It is hard to describe the Soviet threat during the 1970s and 1980s without it sounding simply like Cold War rhetoric. Nonetheless, regardless of Moscow’s enormous nuclear weapons arsenal, Soviet manpower was sobering to say the least. By the late 1980s the Soviet Union had over four million men under arms, of which one and a half million were in the ground forces consisting of over fifty tank divisions, 150 motor rifle divisions and seven airborne divisions. Of these forces, some thirty divisions were deployed with the four Soviet groups of forces stationed in Eastern Europe; 200 to 300 tanks supported each division.
Key amongst these was the Soviet Western Group of Forces stationed in the German Democratic Republic and poised to strike the very heart of NATO. Its ground component comprised eleven tank and eight motor rifle divisions equipped with many of the AFVs described in this book. The air component consisted of twenty fighter and ground attack aircraft regiments.
Throughout the 1980s Washington produced an annual declassified report called Soviet Military Power, which was designed to highlight to decision-makers and the public alike the extent of the Soviet threat. In hindsight this was part of a concerted propaganda war designed to ensure Capitol Hill kept increasing US defence spending year on year. At the time though, Soviet Military Power stood as a very graphic testimony to the extent of the Red menace. Ironically, the Soviet Union was to be worn down by the economics of military confrontation with the West. Moscow’s withdrawal from Afghanistan showed that in many respects the Soviet military was a bankrupt paper tiger. Within a couple of years, the Soviet Union imploded and was to re-emerge as the much-reduced Russian Federation.
It was President Mikhail Gorbachev who, by the late 1980s, realised that the Soviet Union could not win the arms race. When he tried to reign in defence spending, there was an attempted coup in 1991. The net result was that Russia, Belarus and Ukraine dissolved the Soviet Union and created the short-lived Commonwealth of Independent States. In the end Ukraine and all the Central Asian Soviet republics went their own way, leaving the Russian Federation. It was at this point the true scale of Soviet defence spending on its ground forces became apparent. Even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russia Army still had 55,000 tanks, 70,000 APCs, 24,000 IFVs and 9,000 self-propelled guns.
Moscow’s policy of global arms transfers did not gain it any long-term influence during the Cold War. The only major leverage at the disposal of the Soviet Union was to cut off its arms deliveries, but in the case of Somalia this proved ineffective. Somalia went against Moscow’s wishes over the Ogaden, as did Ethiopia over its handling of Eritrea. Furthermore, in the ever-growing international arms market, there were numerous alternative sources – not least Warsaw Pact members prepared to undercut Moscow. Moscow’s allies were always aware of its limited economic clout. Lieutenant General Obasanjo of Nigeria in 1978 astutely noted, ‘We need in Africa massive economic assistance to make up for the lost ground of the colonial era and not military hardware for self-destruction and sterile ideological slogans which have no relevance to our African society.’
Ironically, the Soviet Union’s huge arms exports did not give Moscow any longterm strategic power. Egypt defected to the American camp, Libya and Syria became dangerous liabilities and while Libya moved to rehabilitate itself, Iraq and Syria fell into chaos. In Africa none of the Marxist governments in Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia were able to militarily defeat the rebels, leaving their economies in tatters. Soviet support for Vietnam soured relations with China, while support for Cuba and Nicaragua aggravated America and contributed to Washington’s decision to prop up unsavoury rightwing Latin American dictators.
Ultimately it was economic not military assistance that many of Moscow’s clients really needed. This was something it was unable to provide and the gifting of billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and bankrupted its arms industry. The Soviet war in Afghanistan proved to be a very public defeat for Moscow and highlighted how moribund the Soviet system was. Ultimately there can be no denying that the T-55 and T-62 became icons of the many regional conflicts fought during the Cold War – but at what price?