An understanding of the need to create a navy in Russia evolved at the time of the struggle of the people of the country for the integrity, independence, and status of the Russian state as a major world power. History assigned this mission to Peter the Great, thus forever linking further development and the traditions of the Russian fleet to the name of its great founder.

In their 300-year history, Russia and its navy experienced periods of prosperity and decline. However, each time, the navy revived together with the country. The past proved the important role of the Russian fleet in upholding national interests, defending the nation, and bolstering its economic development and international standing.

Part of the credit for the last 50 peaceful years, which became the core of our country's foreign policy based on the balance of power, could be attributed to Russia's modern blue-water naval forces built over the past decades.

Once again, the significance of the navy, with its heroic history and traditions, was reflected in the government's decision of July 1993 to mark the 300th anniversary as a national celebration. Many cultural events and meetings, scientific conferences, historic publications, naval parades, and ship visits were planned and some have already been implemented in the country and abroad during the last two years. As far as I know, some U.S. Navy officers and representatives of historic institutions have participated in some of these activities in Russia. There are confirmed plans of the U.S. Navy to send its representatives to take part in the upcoming festivities in St. Petersburg and Vladivostok.

In Russia, this anniversary of the navy is considered to be an important national and international event that should help strengthen patriotic and spiritual feelings of all generations in Russian stemming from the glorious history of the Russian State.

In the present days of the post-confrontational world, the national security of any state cannot be provided by military means only. Priority should be given to economic, political, diplomatic, and other means of accomplishing this goal. However, the recent history of relations between the states and examples of peaceful solutions in regional conflicts prove that non-military means are effective only when supported by essential military force. It is impossible not to see that military power is still a tool of reasonable policy and a guarantee of national security of any country. Russia is no exception.

Within the Armed Forces of Russia, the important role of the navy has been determined by the geographic factor. Russia is one of the biggest maritime powers, its territory being washed by 3 oceans and 13 seas. Its maritime border exceeds almost twice the land border. 70% of commercial cargo comes by sea. Russia has millions of square kilometers of coastal and economic zone waters, rich in raw materials, food, energy, and other resources, which are of great value today and will be in greater demand in the future.

Today the defense of the country's sovereignty is even more closely tied to protection of its economic interests. Before, these interests in the maritime environment were confined to territorial waters and fishing areas, whereas nowadays growing attention is paid to Russian economic zones rich in natural resources the size of which exceeds the size of an ocean.

In current conditions, the basic tasks of the Russian Navy can be formulated in line with two main strategic concerns:

In peace--"deterrence and naval cooperation;" in case of aggression--"timely defense measures and repelling the aggression."

The concept of "deterrence and naval cooperation" denotes the necessity of having a fleet capable of a clear and convincing demonstration of inflicting unacceptable damage upon any aggressor. This concept suggests that the goal is to preserve the lowest possible level of naval strategic nuclear and conventional forces, providing for security, stability, and predictability of naval activity in oceans and seas. Within this concept, other national security tasks can be carried out: control of Russian territorial waters and exclusive economic zones; guarding economic activity at sea and shipping; participation in military operations carried out in accordance with the resolutions of the UN and other international institutions; military presence in strategically important areas and other tasks.

The directions of naval cooperation are: elaboration and implementation of bilateral and international legal acts and agreements on naval activities; development of up-to-date technology; participation in international humanitarian actions; exchange of maritime information; cooperation in the field of education and training; conducting combined exercises; visits of ships; and coordination of acceptable rules of their organization as well as development of direct linkages between various levels of the command structure.

The basic ideas of timely defense measures and repelling the aggression concept focuses on timely occupation of key positions by naval forces in the period of growing military threat, formation of necessary task forces for operations, and combat actions. The tasks assigned to our forces may include reducing the impact of strikes conducted from oceans and seas against the country's territory and armed forces, denying enemy domination of our coastal waters, and inflicting damage upon military and economic targets.

Speaking closer to the subject of this conference, which is relations between the two navies in the Cold War, all of us understand that it was not the best period of these relations. The past cannot be changed, but it should be studied and appropriate lessons should be learned for the future. The two navies have made the first steps on this way.

