One of the least understood aspects of the Cold War was its contribution to modern warfare. Nearly every firearm, explosive ordinance, missile battery, and weapon system deployed today was born in the arms race for global supremacy. The east and west war machines specialized in different killing philosophies. One emphasized strength and power the other precision and speed.
The greatest advances in light infantry warfare also occurred during the era. The AK-47 and RPG-7 changed combat forever giving individuals enormous attack power. These weapons are used extensively even today but imagine how revolutionary they were back in the mid 20th century. The USSR would export them to every ally and anti-western insurgent group across the globe. The killing stroke of western world domination was… the Soviet military industrial complex. No better example was the orient and its post WW2 battles/wars. The USSR played a decisive role in their communist allies defeating western backed regimes.
The Republic of China had been locked in a stalemate civil war with Mao and his communist forces for years. During the Japanese occupation of China the two sides agreed to a truce and united against the Japs. Mao’s forces were a guerrilla movement concentrated in the countryside that couldn’t do much in urban warfare waging conventional battles. All the better for Mao that his two enemies tear each other apart while the commies sit on the sidelines. The war weakened the Republic of China immensely and once the Axis powers were defeated the Chinese civil war resumed. The USA supported nationalist forces in the Republic of China while the USSR supported Mao’s communists. The latter would prevail in 1950 no doubt assisted by the AK-47 which entered service only a few years earlier. Mao would declare the People’s Republic of China while the Republic of China fled to their last stronghold the island of Taiwan. For years two Chinas existed but eventually Mao’s would be seen as the true one while the Republic of China is merely called Taiwan today. The two are still waging their own cold war and Taiwan remains a US protectorate even today.
The Soviet Union essentially founded North Korea when it declared war on Japan invading Japanese occupied territory near the end of WW2. Kim Il-sung was a Korean communist radical and guerrilla commander against the Japanese. He fought well but the Imperial Japanese Army crushed his forces making him to flee to the USSR. He would go on to become a major in the Red Army. Described as “having been made from zero” Kim would be installed as leader of North Korea by the Soviets. They would assist him in building up his military the aid they provided was used to invade South Korea. All went well until the US/UN intervened pushing the commies back almost wiping them out until waves of Chinese reinforcements and Soviet armaments arrived. Now they were pushing the US back until a ceasefire was finally reached. The Korean war has technically not ended. The Korean DMZ remains the last front of the Cold War. The border dividing the two Koreas is the most heavily militarized and mined on Earth. Very few countries have diplomatic relations with North Korea. Fewer have embassies in Pyongyang but Russia and China still do for historical reasons.
Next up was southeast Asia specifically Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh worked menial jobs early in life but would develop a strong interest in politics. Ho was a nationalist at heart who tried repeatedly to secure independence for Vietnam through a western paradigm. After being rebuffed and ignored repeatedly he became radicalized into Marxism. A guerrilla movement led by him would emerge to challenge French colonial rule. During WW2 he fought against the Japanese occupation as well. After Japan withdrew hostilities against the French resumed. They say the best generals don’t focus on strategy but logistics; weapons, ammunition, and supply. The boring but otherwise critical stuff that makes armies operate. Over the years Ho had developed strong ties to both the USSR and People’s Republic of China. The Soviet’s supplied the weapons and gear, China delivered it, and Ho’s communists made use of them. These ties gave him all the resources he needed to fight. With Soviet firepower the French would be defeated decisively and leave. Vietnam would be divided between north and south in the final international agreement setting the stage for the next war.
