The Soviet Empire Seeks a Course

Nov. 1, 1989

With Moscow’s interests being battered by one setback after another, the state of the Soviet su­perpower is coming under close scrutiny. At issue are questions about the purpose—even the util­ity—of Soviet military power.

The last true empire in the world, the Union of Soviet Socialist Re­publics has amassed a fearsome mil­itary arsenal and fielded millions of men at arms in the decades since the Cold War began at the end of World War II. Depending on who is doing the talking, the Soviet Union is con­ceded to have either the first or the second mightiest military force on earth.

As the partner of the ruling Com­munist Party, the Soviet military has been aided by internal militia and KGB secret-police shock troops in maintaining order and se­curing cohesion in a land that is real­ly many nations within a common border, spanning eleven time zones and encompassing more than 100 ethnic groups.

Since 1917, Soviet forces have taken small nibbles and big gulps from Central Asia, the Caucasus, Finland, eastern Europe, and the Baltic area. Communism, the Kremlin declared, would never re­cede, but would only advance. This was the public strategy, based in part on an unspoken desire for buff­ers against powerful rivals.

The aggregate size of the Soviet military machine and the extent of its territory tell only part of the sto­ry about the Communist super­power as it embarks on the 1990s. It may not even be the most important part.

Economic and Political Rot

The other reality of today’s USSR is political rot. The German strat­egist Clausewitz noted long ago that physical aspects of military pow­er—troops and weapons—”seem little more than the wooden hilt” of the sword of war, “while the moral factors are . . . the real weapon, the finely honed blade.” At no time in memory has the hilt of Soviet mili­tary arms been so tenuously at­tached to the sword of public will.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, he inher­ited a nation that could not feed it­self, had suffered years of zero eco­nomic growth, and faced the prospect of being relegated to Third World status by 2000 in every realm save military power. He has preached radical restructuring of society, with particular emphasis on the economy and intellectual life.

Things aren’t going very well. De­mocracy, as Gorbachev now knows, is messy. The move toward open­ness and diffusion of power has prompted minorities in Kazakh­stan, Armenia, and Georgia to take to the streets. Baltic states seek na­tional autonomy, even indepen­dence. Even full-blooded Russians are rebelling; witness the coal miner strikes this past summer.

Discontent within Warsaw Pact nations resulted in the appearance in Poland of the first non-Commu­nist prime minister in forty-five years. Similar ferment is visible in Hungary. Stalinist hard-liners in East Germany, Romania, and Bul­garia, meanwhile, hope for a quick retreat from perestroika, Gorba­chev’s catchall name for his social and economic restructuring.

In short, the empire shows signs of crumbling. The Kremlin cer­tainly retains the capacity to retract perestroika and return to business as usual. However, as matters stand, Western military experts see both dangers and opportunities in the growing turbulence that now has become the hallmark of Soviet pol­itics.

The central criterion used by the USSR when judging the correlation of forces was provided by dictator Joseph Stalin. Hearing that the Vat­ican might play a useful rote in de­feating the Nazis, Stalin is said to have sneered: “The Pope? How many divisions does the Pope have?” Today, in Washington and Moscow and other capitals around the globe, a new twist on Stalin’s formulation is being posed as the real test of whether the Cold War can come to an end: How many divi­sions will Gorbachev have

Reasonable Sufficiency

Gorbachev has broken the back of Soviet Communist Party ortho­doxy, shocking the world and his own generals by calling for uni­lateral military cutbacks and by re­defining Soviet military policy. He has attempted to rewrite Soviet mil­itary doctrine with a ground-break­ing theory of “reasonable sufficien­cy,” accompanied by pledges to reduce Soviet forces and lessen the importance of military power as a tool of foreign policy.

Gorbachev first raised the banner of reasonable sufficiency during the 27th Communist Party Congress in Moscow in 1986. He declared, “We can never be secure while the United States feels insecure.” Three years later, he elaborated on his planned changes in Soviet strategic posture during a landmark ad­dress to the United Nations. “It is clear today that the increase of mili­tary force does not make any single power all-powerful. A one-sided emphasis on military force, in the final analysis, weakens other ele­ments of national security.”

In principle, he seemed to say, the concept of reasonable sufficiency would set concrete levels of man­power and weapons such that nei­ther superpower could mount a sur­prise attack or launch offensive operations, but which would allow both to possess adequate troops and armament to rebuff an attacker.

The underlying logic of reason­able sufficiency can be traced di­rectly to the stagnant Soviet econo­my and Gorbachev’s desire to bring his country to superpower status in some way other than measurements of military power.

Depending on whose figures are used, militarization continues to de­vour anywhere from fourteen to twenty-five percent of the USSR’s annual gross national product, com­pared to only about six percent in the US. The Brezhnev era, now de­nounced as “the period of stagna­tion,” left as its legacy a tottering technological base that even con­servative Politburo members are forced to admit is unable to compete with the West in sophisticated weaponry and computers or civilian industrial and consumer goods.

