In a burst of good feeling this summer, the Department of Defense decided to let Russian military attachés roam the Pentagon unattended, provided they wear their uniforms and building passes and stay out of restricted areas. It was part of “ongoing efforts to improve the US-Russian military relationship”–and another indication of how Russia’s image in the West has been transformed since the bungled Moscow coup, two years ago this month, set the Soviet Union to toppling. The relationship today emphasizes friendship, cooperation, and support.
The Cold War lasted longer than the average American has been alive. When it ended, so did the omnipresent danger of massive global conflict. It would be an enormous relief if we could stop worrying about the Russians altogether. Unfortunately, there are three kinds of reasons why we cannot.
Global instability. After the first Russian revolution, Lenin and Stalin destroyed the social and economic institutions of old Russia and replaced them with the totalitarian state. That left little to build on, seventy years later, when the Soviet empire expired. The former republics are still mired in primordial muck. Even Russia, the biggest and strongest, has not settled on basic principles of government. Regional leaders, for example, want to conduct their own foreign policy.
Borders and territory are in dispute, notably along the Black Sea. Russian forces have had at least one skirmish–resulting in the loss of an Su-27 fighter–with Georgia. Intermittently, Russia has seemed on the brink of fighting with Ukraine, which now says it may keep the nuclear weapons left there by the Soviet regime. Ukraine, a shaky new state worried about its independence, would thus be the world’s third-ranking nuclear power.
The Commonwealth of Independent States is virtually dead. The member nations abolished the joint military command this summer and went their separate ways. Russia sees itself as “guarantor of peace” in the land of the former Soviet Union, but if the other nations agree about anything, it is their fear of Russian domination. Ukraine and the new nations of eastern Europe would welcome ties with the United States, but Russia would almost certainly perceive such arrangements as a threat.
The entire Eurasian landmass is ripe for trouble, which may or may not remain local. It is difficult to guess when or how the balance of power might stabilize. Sooner or later, the affairs of this vast area will intersect with the security and interests of the United States.
Military power. Except for its nuclear weapons, Russia is in no condition at the moment to threaten Europe or the United States. It has not, however, disarmed to the extent that many Westerners believe. Estimates of current military strength differ. US intelligence says that Russian forces number less than two million. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, however, says the total will drop to 2.1 million by 1995. General Grachev looks ahead to a “building-up of the armed forces” a few years from now, with emphasis on mobility, long-range high-accuracy weapons, electronics, strategic nuclear forces, and military space systems.
In 1992, Russia produced twenty bombers, 150 fighters and attack aircraft, 675 tanks, and at least forty-five strategic ballistic missiles. A fighter prototype with stealth features, the MiG 1-42, is ready for flight-testing. Sukhoi is reported to be working on a new medium-range bomber to replace the Tupolev “Badger” and “Blinder.” Additional airlift is a priority for the Russian Air Force.
We may think the Russians have shuffled off into the sunset, but a different picture emerges when the Russians themselves talk about their plans and aspirations. Their latest military doctrine restores the emphasis on large-scale offensive operations, banned in 1987 on orders from President Mikhail Gorbachev. Russian line forces may be in ragged shape, but they haven’t quit.
Arms proliferation. In June, the US objected to the sale of Russian rocket engines to India, which ostensibly wanted them to launch weather and communications satellites. The concern was that the systems might be used for military payloads. The Defense Intelligence Agency told Congress that both “Russia and Ukraine increasingly are authorizing export of sensitive dual-use space-launch, chemical, and biological technologies as they attempt to save their weapons facilities and prevent unemployment.”
Desperate for cash, the Russians are marketing arms aggressively. China has bought Su-27 fighters and SA-10 air defense missiles. Iran has taken delivery on the first of three Russian submarines. MiG-29s and MiG-27s are selling well. Potential buyers for the Tu-22 “Backfire” bomber include Iran and North Korea. Military experts are available, too. Russia maintains 700 military advisors in Libya and 2,400 in Syria. About 200 Russian experts are said to be in Iraq in a “private capacity.”
As we celebrate the end of the Cold War, let us remember that the second Russian revolution is not over yet. The new Russian state is unstable and volatile. The armed forces have not rolled up their flags and stacked arms. Russian weapons are flooding the world market. Cordial relations with Russia are much to be desired, but this would be a poor time to relax too much.