Where’s the Threat?

June 1, 1988

Writing in the Washington Post February 14, Patrick Cockburn of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace declares that Kremlinology is a dead art. Mr. Cockburn argues that we no longer need to analyze scraps of information or search for subtle clues to understand Politburo intrigues. The increasing openness of information in Moscow, he says, is making it possible “to report Soviet politics much like anywhere else” as the “great fortress” built by Lenin and Stalin is dissolved.

This is but one example of the bright new image that the Soviet Union is projecting to the world. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev may encounter resistance at home to his programs of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”), but the reaction abroad has been enthusiastic and loud. Mr. Gorbachev has been given credit beyond his due for progress in arms control. His international reputation as a peacemaker will no doubt be enhanced further as Soviet invasion forces withdraw from Afghanistan.

Against this backdrop many people will be inclined to dismiss warnings of a Soviet military threat as a fantasy. The real fantasy is believing that the Soviet Union has suddenly turned benign. In its latest analysis of Soviet military power, the Defense Department reports that “we have seen no evidence of the USSR changing the offensive nature of its force structure and deployment patterns. Military output has not been reduced, nor has military spending decreased.”

Available facts indicate that the Soviet military machine is bigger and more threatening than ever and that force modernization is proceeding full tilt. Growth is especially noticeable in ground forces, which now total 211 active divisions. More amply provisioned than ever, these forces are prepared to sustain combat for sixty to ninety days in Europe and for more than 100 days in the Far East. The Soviet Union maintains 50,000 tons of poisonous substances, the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpile. The current five-year plan (1986-1990) ensures that military-related industries will continue to expand.

The Soviet Union remains an imperialist, totalitarian state. As Mr. Gorbachev comes close to admitting, the Soviet economy is a basket case. Communism is in retreat wherever people have free choice. Without the intimidating threat of Soviet military power, how long would the non-Slavic socialist republics and the satellite nations of Eastern Europe stay in the Kremlin’s fold Would Western Europe treat Soviet initiatives as gingerly as it does today On what basis would a peaceful Soviet Union hold its position as a superpower

There is, of course, a genuine element of change in perestroika. Mr. Gorbachev has some real problems, and the present apparatus isn’t helping him solve them. The main change, though, will be in approach and tactics. The Soviets do not seem to be moving an inch on basic objectives. All of Mr. Gorbachev’s voluntary moves have been to strengthen Soviet power, not to weaken it. He did not agree to the European missile drawdown — a Western proposal — as a concession to the West, but rather because he believes that it was the course of greatest advantage to the Soviet Union.

The Soviets are not leaving Afghanistan because of idealism about self-rule. They are pulling out because they were beaten, unable to subdue the Afghan rebels after eight years of trying. Mr. Gorbachev will take the cheers where he can get them, but this is not the conclusion he would have chosen to the Afghanistan adventure. The pullout will be seen within the Soviet power structure and among Third World client states as a defeat.

Mr. Gorbachev’s own explanation of the reform movement is in his 1987 book, Perestroika. Some interesting points shine through the propaganda. “Any hopes that we will begin to build a different, non-socialist society and go over to the other camp are unrealistic and futile,” he writes. “Those in the West who expect us to give up socialism will be disappointed. It is high time they understood this and, even more importantly proceeded from that understanding in practical relations with the Soviet Union.”

He says that the “inevitable evolution” of human society progresses from feudalism through capitalism to socialism. Revolutions and liberation movements will emerge to hustle the evolution along, he says, but the “hand of Moscow” has nothing to do with this. He acknowledges some “difficulties and complexities” in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in Poland in the 1950s and 1980s, but reminds us that “a return to the old order did not occur in any of the socialist nations.”

Remember how the Kremlinologists, before they became obsolete, kept telling us that a primary Soviet objective was to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe In his book, Mr. Gorbachev makes a special pitch to those who share “a common European home” that reaches “from the Atlantic to the Urals.”

Western Europe, he urges, should “quickly get rid of the fears of the Soviet Union that have been imposed on it,” disassociate itself from “the dangerous extremes of American policy,” and reassert the independence that has been “carried off across the oceans.” He sympathizes with Europeans about the “onslaught of mass culture from across the Atlantic… primitive revelry of violence and pornography and the flood of cheap feelings and thoughts.”

Lest anyone take this as naked anti-Americanism, he adds that “our idea of a common European home certainly does not involve shutting its doors to anybody. True, we would not like to see anyone kick in the doors of the European home and take the head of the table at somebody else’s apartment. But then that is the concern of the owner of the apartment.”

To help build the common European home, Mr. Gorbachev says, “we are raising the questions of broad scientific and technological cooperation.” He regrets that “artificial barriers are being erected in this area” and says his concern applies “first and foremost to electronics.” (Score another one for the Kremlinologists, who said that the Soviets would use glasnost and perestroika as smokescreens to acquire Western technology, especially electronics.)

It seems abundantly clear that the Soviet Union does not mean us well and that it has plenty of wherewithal to do us harm. In the old days, the Kremlinologists used to call that a threat.