During recent years, the whole system of confidence-building measures, high-level meetings, and cooperation in many fields of naval activity has been under development. The U.S. Navy and the Russian Navy confirmed their readiness to enhance and deepen cooperation in a number of areas, among them:

  • regular exchange of visits of naval leaders
  • annual staff talks
  • annual Incidents at Sea Treaty (INCSEA) meetings
  • exchange of visits of naval delegations of different levels
  • exchange of visits of ships and aircraft
  • establishing relations between naval training and educational institutions
  • conducting naval games, combined exercises, and training

I am convinced that the growing mutual understanding between the U.S. Navy and Russian Navy and our countries will help to make the future world safe and stable.

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.

David F Winkler

As the sun rose one morning in early May 1972 in the Mediterranean Sea, a Soviet and an American warship steamed in close proximity. In the early morning's light, the commander of the Soviet vessel observed a changed position of the national ensign on the American warship. Curious, he sent the following flashing light message:


The American skipper responded:


The Soviet skipper countered with a message thanking his American counterpart for the information and added:


I introduce this paper with that sea story to note that although there were numerous incidents between the navies of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War--not all of them were bad. And those incidents that were bad became fewer after 1972 due to the willingness of the two navies to abide by a bilateral confidence- building measure known as the Incidents at Sea Agreement.

Signed on May 25, 1972, in conjunction with the ongoing Nixon-Brezhnev summit in Moscow, "An Agreement between the Government of the United States and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Prevention of Incidents on the High Seas and in the Air Space Above Them,"2 commonly known as INCSEA, has stood the test of time of over two decades, weathering such events as the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the shooting down of KAL 007, and the hawkish attitude of the Reagan administration. The agreement successfully regulated the behaviors of the naval and aviation personnel on both sides and also provided a venue for direct military-to-military contact through an annual consultation provision. Now considered a pioneering confidence-building measure, INCSEA will prosper into the next century as other nations have adopted the accord for use in harmonizing bilateral relations. Nations also having accords with Russia include Great Britain, France, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Canada, Norway, South Korea, and Japan. Germany and Poland have an accord. In December 1994, Arab nations along with Israel agreed to a text for a Middle-East multilateral version of INCSEA.

The story of events and negotiations leading to the signature of the Incidents at Sea Agreement is quite remarkable. It is a subject being covered in my dissertation on U.S.-Soviet maritime relations of the high seas during the Cold War. This dissertation was subsequently published by the Naval Institute Press under the title Cold War at Sea. I want to take a second to thank Dr. Ed Marolda and the Naval Historical Center for their support of my research. I also want to thank many of you who have spent time with me discussing various encounters with the Soviets and have contributed to enlivening my narrative.

Today, I want to focus on the process leading to INCSEA. Specifically, I want to look at the Soviet decision in November 1970 to accept a long-standing U.S. proposal to negotiate an understanding relating to safety at sea issues. Is this Soviet decision significant in the overall context of the Cold War? Not really. However, by examining possible Soviet motivations for pursuing negotiations, we may be better able to understand how Soviet naval leaders saw themselves versus the Western navies and within the Soviet military hierarchy during this important time period.

First, before examining possible Soviet motivations to hold talks, I need to provide some additional background information.

Former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. viewed incidents with the Soviet Navy as "an extremely dangerous, but exhilarating, running game of chicken." He knew first hand. In his bookOn Watch, Zumwalt described an episode in 1962 during his tenure as Commanding Officer of the USS Dewey in which he engaged a Soviet Riga class frigate in such a game in the Baltic Sea.3 During the first two decades after World War II incidents like the one Zumwalt mentioned, occurred mostly in proximity to the Soviet mainland. However, in the mid-1960s, the Soviet Navy deployed forward and began to challenge the U.S. Navy on all of the world's oceans. Soviet vessels harassed American carrier battle groups conducting flight and replenishment operations by aiming weapons, shooting flares, blinding with searchlights, and conducting dangerous maneuvers.4

The American public became aware of the problem after a pair of incidents occurred in the Sea of Japan on May 10-11, 1967. USS Walker, operating as part of a submarine-hunting task force, collided with a Soviet destroyer on the 10th of May, resulting in an immediate American protest to the Soviet Chargé d'Affaires in Washington. The next day another Soviet destroyer crashed into the Walker and another protest was presented. The incidents became a heated topic of debate within the House of Representatives as House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford proposed that the United States review its options to include allowing the Navy authorization to fire when challenged in this manner by the Soviets.5

