When was the peak of Soviet Military Power? (Cold War)

This question could be considered in the wider sense of at which point was the Soviet Union at the peak of its power during the Cold War in terms of global political influence, economic might (stop laughing at the back!) etc but I’m more interested in the question in purely military terms (though feel free to answer in a wider sense if you wish).

There are two aspects, Soviet military power in the absolute sense of numbers and quality of conventional and nuclear weapons and in the relative sense of Soviet military might as oppossed to that possessed by the West.

At which point in the Cold War would the Soviet leadership have been best placed to successfully initiate the classic NATO VS Warsaw Pact conflict and ‘drive to the Atlantic’?

My first guess is the late 1970’s before the bloody nose of Afghanistan and while the US was licking its wounds from Vietnam and the wider political and economic problems of the West.

In an absolute sense the peak of Soviet power was probably the mid 1980’s before the wind down of the Cold War and the gradual draw-down of the USSR’s armed forces.

Tanks in advance! :wink:

[QUOTE=Disposable Hero;1460228In an absolute sense the peak of Soviet power was probably the mid 1980’s[/QUOTE]
I’d be tempted to say that athe absolute peak was in the winter of 1943 or Spring of 1944, when they had battled the German armies to a standstill, and were starting the great eastern offensives that eventually ended in Germany.

The actual size of the Soviet armed forces was probably largest at that time, and a bigger proportion of the country’s economy was devoted to production supporting their military. And they had turned the tide and were defeating the Nazi army, probably the toughest military opponent in modern times.

\But since your OP limits it to Cold War times, I’d probably agree that early- to mid-1980’s might be the peak.

Never. The nukes would have begun flying long before they got anywhere near the Atlantic, and after a strategic exchange there wouldn’t be a meaningful US, USSR, NATO or Warsaw Pact left in existence. If nuclear weapons are somehow auto-magically off the table, I could go early/mid 70s after the breakdown of the US Army from Vietnam; but since nukes are auto-magically disallowed the 50s sound even better since conventional forces had been greatly drawn down as US plans relied on their superiority of warheads vs. the USSR.

Total Soviet troop levels in Afghanistan never exceeded a bit over 100,000. It was a much smaller scale intervention than Vietnam, it’s not like the Red Army was leaving the western front undefended while subduing the Afghans.

Up until Reagan few people in the west seriously thought they would be able to fight the USSR conventionally. It would have gone nuclear right away.

I’d say the peak was from 1945-1950. After Stalin, the USSR was rent by poverty and post-war depression. Kruschev himself acknowledged this in his memoirs-the USSR space program was partly to shore up the regime, and project a positive image abroad. Meanwhile, the satellite states of the Russian Empire were rattling their chains-you had the Hungarian Uprising (1956), small revolts in Rumania, the Polish Worker’s strikes, and the defection of Yugoslavia.
Kruschev had a real problem-he was trying to maintain a huge military, with a failing industrial and agricultural base-while the USSR was scoring triumphs in space, there were food riots outside Moscow in 1961-the USSR wound up importing massive quantities of food from Canada and Europe. The defeat in Afghanistan was the turing point-the whole Russian Empire collapsed in bankruptcy and demands for freedom.

I think you have to consider nuclear and conventional forces entirely separately. In conventional terms, the Soviets were at their peak in the mid 40s, as was the US, and both for the same reason – WWII.

The US opened a pretty wide lead with the development of nukes and strategic bombers and ICBMs, and the Soviets didn’t ever catch up, though they got closer in the late 70s. So, I suppose that’s when I would place them at the peak of their nuclear strength.

At a certain point, when both sides have enough weapons to utterly demolish the other’s cities, no matter the conceivable first strike to be endured, ‘catching up’ is a bit meaningless. In sheer numbers of strategic warheads on ICBMs and SLBMs though, the Soviet Union had passed the U.S. by 1982 (scroll down to the chart listing launchers, warheads and megaton-age for 1964-1982). My guess is that’s when the SS-18 Mod-4, with its 10 500-750 kT MIRVs started to come on line in large numbers. Of course, U.S. warheads were reputed to be much more accurate and reliable (although, do you really know how accurate they’d be, until they were launched over the pole?)

