The Soviet Debate on Strategic Nuclear Arms

  • Stephan Kux


With the conclusion of a first START agreement, the question arises about which direction strategic nuclear arms control will take in the future. Much depends on the Soviet Union’s attitude towards nuclear deterrence. Recent developments suggest that a fundamental revision of the USSR’s military doctrine and strategic force posture is in the making. While the postulates of ‘defensive orientation’ and ‘reasonable sufficiency’ so far have been applied almost exclusively to conventional forces, Soviet defence experts have begun to discuss their implications for strategic nuclear forces and the concepts of deterrence, parity and stability. This analysis focuses on the evolution of this debate since 1989.1 Five schools of thought can be distinguished:
  1. 1.

    In line with Gorbachev’s Programme for a Nuclear Free World by the Year 2000, the abolitionists reject both nuclear deterrence and military-strategic parity as foundations for security and stability, advocate the transition to a nuclear-free world; and propose the prevention of war through political means.

  2. 2.

    The moderates assume that nuclear weapons will form part of strategic reality for a prolonged period; suggest a broad interpretation of sufficiency; define specific force criteria for strategic stability (minimum deterrence); advocate asymmetrical responses and unilateral adjustments on the side of the USSR; and propose a negotiated, radical reduction of strategic forces.

  3. 3.

    The unilateralists focus on minimal force requirements for an assured retaliatory capability; advocate unilateral cuts of Soviet nuclear forces; and propose the transition to a French-type minimum deterrence posture.

  4. 4.

    The pacifists are part of the growing anti-nuclear constituency in the USSR, consider nuclear forces as symbols of Soviet imperial power and as a serious hazard to the environment; and advocate immediate denuclearisation at the local level.

  5. 5.

    The conservatives equate sufficiency with strict parity in forces, insist that the Soviet Union has to ‘keep its powder dry’, yet concede that current force levels could be lowered substantially on a reciprocal basis.



Nuclear Weapon Soviet Leadership Defence Expert Nuclear Disarmament Strategic Relationship 
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  1. 1.
    For an analysis of earlier discussions, see S. Shenfield, Minimum Nuclear Deterrence: The Debate Among Soviet Civilian Analysts (Brown University: Center for Foreign Policy, 1989)Google Scholar
  2. S. Kux, New Soviet Thinking on Nuclear Deterrence (Geneva: Graduate Institute of International Studies, 1990).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For a discussion of the evolving Soviet view of deterrence, see S. Kux, Language and Strategy, A Synoptical Analysis of Key Terms in the Strategic Doctrines of the Nuclear Powers (Berne/New York: Peter Lang, 1990) pp. 236–53.Google Scholar
  4. 16.
    See L. Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, 2nd edn (London: Macmillan, 1989) p. 207.Google Scholar
  5. 17.
    Bayev et al., ‘Is a “Third Zero” Attainable’, p. 12; cf. P. Bayev, S. Karaganov, V. Shein and V. Zhurkin, Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe (Moscow: Novosti, 1990).Google Scholar
  6. 18.
    L. Semeiko,’ sufficiency Is a Way to Reliable Peace’, Kommunist, No. 7 (1989) p. 113, quoting from K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 20 (Moscow: Politizdat, 1966) p. 131.Google Scholar
  7. 36.
    R. McNamara, Blundering into Disaster (New York: Doubleday, 1986) p. 44.Google Scholar
  8. 46.
    I. Sergeyev, ‘We Have Broken the Habit of Disarming Ourselves’, Moscow News, nos. 8-9 (1990) p. 11.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© International Council for Soviet and East European Studies and Roy Allison 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephan Kux

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