President Johnson "deeply regretted" the incidents and considered them a matter of concern. However, the solution proposed by the House Minority Leader had dangerous potential consequences. Another approach was selected. On April 16, 1968, the United States proposed to the Soviet Union that "Safety on the Sea" discussions be held to look into curtailing such incidents. Despite the crash of one of their planes near the USS Essex during the following month, the Soviets ignored the American overture.6

On November 10, 1970, American Moscow Embassy Chargé d'Affaires Boris Klosson met with Georgi Korniyenko of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the meeting Korniyenko stated that "competent organs" within the USSR were now prepared to accept the U.S. proposal to hold bilateral meetings on avoiding incidents at sea between ships and aircraft of the two countries. He proposed that the meeting take place in Moscow in early 1971.

In our quest to find out why the Soviets chose to respond at this time, Klosson will provide us with our first theory. In a message to Secretary of State Rogers, Klosson speculated that the Soviets may have desired to send "a positive sign involving the military to help offset the negative effect of the Scherrer case, or the Ark Royal case may have bestirred them." The Ark Royal case referred to the collision that occurred the previous evening in the Mediterranean involving the British aircraft carrier and a Soviet destroyer that resulted in loss of life on the Soviet vessel.7 I discount the Ark Royal thesis. No government bureaucracy reacts that quickly.

The Scherrer Case

However, the Scherrer case merits consideration for it was the Scherrer case that had prompted the meeting between Korniyenko and Klosson. It all started on October 15, 1970, when a forty-eight-year-old Lithuanian truck driver and his nineteen year-old son forced a domestic Aeroflot flight to divert to Turkey, murdering the plane's stewardess in the process. The incident created instant tension between the Soviet Union and Turkey as Soviet extradition requests were ignored. On the 18th, a Turkish court intensified the Soviets' anger by declaring the hijacking a political offense, freeing the hijackers from criminal charges and extradition proceedings.8

Three days later, during this political storm, General Edward C.D. Scherrer, Commander U.S. Military Aid Mission to Turkey, decided to tour forward Turkish military installations. Unfortunately, the U-S Beechcraft airplane carrying Scherrer, Brigadier General Claude M. McQuarrie, and Turkish Colonel Cavdat Denilg flew into a real storm. Buffeted by high winds and blinded by heavy clouds, the pilot, Major James P. Russell, finally saw his destination runway. He landed his aircraft in Leninakan--in Soviet Armenia.9

Obviously, there was no connection between the above two events. Yet Vasily Grubyakov, Soviet Ambassador to Turkey observed: "There are now two Russian murderers in Turkey and one Turkish Colonel in Russia. Both must be returned."10

The Soviet handling of the captured aircraft and passengers soured relations between the two superpowers. The Soviet media exploited the incursion, equating it with the U-2 incident that occurred a decade earlier. The Soviets did not allow American embassy staff counselor access to the prisoners as specified in a counselor agreement. Both sides lodged protests. Chargé d'Affaires Klosson boycotted the October Revolution festivities. Finally, on November 9th, the Soviets indicated that the Americans and the Turk would be returned on the following day.11

Was the Soviet decision to negotiate INCSEA simply an attempt to send "a positive sign involving the military to help offset the negative effect of the Scherrer case . . . [this event] may have bestirred them?"

Let's consider some other possibilities.

Young Soviet Skippers

The first series of INCSEA negotiations occurred in the Soviet Union during mid-October 1971. On the weekend of October 16-17, the American delegation visited Leningrad. During a reception on this trip, American delegation member Captain Robert Congdon tried to converse with a young Soviet commander with a senior Soviet captain providing translation. Congdon noted that this young commander was so intimidated that his hands were shaking. After a toasting, the interpreting captain pulled Congdon aside. Reflecting on the incident two decades later, Congdon paraphrased what the Soviet officer said:

Please excuse the shy behavior of that young officer, but you must understand that this is one of the reasons why we have you over here. You are well aware that our navy has greatly expanded into a powerful blue water navy in the past decade, and this rapid growth has not been without difficulties as new technologies revolutionize naval warfare. We in the Soviet Navy had to make a difficult decision. Should we retrain all the senior officers who grew up in the coastal/patrol craft navy to assume command of these new missile cruisers, or should we fleet up the young officers who were initially trained on these new weapon systems? We chose the latter course. Thus, we have ship skippers like the fellow you just met who are in their early thirties. Frankly, we are concerned that some of these young officers do not possess the maturity nor the shiphandling skills, and this could lead to undesirable consequences. Hence, we decided to invite you here to implement some controls.12

Before considering this possible Soviet motivation, some context needs to be provided. By this point in the negotiating process, the Soviets and the Americans were in agreement on most issues. The sticking point was a Soviet insistence that fixed-approach distances be established between the two navies.

The U.S. resisted fixed distances for two reasons. First, such a fixed-distance regimen that implemented approach restrictions would hinder U.S. intelligence collection efforts. Naval intelligence argued that the Soviets would have an advantage in intelligence gathering due to the hundreds of overseas port calls during which U.S. ships opened the brow for visitation. Soviet ships were just not as accessible. Second, there were concerns that establishing fixed distances could establish some dangerous precedents for ongoing Law of the Sea negotiations.

Fixed-approach distances would not be incorporated into the 1972 accord. The Soviets brought the subject up at subsequent annual reviews. Although the United States never wavered in its position, participants on the U.S. side have confided to me that the Soviet proposal was probably benign and probably did seek to address a legitimate concern.

Other possible Soviet motivations?


Not only did the Soviet Navy rapidly expand during the 1960s, but the Soviet merchant marine did as well. At the end of World War II, the Soviet merchant service possessed 400 coastal-oriented vessels with a total capacity of two million deadweight tons. By 1958, this tonnage had doubled. At the beginning of the 1970s, the Soviets could boast of a relatively young merchant marine fleet having a cargo capacity exceeding thirteen million deadweight tons, which ranked their fleet sixth worldwide in this category. They were approaching the American merchant marine cargo capacity.13

This fleet was vulnerable, and there were times during the Cold War when the allies did consider exploiting this vulnerability. In recent conversation with a retired Royal Navy admiral, it was suggested that I research options considered by the allies to act against Soviet shipping should the Soviets move against West Berlin. Henry Kissinger wrote, in White House Years that one option considered in the wake of the North Vietnamese 1972 spring offensive was to harass Soviet merchant shipping en route to Cuba.14

Admiral Zumwalt noted that although official statements always blamed the Russians, "it took two to play the game."15 Addressing this issue from the Soviet perspective, Admiral Gorshkov explained that under the guise of insuring freedom of the seas, the United States conducted illegal shadowing of cargo ships with warplanes with "intent to intimidate." He wrote that American harassment tactics included obstructing the passage of Soviet ships on the high seas and making threatening use of weapons. In Gorshkov's writings and in numerous Soviet protests, "buzzings" by low-flying American jet aircraft were particularly objectionable.16

Given the Soviet maritime fleet's vulnerability to Western interdiction, this possible motivation certainly warrants consideration. However, there are other plausible explanations.


Over the years, Soviet actions at annual reviews have made it apparent how important the INCSEA bilateral tie has been for the Soviet Navy. This importance was first demonstrated that day in October 1971 when the airplane carrying Navy Undersecretary John Warner and the U.S. delegation landed in Moscow. Speeding from the airport in a motorcade of Zil limousines, the Soviet hosts reassured the visiting Americans that they would not be subjected to the typical hindrances, as this was to be a navy-run affair.

Although the Soviets desired a fixed-distance regime, they were content to sign an accord without that provision. Throughout the years, the Soviet commitment to the INCSEA process has been demonstrated through delegation continuity and a willingness to admit fault in those situations in which Soviet ships violated the agreement. Soviet sensitivity to their obligations under the accord were noted when interference attempts with KAL 007 salvage operations ceased after they were warned to "cut it out."17 A veteran of many annual INCSEA reviews, retired Rear Admiral Ronald Kurth, told me that at the subsequent May 1984 review after KAL 007, the Soviet Navy went the extra mile. He stated:

The Soviets really, really did everything possible to preserve the agreement and reestablish confidence. They handled their conduct in the Sea of Japan very openly and we did indeed reestablish confidence.18

Why this willingness to bend over backwards to negotiate and maintain a bilateral relationship with the United States Navy? Perhaps the Soviet Navy had an organizational versus national motivation for its actions. The Soviet Navy had long been the low man within the Soviet military hierarchy. For the Soviet Navy to be the only military branch to have a bilateral relationship with its American counterpart undoubtedly brought prestige.

