I have been reading Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson, and one of the things that stuck me was a quote by Soviet hydrogen bomb creator Andrei Sakharov who was released from political imprisonment by Premier Gorbachev in large part to analyse the Strategic Defense Initiative. SDI was a massive military research program to develop a missile shield to render Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles obsolete. After the fall of the Soviet Union many of the project's supporters and conservative supporters of Ronald Reagan claimed that the policy was largely responsible for initiating an arms race which "broke the back" of the Soviet Union.

However, it seems that the Soviets really didn't consider SDI much of a threat, in Sakharov's words,

"An SDI system would never be militarily effective against a well-armed opponent; rather, it would be a kind of 'Maginot line in space' expensive and vulnerable to counter-measures. It would not serve as a population defense, or as a shield from which a first strike could be launched, because it could be easily defeated. Possibly SDI proponents in the United States were counting on an accelerated arms race to ruin the Soviet economy, but if so they were mistaken, for the development of counter-measures would not be expensive." (emphasis added)

Also from the same book by Johnson, "...according to Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to Washington, as early as February 1986 Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev concluded that,'...to destroy or neutralize the American SDI system, we [Soviet Union] only would have to spend 10 percent of what the Americans plan to spend.' ". Also according to statistics presented in the book the Soviet spending on weapons procurement dropped from 4 to 5 percent to 1.3 percent per year and that Russian appropriations for offensive strategic weapons declined by 40%.

I have long believed that the USSR fell due to reasons outlined by Chalmers, that being that, "The USSR collapsed for three basic reasons-internal economic contradictions driven by ideological rigidity, imperial overstretch, and the inability to reform". What I want to know is if there is a counter-argument, based on legitimate evidence, that supports the claim that SDI did indeed significantly contribute to accelerating the fall of the Soviet Union?

  • You might find this interesting: dtic.mil/cgi-bin/…
    – jfrankcarr
    Commented Apr 6, 2012 at 2:07
  • 2
    I do not think Gorbachev ever was a premier.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jun 30, 2012 at 10:03
  • 1
    Afghanistan has much more to do with the Soviet collapse than SDI. Perhaps that long conflict also bears on questions of how much longer the USSR could have continued to take the fight to Nazi Germany in World War II. Commented Jan 23, 2014 at 12:18
  • 1
    All through the 1980-ies, from the US announcing the SDI to the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Media was in a frenzy about it. You could not open "Pravda" or "Krasnaya Zvezda" without seeing an article about how the "Star Wars" is at the same time (a) useless - cannot work - and (b) dangerous - undermines peace. This shows that the Soviet establishment was very worried about the program, which meant diversion of resources to counter it.
    – sds
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 16:42
  • @sds -- and the Soviet useful idiots in the West were just as frantic about it. Commented May 10, 2019 at 13:43

4 Answers 4


From Global Security: Russian Military Spending:

In 1988 military spending was a single line item in the Soviet state budget, totaling 21 billion rubles, or about US$33 billion. Given the size of the military establishment, however, the actual figure was at least ten times higher. Western experts concluded that the 21 billion ruble figure reflected only operations and maintenance costs. The amount spent on Soviet weapons research and development was an especially well-guarded state secret, and other military spending, including training, military construction, and arms production, was concealed within the budgets of all-union ministries and state committees.

The publicized cuts in defense spending were being done for political purposes in the 1980's, in an attempt to separate Western Europe from the US. Clandestine military spending was done at the same or higher levels. Maintaining this level of defense spending, roughly 15-17% of GNP, was unsustainable given the other problems, which you noted, that the USSR was having. There's more detail here: Russian Military Budget Expenditures

Did SDI contribute to this? Since it was part of the general US military build-up to confront the Soviets, it did to some small degree. Was it the sole reason? Certainly not. Not even the entire increase in US military spending was the sole cause although it would be fair to say it was about 1/3 to 1/2 of it.

The problem with recognizing the effect Reagan era military spending had on the collapse of the USSR has more to do with current US politics than anything else. Today's conservatives revere Reagan while today's liberals revile him. Since most academics lean to the left, the role of defense spending gets downplayed. What gets forgotten is that Reagan managed to negotiate with the Democrats in Congress to get things done, a skill that hasn't been exercised by the current administration or the one before it.

  • 6
    Very true, regardless of the Reagan myth (and I lived during the times old enough to keep up on politics and news at the time) he had way less influence or did things far different than he is presented today. Right after SDI it was said that he broke the Soviet bank, but even then few believed that was true. It was interesting to see Reagan and Tip O'Neill work together to get things done, wouldn't happen these days.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Apr 6, 2012 at 16:48
  • 1
    Reagan's spending was kind of a Keynesian stimulus for the US economy emerging from the recession.
    – quant_dev
    Commented Jun 27, 2012 at 11:44
  • Interestingly, I heard an episode of Ludology where they spoke with one of the guys who modelled nuclear war in the 1980s with and without SDI. Once you managed to be able to shoot down 30% of the missiles, the number of nukes required to guarantee destruction of your targets goes up enormously, to the point where both sides would have started running out of nukes. That mattered little however, because effectively the USA as you know it has ended regardless of whether the number of survivors was 20 million or 60 million.
    – Stephen
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 6:50

Note that just about every USA scientist, including those working on it, thought the whole idea was ludicrous too. You don't have to find secret Soviet documents saying that. :-)

Still I have heard that claim about SDI killing the USSR argued, and there's a good case for it.

