To what extent was the Brezhnev Doctrine a successful policy for the Soviet Union?

In the following essay, I will examine to what extent was the Brezhnev Doctrine a successful policy for the Soviet Union. It will attempt to answer this question by investigating what the Brezhnev Doctrine was, its policies, and the impact it had for the Soviet Union’s credibility. This will be done by scrutinising the events that shaped the doctrine, achievable by looking at the following points. Firstly, that the Brezhnev Doctrine was a success because it stopped future rebellions from occurring within Central and Eastern Europe and, secondly, because its ‘biggest failure’ of the Soviet-Afghan war was not due to the policy but rather through external factors facing the Soviet Union against Afghanistan.

Before examining the extent of the success of the Brezhnev Doctrine, it is important to examine precisely what the doctrine was and how it relates to the Soviet Union. The Brezhnev Doctrine was a policy adopted by the Soviet Union in 1968, asserting that the Soviet Union could use military force to preserve communist rule within fellow communist nations. This was a response to the Prague Spring earlier that year. The principles of the Doctrine argued that ‘each Communist party is free to apply the principles of Marxism-Leninism and socialism in its own country, but it cannot deviate from these principles (if, of course, it remains a Communist party)’ (Soviet History 2020). However, ‘it should be stressed that even if a socialist country seeks to take an “extra-bloc” position, it in fact retains its national independence thanks precisely to the power of the socialist commonwealth-and primarily to its chief force, the Soviet Union, and the might of its armed forces. The weakening of any link in the world socialist system has a direct effect on all the socialist countries’ (Soviet History 2020). What this resulted in was a newly adopted Soviet foreign policy that gave the Soviet Union an impetus for a more proactive and decisive role within its sphere of influence.

The introduction of the Brezhnev Doctrine was in response to Dubcek’s proposed reforms during the Prague Spring, which ‘introduced a series of far-reaching political and economic reforms, including increased freedom of speech and the rehabilitation of political dissidents’ (HISTORY 2020). For the Soviet Union, this was unacceptable, the reasons being that this would lead to a possible deviation from communism and a weakening of its power over Czechoslovakia. As a result, ‘any instance which caused the USSR to question whether or not a country was becoming a risk to international socialism, the use of military intervention was, in Soviet eyes, not only justified, but necessary’ (Ouiment 2003). The Soviet Union therefore invaded Czechoslovakia in August that year. The reasoning for this was to ensure similar incidents would not be repeated elsewhere, the Soviet Union adopted the Brezhnev Doctrine as a key model for its foreign policy. Giving a clear structure to when and where the USSR should conduct its foreign policy, it allowed the Soviet Union to take military action abroad in order to secure international socialism within socialist countries, preserving the Soviets’ alliances with its communist partners.

The Brezhnev Doctrine was a successful policy for the Soviet Union for quelling future rebellions in Eastern Europe for the remainder of Brezhnev’s premiership. Whilst the Doctrine was created due to the Prague Spring, such uprisings and revolutions had happened before throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The Hungarian Uprising is such an example, where ‘on November 4, 1956, Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to crush, once and for all, the national uprising’ (HISTORY 2019). All these events happened within the sphere of Soviet influence. When the Prague Spring happened in 1968, the Soviet Union had become accustomed to a very rebellious Eastern Europe. Therefore, when the Brezhnev Doctrine was adopted by the Soviet Union in 1968, it was meant as a means of stopping future revolutions and protests from happening. The doctrine therefore acted as a deterrent against any future anti-Soviet revolutions and prevent any deviation away from Soviet influence, as laid out by the key principles within the doctrine.