If there were internal political motivations, there were also international motivations.


During the 1960s, the aggressive actions of the Soviet fleet contributed to the Kremlin's foreign policy objectives of competing with the United States for influence in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. By challenging Western dominance on the high seas, the Soviets hoped to impress the leaders of the world's non-aligned nations of the viability of socialism. Tactics of task force shadowing and aggressive harassment were accompanied by diplomatic offensives aimed at removing Western naval presence from regions where the Soviets hoped to make diplomatic inroads, such as the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.19

In addition, the Kremlin was extremely sensitive about areas close to the Soviet homeland, such as the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, and the Sea of Japan. In these areas, the clear goal of Soviet harassment was to show extreme displeasure with the Western presence.20

Retired Captain Steve Kime, a former naval attaché to Moscow, who observed the Soviet behavior during this period, provided me with some additional insights. He argued that in that era there were three levels on which a navy could be credible. On the nuclear level and the presence level, the Soviet Navy was credible. During the 1960s, the Soviet Navy did pose a nuclear threat and was a constant presence, especially in the eastern Mediterranean and other waters. However, in spite of the impressive Okean 70 naval exercise involving 200 warships deployed globally, at the conventional warfare level, the Soviet Navy still was not credible. In 1969, British Defense Minister Denis Healy expressed Western confidence by boasting that if general war broke out, Soviet warships would be sunk within minutes.21 Although Healy's claims may have been exaggerated, overall the naval balance still heavily favored the West. Kime speculated that by pressing the United States Navy for some rules and conventions, perhaps even establishing some fixed-distance regimes, the Soviet Navy could achieve the credibility they had previously sought through harassing actions. A bilateral accord forced the United States Navy to treat the Soviet Navy as an equal even though in reality they were not. This bestowed legitimacy enhanced the credibility of the Soviet Navy, as well as the Soviet Union itself, in the eyes of other nations.22

The Obvious

Before I conclude, I do not want to overlook the obvious. In an article in the journal Naval Forces, Rear Admiral Robert Hilton once wrote:

Neither country wants to have its valuable ships damaged by inadvertent or imprudent actions of its naval officers. Neither nation wants an incident to escalate into a governmental confrontation.23

Both sides found the prospects of inadvertent warfare threatening each other's national security very undesirable, especially during an era when the Soviet Union had achieved nuclear parity and desired détente. Naval operations are complex and nerve-wracking, even in times of peace. Tension is only multiplied in times of crisis. With the implementation of the agreement, behavioral norms were established on and over the high seas that provided reassurance for ship commanders.

So what was the Soviet motivation to accept the long-standing U.S. offer to hold safety at sea talks? Was it simply an act to offset embarrassment caused by the Scherrer case? I don't think so. In think the Scherrer case simply provided the Soviets a timing opportunity to accept the American offer to hold talks. I believe the Soviet desire to hold INCSEA negotiations was motivated by the other factors cited: concern about the relative young age of ship commanders, the understanding of the vulnerability of its merchant marine, the desire to elevate the position of the Navy within the Soviet military hierarchy, attempt to enhance the Soviet Navy and the Soviet Union's legitimacy and credibility on the world scene, and finally, a concern for preventing needless injuries and damage and preventing inadvertent combat.


1. The Reminiscences of Vice Admiral Gerald E. Miller, U.S. Navy (Retired) Vol. II, USNI Oral History Program (Annapolis: U.S Naval Institute, 1984), 686-87.

2. The complete text of the English and Russian versions appears in U.S. Department of State, United States Treaties and Other International Agreements, vol. 23 pt. 1, 1972 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973), 1168-80.

3. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., On Watch (New York: Quadrangle, 1976), 393.

4. Robert P. Hilton, Sr., "A Confidence-Building-Measure at work: The U.S.-USSR Incidents at Sea Agreement" (a paper presented to the United Nations Seminar on Confidence-Building Measures in the Maritime Domain held at Helsingor, Denmark, June 13-15, 1990), 1.

