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Foreign Policy of a Superpower

A major concern of Khrushchev's successors was to reestablish Soviet primacy in the community of communist states by undermining the influence of China. Although the new leaders originally approached China without hostility, Mao's condemnation of Soviet foreign policy as "revisionist" and his competition for influence in the Third World soon led to a worsening of relations between the two countries. The Sino-Soviet relationship reached a low point in 1969 when clashes broke out along the disputed Ussuri River boundary in the Far East. Later, the Chinese, intimidated by Soviet military strength, agreed not to patrol the border area claimed by the Soviet Union; but strained relations between the two countries continued into the early 1980s.

Under the collective leadership, the Soviet Union again used force in Eastern Europe, this time in Czechoslovakia. In 1968 reform-minded elements of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia rapidly began to liberalize their rule, loosen censorship, and strengthen Western ties. In response, Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops entered Czechoslovakia and installed a new regime. Out of these events arose the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine (see Glossary), which warned that the Soviet Union would act to maintain its hegemony in Eastern Europe (see Central Europe, ch. 8). Soviet suppression of the reform movement reduced blatant gestures of defiance on the part of Romania and served as a threatening example to the Polish Solidarity trade union movement in 1980. But it also helped disillusion communist parties in Western Europe to the extent that by 1977 most of the leading parties embraced Eurocommunism, a pragmatic approach to ideology that freed them to pursue political programs independent of Soviet dictates.

Soviet influence in the developing world expanded somewhat during the 1970s. New communist or left-leaning governments having close relations with the Soviet Union took power in several countries, including Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Nicaragua. In the Middle East, the Soviet Union vied for influence by backing the Arabs in their dispute with Israel. After the June 1967 War in the Middle East, the Soviet Union rebuilt the defeated Syrian and Egyptian armies, but it suffered a setback when Egypt expelled Soviet advisers from the country in 1972 and subsequently entered into a closer relationship with the United States. The Soviet Union retained ties with Syria and supported Palestinians' claims to an independent state. But Soviet prestige among moderate Muslim states suffered in the 1980s as a result of Soviet military activities in Afghanistan (see The Middle East, ch. 8). Attempting to shore up a communist government in that country, Brezhnev sent in Soviet armed forces in December 1979, but a large part of the Afghan population resisted both the occupiers and the Marxist Afghan regime. The resulting war in Afghanistan continued to be an unresolved problem for the Soviet Union at the time of Brezhnev's death in 1982.

Soviet relations with the West first improved, then deteriorated in the years after Khrushchev. The gradual winding down of United States involvement in the war in Vietnam after 1968 opened the way for negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union on the subject of nuclear arms. The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (commonly known as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty--NPT; see Glossary) went into effect in 1970, and the two countries began the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) the following year. At the Moscow summit meeting of May 1972, Brezhnev and President Richard M. Nixon signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty--see Glossary) and the Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. Both agreements essentially froze the two countries' existing stockpiles of strategic defensive and offensive weapons. A period of détente, or relaxation of tensions, between the two superpowers emerged, with a further agreement concluded to establish ceilings on the number of offensive weapons on both sides in 1974. The crowning achievement of the era of détente was the signing in 1975 of the Helsinki Accords, which ratified the postwar status quo in Europe and bound the signatories to respect basic principles of human rights. In the years that followed, the Soviet Union was found to be in substantial violation of the accords' human rights provisions.

But even during the period of détente, the Soviet Union increased weapons deployments, with the result that by the end of the 1970s it achieved nuclear parity with--or even superiority to--the United States. The Soviet Union also intensified its condemnation of the NATO alliance in an attempt to weaken Western unity. Although a second SALT agreement was signed by Brezhnev and President Jimmy Carter in Vienna in 1979, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the Carter administration withdrew the agreement from consideration by the United States Senate, and détente effectively came to an end. Also in reaction to the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, the United States imposed a grain embargo on the Soviet Union and boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics in 1980. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union continued up to Brezhnev's death.

The Economy under Brezhnev

Despite Khrushchev's tinkering with economic planning, the economic system remained dependent on central plans drawn up with no reference to market mechanisms. Reformers, of whom the economist Yevsey Liberman was most noteworthy, advocated greater freedom for individual enterprises from outside controls and sought to turn the enterprises' economic objectives toward making a profit. Prime Minister Kosygin championed Liberman's proposals and succeeded in incorporating them into a general economic reform program approved in September 1965. This reform included scrapping Khrushchev's regional economic councils in favor of resurrecting the central industrial ministries of the Stalin era. Opposition from party conservatives and cautious managers, however, soon stalled the Liberman reforms, forcing the state to abandon them.

After Kosygin's short-lived attempt to revamp the economic system, planners reverted to drafting comprehensive centralized plans of the type first developed under Stalin. In industry, plans stressed the heavy and defense-related branches, slighting the light consumer-goods branches (see The Postwar Growth Period, ch. 6). As a developed industrial country, the Soviet Union by the 1970s found it increasingly difficult to maintain the high rates of growth in the industrial sector that it had enjoyed in earlier years. Increasingly large investment and labor inputs were required for growth, but these inputs were becoming more difficult to obtain. Although the goals of the five-year plans of the 1970s had been scaled down from previous plans, the targets remained largely unmet. The industrial shortfalls were felt most sharply in the sphere of consumer goods, where the public steadily demanded improved quality and increased quantity. Agricultural development continued to lag in the Brezhnev years. Despite steadily higher investments in agriculture, growth under Brezhnev fell below that attained under Khrushchev. Droughts occurring intermittently throughout the 1970s forced the Soviet Union to import large quantities of grain from Western countries, including the United States. In the countryside, Brezhnev continued the trend toward converting collective farms into state farms and raised the incomes of all farmworkers. Despite the wage increases, peasants still devoted much time and effort to their private plots, which provided the Soviet Union with a disproportionate share of its agricultural goods (see Agriculture, ch. 6).

The standard of living in the Soviet Union presented a problem to the Brezhnev leadership after the growth of the late 1960s stalled at a level well below that of most Western industrial (and some East European) countries. Although certain appliances and other goods became more accessible during the 1960s and 1970s, improvements in housing and food supply were slight. Shortages of consumer goods encouraged pilferage of government property and the growth of the black market. Vodka, however, remained readily available, and alcoholism was an important factor in both the declining life expectancy and the rising infant mortality rate that the Soviet Union experienced in the later Brezhnev years (see Health Conditions, ch. 5).

Data as of July 1996

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