Winston Churchill's characterization of the Soviet Union as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma may overstate Western understanding of the USSR's national security decision-making. The evidence in this domain is sparse, and what we do have is incomplete. Indeed, the Soviets have taken extraordinary steps to maintain the black box that shields how and why their decisions are made. With these caveats in mind, knowledge of Soviet decision-making can be summed up in a few general statements. First, the Soviet leadership is an integrated political-military body, where political authority is dominant, but where the professional military retains an important influence. Second, the role of institutions and individuals varies within and between leaderships, according to the issue under consideration (e.g., doctrine, procurement, etc.), and between times of peace and war. The potential for evolution in the roles of institutions is particularly apparent in the current period of "perestroika." Gorbachev has initiated changes that appear to be aimed at transforming the security decision-making apparatus. Finally, the historical record of decision-making in superpower crises indicates that the Soviet Union has been very cautious in confrontations with the United States, a tendency that need not prove true in future clashes.

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Copyright © 1990 Rowman & Littlefield. This chapter first appeared in A Primer for the Nuclear Age.

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