North Vietnam’s communists were committed to conquering South Vietnam however. After enough setbacks and defeats the south called upon the USA for help. North Vietnam called upon the Soviets. The USSR and China supplied Ho with everything he ever needed from newly minted Kalashnikovs, the state of the art RPG-7, Soviet military advisers, special forces brigades, access to their worldwide spy networks, air defenses including Soviet piloted MIG fighters, hard cash currency, and massive ammunition resupplies. With a superpower behind them North Vietnam would wipe the floor with the south. With a roughly equal if not superior technological match they would also inflict major losses and casualties on the USA. Rather than accept defeat the US elites kept digging deeper. Public pressure ended US involvement and soon afterward South Vietnam fell. The fall of Saigon would be immortalized with massive US helicopter evacuations escaping the bloodbath that soon befell the capital; renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
Alfred Noble invented dynamite in the 19th century. One of the greatest inventions in human history dynamite enabled man to conquer nature itself. It also helped him conquer his fellow man as well. Noble understood that and used the vast fortune he amassed to establish the Noble Peace Prize. It wasn’t until the Cold War that explosives were to undergo major innovation again. These explosives were not used to build however but to destroy. C3 and Semtex were militarized high explosives. They would be most effectively deployed by special forces against key infrastructure targets. In California not too long ago a natural gas leak and explosion obliterated an entire neighborhood. Imagine what would happen if a major natural gas pipeline hub, military supply depot, or industrial fuel tankers were attacked with militarized explosives. The resulting detonation would kill hundreds if not thousands, cripple many more, destroy infrastructure in a massive radius, and create panic everywhere. There is a reason this stuff is highly guarded at military armories. In Syria however rebels have looted it from captured army bases using it to devastating effect. The Assad regime is Russia’s closest Arab ally going back to the Cold War. Even after the USSR whenever allies abandoned Russia Syria remained. Russia has a major military base inside Syria their only one in the middle east and Mediterranean. Syria’s chemical weapons are also of Russian design and origin. They’ve been used repeatedly against rebels until the international outcry against them. Regardless of what you think about the issue a world where chemical weapons are routinely used is a frightening one. However conventional weapons like C3 and Semtex are just as dangerous. In one rebel attack jihadists used a disguised armored vehicle packed with militarized explosives against an ammunition depot of a major air base. The blast destroyed the base killing many of the soldiers inside enabling rebels to storm the base soon afterward massacring survivors including the commanders. Russia has managed to keep its ally intact despite rebel victories in what is a major proxy war of the new Cold War.
On the subject of rebellion why weren’t there any against the Soviet Union? The answer is complicated and multidimensional. After the overthrow of the Tsar Russia descended into a massive civil war with several colored armies battling for power. The two most prominent were the Red Army and the anti-bolshevik White Army. After years of bloodshed and millions of casualties on both sides the Red Army prevailed. Uprisings did continue sporadically especially during the Stalin era but they were all crushed. Technology was limited then and too much power was concentrated in states. It wasn’t until the Cold War where all that would finally change. Interestingly the flag of the modern day Russian Federation is that of the White Army. Perhaps a nod to what could have been.
The jackboot of oppression is also used by totalitarian states mostly against the people. The elites have freedom sometimes enough to battle other factions of elites. Once Stalin died a power struggle ensued as several successors battled for his throne. Nikita Khrushchev would emerge victorious. With the support of other ethnic Russians such as Georgy Zhukov they seized power and arrested all of Stalin’s top enforcers. One of the worst was a Georgian; Lavrentiy Beria the notorious head of the NKVD and a vile sexual predator. He also administered the notorious gulag system. Beria and Stalin’s other henchmen were all soon executed.
Khrushchev would free the millions imprisoned by the gulags, end the use of slave labor, dismantle the massive internal security apparatus, preserve the Soviet murder records to ensure the world would someday know the truth about what really occurred behind the iron curtain, lift the mass deportations orders allowing entire ethnic groups such as the Chechens to return home, denounce Stalin as a criminal thug, and finally end the bolshevik reign of terror. Khrushchev deserves far more recognition than he receives for his benevolence. His reign also saw Cuba armed with tactical nuclear warheads ready to launch against the USA. He successfully ended the standoff with the US agreeing never to invade Cuba (a promise that was kept) and to remove its nukes from NATO bases in Turkey. He also laid the groundwork for the Soviet victory in Vietnam which was as much a Russian triumph as a Vietnamese one. Despite all that his reformist worldview was unpopular with communist hardliner factions led by Leonid Brezhnev. He would later be deposed in a coup albeit a bloodless one. Khrushchev was retired comfortably assured that his legacy would redeem him. Without Khrushchev there would never have been a Gorbachev. Gorbachev considered Khrushchev a personal hero.