The argument is that the entire Cold War regieme depended on the concept of Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD); the idea that neither side would attack the other directly because both sides knew full well that if they did so, the other side would be able to destroy the aggressor.

The important thing here is psycology. If one side got it in their heads somehow that it was in fact possible for one side to destroy the other without getting destroyed in return, then MAD no longer works. The truth of the matter isn't important, just what both sides believe to be the truth.

What SDI did was allow the American side to plausibly argue that they no longer believed the MAD condition to be true. Again, if they were right or wrong isn't that important. The Soviets would have had to develop some kind of clear counter to SDI that would convince Regan and his band of (insert your favorite adjective here) that MAD had been reasserted. That would have been really expensive, and the USSR just didn't have that kind of money or technology.

Now I'm not really sure I entirely buy this argument. If it were me I'd add SDI to all the US's other military spending, and say that the Soviet Union simply got to the point where it could no longer afford to keep up a credible military counterbalance. Once folks got the idea that there was no longer a real balance of power, the USSR's credibility at home and abroad simply collapsed.

  • well the reason I reference Soviet sources is to show that influential Soviet scientists and politicians seem to have agreed that SDI was a massive policy failure on behalf of the Americans and did not require the Soviet Union to engage in an arms race with the US. I also point out that, according to my source here, that Soviet military spending DECLINED while the US military establishment was aggressively promoting SDI. It seems that the Soviets neither felt that SDI was worth countering nor was there any corresponding increase in their military budget (the opposite in fact!). Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 16:18
  • Perhaps, but you're not addressing the argument's main point. It doesn't matter what Russian military experts thought about it amongst themselves. What mattered is what the folks at the top on each side believed. It only took one side to believe the SDI snake oil, and the MAD principle is gone. So if Regan believed there was no deterent capability, then no deterrent to his behavior existed. It doesn't matter if he was wrong.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 17:43
  • no, I'm addressing that, my point is the inverse of yours however, in that it doesn't matter what the US leaders believed as they were not capable of directly controlling SOVIET military spending. Based on what appears to be clearly DECREASING Soviet military spending they did NOT see any serious challenge to the MAD doctrine. This is rather obvious as any challenge to the USSR that would have provoked a nuclear retaliation would have gone unchecked as not even Reagan officials thought SDI was ready to face a serious Soviet nuclear attack. Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 17:58

I believe, no.

The USSR disintegrated due to different reasons. The US maybe played role in it but not through the means of SDI but most likely through propaganda and influence on the top party officials.

  • 1
    corruption in Asian republics of USSR played much more significant role in USSR collapse than spending on military research. After investigation of Gdljan and Ivanov was published whole ideology of honest rule by "The Party of People" was gone. It added to previous of mood of senseless existence prevailing in society since 80's and cause complete ideological collapse
    – lowtech
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 17:01
  • @lowtech corruption in the USSR was minor and in Central Asia was not the greatest. In Caucasus corruption was greater. In Central Asia maybe there was nepotism, but still they wanted to remain in the USSR the most, and now are doing quite well economically, despite nepotism.
    – Anixx
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 18:17
  • @annix respectfully disagree on 'minor' corruption in Asian republics. Consider this: articles.philly.com/1990-04-20/news/…
    – lowtech
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 19:41

I recently came across a quote from Franz Schurmann which put it this way " the Soviet colossus was brought down not by foreign defeat, revolution in the streets, or fatal factional disputes but by a profound loss of spiritual faith. Ironically, for a system that prided itself on atheism and materialism, it turned out to be critically dependent on this faith. Communism was a kind of religion, and when people stopped believing in it, they withdrew their support and the colossus fell."

Originally I found this claim in an introduction to a book on China's Cultural Revolution "The Red Mirror" but it seems to coincide with what I recall about the Soviet Union at the time where it was said people just stopped supporting the party. Once that started, and when the top stopped pushing the old Cold War agenda it just started falling apart. Communism in replacing religion had the support of the people, but once that foundation goes you aren't left with much if you don't have a strong man at the helm.

  • This theory looks false to me. The identical "profound loss of spiritual faith" would also disintegrate China, and it didn't.
    – kubanczyk
    Commented Jun 27, 2012 at 14:38
  • @kubanczyk Maybe, but China hasn't really lost their "spiritual faith" in the party, they just keep redirecting it. Although even they have their issues. It is a theory and I am not sure about it, but I can understand the idea of the faith will go when the preacher does.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Jun 27, 2012 at 15:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.