Of MiGs and Plowshares

Dec. 1, 1988

Kremlin-watchers have had plenty to watch since General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. He moves with great sweeps and flourishes in the foreign-policy arena, often catching the West insufficiently prepared to respond. In the eyes of the world, he has taken the initiative in East-West relations away from the United States. NATO leaders are wary of Mr. Gorbachev’s aggressive courtship of Europe, but public-opinion polls find his popularity booming.

At home, Mr. Gorbachev continues to send shock waves through Soviet industry with his relentless program of reform. He is lowering the priority on military production in favor of domestic output — or so he says. To the Soviet member republics and East European clients states, he holds out the promise of increased freedom on selected matters. Mr. Gorbachev seems to know what he wants, and he does not hesitate to sack those, from ministerial rank on down, who stand in his way.

In the course of a spectacular hour on September 30, Mr. Gorbachev replaced twenty-two departments of the Communist Party Central Committee with six sleek commissions, added the Soviet presidency to his own portfolio, and threw a clutch of foot-draggers off the Politburo.

To give Mr. Gorbachev his due, he is the most innovative Soviet leader since Lenin. But how should a prudent world interpret his exertions We can probably take his industrial reforms at near face value. Whatever his agenda is, the inefficiency of Soviet industry is a barrier to achieving it. The outlook is more ambiguous on other internal reforms. Mr. Gorbachev is not going to abolish single-party rule or weaken Moscow’s control of Soviet affairs. His regime of the future may be slightly less oppressive, but the essential trappings of a police state are likely to remain.

For the West, however, the big questions are about Mr. Gorbachev’s military intentions and his foreign policy. Speechmaking aside, there is not sign that he is on the verge of beating his MiGs into plowshares.

The Defense Policy Panel of the House Armed Services Committee recently took a fresh look at Soviet military posture. Its conclusion was that Mr. Gorbachev “does not appear to have caused any concrete, operational changes in Soviet military behavior. Military procurement policies have not been affected, and while there have been some changes in deployment and training practices, they have not been significantly different from what would be expected from evolving military-technical doctrine.” The panel found that:

• Soviet military spending grew by about three percent in both 1986 and 1987, almost double the rate of growth in the previous five years.

• Military perestroika appears to be mostly a matter of modernizing and streamlining. The Soviets are moving toward a unified corps-brigade organization, which, along with other improvements, might allow them to maintain their force capability with three to five percent less manpower.

• Overall, Soviet forces are manned at eighty percent of wartime strength, somewhat lower than in the 1970s. The number of Soviet troops deployed in Europe, however, has not declined. In fact, the USSR has added more equipment and logistics support, thereby creating a larger wartime force.

The House panel was in accord about the tangible evidence, but split in its speculation on Soviet doctrine. The majority view was that the Soviets may be telling the truth when they say they have shifted to a defensive doctrine and now seek nuclear parity rather than superiority. Ten members of the panel dissented. They said that if the Soviets no longer emphasize nuclear supremacy and offensive operations, they have done precious little to demonstrate it.

Additional perspectives on Soviet military posture come from US Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci and David Mellor, a British minister of state.

“The Red Army has more divisions in Czechoslovakia than the US has in all of Europe, and more divisions in East Germany than the US has in its entire active Army,” Mr. Carlucci said in an August 30 Wall Street Journal column. He added that the emphasis on tanks, motorized artillery, forward-based bridging equipment, and operational maneuver groups is inconsistent with a defensive doctrine.

Mr. Mellor, at a meeting of the Western European Union, observed that the Soviet Union produces two new aircraft, six artillery pieces, and eight tanks each day. The Soviet Navy acquires a new nuclear submarine every thirty-seven days.

Columnist Charles Krauthammer contends that “in foreign policy, the Gorbachev Doctrine is imperial triage. Discard the losers. Deal away the marginals. Keep the jewels.” Afghanistan was a loser, so the Soviets are pulling out. They are ready to deal on Cambodia and Angola. The three great jewels, Mr. Krauthammer says, are Central America, China, and above all, Europe. Mr. Gorbachev’s methods are more genteel than those of his predecessors, but the goal is the same: Drive a wedge between the United States and Western Europe and, if possible, neutralize that part of the continent.

At present, the probability of direct Soviet military aggression against the major Western powers is very low. The Soviet Union must still be regarded as an adversary, though, and it is increasingly a better-armed adversary, potentially more dangerous than ever. The confrontation of the great powers goes on, and the underlying nature of it is about the same as it was before.