The Central Intelligence Agency, in conjunction with the Defense In­telligence Agency, prepared a re­cent study in which top Sovietol­ogists report that Gorbachev’s plan produced poor results in its first four years, the span of a US presi­dent’s first term in office. The intel­ligence report noted that, although Gorbachev “remains committed to his original vision of a revitalized Soviet economy, he has apparently concluded that he cannot realize this vision as rapidly as he once thought possible, nor proceed di­rectly along the path he initially planned to follow.”

In an ominous note, the agencies said Gorbachev has plotted a “midcourse correction” because of “growing popular discontent” over empty market shelves and a stan­dard of living that refuses to im­prove despite the dust being kicked up by perestroika.

Born of economic crisis, the con­cept of reasonable sufficiency is, in theory, a watershed in Soviet mili­tary thought. For decades, the Sovi­ets have felt compelled to maintain a force vast enough to mount an of­fensive or counteroffensive capable of sweeping Europe, to build an awesome nuclear force, to back sur­rogates such as Libya and Syria, and even to intervene directly, as they did in Hungary, Czechoslo­vakia, and Afghanistan. If Gor­bachev is to be believed, those poli­cies no longer apply.

US Hopeful but Wary

Washington remains wary. The Bush Administration has countered Gorbachev at Vienna with the Con­ventional Armed Forces in Europe (CAFE) plan to cut NATO and Warsaw troops to equal and much-reduced levels. At the same time, President Bush and the Pentagon leadership adopted a cautious ap­proach, applauding Gorbachev’s re­forms while stating that more proof of long-lasting military restructur­ing is required.

Nowhere is the high-level uncer­tainty in Washington more evident than in the tentative assessments of Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney. Initially, he predicted that Gorbachev “would ultimately fail” and would be “replaced by somebody who will be far more hostile” to the West. Later, he softened his tone, saying there is no question that “we may—I would emphasize may—be on the verge of fundamen­tal shifts . . . in US-Soviet rela­tions. I think it would be fair to say that the likelihood of war between the US and Soviet Union is proba­bly less today than at any time in the postwar period.” When once again confronted with Gorbachev’s peace and public-relations offensives, Cheney again altered his tone. The new view was expressed in a major speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“I wish I could stand before you and say that the Soviet strategic threat has been reduced over the past five years,” Cheney said, not­ing that Soviet arms spending has continued to grow under Gor­bachev. “But it has not. If anything, the United States is facing a more formidable offensive strategic arse­nal today than before Mr. Gor­bachev took power.”

The negative US responses ran­kle military commentators in the USSR, who stress that Gorbachev remains firmly in control and who point to what they describe as his­toric, unilateral steps taken by Moscow to alter its strategic footing and prove that reasonable sufficien­cy is more than hot air.

Andrei Kokoshin, the number two analyst at Moscow’s prestigious Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada, has a ready list ofr­bachev’s accomplishments in curb­ing the Soviet military. He cites withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, support for an agree­ment to remove Cuban troops from Angola, abolition of the rank of marshal in peacetime, and the thin-out of forces along the Sino-Soviet border to reduce tensions with China.

However, it is the Central Front in Europe, where NATO and Warsaw Pact forces come face to face, that is the prime focus of US military strat­egy. Gorbachev’s announcements of prospective unilateral cuts in Eu­rope have crystallized the debate over Soviet military power.

In his United Nations address, Gorbachev promised to cut 500,000 troops from the Soviet military, al­most ten percent of his men in uni­form. Six tank divisions are to be withdrawn from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, Gor­bachev pledged. In all, 10,000 tanks, 8,500 artillery pieces, and 800 combat aircraft will be removed from eastern Europe and Soviet ter­ritory west of the Ural Mountains, the dividing line between the Euro­pean and Asian regions of the Soviet Union.

The unspoken agenda of Gor­bachev’s speech came through loud and clear: Once these cutbacks have been completed, the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies will no longer be able to conduct a blitzkrieg across Western Europe.

Unequal Cuts

A blemish was discovered on these attractive developments last August when a congressional panel touring East Germany was told by a Soviet general that not all elements of the six tank divisions would be withdrawn under the unilateral pullback. Important hardware, in­cluding air defense weapons, artil­lery, and armored personnel car­riers, would remain in eastern Eu­rope under new assignments to existing units said to be undergoing restructuring to a more defensive posture.

Startling Western Kremlin-watchers who count rubles in the Soviet de­fense budget, Gorbachev told a vis­iting delegation last January that military spending will be cut by 14.2 percent over the next two years and that a number of defense factories will be converted to production of consumerods.

Gorbachev’s promise to cut mili­tary spending also remains some­what ambiguous. Soviet officials, including Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov and Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov, have given breakdowns of the Sovi­et military budget. Senior Pentagon and intelligence officials argue that these figures do not include a full accounting of rubles spent on re­search and development, repairs and overhaul—or the huge sums spent to procure new weapons.

