“He crucified noble, he sacrificed mean,

He filled old ladies with kerosene.

While over the waters the papers cried

‘The patriot fights for his countryside!'”

—Rudyard Kipling,
“The Ballad of Boh da thone”  


For 40 years two topics have dominated popular discussions of international conflict. The first is the specter of nuclear war and the danger that any US-Soviet confrontation will escalate to Armageddon. The second is that revolutions in the Third World are an inevitable part of modernization and are necessary to escape oppression. There has been a steady flow of serious (as well as polemical) work on these two topics, but the practical political effect of both has been to create an environment of self-deterrence on the part of American leaders. Fighting against a leftist revolution is considered futile, whereas involvement in a counterrevolution or conventional war against a Communist government risks a costly escalation.

Soviet strategists have come to different conclusions. They seldom fear that acting against a pro-Western government will lead to escalation. Indeed, since American leaders have rejected the idea of linkage, Moscow hardly even needs to worry about an increase in interest rates from American banks, let alone a nuclear crisis, in response to its military interventions (even Ronald Reagan in his “evil empire” days rescinded the grain embargo imposed on the Soviets for invading Afghanistan). And despite all the attention and money spent on nuclear weapons, no such weapons have been used since 1945. Yet large areas of the globe have changed hands, and millions have died in what has been a very violent period of warfare. As nuclear weapons are deemphasized in new arms control treaties and by the deployment of missile defense systems, the scope for conventional warfare will expand.

As to the myth of the guerrilla, the Soviets well know the inherent weakness of revolutionary groups. They never put much stock in the romantic notions of Che and Mao. Throughout history, far more revolts have failed than succeeded. Those that have won owe their success more to the disintegration of the deposed regime than to their own efforts. Governments can mobilize far more power than rebels as long as their leaders can maintain the will to resist. Rebels can only inflict damage, not seize power, until the main forces of the regime are defeated. Rebels can seldom do this without foreign military support (Americans forget the money, weapons, troops, and ships provided to the colonists by France in the War of Independence—aid that escalated into an outright Great Power war). Usually the only force that can beat a government is another government. This weakness is an advantage to Moscow, because in a revolutionary situation, military aid becomes decisive, thus ensuring that pro-Soviet factions will emerge victorious.

Since the final phase of a revolutionary war is conventional, regardless of how many years of terrorist and guerrilla actions may have preceded it, there is a great advantage to the establishment of foreign bases to provide a sanctuary for rebels as they are trained and equipped for the final push, and to provide regular troops to intervene in support of the rebels at the decisive moment. Cuba provided the troops that reinforced the pro-Soviet factions in Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia. North Vietnam carried the brunt of the war effort in Indochina after the decimation of the Vietcong in 1968. South Vietnam fell to 17 regular combat divisions with more tanks than the Germans had when they defeated France in 1940. In 1979 Cuba sent an “international brigade” to support the Sandinistas not only against the Somoza regime, but also against rival revolutionary factions. From these satraps, new wars have been launched in southern Africa, southeast Asia, and Central America. The PLO gained a base area with the disintegration of Lebanon, and is now pushing for another on the West Bank.

Richard H. Shultz Jr., of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, examines Soviet strategy based on four case studies: Vietnam, the PLO, Angola, and Nicaragua. From these he identifies patterns in Moscow’s use of political (propaganda, front groups, international organizations) and military (training, advisors, arms shipments, and surrogate troops) measures.

Propaganda seeks to isolate the target regime from outside support while promoting the rebels as the only legitimate representatives of the people. The program of the rebels may vary, but the regime is always portrayed as a reactionary tool of the United States, regardless of the actual state of US relations with the target. Thus all propaganda serves to reinforce the main Soviet theme that the US is the principal evil in the world. Interestingly, this anti-American line works as well inside the US as outside. In Cuba, Iran, and Nicaragua, rebel success followed the termination of US support for the target regime.

Among the front groups, the World Peace Council plays a major role in every case. Front group propaganda is harsher in tone than Soviet efforts, reflecting its closer association with activists. The Soviets also use international conferences, the UN, and the Non-Aligned Movement (led by Cuba) to promote the legitimacy of the revolution. The UN has been particularly useful in the Middle East and Africa.

The Soviets are lavish in their supply of arms. Moscow will use covert methods until their propaganda has made the rebels sufficiently acceptable to provide direct supplies. World opinion allows the Soviets a high degree of deniability. Even weapons shipped through Cuba, North Vietnam, or Syria do not “prove” Soviet involvement. Training is provided in surrogate states by Soviet and East Bloc advisors, with selected cadres taken to the USSR itself Political indoctrination is as important as military training. However, training foreign radicals does not guarantee a future commitment, since Moscow trains many terrorists simply as agents of disruption. They may never be able to seize power, but they can spread anarchy in the noncommunist world with a minimal investment of Soviet resources.

The Soviets also provide help in consolidating power in captured territory. East German and Bulgarian advisors specialize in the creation of secret police and internal security troops, while Soviet, Cuban, and Vietnamese advisors concentrate on mobilizing resources for a military buildup, turning the conquered nation into a base area for the next advance.

