The Cold War: The Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact, and the Left Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In the initial years after World War II (1939-1945), there remained hope for a continuation of the Soviet-American wartime alliance, but suspicions on both sides opened a rift between the two superpowers.

Political Considerations

In the initial years after World War II (1939-1945), there remained hope for a continuation of the Soviet-American wartime alliance, but suspicions on both sides opened a rift between the two superpowers. The new phenomenon of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, combined with the introduction of intercontinental missiles in the late 1950’s, had made a third world war “unthinkable,” giving the “war” its name. Still, over the four decades of the Cold War confrontation, a number of crises defined the U.S.-Soviet relationship and affected the nations’ military preparation.Cold War (1945-1991);Soviets and alliesSuperpowers;Soviet UnionCold War (1945-1991);Soviets and alliesSoviet Union;Cold WarSuperpowers;Soviet Union

In 1948 the Soviet Union cut off access to the western sectors of Berlin, located in Soviet-controlled East Germany. The United States and its allies defeated this strategy without resorting to war by using massive Berlin AirliftAirlifts;Berlinairlifts to support civilians. In 1949 the Soviet Union detonated its first Atomic bomb;Soviet Unionatomic device, and in 1954, a year after the United States had done so, it developed a hydrogen Hydrogen bombbomb. After the West formed a military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty North Atlantic Treaty OrganizationOrganization (NATO) in 1949, the Soviet bloc countered with the Warsaw Warsaw PactPact in 1955. The original countries of the pact were Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union. AlbaniaAlbania withdrew in 1968, seven years after it had severed relations with the Soviet Union. Romania;Soviet relationsRomania refused to join the other pact members in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1956 the Hungarian Hungarian Uprising (1956)Uprising and subsequent Soviet invasion did not bring a Western military response, leading Moscow to understand that the United States would tacitly recognize Soviet mastery over their satellites.

After the death of Soviet dictator Stalin, JosephStalin, JosephJoseph Stalin in 1953, the new Soviet leader, Khrushchev, NikitaKhrushchev, NikitaNikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), followed a policy of “peaceful coexistence” with the West. He made several trips to the United States both to participate in the United Nations;Soviet UnionUnited Nations proceedings and as a guest of President Eisenhower, Dwight D.Eisenhower, Dwight D.Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969). The Soviets made new strides toward international prestige in 1957 when they launched the first human-made Earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik satellitesSputnik, and in 1961 when they were the first to put a man in space.

In 1960 the improving relations between the superpowers suffered a setback–the U-2 U-2 incident[U 2 incident]incident following the shooting down of a U.S. spy plane while on a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union. This incident brought to public attention the reality of intercontinental missiles, rockets that could be launched from the territory of one adversary to that of the other.

In the early 1960’s a number of Cold War crises further disturbed the efforts at political relaxation. In 1961 East Germany erected the Berlin Berlin WallWall to stop “illegal” emigration to West Berlin. However, undoubtedly the greatest danger of the whole Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, during which the United States demanded that the Soviets remove weapons from Cuba. There was during this crisis a greater possibility of escalation to nuclear warfare than at any other time during the entire Cold War period. However, the issue was resolved without war breaking out. The missiles were removed and the U.S. government agreed not to try to overthrow the pro-Soviet regime of Castro, FidelCastro, FidelFidel Castro (born 1926 or 1927).

After Weapons of mass destruction;reduction talksthe Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union and the United States began measures to ease military tensions in an era of Détente[detente]détente. The two nations installed a Hotline (Moscow-Washington, D.C.)hotline connection between Moscow and Washington, D.C., to prevent accidental disasters. The powers engaged in the Strategic Arms Limitation TalksStrategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in 1972 and 1974 and the Strategic Arms Reduction Strategic Arms Reduction TalksTalks (START) in 1986 and also agreed to Nuclear test ban treatiesnuclear test ban treaties and conventional arms reduction talks. Nevertheless the Arms race;U.S.-Sovietarms race between the two superpowers continued, especially in the increase of nuclear arms and missiles of various types. Both sides developed the capacity to destroy the world many times over. Although both nations also developed sophisticated chemical and biological weapons, talks limiting these were more successful than those concerning nuclear bombs.

