Soviet standing in world affairs was not based on ideological appeal, but on military strength. At the end of the Brezhnev era, when the Soviet economy ceased to perform well and the political system was troubled, the Soviet Union possessed an influence in the international arena that neither it nor its predecessor, imperial Russia, had ever before achieved.
At the time, American intelligence estimated Soviet military spending as 15 percent of GNP. Later, Edward Shevardnadze, Gorbachev’s foreign minister, who was presumably in a position to know, said that the country had spent approximately a quarter of its GNP on the military. We will never know the exact figure, but it is now clear that the Soviet leaders spent an extraordinary proportion of the country’s resources building up its military strength. If Shevardnadze was correct, the proportional burden on the Soviet economy was five times greater than that on the U.S. economy. But even this high figure is somewhat misleading: in an economy of scarcity, most of the much-needed resources were used for ultimately nonproductive purposes, and the most able and best educated people worked for the military industrial complex.
It would be simple-minded to attribute the collapse of the Soviet experiment entirely, or even largely, to heavy military investment; however, it stands to reason that such a policy was a contributing factor. The question arises, why these heavy investments? Undoubtedly the Soviet leaders perceived threats. The lesson of the Cuban missile crisis was that the Soviet Union was not yet a global power, one able to project its strength anywhere in the world. As relations with China deteriorated, the leaders were concerned for the security of the extremely long border between the two countries. The Soviet leaders considered the Eastern European satellites the first line of defense of the fatherland, and this region was obviously insecure. The politicians in Moscow understood that the communist regimes there depended on the presence of the Red Army. Yet it is obvious, at least in retrospect, that the military buildup went beyond the needs of simple defense. After all, Brezhnev and his colleagues did not need a powerful army to keep Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs in line, and it was highly likely that the United States could be deterred by the Soviet nuclear arsenal.
We must look for psychological explanations. The Soviet leaders were insecure. One could easily read between the lines of their statements: they craved respect, and above all they wanted to be treated by the Americans as equals. It was obviously easier to achieve prestige by building up military strength than by creating a modern, vibrant economy able to take care of the needs of the people. During the early decades a major source of strength of Soviet foreign policy had been its ideological appeal; but in the age of “real, existing socialism,” an assertive foreign policy could be based only on military power. Brezhnev and his comrades built up a vast military colossus in order to acquire prestige, respect, and legitimacy. This policy was not unsuccessful. Not only did members of the Politburo enjoyed the prestige that came with the leadership of a superpower, but many if not all the citizens of the Soviet Union probably took some satisfaction in the military power of their country. In purely military terms, in terms of influence in world affairs, a Soviet citizen could legitimately think that the direction of change favored his system, and that the future was on the side of his regime. Such a belief was an important legitimizing force.
Relations between the two superpowers were of paramount importance for Soviet policy makers. Soviet spokesmen advocated a policy of peaceful coexistence and relaxation of tensions. This relaxation, however, from the Soviet point of view, did not mean that the Soviet Union would not make further efforts to extend its influence by supporting “wars of national liberation” or take advantage of the problems faced by the West. Indeed, the temptation was irresistible: the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s was torn apart by the Vietnam War and later by the Watergate affair. The Soviet goal was to continue the expansion of Soviet influence and at the same time lessen the danger of war. As the enemies of detente in the West never failed to point out, the relaxation of tensions allowed the Soviet Union to achieve its greatest success in the international arena.
If at the end of the Brezhnev period Soviet foreign policy makers attempted to evaluate their successes and failures, they must have come up with a mixed evaluation. Within the bloc, the failures outweighed the successes. Although the rhetoric of the Sino-Soviet conflict moderated somewhat, and the danger of military conflict ameliorated, no genuine normalization of relations could take place. Regional interests in Southeast Asia, and a Russian dislike of the Chinese which can fairly be characterized as racist, continued to stand in the way of improved relations. Eastern Europe became a drain on Soviet resources. Worst of all, the Soviet leaders allowed themselves carelessly and stupidly to be drawn into an Afghan civil war in 1979, placing themselves in an unwinnable situation. That war not only inflicted casualties, it also acted as a break on improved relations with the West.
The election of a Republican administration in the United States ended détente and led to a new arms race that the Soviet Union could ill afford. Soviet diplomacy initiated a campaign aimed at blocking the deployment of American middle-range missiles in Europe. Although this campaign had some successes in separating the U.S. from its European allies, ultimately it failed to block deployment. The revolution in Iran in 1979 weakened Western standing in the Middle East; however, that revolution did not ambiguously advance Soviet interests. The Soviet Union expanded much-needed resources to influence events and gain allies in different parts of the world. On occasion some of those responsible for the formulation of foreign policy must have asked themselves: was it all worth it?