The Middle East, the Persian Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean are of particular strategic concern to Moscow because of their proximity to the Soviet Union. In addition, the Soviets view the Middle East in the second half of the 20th century as akin to the Balkans at the turn of the century: they consider the area to be the most likely source of a world war. Since 1979, moreover, the Soviets have confronted the concrete possibility of a major military conflict with the United States in the area north of the Persian Gulf. This prospect has brought the dangers of political turbulence in the Middle East into sharper focus, and altered Soviet perceptions of the immediate strategic significance of various countries in the Middle East. Because of its proximity and because it has provided opportunities for them to overleap US containment, the area has always been of special interest to the Soviet Union. But the possibility of major Soviet-US conflict outside the circumstances of world war has introduced a new factor into its military and diplomatic calculations.

Theaters of Military Action

This prospect of regional war with the US in the Persian Gulf region has prompted Soviet planners to take a fresh look at the military doctrine prevailing through the 1970s (see Doctrine sidebar below). At least until recently, it is the contingency of world war that has determined the structure and posture of the Soviet armed forces and shaped their war-related requirements beyond their borders. These requirements are organized in theaters of military action (TVDs), which are constructs for planning in peacetime as well as for conducting operations in war. As the accompanying maps show, TVDs extend from inside the Soviet Union to as far beyond its borders as makes military sense.

The core of the Middle East lies in Moscow’s Southern TVD, which looks south from the Caucasus and Turkistan out across the eastern half of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Its western boundary cuts through the middle of Turkey and runs south between Cyprus and the Levantine coast to Egypt. In the east, the boundary is likely to follow the line of the Himalayas flanking Pakistan and then turn south to Cape Comorin at the tip of India. The Mediterranean comes mostly within the Southwestern TVD, which includes North Africa.

In Soviet planning for the contingency of world war (which the Soviets absolutely want to avoid but can not afford to lose), the Western TVD is by far the most important. This encompasses NATO’s central region and the southern part of Scandinavia. The Southern TVD, including the Persian Gulf, becomes important only in the second phase of a general war, once NATO has been defeated in Europe, because of the need for the sea-line of communications with Moscow’s Far Eastern front. The Southern TVD would have no significant role to play in the first phase of a world war, unless US forces had previously been drawn into the Gulf area, when the requirement would be to prevent them from redeploying to the European front.

In the Southwestern TVD, the immediate objectives would be to pin down NATO forces so that they cannot be redeployed to reinforce NATO’s central region and to secure the Turkish straits against NATO incursions. Once it was certain that operations in the Western TVD would be successful and some Soviet forces would be available for redeployment, the Soviets would then seek to force Italy out of the war and to gain physical control of both sides of the Turkish Straits. This effort would parallel political attempts to maneuver Greece and Turkey out of the war.

Following this, the primary objective would be to expel the United States from the Mediterranean. The difficulty of defending the northern littoral of the Mediterranean, combined with the unsuccessful German experience in World War II, argues strongly for securing the Gibraltar Straits against US attempts to return to the region by sea and for establishing an extended defense perimeter along the northern edge of the Sahara. A secondary Soviet objective would be to open up or to keep open the route from the Black Sea to the Far East by way of the Suez Canal.

The requirement for an extended defense perimeter makes one look twice at the Libyan inventory of Soviet armored vehicles, which grew from 115 tanks and zero armored personnel carriers in 1971 to a total of 2,800 tanks and 1,600 APCs in 1983. Undoubtedly, Qaddafi had his own reasons for acquiring this equipment, but the result has been to pre-position a large number of hard-to-ship armored fighting vehicles where they would be extremely useful to the Soviets in the early phases of a world war. Furthermore, the Soviets might welcome the opportunity to establish air support facilities in Libya, which could be taken over by Soviet forces in the event of war. Under the 1970s doctrine, Soviet naval units in the Mediterranean would not launch their nuclear weapons at the onset of war, lest they precipitate escalation. Given Western predominance, the chances of the squadron surviving is low but they would be improved if they enjoyed the kind of shore-based air support that the facilities in Egypt allowed them from 1968-72.