Soviet Cold War leader Nikita Khrushchev speaks at the Fourth Convocation of the Fourth Session of the Supreme Soviet in January, 1956.

(National Archives)

After a period of economic setbacks and political difficulties, Khrushchev was dramatically and suddenly replaced by Brezhnev, LeonidBrezhnev, LeonidLeonid Brezhnev (1906-1982) in October, 1964. Although Moscow continued to seek détente with the United States, Cold War crises continued. The rift between the Soviet Union and China that had begun under Khrushchev widened, at times breaking out in actual armed conflict on the borders. The Afghanistan;Soviet war (1979-1989)Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989)[Soviet Afghan War]Soviet Union also became involved in a long war in Afghanistan (1979-1989).

During the 1980’s the Soviet Union softened its confrontational stance, especially after Gorbachev, MikhailGorbachev, MikhailMikhail Gorbachev (born 1931) became the country’s leader in 1985 and a nuclear disaster occurred at Chernobyl nuclear accident (1986)Chernobyl in 1986. Although both the Soviet Union and the United States signed new agreements, both nations also considered employing satellite-based Strategic Defense InitiativeStrategic Defense Initiative (SDI) programs, known as Star Wars. Soviet Union;dissolutionIn 1991, after a failed attempt by hardliners to overthrow Gorbachev, the Soviet Union dissolved, the Communist Party lost power in Russia, and the Cold War ended.

Military Achievement

The Soviet Union prepared for any eventual confrontation while hoping to deter the United States. Moscow continued to develop offensive and defensive weapons systems and strategies, despite mutual attempts at limitation. Like the United States, the Soviet Union came to depend on military complexes that greatly affected the economy, politics, and social structures. The military’s prestige, which had fallen substantially during the Stalinist purges of the 1930’s, increased in great measure. After World War II the Soviet Union established its dominance over Eastern Europe. In one sense Moscow saw this dominance as its “right,” a part of the spoils of war. However, much of the territory was land that Russian imperialists had coveted since the time of the czars; some of it had actually been part of the old empire. However, Moscow did not incorporate these countries of Eastern Europe into the Soviet Union, as it had done with the Baltic states and parts of Finland and Romania that it had taken over in 1940 and 1941. Instead, the KremlinKremlin established these Communist-led states as “people’s republics.” Over the course of the Cold War the Eastern European governments declared that they had evolved into the Marxist stage of socialism and changed to “socialist republics.”

A major factor in the Soviet control of Eastern Europe was fear of another massive land attack and invasion of its territory across the northern tier of states, as France had done in 1812 and Germany had done in 1941. Thus tighter military control was maintained over Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany than over Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Albania, the southern states, which had more leeway for independent action. Stalin expelled Yugoslavia;Soviet relationsYugoslavia from the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform), Moscow’s association of Communist states, in 1948. Albania;Soviet relationsAlbania severed relations with Moscow in 1961. Romania;Soviet relationsRomania often opposed the Soviet Union and sometimes sided with the West. Only Bulgaria;Soviet relationsBulgaria remained steadfastly loyal to the Soviet bloc.

A U.S. Air Force C-54 landing at Berlin’s Templehoff Air Base during the Berlin Airlift in 1948.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Soviet armed forces were stationed in force in the northern tier. During the mid-1980’s there were 194 active divisions including tank, motorized rifleman, and airborne. Sixty-five of these were stationed in the western Soviet Union, and thirty in Eastern Europe.

