Happy victory day!
On May 9, 1945, a defeated Nazi Germany signed it’s surrender to the Soviet Union in Berlin. Thus ended a war which had cost the USSR the lives of 10 million soldiers and as many as 20 million civilians.
Before reading on, please do take a moment to contemplate those numbers. They defy intuitive comprehension. How can we, in the Age of Nuclear Peace (long may it last), comprehend what it would be like to lose 13% of our nation’s population in 4 years of the most destructive conflict the world has ever known? Can any of us really imagine losing more than one in ten of our friends, family, and acquaintances? If you can visualize our cities as smoking ruins, our armed forces reduced to a shadow of their former might, and our soil contested by a seemingly invincible foe then you have the beginnings of what happened to the Soviet Union in 1941-45.
With superhuman effort the peoples of the Soviet Union turned the tide and, with the assistance of billions of dollars of US war materiel, fought the Wehrmacht all the way back to Berlin. Along the way, they developed the theory of industrial war to a height it has yet to surpass. Combining the theories of Svechin, Tukhachevsky, and others with the practical experience of constant fighting against the most competent army of their day, the Red Army gave birth to Deep Operations.
The courage and indomitable spirit the Soviet peoples showed in their long struggle is almost without parallel in history. Sadly, it is forever tarnished by the superlative evil of the regime which they served. An evil which matches and likely exceeds that of their Nazi foes, at least when measured in body count.
It has been argued that a more intelligent German approach would have been to treat the newly occupied regions as well as Hindenburg had in the First World War, offering the peoples of those lands an alternative to Communist brutality. Of course, Nazi Germany was not the sort of Germany to whom such a course of action was politically possible, and the sort of Germany which would have employed such a policy was one unlikely to be in the position of invading the USSR in 1941.
Soon after that first Victory Day, the USSR commenced a massive ethnic cleansing of the Baltic states along with a continuing program of population dislocation and movement in Central Asia. These measures were designed to prevent future resistance to Soviet rule by reducing ethnic or national cohesion, either by mixing formerly separate peoples together or by wholesale elimination of troublesome groups, such as they had practiced in the prewar Ukraine.
By capitalizing on well-placed spies in the West, they achieved success in their nuclear weapons program and commenced to build a massive arsenal with which to protect the security of their regime.
We fought Nazi Germany for five years, but we would face off against the Soviet Union for fifty. Thanks to the development of nuclear weapons it was a war fought by proxy; a war of shadows, spies, and mutual undermining. In the end it was won by exhaustion: economic, political, and moral.
If the Second World War can be compared to a discrete military event, it would be a massive, annihilatory field battle. The armies approach, maneuvering for advantage before one marches forward to the attack. The great clash occurs, and one of the forces is surrounded then obliterated.
The Cold War, on the other hand, was a long siege. The besieging US and its allies, unable or unwilling to suffer the horrors of assaulting the keep of Eurasia as Germany had (though with different technological means), did their best to keep it surrounded and to cut off external sources of material support. The many proxy wars fought on the periphery of the great powers can then be interpreted through this lens as sallies of varying degrees of furtiveness by besieged Communism.
In the end, however, courage is courage, and the Soviet peoples were responding above all else to an invasion of their homelands. 1941-1945 was no time to push for regime change, to say the least, even besides the fact that to criticize Stalin in even the slightest way was a death sentence. Victory was perceived by many (and not only in the USSR) as having validated the system, and the discontented were dealt with efficiently. While the terror state did eventually soften under both internal and external pressures, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the Communist government’s promises of better living standards were discredited in the hearts of the people.
There were only two realistic ways for the Soviet Empire to fall. The first was in a rain of nuclear fire: by accident, in retaliation for a USSR first strike, or as a preemptive strike by the US and its allies before the USSR’s nuclear arsenal was a serious threat. Soviet strategic deception operations (“Maskirovka”) and the United States’ traditional distaste for preemptive warfare ensured the latter did not occur. The Soviet leadership’s acute awareness of the inferiority of their arsenal (at least until the 1970s) ensured that they would never strike first. Despite a few close calls, luck and care prevented an accident from engulfing the world in destruction.
The other way was through the only type of starvation that can kill a modern industrial nation: starvation of will. Prevented from supporting its economy through conquest, the faith of the people in the regime declined to the point where it simply could not continue to function. Systemic failure ensued.
But what of the besiegers?