In the late 1960s, there emerged a significant possibility of war with China. This reinforced the need to be able to supply the Far Eastern front through the eastern Mediterranean, since the Trans-Siberian railway was vulnerable to disruption. The simplest and fastest route for large-scale military shipments to the Far East was to load out of Black Sea ports and go by way of the Suez Canal if it were open.

The Persian Gulf

Outside of the circumstances of world war or extreme turbulence in Iran or Afghanistan, is there any chance that the Soviet Union would want to undertake a military offensive towards the Persian Gulf? A case can be made that Soviet long-term security interests would be improved if Moscow extended its control 150 to 300 miles southward, into Persian Azerbaijan and perhaps Kurdistan as well. This would provide direct access to Iraq and Syria, and would bring the head of the Persian Gulf within range of its tactical air forces.

But this military advantage would not serve Soviet broader interests. Two factors argue against any Soviet drive for territory here. First, there is the military problem of gaining and maintaining control over a politically volatile area, located at the end of long lines of communication that run through difficult terrain. Second, any Soviet military move in this region would itself provoke a military response from the West. In every respect, a Soviet attempt to occupy territory here would become a source of dangerous instability to the Soviet Union. Consider the effect of developments in Afghanistan and Iran on Soviet Turkistan to the north (the republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kirgiziya). Turkistan, the most recent major addition to the Russian empire, is also the most typically “colonial.” European-type military and administrative power subjugated this Asian region of settled agricultural economy. This circumstance, and the fact that Soviet borders with Afghanistan and Iran cut through a single ethnic area, makes Moscow particularly sensitive to the potent mix of local nationalism and Muslim revivalism.

Rather than turn Afghanistan or Iran into satellites, Soviet interests have historically been well served by having these more or less independent buffers to the south. The pro-communist coup in Kabul in 1978 was followed by a slide toward anarchy and Soviet military intervention. Moscow had long had the military capability to invade Afghanistan, which suggests that geostrategic advantage was not at the root of the 1979 decision. If anything, the Soviets intervened precisely to preserve Afghanistan’s buffer role.

In a general war with the West, the Soviets would face the question of whether to cut the supply of petroleum from the Gulf. The issues are not clear-cut. If the Soviet military campaign in Europe goes according to plan, such a cutoff would have no impact on the outcome of the battle, and Middle East oil is not essential to the United States if it withdraws from Europe to fight on from fortress America. If Soviet advances in Europe stalled, Middle East oil could be critical to continued NATO operations, but military arguments for cutting supplies would still not be overwhelming. Cutting off Middle East oil would create economic distress and political unrest in the producing countries and in other Third World countries. Furthermore, depriving a country such as Japan of its primary fuel source would provide Washington with a powerful lever for ensuring Japan’s active participation in the war on the side of the West.

In the context of a general war, oil would not be the chief Soviet motivation for seizing the Gulf. The Soviets must assume that even if they defeat NATO in Europe, the Western alliance will regroup in North America, Australia and elsewhere and then seek to reestablish itself on the Eurasian continent as a first step toward building up forces for an assault on the Soviet Union. Two of the established approaches to Russia pass through Moscow’s Southern TVD — the route from the head of the Gulf through western Iran that was used as the Lend-Lease corridor in World War II, and the route from Pakistan through Afghanistan. Despite the formidable terrain of both routes, both are accessible by sea and provide the possibility for a hostile military buildup to the south. Furthermore, there is less strategic depth to the south of the Soviet industrial heartland than in most other directions.

The Persian Gulf/Arabian Sea region would also figure in the event of a protracted war between China and the Soviet Union, due to Soviet requirements for shipping military supplies to the Far East. The Trans-Siberian railroad is vulnerable to long-term disruption; the northern sea route and air transport could only partly compensate. Moscow would have to rely primarily on the southern route across the Indian Ocean. If the Black Sea/Suez Canal/Red Sea route were also problematic or unavailable, Moscow would want to secure access to the Arabian Sea.