The hammer and anvil strategy evident in revolutionary war, where propaganda and terrorism weakens a target state until a final offensive is launched by heavily armed conventional forces, is also part of the Soviets’ own plan for a general war. Viktor Suvorov is the pseudonym for a former Red Army intelligence officer who defected to the West. As a member of the CRU, Suvorov was involved in the training of elite Spetsnaz troops and the formation of plans for their use. It is Spetsnaz that will play the role of guerrillas, striking deep behind the lines in Europe and America in the days and hours before the Soviets unleash their tank armies in a blitzkrieg across the North German plain.

The Soviets made extensive use of partisan bands behind German lines in World War II to make the kind of theater interdiction attacks that the US used airpower to perform. When NATO introduced nuclear weapons to counter the larger Warsaw Pact armies, Spetsnaz was created as a force that could destroy nuclear weapon storage areas and launch sites by surprise attack.

The list of targets has grown as Spetsnaz has grown. Ports and naval bases, railways and bridges, oil storage sites and pipelines (including those in Alaska), power plants and communications centers are obvious targets. So are political leaders, both those in power and among the opposition—anyone who could provide legitimate national leadership. Key military commanders would also be assassinated. Suvorov emphasizes the importance attached to killing the President before he can be alerted and moved to a secure command post.

Spetsnaz units would infiltrate the open societies of the West in peacetime, using resident agents in the West to provide them with safehouses, food, and vehicles. These agents are quiet, everyday people who avoid politics. The Soviets want older, settled people, preferably retired, far removed from any sensitive jobs. People no one would have cause to investigate. They work for pay, waiting for the day when the “visitors” arrive to use the supplies they have set aside.

Suvorov’s final chapter outlines operations that might take place before open war breaks out. Included: phony scandals discrediting key NATO generals, the “accidental” sinking of a freighter in the Panama Canal, and the bombing of the White House. Suvorov could keep writers of political thrillers in business for the next decade, but he is not, unfortunately, spinning fiction. He also gives details of the brutal training Spetsnaz troops withstand and of their weapons and tactics.

Of interest is the connection between Spetsnaz and the Soviet sports program. “The Soviet Army needs an enormous number of people with exceptional athletic ability at Olympic level to carry out special missions behind enemy lines,” writes Suvorov. This makes Spetsnaz “a mixture of sport, politics, espionage and armed terrorism.” The army maintains a vast system of teams to which most of the nation’s top athletes are recruited (the largest sports organization in the USSR is the Central Army Sports Club). Sports without any military application, like golf, receive no support. Sports practice is mixed with commando training. Through participation in international competitions, these soldier-athletes are able to travel to target countries to get a feel for the territory.

While the Soviets have worked hard to improve their techniques, the US has found it increasingly difficult to act. In the early, days of the Cold War, Soviet drives were turned back in Greece, Korea, Guatemala, and Iran. But by the 1960’s, liberal opinion was finding such wars distasteful. Cuba was the first casualty, followed by Vietnam and the rest. A new theory of “limited war” was contrived, but unlike the older concept where the difference between limited and global war was geographical, the new theory placed limits on weapons and tactics within the theater of war. Victory was abandoned as being an “unlimited” object in favor of “coercive diplomacy” aimed at a negotiated, compromise settlement. However, this quickly slid into the cliche of seeking “political” rather than “military” solutions (translation: accepting most if not all of the enemy’s terms rather than impose our own). Emphasis was also shifted to social reform as the way to head off Communism (thus implicitly accepting the leftist explanation for the cause of conflict), a program much more to liberal tastes than fighting. When this approach brought disaster, the next phase was to avoid conflicts altogether. Since defeat was inevitable, the methods needed to win being unacceptable on moral grounds, it was best to take the lowest-cost route to defeat.

The Reagan administration attempted to regain the initiative by supporting anticommunist wars of liberation. But even when it adopted democracy and social reform as its central themes, the effort was condemned. The flaps over “death squads,” “assassination manuals,” and the covert mining of Nicaraguan harbors used by ships delivering Soviet weapons revealed the enormous gap between the liberal view of the world and reality. Even attempts to rebuild a “special operations” capability for use against terrorists and drug dealers made little progress. Yet the success of the mujahideen in Afghanistan and the promise shown by anticommunist resistance movements in Nicaragua and Angola should put the lie to the notion that Soviet and leftist forces are invincible in this kind of warfare.

The basic principles of modern war are not secret. The US has the resources to meet and beat the Soviets in revolutionary warfare, whether supporting insurgents or regimes. The inhibiting factor is an inability to consider war and Realpolitik to be the normal practice of statecraft. It is clear from the writings of Shultz and Suvorov that the Soviets have no such inhibitions.


[The Soviet Union and Revolutionary Warfare, by Richard H. Shultz Jr. (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press) 283 pp., $25.95]

[Spetsnaz: The Inside Story of the Soviet Special Forces, by Viktor Suvorov (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.) 213 pp., $17.95]