Looking at the OP earlier today, I’m tempted to answer similar to Ralph. If the U.S.S.R got a wild hair up its butt, and tried to shove to the Bay of Biscay in 1947 or 1948, (particularly if Stalin didn’t do stupid brinksmanship like the Berlin blockade, and the NATO powers consequently were lulled a bit more into a false sense of security.), after the USA largely demobilized its WW2 forces, and and the resulting U.S. forces in Europe resembled the forces Fehrenbach described in “This Kind Of War”… I don’t like our chances. Although I had thought the classic answer was sometime in 1977-1978, right after the Vietnam debacle, but before a lot of the U.S. Army modernization and reforms (from TRADOC and other entities, especially NTC). Of course, things would have gone nuclear rapidly, and the Soviets knew that.

I would add that the main activity of the USSR , from 1954 on-was a campaign of massive deception of the West. Everything was a “state secret”-and no foreign reporters were allowed in. Basically, the commnist leadership was afraid that the Western leaders would see the true state of the Soviet Union.
In retrospect, it was all clear-the Russian Navy had nuclear subs that sank and burned (basically deathtraps), the Red Airforce had fast planes (like the MIG-29), that would self-destruct (if flown at maximum speed), and the Red Army was a conscript army of ethnic groups that hated eachother.
The whole mess collapsed because the people would no longer tolerate the regime-and the regime lacked a new Stalin willing to kill millions of people.
So, the decline started with Kruschev’s speech (of 1956) denoncing Stalin-after that, there was no turning back.

Bear in mind that defeating the US and NATO’s armed forces was only part of the problem if the Soviets were contemplating invading Wester Europe. They had bitten off a lot to chew in occupying Easter Europe even though they had inherited the region from the Nazis thoroughly “softened up”.

Communist philosophy normally anticipates that the poor and working classes of a particular country will come to support a communist state to the point where a Soviet-led invasion–if not merely a Soviet-supported coup–is viable. A “cold” invasion and occupation of a Western country with an entirely hostile population is a pretty tall order, nuclear weapons or no.

And as the economically prosperous 50s gave way to the reformist 60s, hopes for increased support for communism in the West evaporated while Western influence slowly seeped across the Iron Curtain. There were plenty of prospects for spreading communism in the impoverished Third World, but this only served to kick the can down the road. I imagine at the Politboro, the prospect of invading the West became something like “next year in Jerusalem” before they gradually stopped talking about it altogether.

I’d seriously question those launcher figures, though. Given what we found after the USSR fell, I doubt more than half of them would have worked as intended if the balloon went up. Soviet maintenance was shitty at best.

Da, comrade.

I agree. Too bad they never got moose and squirrel.

The Russian word for comrade is tovarich
By Squirrel, do you mean Nutkins?
Or is that somkind of expression?

While this is very possibly true, it is also true that one of premier systems of the one leg of the “nuclear triad” was essentially inoperable for a period of about a year in the mid-'Sixties. It will be left as an exercise to the reader to figure out which system and why, although the information is publically available. And the Soviets were busy developing and deploying new weapon systems while the United States was resting on its laurels. In fact, after the cancellation of the MGM-134A ‘Midgetman’ due to supposed relaxation of tensions following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a road-mobile single warhead launcher, the Russian Federation deployed the SS-27 (RS-12 family) derived from the SS-25, in contravention of the never-ratified START II treaty. Maintenance issues with weapons were largely limited to the RS-20 (SS-18 ‘Satan’) and other storable liquid launch vehicles, and it is worthwhile to note that we had similar issues with the LGM-25C ‘Titan II’, but because the size of the deployed force was much smaller we had fewer reported issues. Regardless, in a full-up nuclear exchange between the Warsaw Pact and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, all major parties would have been devastated even if half of the arsenals were inoperable by the 1970 timeframe.

As far as conventional ability to project power beyond their own borders, the Soviet Union was done for after the repression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, if not before. The resolution made clear that the ‘client states’ of the Warsaw Pact could not be relied upon to support the interests of Mother Russia, and despite numerical superiority over combined conventional NATO forces the Soviets could not maintain the logistical chain to support an extended invasion into Western Europe. (The Tom Clancy/Larry Bond novel Red Storm Rising gets this right in broad strokes, though some of the details are incorrect.) In retrospect, it was never in the interest of the Soviet Union to expand in to Western Europe; the subjugation of the East Bloc states after WWII was purely to create a buffer zone and to bolster the already faltering Soviet economy (which was doing poorly even before the burden of the war and criminal activities of the CPSU). In a purely conventional war, the NATO and independent states could have held out much longer than the Soviets simply by dint of supply.