The six Warsaw PactWarsaw Pact allies had an additional fifty-five divisions. After Hungary;Soviet relationsHungary attempted to break away from the Soviet orbit in 1956, Khrushchev sent in the army and restored the Kremlin’s military control over the state. Brezhnev repeated this action in CzechoslovakiaCzechoslovakia in 1968, after the liberalizing Prague Prague Spring (1968)Spring reforms of Alexander Dubček, AlexanderDubček, Alexander[Dubcek, Alexander]Dubček (1921-1992). The Brezhnev DoctrineBrezhnev Doctrine confirmed Soviet domination of Warsaw Pact states, and, with the exception of Romania, the remaining Warsaw Pact states joined the Soviet forces in the invasion.

Outside the territory of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, during the Cold War, Soviet military advisers were active in a number of countries, and Soviet soldiers were occasionally employed in an advisory capacity. Certainly the Soviet Union was keen to test its weaponry, and Soviet planes were used in the Korean War (1950-1953);Soviet UnionKorean War, albeit disguised. The Vietnam War (1961-1975);Soviet UnionSoviet Union tested its air defense systems in Hanoi during the U.S. bombing of the city during the Vietnam War.

Apart from Afghanistan;Soviet war (1979-1989)Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989)[Soviet Afghan War]Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union deployed large numbers of soldiers from 1979, the Soviet Army advisers were active in many other countries. In Latin America, there were Soviet advisers in Cuba after the rise to power of Cuba;Soviet relationsCastro, FidelFidel Castro, and later in Grenada invasion (1983)Grenada, sparking the U.S. invasion in 1983. In Africa, Soviet advisers were present in Egypt, and in the wars in Angola and Mozambique, as well as in Libya and Ethiopia. All six countries made heavy use of Soviet weaponry.

Actively engaged in the Middle East-Soviet relations[Middle East Soviet relations]Middle East, the Soviet Union had close military ties with Syria;Soviet relationsSyria, and with Iraq;Soviet relationsIraq. Its advisers were in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)[Iran Iraq War]Iran-Iraq War, and when Gulf War (1990-1991)Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Indeed, a large part of Hussein, SaddamSaddam Hussein’s army was equipped with Soviet weaponry. India;Soviet relationsIndia also was a Soviet ally and purchaser of Soviet weaponry, as has been North Korea and Vietnam. The Soviet Union was also in contact with many of the communist parties in Asia and elsewhere in the world.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The Soviet weapons of the Cold War were planes, missiles, nuclear weapons, submarines, and tanks. The country also kept and employed conventional armies and weapons. Moscow carried out military invasions against Warsaw Pact allies Hungary and Czechoslovakia, engaged in a border skirmish with China (1969), and waged war in Afghanistan. Like the United States, the Soviet Union maintained large stockpiles of thermonuclear Nuclear weapons and warfare;Sovietweapons.

The Soviets had surface-to-surface, surface-to-air, and air-to-air Missiles;Sovietmissiles. The latter two were used against aircraft by heat- and electronics-seeking guidance systems. Intercontinental ballistic Intercontinental ballistic missiles;Sovietmissiles (ICBMs) and intermediate-range ballistic Intermediate-range ballistic missiles[Intermediate range ballistic missiles];Sovietmissiles (IRBMs) were usually armed with nuclear warheads, whereas short-range missiles employed high explosives. Surface-to-surface missiles also could be launched from ships. Cruise Cruise missiles;Sovietmissiles, placed in use in the 1970’s, are continuously powered and more able to evade defenses. They fly at low altitudes and are accurate and inexpensive weapons.

By 1989 the Soviets had upgraded their ICBMs to the SS18-MOD5, SS-25 for road-mobile units, and SS-24 for rail-mobile and silo-launched missiles, replacing earlier missiles that had included the SS11, SS17, SS18-Satan, and SS19-Stiletto.

Soviet Submarines;Sovietsubmarines of the Typhoon submarinesTyphoon class were armed with SS-N-20 missiles, and Delta IV-class submarines were armed with SS-N-23 missiles. Yankee-class Yankee-class submarines[Yankee class submarines]submarines had intermediate cruise missiles. Airpower;SovietSoviet Black Jack and Bear-H strategic aircraft also were armed with cruise missiles. The Soviets also employed AS-15 long-range cruise missiles. The older Midas and Bison planes were used for in-flight refueling of the Bear-H. The SS-N-21 was a land-based cruise missile.

