Murphy's Law: Lessons Of The Cold War


April 14, 2022: The new Cold War with China and Russia has its origins in the original Cold war. The first Cold War began because of the Korean War, Soviet domination of East Europe and aggressive Russian efforts to create more wars, as well as increased subversion in the West. Russia still blames the West for starting the Cold War. That is hard to accept because Russia was given the benefit of the doubt at the end of World War II when they were allowed to do as they pleased in East Europe in return for assurances that there would be free elections. That did not happen. Post-1991 documents from the Russian archives showed that Stalin ordered their man Kim Il Sung in North Korea to invade South Korea and unite Korea. When that did not work Russia ordered China to rescue the North Koreans. China complied and told Russia that the Chinese “debt was paid” to Russia for assistance in the 1949 CCP (Chinese Communist Party) conquest of China.

The British said NATO was founded to keep the Germans down, the Russians out and the Americans in Europe. During the Cold War Germany was divided and West Germany joined NATO and was urged to form a large army to help with the defense of the main target for a Soviet offensive; West Germany. That motivated the Germans to do a lot of planning and they found that one area near the East German border and the town of Fulda contained two lowland corridors that offered the most convenient route for invading Russian forces. There were other routes that would be used but if Fulda could be blocked it would do much damage to Russian offensive plans. Much NATO effort was applied to the defense of Fulda and eventually the Russians saw those efforts as a threat.

By the 1970s Russia began to doubt that their advantage in numbers of divisions, tanks and artillery would be sufficient and detailed why in unclassified books distributed to Russian commanders to prepare them for the use of nukes or chemical weapons. West Germany was upset once they obtained, translated and revealed the content of these Russian publications. Russia was also concerned about Israel’s continued defeats of Arab armies equipped with Russian weapons and trained to use them as Russians would.

NATO nations, especially the Americans, learned a lot from the experience of the Israelis, especially in the 1967 Six Day War against more numerous Arab forces using Soviet weapons and tactics. Those lessons were demonstrated again in 1973. The Americans enacted military reforms after Vietnam and from the Russian experience in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Russia was less successful with military reform efforts and that played a major role in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia subsequently blamed it all on NATO because Russia still has not accepted the economic and military lessons of the last sixty years.

This includes valuable lessons about how to effectively organize resistance to a Russian invasion and occupation. As a result of World War II experience with the American OSS and the British SOE there was a lot of practical experience with stay-behind operations in occupied territory. This led to the formation of the CIA and the U.S. Army Special Forces at the start of the Cold War. New NATO members in Eastern Europe, as well as neutral Sweden, adopted the same stay-behind tactics when Russia again became a threat after 2000. This included distributing pamphlets to the entire population on how they should act.

Russia did learn that its Cold War era subversion and Information War techniques worked and continued to work, with a few upgrades, after 1991. During the Cold War NATO tolerated the existence of terrorist training facilities in Eastern Europe and Russia because there was not much they could do except complain to the USSR, which was pointless. The Russians were even more successful in promoting non-violent protest groups, especially in West Europe. The true extent of this activity was not discovered until after 1991. All this continued after 1991 and even though more people in the West knew about how these Russian subversion efforts operated, there were still few efforts in NATO countries to deal with the problem.

Despite post-1991 Russian access to Western technology, there was still fear of superior Western military tech. Since the 1940s, Western tech was something the Russians feared more than anything else. They saw it confirmed in the 1970s with laser guided bombs and superior electronics in American combat and support aircraft. At sea they noted that their SSBNs (ballistic missile nuclear subs) were almost always tracked by an American SSN (nuclear attack sub). The extent of this fear became obvious to the West before 1991 as more Russian and Warsaw Pact pilots defected with their aircraft and revealed the primitive state of Russian electronics and other aircraft components. The Russians were able to get new consumer gadgets back to Russia, some of them via diplomatic pouch because of restrictions placed on the export to the USSR of a growing number of American non-military tech. Efforts to duplicate this consumer tech failed because Russia did not have the manufacturing ability to do it. Reagan was the first American president to take full advantage of that with a largely fictional ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) system that the Russians believed was real. After 1991 the extent of this tech paranoia became obvious and many more examples of Soviet era tech got to the West for examination. The Russians were several decades behind the West. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986 demonstrated that problem, especially how the Russians tried to hide it at first. After 1991 it became clear that many of the new Russian leaders had not learned from pre-1991 mistakes.

The same thing happened to military developments before and after 1991. By the late 1970s NATOs most powerful member was seeking a doctrine to make the best use of new weapons, an all-volunteer force and growing air superiority. West Germany was urging the United States to adopt tactics that would mean losing less German territory in the opening stages of a war. In 1982 this led to AirLand Battle doctrine, which emphasized meeting a Warsaw Pact (mainly Russian) invasion by attacking as well as defending. West Germany was reassured and those who had studied the 1972 Arab-Israeli war, which began with a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, was quickly defeated by an Israeli “active defense” that emphasized attacking as well as defending. The Americans ha already adopted an “active defense” doctrine in 1978 but AirLand Battle was a refinement of that, survived into the late 1990s and was replaced by improved versions.

The Russians believed AirLand Battle was an example of how much post-Vietnam military reforms had turned NATO defense plans into an offensive opportunity for NATO that made any Russian attack less likely to succeed and vulnerable to a NATO invasion of East Europe. The 1991 Iraq war certainly confirmed it.

After the East European governments collapsed in 1989 it was revealed that the Soviets had become less confident of the ability and willingness of East European Warsaw Pact armies to assist a Russian-led offensive. Part of this was due to the aftereffects of the crackdown in East Europe after the uprisings of the 1950s and 60s. Western intel officials interviewed many of East European civilians getting out and thought the refugees were exaggerating. They weren’t and that became obvious in 1989 plus two years later when the USSR itself collapsed.

The NATO alliance seemed to have lost its purpose after 1991 but there was no willingness to dissolve the organization. As one senior American general commented, “we need a new enemy.” That was indeed the case and when China grew into that kind of threat, it was not NATO members who were most at risk. Meanwhile the eagerness of East European nations to join NATO and the EU (European Union) was misinterpreted by the original NATO members. The East Europeans warned that Russia remained a threat and after the 1990s that became real. Russia needed a foreign threat and NATO expansion was “proof” despite the fact that the new East Europe wanted to join for the mutual-defense aspect, to prevent another 1939/40 disaster.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close