Aug. 21 was a grand day for the A Soviet Union and the world. The revolt of the reactionaries foundered on the streets of Moscow. When it failed, the whole rotten structure it sought to restore came tumbling down.
On Sept. 5, the monolithic Communist state voted itself out of existence as soon as power can be transferred to the republics. The Soviet people are ridding themselves of a regime that was both tyrannical and inefficient.
The news is so good that there is a danger of overreacting to it. The new Union of Sovereign States is in political and economic chaos. Russian President Boris Yeltsin and former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze warn that the hard-liners may strike again if the economic crisis continues.
The excitement of throwing out the bad guys is over. Now the Soviets must turn to the grubby, difficult business of everyday affairs. The fuze on the reform movement was lit by economic problems. They are still there, and they have probably gotten worse while attention was diverted by the coup and the countercoup.
The Union-to-be is described as a federation, but it is emerging more along the lines of a confederation, a notoriously weak form of government. In the absence of strong central authority, it would take extraordinary cooperation among the republics to make a dent in the Union’s worst problems, most of which transcend local or regional solutions.
Among other early tasks for the Union will be the mediation of border disputes and heading off policies that individual republics are inclined to pursue in a show of autonomy but that would further disrupt the inter dependent economy.
The smaller republics are wary of domination by the Russian Republic, which has half the population, three quarters of the territory, and seventy percent of the GNP. Mr. Yeltsin is trying to damp down these fears, but there is no way the Russian Republic can avoid being first among equals and probably a great deal more than that. It will be a very large nation, with substantially more people than Germany and Britain put together.
The old Soviet institutions are disappearing, but their replacements are not yet apparent. The Communist Party, for example, has been banished, or at least driven underground. Some political party, perhaps several of them, will rise eventually. We can only speculate about the doctrines they will espouse.
There are more questions than answers about the disposition of the Soviet armed forces. Nuclear weapons will be held as a collective asset and based, apparently, in the Russian Republic. Some central control of the air force and navy seems likely also. It is not yet clear how many of the 4 million Soviet troops will be disbanded or how the remaining units and equipment will be divided up by the federal force and the republics.
The armed forces will be a considerable factor in how events play out in the Union of Sovereign States. Bungled as it was, the August coup might have turned out differently with backing by the military.
The Soviets have asked the international community for aid. The West will probably provide food and perhaps much more. Congressional Democrats were quick to propose that the US contribution come out of the defense budget.
President Bush said that such measures were premature, but in a one liner he threw out Aug. 30 he cited the possibility of a “vastly restructured” US defense posture, depending on how things go in the Soviet Union. That is a questionable call.
US defense strategy, as revised in 1990, is geared primarily to regional crises and emerging threats. It assumes that the Soviets would make major force reductions and would need years to regenerate capability for a global threat.
In Europe, for example, US deployments are projected to diminish to three air wings, two army divisions, and a maritime presence in the Mediterranean. There and elsewhere, the options for vast restructuring will be limited.
As for the Soviets, they are fully occupied at home for the moment and are thus comparatively passive in international affairs. In time, they will probably show a more assertive face to the world. That does not necessarily mean a return to the aggressive foreign policy of the old regime, but we should be careful about assumptions.
Americans might remember their reactions when they awoke the morning of Aug. 19 to the stunning news that the hard-liners had ousted Mr. Gorbachev. It was a reminder that our national security outlook can change overnight as the result of events half way around the world.
What the Soviets have going is nothing less than a revolution, but it is still in progress. They do not know exactly themselves what comes next, much less where all this will lead.