Intermediate-range Intermediate-range ballistic missiles;Sovietmissiles included the mobile SS-4 Sandal MRBM and SS-20 IRBM. SS-12’s, SS-23’s, and SS1-Scuds were short-range missiles. Soviet strategic surface-to-air Surface-to-air missiles[surface to air];Sovietmissiles (SAMs) included the SA-2, SA-3, SA-5, SA-10, SA-12A/Gladiator, and the SA-X-12B/Giant. Other Soviet aircraft were the Fulcrums, MiG-31 Foxhounds, and SU-27 Flankers. The long-range Gazelle and Galosh antiballistic Antiballistic missilesmissiles were designed for antimissile defense. The Soviets had a space-based defense system, the Global Navigation Satellite SystemGlobal Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS), and antisatellite missiles such as the SL-11. During the 1980’s the Soviet Union introduced missiles with multiple nuclear warheads, multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), on intercontinental missiles.

Tanks Tanks;Soviethad always been a major part of the Soviet Red Army. In the 1960’s the Soviets began use of the T-64, the first real improvement since World War II. The improved T-64A and T-72 followed. In the 1980’s the standard was the T-80 model with nuclear, biological, and chemical protection and enhanced firepower. More than 1,400 T-80’s were stationed in Eastern Europe, in addition to a greater number of the older models. During this period the Soviets also replaced their old artillery with mobile and self-propelled 152-millimeter guns with nuclear capability, 240-millimeter mortars, 203-millimeter self-propelled guns, and a 220-millimeter multiple rocket launcher capable of firing chemical and high-explosive munitions.

In Afghanistan;Soviet war (1979-1989)Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989)[Soviet Afghan War]Afghanistan the Soviet forces relied on search-and-destroy tactics, especially in aerial attacks. MI-6 Hip, MI-8 Hook, and the most modern MI-24 Hind Helicopters;Soviethelicopters sought out guerrilla strongholds while fixed-wing aircraft carried out carpet Carpet bombingbombing attacks. However, the Afghan guerrillas’ heavy machine guns forced the helicopters to fly higher and lessened their effectiveness. In the first years of the war in Afghanistan, the Soviets used tank columns supported by helicopters to attack villages suspected of hiding insurgents. Although many villages were destroyed, this tactic was ineffective against the Guerrilla warfare;Afghanistanguerrillas. In order to keep their casualties low, Soviet infantry rarely engaged in open battle.

Soviet airborne brigades were sent into Afghanistan by helicopter. The Soviets would also encircle Afghan villages and then move in from different directions. After 1982 they began to use smaller, more flexible units, but their reliance on helicopters led to the United States arming the Afghan resistance with surface-to-air missiles, which changed the nature of the war considerably.

By 1984 Soviet equipment losses included 546 aircraft, 304 tanks, 436 armored personnel carriers, and more than 2,700 other vehicles. Soviet forces in Afghanistan were attached to the Fortieth Army in Soviet Central Asia. Initially they sent five airborne and four motorized rifleman Infantry;Sovietdivisions. Elements of six other rifleman divisions and smaller units were added. Weapons included T-72 tanks and 152 self-propelled howitzers. The Soviets also employed MI-24 gunships and Sukhoi Su-25 frogfoot fighter-bombers and MiG MiG fighter planesFighter-bombers[fighter bombers];Sovietfighters. New weapons included the AGS-17 automatic grenade launcher and the Kalashnikov AK-47 AK-47 rifle[AK forty seven rifle]rifle. Although Western sources accused the Soviets of using Chemical weapons;Afghanistanchemical warfare and antipersonnel butterfly Mines;Afghanistanmines in the war, Moscow denied such claims. In 1988 the Soviets introduced Scud Scud missilesmissiles and continued to launch them into Afghanistan until 1991, even after the war was officially over.