The degree of success of this foreign policy can be measured by the lack of similar events that defined the 1950s and 1960s, characterised by the occurrence of the Prague and Hungarian Revolutions. What this could mean is that, overall, the Brezhnev Doctrine acted as a military foreign policy deterrent against other socialist nations pursuing possible reforms or deviations from Soviet interests throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

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When examining this period of history within the Soviet sphere of influence, we see a significant reduction in the number of movements against the Soviet Union in the immediate aftermath of the Brezhnev Doctrine’s implementation. Leonid Brezhnev’s tenure as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ended in November 1982. From the introduction of the Brezhnev Doctrine to the death of its namesake, there was little to zero Eastern European protests and revolutions against the Soviet Union. This would suggest that the Brezhnev Doctrine was a successful policy due to the sheer lack of revolutions that occurred during Brezhnev’s own leadership, unlike the 1950s and 1960s being a period of several attempted uprisings.

However, it can be argued that the Brezhnev Doctrine was not a successful policy overall. The reasoning for this claim is because the Brezhnev Doctrine had to be replaced, whilst also leading to further disputes with the People’s Republic of China.

One of the arguments that opposes the Brezhnev Doctrine’s points of success is that it eventually got replaced as a foreign policy under the Gorbachev administration. This came in the form of the ‘Sinatra Doctrine’. The Sinatra Doctrine came alongside a period of ‘New Political Thinking’ where ‘under Gorbachev’s leadership the Soviet Union has embarked on major domestic reforms and proclaimed the need for new political thinking in international relations’ (Holloway 1988). This was in tandem with other policies like glasnost (‘openness’), which was the ‘name for the social and political reforms to bestow more rights and freedoms upon the Soviet people’ (Gitomirski 2010); and perestroika (‘restructuring’), which ‘refers to the reconstruction of the political and economic system established by the Communist Party’ (Gitomirski 2010).

As part of this restructuring, the Soviet Union reformed their foreign policy from the Brezhnev Doctrine to the ‘Sinatra Doctrine’. The reasoning for the swap was due to a mixture of different reasons within the domestic life of the Soviet Union. Firstly, growing economic problems that had begun under Brezhnev characterised by economic stagnation and the rise of anti-Soviet sentiment made it increasingly unrealistic for the Soviet Union to impose its will onto its neighbouring states. It was thus ultimately replaced ‘by what one Gorbachev adviser described as the “Sinatra Doctrine,” based on the singer’s popular song, “My Way”‘ (VOA 2011). Because of this, the Soviet Union abandoned the Brezhnev Doctrine for the more updated Sinatra Doctrine under Gorbachev. The Sinatra Doctrine was merely a euphemistic term to describe this ‘New Political Thinking’, thus allowing the Warsaw Pact nations to ‘go their own way’. This shows the failure of the Brezhnev Doctrine as a successful policy due to its replacement.

Secondly, the policy made an already strained relationship between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China even worse. The evidence for this claim is due to the Sino-Soviet border dispute. Although the Sino-Soviet spilt had happened earlier on when ‘cracks in the Sino-Soviet alliance began to show publicly in 1959’ (Szczepanski 2019), the Brezhnev Doctrine had exacerbated the two countries’ poor working relationship into further conflict. This was shown in the year after the Brezhnev Doctrine was adopted by the Soviet Union when it and China had a short-term conflict over the parts of the border between them. Even though the Soviet Union and China already had a very ‘frosty’ relationship between them, the Brezhnev Doctrine as a foreign policy for the Soviets had failed to adequately deal with these issues between it and China. Because of this, one would infer that it had major limitations as a key foreign policy.

It has been argued that the Brezhnev Doctrine was not a successful foreign policy for the Soviet Union due to its failure in the Soviet-Afghan War, for it had forced the Soviet Union to militarily intervene in Afghanistan to help protect the nation’s communist government. The source for this intervention was due to the key principles within the Brezhnev Doctrine itself. After the communist Afghan government collapsed due to a rise of Islamic extremism in the late 1970s, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up its fellow communist government. What this resulted in was the Soviet-Afghan War. The conflict in question lasted from 1979-1989 and can be claimed to be the cause of the breakup of the Soviet Union, as it had resulted in a Soviet withdrawal from the nation and showed that the Soviet-Afghan War had been a military failure. The reasoning for this is because it trapped the Soviet Union into a foreign policy nightmare akin to the Vietnam War for the United States, especially when ‘the Kremlin in 1989 called the Afghan war “a political mistake.”’ (Ferris-Rotman 2019). It created a conflict which the Soviet Union could not easily escape from, due to the Brezhnev Doctrine that forced its intervention into Afghanistan to begin with.