What is the Russian word for “joke”?

There isn’t one.

Note however that countries like France and Italy (I wouldn’t know for the others) had powerful and popular communist parties. And those communist parties, at the time, were full-on stalinists, viewing the Soviet Union as a beacon of freedom and justice (even moreso with it having just crushed the nazis). If, say, 1/3 of the population is supportive of the communist party, it certainly would help a lot in a soviet-led take over. In fact, the possiblity that French or Italian communists could attempt a coup, or just win elections and then movre towards a communist state was a real concern(*)
On review : the period I’m refering to is the end of WWII and the subsequent years, and I was thinking of an invasion immediately following this war. Obviously, a Soviet invasion in, say, 1980 would have been a totally different issue.

(*)by the way an amusing factoid : in both countries, at some point soon after the end of WWII, a secret network of anti-communist fighters, with weapon caches, etc…was organized, and its existence totally forgotten in subsequent decades by the intelligence services until fortuitly rediscovered during, IIRC, the late 80s or early 90s. Some old geezers were still holding on their weapons, fully prepared for an anti-communist uprising.

You are joking, of course. The Russians have a fantastic sense of humor, albeit of the most dry and often rough sense of the term. Even their great works of tragedy are often filled with jokes. Gogol’s “The Nose” is the height of absurdist humor. Of all cultures I can think of, the Russians probably appreciate Hamlet the best of any.

Not even 1980. After the brutal repression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 the image of the Soviet Union leading a charge of proletariat revolution in the sense of COMINTERN was pretty much bankrupt; even (or perhaps especially) the East Bloc nations understood that any degree of self-determination within the Soviet sphere of influence was dependent upon the patronage of the Soviet Union. The crushing of the Prague Spring in liberal Czechoslovakia in 1968 undermined any remaining support for Soviet-style communism in the West, save for radical fringe terrorist organizations, and the publication of The Gulag Archipelago in 1973 in the West put the nail in the coffin by highlighting just how utterly criminal the Soviet leadership was, e.g. arrest quotas, theft of property by agents of SMERSH and the KGB Second Directorate. That the “Communist threat” got so much airplay in the late 'Seventies and early 'Eighties was far more the result of conservative elements looking to bolster their political positions than any genuine domestic threat. And generally speaking, no one liked the Russians to begin with; cooperation, even within the East Bloc, was enforced by threat.

Actually, there are rumors, at least partially substantiated, that many Western intellegence agencies and or quasi-governmental groups maintained “stay behind” weapon and supply stashed and trained personnel in the case of an East Bloc invasion or domestic uprising, often basing these organizations on the previous Resistance movements in those countries. There is some suggestion that these organizations even remained intact after the fall of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Switzerland, of course, has long maintained weapon stashes and a permanent reserve force comprised of a large portion of the population to resist attempts at invasion from any direction.

But back to the question of the o.p., while the Soviets had a multitude of conventional weapon systems and a large standing army, they never had the logistical wherewithal to conduct an extended military adventure, nor was it in their philosophy to do so. The Warsaw Pact served as a buffer zone against invasion, not a precursor to wider expansion via military power.


The late 1970s were the highwater mark in my opinion. The US was still reeling from Vietnam. The decay of the Soviet Union’s economy hadn’t become apparent yet, and it had developed a new generation of powerful and threatening ICBMs. Several new Soviet-allied Marxist regimes came to power in Africa.,Red Brigade terrorists were operating in several Western European countries even as their governments were drifting towards what some bemoaned as the “Finlandization” of Europe- seeking an accomodation with the Soviet Union by not threatening or challenging it. In 1979 three things happened: The Soviet Union stepped in to shore up communism in Afghanistan and no one thought they wouldn’t crush any anti-Soviet resistance as they always had before. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran meant the conversion of a US ally on the Russian’s flank to an enemy (even if not on the Soviet’s side either). And the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua meant that now there was a revolutionary Marxist regime on the Latin American mainland (island Cuba was containable because it shared no land borders), presumably in a position to become the North Vietnam of Central America, exporting revolution and guerilla warfare to the rest of the hemisphere. In 1979 some thought the Soviet Union would endure for 500 years.

The USSR was downhill after Stalin died. There’s no doubt about it.

I wonder - why did they sell? What if the US, Canada, and Western Europe all said - “No, Moscow, we won’t sell you grain, we’ll just let you go hungry?”