Military Organization

The highest Soviet command structure consisted of three parts: the Council of Defense (Soviet Union)Council of Defense, led by the General Secretary of the Communist Party and including the highest political and military leaders; the Chief Military Council (Soviet Union)Chief Military Council, the chief officials of the ministry of defense; and the General Staff, known as the StavkaStavka. Although the first two units were political bodies, the Stavka was the actual military command. It included the Assistant for Naval Affairs, the Political Section, the Scientific Technological Committee, and ten directorates: Operations, Intelligence, Organization-Mobilization, Military Science, Communications, Topography, Arrangements, Cryptography, Military Assistance, and Warsaw Pact.

Shortly after Germany’s partition, signs appeared in West Berlin warning residents about the new international boundaries; this one says, “Pay attention–only ten meters [away].”

(National Archives)

The Stavka also stood in command above the various armed services: Army, Navy, Air Force, Strategic Rocket Forces, and the National Air Defense. Special troops such as the chemical, engineering, signal, and civil defense corps were directly under the ministry of defense.

Each of the five services had a commander in chief, one or more first deputy commanders in chief, and a chief of political administration equal in level to the first deputies. There were in addition several deputy commanders. The army and air force were deployed in sixteen military districts within the Soviet Union. The navy was deployed in four fleets. The countries of the Soviet allies were integrated into Moscow’s command structure through the Warsaw Pact.

Within the Warsaw PactWarsaw Pact, there was a Combined Supreme Command, established in 1956 with its headquarters in Moscow. This controlled all the armed forces of the members of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet army being divided into those based in Germany and those under the three commands: the Baltic, Belorussian, and Carpathian military districts.

West Berliners look across the wall at East Berlin in 1961.

(National Archives)

Within the Red Army (Soviet Union)Red Army itself, apart from the regional divisions, the army, at its height in the 1980’s, included some 210 divisions within the ground forces. These all included soldiers who were ready for immediate action as well as those required to be called up, including reservists. National service existed throughout the Soviet Union, and this ensured that all adult males within the country had some degree of military training and were able to be called up to serve alongside regular soldiers. However NATO analysts believed relatively few were able to be called up straightway, considerably reducing the actual fighting strength for a sudden conflict.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Soviet military doctrine had two aspects: political and technological. The political aspect was linked to the principles of LeninismMarxism-Leninism[Marxism Leninism];SovietMarxism-Leninism and, in theory, placed Soviet arms in the service of maintaining the safety of the Soviet Union and other socialist states and in the service of international socialism. The more practical technological aspect called for the maintenance of a modern military, with nuclear arms, missiles, and other weaponry capable of matching that of the forces of their potential enemies: those of NATO and, in later years, China. Soviet doctrine sought to prevent a nuclear attack, and the nation’s great stockpile of nuclear weapons and delivery systems supposedly served as a Deterrencedeterrent.

Although publicly denying it, Moscow did not rule out the use of a preemptive strike. The Soviets kept their nuclear arsenals ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. The Stavka developed massive retaliation, second-strike, and flexible response strategies. The country’s arsenal included tactical nuclear weapons.

In 1968, as Dubček, AlexanderDubček, Alexander[Dubcek, Alexander]Alexander Dubček carried out liberalizing reforms in Czechoslovakia;Soviet invasionCzechoslovakia, Soviet forces invaded and returned the country to Moscow’s hardline socialism. Although this action was part of the Soviet policy of keeping the northern tier of Eastern Europe under control, it also established the Brezhnev DoctrineBrezhnev Doctrine, that Soviet military force would ensure that no socialist country would shed Soviet ideological principles.