Overall, it can be argued that the Brezhnev Doctrine was the principle cause for the failure that was the Soviet-Afghan War. This is because the doctrine forced the Soviet Union to militarily intervene within Afghanistan due to its events aligning with the doctrine’s conditions, as “the weakening of any link in the world socialist system has a direct effect on all the socialist countries” (Soviet History 2020).

In contrast, it can be argued that the Brezhnev Doctrine did not lead to the failure of the Soviet-Afghan war. The reasoning for this claim is that Afghanistan was doomed to fail to begin with. The argument is because of many different reasons, all being contributing factors to the Soviet Union’s failure in the war.

Firstly, this was because the Mujahideen had been seeking assistance from outside forces such as the United States and Pakistan, the former sending funding and arms for Mujahideen forces in Afghanistan. This was part of Operation Cyclone, a military operation in which the United States would donate billions of dollars to help the Mujahideen and give them specific types of weaponry. Due to the geography of Afghanistan being very mountainous, there was a massive lack of basic infrastructure in the nation. This meant that the Soviet army used helicopter gunships to mostly fight in this mountainous terrain against the rural Mujahideen insurgents. With this difficulty in place, the United States paid for ‘Stinger’ missiles to be given to the Mujahideen, much to their advantage. As a result, ‘all changed in September 1986, when a newly trained mujahideen missile team fired its first Stingers at three Soviet Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships attempting to land at Jalalabad airfield’ (Schroeder 2010). These were used to counter Soviet gunships within Afghanistan. For many this was called the ‘Stinger effect’, which helped the local insurgents fight back against the Soviet Army within Afghanistan (Schroeder 2010). What this shows is that this was ‘contributing in no small part to the Soviet Union’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989’ (Schroeder 2010). Rather than the Brezhnev Doctrine being to blame for the Soviet military failure within Afghanistan, it was instead alternative issues like foreign funding by the United States that was more of a detriment to the Soviets.

Secondly, one main contributing factor to the failure of the Soviet-Afghan War was that of military geography itself. The very rough and difficult terrain was unwelcomed by the Soviets for engaging enemy combatants on, especially when ‘two-thirds of Afghanistan’s terrain consists of rugged mountains’ (Briney 2020). This was worsened by the Soviets’ inexperience in fighting on a terrain that posed its own challenges, something which the Mujahideen was accustomed to. This further shows that the failure of the Soviet-Afghan War was not due to the Brezhnev Doctrine and its policies of interventionism but rather through the inadequate military geography that was presented to the Soviet armed forces.

Overall, the Brezhnev Doctrine was not a successful policy for the Soviet Union in terms of foreign policy. This was because the tenure of the doctrine’s namesake had limited success in achieving its ends. The validity of the Brezhnev Doctrine’s success rests on its immediate short-term success, evident in the lack of European revolutions and protesting the Soviet Union experienced after the Prague Spring. However, the limitations of the Brezhnev Doctrine became more apparent later within the late 1970s and 1980s. This is because of the failed military intervention in Afghanistan that resulted in the Soviet Union’s withdrawal there. Alongside this, it was eventually replaced under the Gorbachev administration during its period of restructuring. What this resulted in was the adoption of the Sinatra Doctrine, showing that the previous policies of the Brezhnev Doctrine were not successful enough to prolong its existence.

Featured image credit: “Brezhnev and the Soviet Union behind him” by James Cridland is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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