If Iran, supported by Washington, was reluctant to allow the Soviets to establish such a line of communication across its territory, any Soviet attempt to establish it by force would probably provoke a US military reaction. In such circumstances, there would be distinct military advantages to a more circuitous route through Afghanistan and eastern Iran to the port of Chah Bahar, about 300 miles east of the Strait of Hormuz. The terrain is less mountainous and constricting than in western Iran, the area is remote and sparsely populated, and there are sufficient airfields to support such an operation. Chah Bahar has the added advantage of bypassing the Strait of Hormuz. It gives directly onto the Arabian Sea and is not too close to potential enemy facilities in Pakistan and Oman.

Control of Chah Bahar would also be an important Soviet objective in the context of a general war, in order to deny the West the use of airfields throughout the area and also to prevent the kind of lodgement that would facilitate a Western military buildup in Southwest Asia.

The Red Sea/Horn of Africa

Compared with Iran and the eastern Mediterranean, Soviet strategic interest in the Red Sea/Horn of Africa region is relatively recent. But whereas contingencies in the Persian Gulf can be dealt with by forces based in the Soviet Union, the distance to the Red Sea requires a cadre of forces in place and some infrastructure in order to be able to take military action in the area.

Initial involvement here came in 1968-72, as part of the Soviet response to signals that the United States would deploy Polaris submarines in the Indian Ocean. March 1968 saw the first deployment of Soviet naval combatants to the area, with the choice of Somalia as the pointe d'appui by mid-1969. The Soviets were under no illusion that they could counter the Polaris in the Indian Ocean at this stage, but they wanted to develop the infrastructure and operational experience that could support such a mission in the future.

A change in Soviet focus was apparent in the February 1972 visit to Somalia of Soviet Defense Minister Andrei Grechko, who signed an agreement for the construction of new airfields, missile handling and storage facilities and a communications station at Berbera. Probably this increased investment in Somalia was related to Soviet knowledge that their troops would soon be out of Egypt. In the spring of 1970, Moscow had deployed substantial air defense forces to Egypt in the face of Israel’s deep-penetration raids; the number of Soviet troops reached 20,000. During the second half of 1971, the Soviets seem to have concluded that the political and military costs of this direct involvement outweighed any benefits. For one thing, Soviet access to Egyptian naval facilities and airfields to support its Mediterranean deployment no longer had the same importance because of the change in naval mission priorities (see Doctrine sidebar below). Evidence suggests that the Soviets were in fact waiting for an opportunity to extricate their troops from Egypt.

The Soviet naval command nonetheless objected to the Egypt withdrawal, along the lines expressed by Admiral Sergei Gorshkov in the March 1972 article of his series on “Navies in War and Peace.” Gorshkov had been directly involved, from 1961 to 1966, in pressing Egypt for the use of port facilities, and he visited the Indian Ocean in 1967 and 1968 prior to the initial Soviet deployment there. His lack of involvement in the 1972 agreement with Somalia, combined with the Soviet withdrawal from Egypt, suggests that the original naval mission had been superseded by a new one. Gorshkov and Grechko were on opposite sides of the debate about the role of a military presence outside the Soviet Union: Gorshkov argued for an assertive overseas policy based on military power, while Grechko’s conception limited the Soviet military role to the territorial defense of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries.

Grechko’s interest in the Horn of Africa derived from the escalating conflict between the Soviet Union and China, which had moved from the ideological and political plane to military clashes by June 1969. The Nixon Doctrine, proclaimed in July 1969, removed the American counterpoise to China by limiting the scope of US involvement in future Asian conflicts. Richard Nixon’s visit to China in early 1972 confirmed this adverse trend. In immediacy, the threat of war with China took precedence over the possibility of war with the West, especially with the initiation of strategic arms limitation talks and the trend toward detente.