The Soviet Union’s most serious “hot” war of the Cold War era was in Afghanistan;Soviet war (1979-1989)Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989)[Soviet Afghan War]Afghanistan. On December 27, 1979, the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan after a factional dispute among the Afghan leaders threatened the pro-Moscow government there. The Soviet forces, initially 80,000, had increased to 120,000 by the end of the war in 1988. In addition Moscow sent about 10,000 military and civilian advisers. The Afghan army fighting under Soviet command had an additional 40,000 troops. The government and Soviet forces were engaged in a guerrilla Guerrilla warfare;Afghanistanwar by a broad coalition of opponents with over 150 small units supplied with American and other foreign arms and operating out of neighboring Pakistan. The Soviet military doctrine, geared toward tank and infantry battles in flat areas, was unprepared for mountainous insurgency warfare, and their forces suffered from inappropriate training, deficient equipment, and low morale. With Gorbachev, MikhailGorbachev, MikhailMikhail Gorbachev’s coming to power in 1986, Soviet efforts evolved away from winning the war and propping up the regime toward finding a way to withdraw. The war in Afghanistan was a major cause of the downfall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The official Soviet casualties were 13,310 dead, 35,478 wounded, and 311 missing.

The invasion of Afghanistan extended the Brezhnev Doctrine beyond Eastern Europe. However, unlike Czech leaders in 1968, the Afghani leaders were not moving away from Marxism. Their factional fighting caused instability and opened the door for counterrevolution. The invasion took place during the Iranian hostage crisis (1979-1980)American-Iranian hostage crisis, and the Soviet Union feared the spread of the fundamental Islamic movement into the Muslim republics of the Soviet Union.

Contemporary Sources

Among the most important contemporary sources on the Cold War are the various Jane’s Information Group’s military series, especially All the World’s Aircraft, published annually, and Jane’s Missiles and Rockets. The Defense Intelligence Agency published a series entitled Soviet Military Power (1979). There are a number of collections of documents including Edward H. Judge and John W. Langdon’s The Cold War: A History Through Documents (1999). Memoirs of Soviet leaders include those of Khrushchev, NikitaKhrushchev, Nikita Nikita Khrushchev, Vospominananiia (1970; Khrushchev Remembers, 1970), and Brezhnev, LeonidBrezhnev, Leonid Leonid Brezhnev, Vospominananiia (1982; Memoirs, 1982). Within the Soviet Union, and now the former Soviet Union, a large number of memoirs were published in Russian, and some have been translated into English. These include accounts of the war in Afghanistan such as Bocharov, GennadyBocharov, Gennady Gennady Bocharov’s Russian Roulette: Afghanistan Through Russian Eyes (1990) and Alexievich, SvetlanaAlexievich, Svetlana Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War (1992).Cold War (1945-1991);Soviets and alliesSoviet Union;Cold WarSuperpowers;Soviet Union

Books and Articles
  • Carbonnell, Nestor. And the Russians Stayed: The Sovietization of Cuba a Personal Portrait. New York: Morrow, 1989.
  • Gabriel, Richard A. The Mind of the Soviet Fighting Man: A Quantitative Survey of Soviet Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.
  • Koch, Fred. Russian Tanks and Armored Vehicles, 1946 to the Present: An Illustrated Reference. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer, 1999.
  • Mathers, Jennifer G. The Russian Nuclear Shield from Stalin to Yeltsin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Reese, Roger R. The Soviet Military Experience: A History of the Soviet Army from 1917-1991. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 2000.
  • Rottman, Gordon L. The Berlin Wall and the Intra-German Border, 1961-89. New York: Osprey, 2008.
  • _______. Warsaw Pact Ground Forces. New York: Osprey, 1987.
  • Schwartz, Richard Alan. The Cold War Reference Guide: A General History and Annotated Chronology, with Selected Biographies. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1997.
  • Ward, Robin, and Geoffrey Jukes. Soviet General’s Database. Canberra: Australian National University, 1999.
  • Zaloga, Steven J., and James Loop. Soviet Bloc Elite Forces. New York: Osprey, 1985.
Films and Other Media
  • Afghan Breakdown. Feature film. Lenfilm, 1990.
  • Cold War. Documentary. Warner Home Video, 1998.

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