5. John W. Finney, "A Soviet Warship Bumps U.S. Vessel 2nd Time in 2 Days," New York Times, May 12, 1967, A1.

6. William T. Shinn, "Department of State Memorandum of a Conversation held on August 27, 1970 in the office of Herbert S. Okun between Okun, Shinn, and Igor D. Bubnov." State, FOIA.

7. "AMEMBASSY MOSCOW to SECSTATE WASH DC" 101600Z November 1970, FOIA State.

8. Bernard Gweetzman, "Soviet Passengers and Crew Describe Hijacking, " New York Times, October 18, 1970, A24; Richard Eder, "Turk Radio Says Courts Act to Free 2 Soviet Hijackers," New York Times October 18, 1970, A1.

9. Bernard Gweetzman, "Soviet Bars Immediate 2nd Visit to US Officers as Unneeded," New York Times, October 29, 1970, A1.

10. "Hostages for Highjackers?" Newsweek, November 9, 1970), 37.

11. Events extracted from a series of New York Times, articles written between October 26th and November 10th, 1970.

11. Rear Admiral Ronald Kurth, interview with author on 5 September 1991 at Murray State University Kentucky.

12. Understanding Soviet Developments, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1978), 51; Norman Polmar, Soviet Naval Power: Challenge for the 1970s (New York: National Strategy Information Center, Inc 1979), 57.

13. Rear Admiral J.R. Hill. RN (Ret.) interview with author, Bishop's Waltham, England, 3 April 1996; Henry Kissenger, White House Years (Boston, Brown, Little and Company, 1979), 1118.

14. Zumwalt, On Watch, 391.

15. Sergei Gorshkov, Seapower of the State (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1979), 51.

16. Sean Lynn-Jones, "Incidents at Sea Agreement," U.S.-Soviet Security Cooperation, Alexander L. George, Philip J. Farley, Alexander Dallin, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 498-99.

17. Kurth interview.

18. Eric Morris, The Russian Navy (Liverpool: Elliot and Yeoman Ltd, 1977), 35-36.

19. Lynn-Jones, 485.

20. David Fairhill, Russian Seapower (Boston: Gambit, Inc., 1971), 219.

21. Dr. Steve Kime interview with author on 12 March 1996 in Washington, DC.

22. Hilton, "The U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea Treaty," Naval Forces, 1 (1985): 37.

Speakers' Biographies

Captain First Rank Victor V. Zaikin is the Naval Attaché: of the Embassy of the Russian Federation. He was born in Russia in 1951 and entered the navy in 1968. In 1973, Captain Zaikin graduated from the Naval Engineering College in Leningrad and then served on board several antisubmarine warfare ships in the Baltic Fleet. Since 1980, he has worked in the engineering departments of the main Navy Staff and the General Staff in Moscow. He assumed his current duties as Naval Attache to the United States in August 1994.

Mary Glantz is an increasingly recognized scholar of Russian and Soviet studies. She earned a BA degree in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1992 and an MA with Distinction from the University of London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies in 1993. She is currently completing doctoral work at Temple University. Ms. Glantz has published articles on Eastern European security issues and Russian/Soviet military affairs in the Journal of Slavic Military StudiesJane's Intelligence Review, and other journals. She served with the Center for Independent Outreach Initiatives and the International Defence Advisory Board in Vilnius, Lithuania, from 1993 to 1995.

David F. Winkler was awarded a BA degree in political science from Pennsylvania State University and received an officer's commission through the Naval ROTC program in 1980. He served for the next 10 years as a surface warfare officer on various U.S. naval vessels. In 1991, after completing military service, Mr. Winkler earned an MA degree in international affairs from Washington University in St. Louis. He received an Air Force grant in 1993 for work on the U.S.-Soviet confrontation and the 1995-1996 Rear Admrial John D. Hayes Pre-Doctoral Fellowship in Naval History from the Naval Historical Center. He is currently completing a doctoral program at American University on 20th century military and diplomatic history. As a Lieutenant Commander in the Naval Reserve, he is closely involved with ongoing Incidents at Sea Agreement activities in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.


Note: The views or opinions expressed or implied are those of the speakers alone and not those of the Department of the Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.


Published:Mon Feb 06 09:30:32 EST 2017