This contingency highlighted Soviet planners’ concern for a secure sea line of communication between eastern and western Russia. The simplest and fastest route for large-scale military shipments to the east is from Black Sea ports via the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. The canal had been closed since 1967, but that situation was unlikely to persist. The Soviets assumed that their common interest with the West in transit rights would ensure safe merchant passage through the Dardenelles and Suez. The Bab al-Mandab straits at the southern end of the Red Sea, the single unavoidable choke point between Suez and Russian waters in the Pacific, were another matter. The need to keep Bab al-Mandab out of hostile hands focused Soviet attention on the littoral states: Ethiopia, Djibouti, and North and South Yemen. (South Yemen also had sovereignty over the island of Perim, which divides the straits in two.)

The Chinese had a political presence in the Horn. In the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, whose optimal geostrategic position was complimented by the former British base at Aden, pro-Chinese forces in the ruling National Liberation Front maintained significant influence, at least until a power struggle in mid-1978 ousted President Salim Rubaya ‘Ali. The Soviets had already moved their drydock from Berbera to Aden in late 1977, and this change of regime confirmed the trend of greater Soviet access to Aden’s facilities. By the end of 1978, developments in Ethiopia and the outcome of the Ogaden war had stabilized the situation around the Bab al-Mandab in the Soviet Union’s favor.

Soviet concern for unhindered sea passage from west to east extended beyond the contingency of war with China to include the possibility of war with the West. This was underscored for Soviet military planners in December 1971, when Washington used the India-Pakistan war to deploy a carrier battle group in the Indian Ocean. Like China, Washington strongly supported Pakistan in that conflict and branded India the aggressor.

World war would also focus Soviet attention on the Horn of Africa as a key component of the extended defense perimeter. The Soviets undoubtedly remember that in 1941 Britain launched an offensive out of Kenya that conquered Italian forces in Somalia and Ethiopia and linked up with allied forces in the Middle East. Not coincidentally, since 1979 the US has been making greater use of the base and airfield at Mombasa.

A Doctrine for the ’80s: The Regional War Contingency

A more immediate prospect of regional war emerged after 1979, confronting the Soviets with the concrete possibility of major conflict with the United States in the area north of the Persian Gulf. This was the first time since 1951 that the possibility of such a conflict outside Europe had arisen. It stemmed from a series of events in the Soviets’ Southern TVD — the Iranian revolution, the US embassy hostage crisis, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the Carter Doctrine and the increased emphasis on the Rapid Deployment Force, the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the increasing US involvement in the Lebanese conflict. The troubles in Poland added to the general sense of instability, which was exacerbated by the confrontational posture of the Reagan administration.

The concrete possibility of such conflict in the Southern TVD made the Soviets ask if escalation was inevitable. If so, then their forces were already correctly postured and at the appropriate moment, once the United States had committed the RDF to the Gulf, the Soviets would launch an offensive in Europe as provided for by existing plans. If, however, escalation was not inevitable, such an offensive would precipitate the world war the Soviets were seeking to avoid.

There seems little doubt that the Soviets had decided by 1982 that it was not inevitable that Soviet-US conflict north of the Persian Gulf would escalate to world war. This may have reflected wishful thinking as much as careful risk analysis, but the decision had far-reaching implications. The most consequential concerned the Soviet military posture in the European theater and their policy towards conventional arms control. The decision that in the event of major conflict with the United States in the Southern TVD the Soviets would merely need to “hold in the west” reversed an element of Soviet defense policy with roots in Tsarist days. Relaxing the military-technical requirement to mount an offensive into Europe also highlighted the political costs of the Soviet offensive posture and the advantages of projecting a less threatening face toward Europe.

Implications in the South

As long as the Soviets were thinking of the contingency of world war, even a war that spilled over from local conflict in the Middle East, the countries in that area were of no immediate strategic significance. The war would be won or lost in the Western TVD.

This changed once the Soviets accepted the possibility of major conflict with the United States north of the Persian Gulf. Iraq, 200 miles to the south of the Soviet border, and Syria, between Iraq and the Mediterranean, have potentially important roles in Soviet plans for such a contingency. If, for whatever reasons, substantial US forces are drawn into the head of the Gulf, the Soviets would need the option of moving to take up a blocking position south of the Russian border. The modalities of such an operation would depend on prevailing political alignments and the extent to which the Soviets could manipulate them to their benefit. A full 300 mile advance would allow the use of airfields in northern Iraq and give lateral access to Syria and the Mediterranean; Soviet land-based air forces then could counter the Sixth Fleet while the Soviet Mediterranean squadron withdrew to shelter. But it might be necessary to halve the depth of the initial advance and consolidate south of Tabriz.