Even former Marshal of the Sovi­et Union Sergei Akhromeyev, the principal military advisor to Gor­bachev, concedes that statistics is­sued by his colleagues do not tell the full story. In an unprecedented ap­pearance before the House Armed Services Committee last summer, the bemedaled veteran of World War II and the Afghan conflict con­ceded that Defense Ministry offi­cials in Moscow would be unable to tabulate military spending accu­rately until there is a loosening of state controls that place absurdly low, fixed prices on raw materials and finished goods.

In fact, Akhromeyev recently re­ported that the newly empowered Committee on Defense and Securi­ty, part of the Soviet Union’s new parliament, will soon conduct the first-ever, full-scale hearings into the USSR’s defense budget.

In Washington, there continues to be healthy skepticism. “We think that cuts are coming,” explains Paul Wolfowitz, the Pentagon’s new Un­der Secretary of Defense for Policy. “But I think even [Soviet leaders] are not so clear about what they are cutting or how far and how fast. Re­member, too—the Soviets are cut­ting from extraordinarily high levels to begin with.”

Air Force Gen. Robert Herres, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he believes the ultimate goal of Gorbachev’s military re­forms would be to trim the fat from a wasteful defense bureaucracy to “make their forces more capable and effective and professional.” The reason, he says, is that the Kremlin’s military leaders have come to understand that Soviet armed forces are a “hollow instru­ment” without a strong, vibrant economy to underpin them.

“If restructuring can be used to streamline their military posture,” he said, “I’m sure they will try to do that. Clearly, Mr. Gorbachev is not doing anything that he does not think is in the interest of the Soviet Union.”

General Herres then said that the analysts who work for the Joint Chiefs of Staff will be looking for specific signs in Gorbachev’s mili­tary restructuring to prove that the Soviet leader is transforming his forces to a defensive posture. These include the reduction of bridging equipment, which would be used to cross rivers in Germany in a Euro­pean offensive; cuts in spare parts, fuel, and ammunition stored in Poland and East Germany, vital to sus­taining an offensive; and demobi­lization of mobile radar and air-defense units, needed to protect land forces from air attack.

Moving Back From the Brink

Despite lingering uncertainties and ambiguities, congressional leaders and civilian military ana­lysts are redefining national securi­ty to respond adequately to Gor­bachev’s new military thinking.

Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), Chair­man of the House Armed Services Committee, says the US must pre­pare for the possibility that its rela­tionship with the USSR will some­day reflect a step back from direct confrontation. “The question is how to respond to Gorbachev’s initia­tives, fashion a defense budget to protect against changes in the Sovi­et Union, and still be prepared for other things that can go wrong in the world,” Aspin said.

The moderate Democrat has his own ideas of how to do this. Ad­vocating a defense program for “this time of promise, this time of uncer­tainty,” Aspin laid out a strategy for military spending on national de­fense whose “first phase makes cuts that can quickly be reversed if things in the Soviet Union take a U-turn.” Initial reductions should trim readiness, operations, and mainte­nance spending. Only in subsequent budgets, when American policy-makers are convinced that military reform has taken hold in the USSR, should personnel and weaponry be reduced, Aspin said.

This back-from-the-brink theme is echoed by Richard Perle, the hawkish Assistant Secretary of De­fense for International Security Pol­icy during the Reagan arms buildup. He maintains that it is crucial for military planners to take advantage of the warming East-West climate to funnel more money into “generic technologies.”

“We now are in a period of rela­tive tranquility,” Perle said. “We might be better advised to take risks in the short term—like cutting the standing army—in order to protect America’s technological base for the turn of the century, which more likely will be a period of uncertain­ty.”

Analyst James Blackwell of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies calls for “a fundamental reassessment of the roles and missions” of the US mili­tary. This review, he claims, should be prompted not only by the glim­mer of reduced tensions with the USSR, but by the fact that America’s security interests will more likely be threatened in future years by terrorism, low-level violence in the Third World, and the buildup of ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, and chemical weapons in develop­ing countries.

Blackwell said Pentagon planners should be reviewing the need for more flexible and mobile forces to better deal with such crises as American hostages in Iran, the min­ing of the Persian Gulf, or keeping a cease-fire in Beirut.

Though the Soviet empire may be fraying at the edges, most strategic analysts are quick to make a critical point. So long as Moscow retains a sizable nuclear armory and a large, well-equipped conventional force—and no one believes that the Krem­lin will do otherwise—the USSR will continue to rate as a military superpower and an exceptionally dangerous adversary. The Soviet Union may well be fated to remain a one-dimensional superpower, and the political utility of its military power may be on the wane, but the basic military problem that has long confronted the West isn’t solved just yet, and likely won’t be for some time.

Thom Shanker, who covers defense and national security for the Chicago Tribune, was the Tribune’s correspondent in Moscow from 1985 to 1988. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was “Inside Gorbachev’s Russia” in the March ’89 issue.