Speaking of Chechens they too would rise up against the Soviet/Russian system but they would succeed militarily. It was during Perestroika when other Soviet regions were gaining independence that Chechens saw an opportunity for themselves. However Chechnya was a part of Russia before the Soviet Union therefore lacked legitimacy to secede. If Chechens didn’t take their chance now though another opportunity would not come again. The Chechen Republic of Ichkeria was a nation state that existed from 1991-1999. Its founder was a Soviet Air Force general and Chechen nationalist named Dudayev. The Chechen cause received much support throughout the world including from eastern Europe. Many from newly independent countries would volunteer to assist the Chechens. They got their freedom and now they would help Chechnya win its own. Less savory volunteers also arrived from the middle east to assist in jihad. The nationalist and Islamist divide would later prove untenable but for now there was unity. The First Chechen War occurred in three phases. First was deposing the communist regime by defeating the police and KGB. That was when their sovereignty was initially established. After the cops and commies were killed and removed at gun point the second phase began. The newly formed Russian Federation would seek to train and arm pro-federal Chechens to defeat general Dudayev’s separatist government. They too failed with Dudayev’s top enforcer Shamil Basayev personally defeating their forces and executing their commander. The third phase was when the Russian military invaded Chechnya in 1994 to restore federal authority. The Russians expected their opposition to collapse much like it had during the Soviet era when they put down uprisings. What happened next was one for the history books. Russian forces entering the capital Grozny were met with massive military resistance. The scale of which they had never seen before. Thousands of soldiers were slaughtered in hours with entire armored vehicle convoys obliterated by coordinated RPG-7 strikes. It wasn’t just the enlisted men being killed scores of officers also died including colonels. Many more bodies were unidentifiable and burned beyond recognition. Chechen rebels celebrated their victory but many such as Dudayev and Basayev (ex-Soviet/Russian serviceman themselves) were much more sober. Chechens with military backgrounds shook their head in disbelief and horror. The defeat sent shock throughout Russia and more forces were mobilized for the full scale invasion of Chechnya. The rest of the war wouldn’t go much better as defeats kept piling up.
What was the secret to their success? The answer is that the separatist war had all the components of a civil war. While Chechens had a unique culture and religion separate to Russian Orthodox Slavs they spoke Russian, attended Russian schools, many had served in the Soviet/Russian military, some were even highly decorated in the WW2 Red Army. Firepower once explained that civil wars are far more devastating than other types of wars because the combatants are equals. This was no different. To understand the scale the Soviet-Afghan war cited as a defeat lasted ten years and the Afghan communist government didn’t even collapse until several years afterward. In Chechnya the Russian military took far more casualties and losses being totally defeated in the span of three years. It was a shockingly bloody ordeal for them. It’s hard to believe an ex-superpower could be destroyed so easily. Added to that was unlike the Soviet-Afghan war the Russian civilian population was also mercilessly killed in Chechnya and the surrounding regions. Chechnya’s Russian population stood at 48% before the war and today it is only 3%. Tens of thousands of Russians living in Chechnya were killed by Russian bombardment and rebel reprisals. Hundreds of thousands were also forced to flee again either from the war itself or from rebel ethnic cleansing. Both the federal and rebel sides deny involvement in war crimes each blaming the other for propaganda purposes. The Moscow elites also were not spared as terrorism occurred frequently in the capital itself as well.
Dudayev was assassinated by an air strike after his satellite phone location was intercepted by Russian signals intelligence. By then however the war had taken on a momentum of its own. Other commanders including Basayev would continue it. The 1996 rebel recapture of Grozny was one of the greatest operations of the modern era. While the war raged across Chechnya for years rebels had slowly infiltrated Grozny. The rebels would launch their biggest attack ever forcing the Russian military outside of the city meanwhile insurgents inside Grozny unleashed a wave of attacks. The surrounding Russian bases and fortresses were also assaulted pinning down Russian reinforcements. Without backup and taking massive losses with entire platoons being wiped out and rebels closing in on the federal HQ the Russian high command inside Grozny panicked and all the Russian fronts collapsed. The city and its surrounding regions were all conquered. The Chechen flag hoisted atop Grozny once again. With tens of thousands of troops, policemen, spies, bureaucrats, and commanders still trapped and isolated in the ongoing fighting the Russian government in Moscow finally accepted defeat. The First Chechen War was an overwhelming rebel success. The Chechen Republic of Ichkeria was now a sovereign country.
The entire north and south Caucuses are rife with wars and separatist movements, many of which were successful such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, and others. The Chechens however did something that even a couple years earlier was impossible; defeating the strongest military in Europe on its own turf. Regardless of what happened later in Chechnya the courage and sacrifice of the rebels, their leaders, and the people of Chechnya itself was extraordinary. Their successes in the First Chechen War signaled a paradigm shift. No longer would states monopolize warfare. Gone were the days when tyrants were invincible. Without the Cold War none of that would be possible. When people say war is bad remember that’s mostly true when it ONLY serves the interests of the elites. Wars for defense, revolution, freedom, prosperity, and even conquest are necessary.
America won the Cold War because in the end superior character outmatched superior strength. No matter what it always comes down to a one on one showdown. No sneak attacks and no armies. Your best vs their best in a battle to the end. Where does the belief in fairness come from? Not from justice or sharing resources but from a fight. Humans instinctively value knowing who is the best, the alpha, the top dawg, etc. America unlike Murka was pure at heart and won that contest defeating the USSR decisively.