The alignment of the boundary between the Southern and Southwestern TVDs covers the contingency that, if the Soviets moved south, the US would seek to use Turkish air bases to attack from that flank. The Soviets seem to have concluded that in such circumstances it is unlikely, and certainly not inevitable, that by attacking air bases in eastern Turkey they would precipitate war with NATO — i.e., world war.

Military Intervention

By the end of the 1950s the Soviet national security zone encompassed the Warsaw Pact states, Finland, Mongolia and Afghanistan. Within this zone, the Soviets have been ready to use coercive force if necessary to retain the desired level of control, although they have also been sensitive to the political costs involved. Outside their national security zone, the Soviets have not used actual or latent military force to coerce another state, even when base rights were at stake and they had significant forces on the ground and control of air terminals in the country (Egypt and Somalia are cases in point). The Soviets have used military force to support client states, either directly or through proxies, but intervention has been protective, not punitive. Provision of air defenses has been the most typical form of supportive intervention. The Soviets have refrained from punitive action against the territory of their clients’ opponents.

Because Soviet military intervention is supportive, it does not require a far-flung base structure. The Soviets recognize that acquiring and exploiting base rights usually consumes influence and rarely conserves it. Even the presence of Soviet forces in a directly supportive role (as in Egypt in 1970-72) can lead to antagonisms and a rapid erosion of influence, once the immediate threat is past.

The Soviets have used the military as a foreign policy instrument primarily to build influence through persuasion, mostly by training people and supplying arms. But they have also supported national liberation movements, and have tried to increase their clients’ ability to defend themselves, thus raising the costs to the West of military intervention. Moscow has been careful not to supply arms that would allow a client state to achieve significant results in relation to the international status quo. And rather than urge a client to resort to force against another state, the Soviets have usually gone no further than to accede to the client’s determination to do so.

A major constraint on the role of Soviet military force in the contest for world influence has been the fear of escalation. The prevailing view in the 1960s was that a local war involving the superpowers was liable to escalate to global nuclear war. In the wake of the 1966 change of doctrine, Soviet involvement in local wars became a subject of debate.

A persuasive argument for the cautious view which prevailed in the early 1970s was that the favorable trend in the correlation of forces was accelerating. The American use of military force was on the wane, and there was no need for Soviet military intervention to help history on its way. By the beginning of the 1980s, the favorable trend was no longer apparent. Washington had shown that it was ready again to use force, overt and covert, to overthrow “progressive” regimes. In such circumstances, could the Soviets afford to persist in their policy of “win some, lose some,” confident that history was on their side? Supporting the case for a more assertive use of military force in the Third World was the Soviet realization that in the 1969-74 debate they had greatly exaggerated the probability of escalation to global nuclear war. The accumulated evidence suggested that the inherent constraints on US escalation were very strong.

One needs to distinguish here between the apparent movement in Soviet Third World policy towards something less ideological and more pragmatic, downgrading the relative importance of the Third World in Soviet plans, and the separate issue of countering US attempts to overthrow Soviet clients. It is in this context that one should view the Soviet involvement in the first phase of the confrontation between the United States and Libya in early 1986, when the flagship of the Soviet Mediterranean squadron (albeit only a submarine tender) was berthed in Tripoli and Soviet surface ships were strung out across the eastern Mediterranean, a sort of radar picket line. In the past, the Soviets have interposed their naval forces between a client and some third party (e.g., Israel, South Africa). This was the first time that they had interposed themselves in such a blatant way between a client and the United States. The exercise was not repeated in the second and more violent phase of the confrontation. Rather than doubts about the underlying principle, these second thoughts may have been about the wisdom of embarking on a new policy of naval interposition in an area of direct superpower confrontation, in support of a controversial leader like Qaddafi, in a dispute relating to terrorism.

