*** Cold War IBRM confrontation

Cold War Soviet IRBM Deployment: Decisive Confrontation

East German anti-war demontration
Figure 1.--This is a parade in Bautzen, East Germany during the heighth of the IRBM confrontation in Europe (982). Bautzen is located in the southeast corner of Saxony. Here is the Young Pioneer (Thälmann Youth) section of the parade. Notice the anti-missle poster in the background--a Comminist staple at the time. They protest American, but not Soviet deployment of IRBMs.

The Intermediate-range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) confrontation initiated by the Soviet Union has to be one of the great strategic miscalculations of history. The IBRM confrontation began with the Soviets establishing nuclear superority in Europe, but which backfired with first German unification and ultimately the implosion of the Soviet Union itself. It proved to be decisive moment of the Cold War. Soviet nuclear strategy was to build more and larger nuclear weapons. American President Richard Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev signed the ABM Treaty and interim SALT agreement (May 1972). This had placed limits on the two countries nuclear arsenals for the first time. SALT did not totally resolve the nuclear issue because it only covered ICBMs. The two countries also had older IRBM systems deployed in Europe before ICBMs were developed (1950s-60s). These aging IRBM systems were becoming obsolete and both sides had greatly improved technology. One alternative was to just let the IRBM systems go obsolete and rely on the ICBM systems allowed under SALT for deterence. It would have been the Détante approach. The Soviets decided, however, to abandon Détante and establish nuclear superiority in Europe. The Soviets began deploying the RSD-10 Pioneer (ракета средней дальности -- РСД/ Пионер» tr.: Raketa Sredney Dalnosti --RSD) (1976). The RSD-10 Pioneer was an advanced IRBM with a nuclear warhead. The NATO designation was the SS-20 Saber. The internal policy debates in the Kremlin are unknown. Western analysts have postulated various reasons for the Soviet decision. Certainly the strength of the American anti-War movement and the withdrawl from Vietnam and the anti-War/Bomb movement in Europe helped tempt the Soviet hard-line leaders to achieve nuclear dominance in Europe. How to respond became a point of contention in America between Democrats who tended to prefer a soft line toward the Soviets and Reublicans who tended to prefer a hard line. Advisers around future President Ronald Reagan such as Richard Perle saw the Soviet SS-20 as a part of a Soviet bid for global power. [Cant, p. 243.] There were other possibilities, but there is no doubt that the SS-20 gave the Soviets nuclear superiority in Europe. The Soviets apparently believed that the Americans an their Western Allies would not respond. There was widespread anti-nuclear sentiment in America's NATO allies. There was of course no protest against the SS-20s in the Soviet controlled Warsaw Pact nor in Western Europe. The possible American response to the Soviet SS-20 was deployment of the Pershing II and Ground Launched Cruise Missles (GLCMs). The Dmocratic Carter Administration (1977-81) did not immediately reciprocate with American deployment of upgrded IRBMs. The United States rather sought a diplomatic solution, offering to refraine ftom deploying either Pershing IIs or GLCMs if the Soviets ceased their SS-20 deployment and withdrew those alreasy deployed. The Soviets not only rejected the American offer, but continued to deploy more SS-20s. As a result, Presient Reagan within months of his inaguration began deploying the short-range MGM-52 Lance nuclear missile (July 1981). They were met with protests at Engstingen, West Germany. Much larger protests follow in Bonn (October 1981). This was in part because of support for Willy Brandt's Ost-Politik and wide-spread Ban the Bomb sentiment throughout Europe. The Soviets ordered Communisrs Paries in Europe and allied groups to support the protests. The protests only escalated increased when the United States began deploying Pershing II (November 1983). Presidenr Reagan was criticised by the Democrats, but the individual bearing the brunk of the protest effort was West German CDU Cancellor Helmut Kohl who took office in the midst of the controversy (1982). Kohl was strong proponent of European integration and French–German cooperation and a steadfast ally of the United States and supported Reagan's polices of confronting the Soviet Union. The protests were especially strong in Grmany because of deployment there. The result was that Kohl's Government weatered the protests and the American missles deployed. But their were far greater consequences. The hard-line Soviet leaders had spent vast sums trying to reach nuclear superority over the United States, stressing the weak Soviet economy. And the result was total failure. The United States matched their efforts, first with ICBMs and now IRBMs. As a result of the SS-20 deplyment the Soviets now faced a much more robust American nuclear firce in Europe. The failure of the hard-liners caused a major shakeup in the Kremlin. A more modernistic leader, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, replaced a series of geriatric Soviet leaders. He proved to be the eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union (1985). Gorbechev was determined to avoid another costly arms race with America and was not inclined to use coersive force like other Soviet leaders. He was willing to dealto prevent another costly arms race, in this case Reagan's Strategic Defense Iniative (SDI). In a stunning series of events that fllowed, and which no one anticipated, Germany was unified (1989) and the Soviet Union collapsed (1991).


Cant, James. "The SS-20 Missile – Why Were You Pointing at Me?" in Ljubica Erickson and Mark Erickson. Russia: War, Peace and Diplomacy (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), pp. 240–253.

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Created: 12:10 AM 9/24/2017
Last updated: 12:10 AM 9/24/2017