Network of Strategic Objectives

Under the 1960s strategy, denying the United States the option of withholding sea-based nuclear systems was critical to not losing the war, and the mission had to be discharged at the very onset of war. The Soviets were therefore prepared to accept significant political and economic costs to gain peacetime access to facilities, such as those in Egypt, that were needed to support that mission.

Under the 1970s strategy, while it would be nice to have various pointes d'appui already under Soviet control at the onset of war, most of them would not become critical until a later phase. This means that the Soviets can plan to acquire them by force if necessary once war is under way, while guarding against the possibility of preemptive seizure by the West. They would not decline access to appropriate facilities in peacetime, as long as it could be acquired at minimal political and economic cost. And a national air defense system designed to protect, for example, Libya from attack in peacetime could provide shelter for Soviet warships in war.

The much vaunted “new thinking” in Moscow is the logical extension of a trend that started more than 30 years ago and began to gather significant momentum in the 1970s. Driven by the need to restructure the Soviet political economy, the new leadership has shown its readiness to push the logic of changed military requirements to its fullest conclusions. Meanwhile, the Soviet military establishment realizes that only if their country is successful in restructuring its economy will it be in a position to meet the challenge of the revolution in military affairs. If it fails that test, there can be no national security.

Soviet strategic aims in the Middle East will be developed and pursued within this broader national context. The favorable trend for nuclear arms control and conventional confrontation in Europe does not mean that the Soviets will be solicitous of US interests in the Middle East or will readily accede to US political or military pressure there. More likely the reverse.

The Soviets are sensitive to the wider dangers of war in the Middle East in a way the West is not. But they also have a complex hierarchy of objectives in the region. The fact that the Soviets have addressed the problem of containing a regional war and have established a command structure that will facilitate such containment may have increased their readiness to accept larger local risks. On the diplomatic front the Soviets are seeking to avert another round in the Arab-Israeli war. But if it comes, and if the survival of Syria is placed in question, the Soviet response may be more assertive than has hitherto been the case.



Soviet Military Doctrine

Before 1966, Soviet military doctrine held that a world war would inevitably involve US nuclear strikes against their territory. The optimum strategy was to strike at the US if war seemed unavoidable, so as to weaken or destroy the US capability of launching nuclear strikes against the Soviet homeland. This goal stressed nuclear superiority over arms control.

In this period, Washington and the European powers sought to tighten the drawstring of containment around the Soviet Union. The Central Treaty Organization (CENTO, also known as the Baghdad Pact) aimed to recreate in the Middle East the sort of anti-Soviet political and military alliance that NATO represented in Europe. Moscow tried to leap over this barrier by initiating arms supply relationships with Egypt in 1955 and later with Syria and Iraq. In other respects, Soviet involvement in the Middle East was part of a general policy of trying to increase Moscow’s influence and decrease that of the West among nonaligned states. It was not focused, and Soviet strategic interests were not engaged.

Soviet war-related requirements increased sharply in the early 1960s in response to the US deployment of long-range nuclear strike aircraft aboard the Sixth Fleet carriers, the basing of Polaris submarines in Spain, and potential Polaris deployment in the Indian Ocean. The Soviet strategy then was to preserve rather than destroy Europe’s productive capacity so that it could serve as the socioeconomic base for rebuilding the devastated Soviet homeland. The US could thwart such a concept by destroying Western Europe with nuclear weapons. That threat was latent in the US strike carriers and Polaris submarines which, unlike land-based systems, could be expected to survive the initial exchange. The requirement therefore was to remove the US option of withholding these systems from the initial exchange, by posing to Washington the choice of using them at the onset of war or losing them.

The Soviet navy had not been designed with distant-water operations in mind and was ill-prepared for this shift to forward deployment, even in the eastern Mediterranean. Evicted from its Albanian base in August 1961, it was unable to gain access to alternative shore-based support facilities until Egypt had been reduced to suppliant by the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Only then were the Soviets able to sustain a year-round naval deployment in the Mediterranean.

In the second half of the 1960s, the Soviets appear to have reached two conclusions concerning their contingency plans for world war: the number and diversity of US nuclear systems meant that a preemptive strike on the United States would yield only marginal benefits; and the new Soviet ICBMs had a fair chance of deterring the US from striking at Soviet territory during a war. The NATO doctrine of “flexible response” also implied that if the Soviets could knock out NATO’s theater nuclear forces during the initial conventional phase of a war in Europe, they could remove the first rung of escalation.

These new considerations led the Soviets to determine in December 1966 that a world war would not necessarily be nuclear and, even if it were, it would not necessarily include massive strikes on the Soviet Union. By the same token, Moscow would have to refrain from strikes on North America. This set a new hierarchy of military objectives for the 1970s. The priority became one of denying the US a bridgehead in Europe from which to mount a second phase offensive against the USSR, meanwhile deterring Washington from escalating to intercontinental strikes. Deterrence would either work at a low level of threat or not at all, and if it failed, the smaller the US inventory, the less the devastation of Russia. Rather than nuclear superiority, the requirement now was for parity at as low a level as possible. However, the new objective increased conventional force requirements in order to be able to defeat NATO without resort to nuclear weapons.

This shift in doctrine had implications for the Middle East. The naval mission of countering US sea-based strategic delivery systems dropped in relative importance, and along with it the requirement to establish supporting infrastructure in distant sea areas. But according to the 1970s doctrine, the initial European phase of a general war would be followed by a second phase which required secure sea lines between eastern and western Soviet territory, and the ability to repulse a Western military buildup not just in Europe but anywhere on the Eurasian continent. This made it attractive to pre-position large quantities of heavy weapons in North Africa, on the southern side of the Mediterranean, and gave new importance to the Horn of Africa.


Warm Water Ports

Russian involvement with Iran dates from the beginning of the 18th century. The present boundaries between Iran and the Soviet Union were established in 1828 and 1881. The 19th century witnessed strong Anglo-Russian rivalry in both Persia and Afghanistan. Moscow was primarily interested in wielding influence rather than gaining territory. In the face of German rivalry in the 20th century, Britain and Russia composed their differences; Moscow’s interest in northern Iran was recognized in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 and again in the British-Soviet agreement of 1941.

The Russian “drive for warm water ports” was aimed at the Black Sea, not the Persian Gulf, and dates back to the 9th century. Access to the Black Sea and free passage through the Turkish Straits were needed to export the products of Russia’s forests and steppes, for which there was a ready demand among the maritime powers in the West. It was not until after a Russian squadron defeated a Turkish fleet at Tchesma in July 1770 that the Russians were able to meet this requirement.

The Black Sea also represented access to Russia, and in the 19th century the Western maritime powers used this access to dictate the outcome of events in the area. The Crimean War (1854-55) turned Russia’s victory over Turkey into a defeat; Western naval power enabled the Congress of Berlin (1878) to deny Russia the fruits of a war to liberate the Balkan Slavs from Turkish rule; and the Black Sea provided access for intervention forces in 1918-19, as the West tried to turn back the Bolshevik revolution.

In war, the Black Sea becomes a grenade in Russia’s gut. It outflanks the defensive glacis to the west, it bypasses the defense of distance, and it turns the large river barriers into highways leading to the country’s interior. It gives access, either directly or at one remove, to potentially rebellious satellites and dissident populations in the Soviet Union.

The Nazi-Soviet negotiations in November 1940 confirmed Moscow’s strategic focus on the Black Sea. The Germans proposed that the Russian vector of interest should be in the direction of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. The Russians kept returning to the question of the Balkans and the Dardenelles; consequently, they came to no agreement.

The Mediterranean provides access to the Black Sea, but since the introduction of long-range sea-based nuclear strike systems it has become more than an antechamber. Moscow is roughly equidistant from the Mediterranean and the Barents Sea, and the greater part of the Soviet military-industrial base lies to the south of Moscow.

How to cite this article:

Michael McGwire "The Middle East and Soviet Military Strategy," Middle East Report 151 (March/April 1988).

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