As we watch the glasnost-perestroika express train advancing into the unknown, we need not refuse the profound satisfaction that liberalizations already achieved must give us, or renounce hopeful expectations of greater liberalizations to come, in order to focus soberly on the problem that Mikhail Gorbachev’s new course presents for Western strategy. And it is a genuine problem of strategy—unlike the fixed predicament of the past. So long as the United States faced the unyielding continuation of the Soviet pursuit of aggrandizement, there was no true problem of strategy, because there were no valid alternatives to evaluate and select, except in matters of detail. What was needed was sheer tenacity, year after year, decade after decade, both in upholding a tolerable military balance^ especially in its often disorientingly bizarre nuclear dimension, and in opposing the varied military, diplomatic, and covert forms of Soviet expansion, intimidation, and penetration.
It was indeed the most fundamental of errors to view the various regional confrontations between Soviet aggrandizement and Western resistance as a problem in need of solution. For given Moscow’s relentless ambition, the confrontation was itself the only possible solution, and to treat it as the problem inevitably led to remedies that diminished Western resistance in some way.
The other great case of a solution being treated as a problem was the nuclear armament of the United States, with nuclear arms control offered as the remedy. As countless academic studies have proved to the satisfaction of dissertation examiners and the editors of our major specialized journals, nuclear weapons were always of very limited military utility because the enormity of their destructive power has always been most inhibiting, even aside from any fear of retaliation. So be it. But when the Strategic Air Command was formed in 1946, with some B-29 bombers left over from World War II, the armed forces of the U.S. were otherwise in a state of dissolution. Most of the 89 wartime Army divisions had already been disbanded and their troops demobilized, hundreds of Navy warships were being laid up, and tens of thousands of combat aircraft were sold for scrap or simply abandoned on airstrips around the world.
Perhaps it is true, as many scholars now hold, that Stalin had no intention of achieving further territorial gains after having annexed since 1940 Finnish Karelia, the Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the Koenigsberg district of East Prussia, the eastern provinces of Poland, Czechoslovakia’s sub-Carparthian Ruthenia, Rumania’s northern Bukovina and Bessarabia, as well as southern Sakhalin and the Kurile islands. Less plausibly, it may even be true that Stalin had no desire to extend his indirect rule by way of local Communist regimes beyond Poland, the Soviet zone of Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria.
But if these things are not true—if, that is, Stalin’s Soviet Union was like any other empire in seeking to project its power as far as it could go without colliding with dangerous resistance—it was only the Strategic Air Command and its one A-bomb Group of thirty B-29s that could provide an effective resistance against his armies, certainly not the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, or the Marine Corps, all by then reduced to scattered occupation units and training establishments at home bases.
Until the Soviet Union exploded its own first fission bomb in August 1949, nuclear compensation for Western non-nuclear inadequacy could be secured by the mere fact of possession. Ever since then, however, that compensation has had to be constantly renewed by further innovation: in the weapons themselves by the development of the thermonuclear bomb and then lesser refinements, but much more in the development of successive bombers, land-based ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and most recently the varied advanced technologies of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
Naturally, the Soviet Union responded as best it could, and sometimes it did more than that, having started its own thermonuclear program, as we now know from Andrei Sakharov, while American scientists and politicians were still debating its feasibility and desirability, and being definitely the first to field intercontinental ballistic missiles, albeit primitive and inaccurate. But most of the time it was the United States that led the competition in technological innovation, always in the attempt to maintain nuclear compensation for a persisting non-nuclear inadequacy.
All this was frightening, of course, at least to the sensible and sensitive who actually thought about such matters, who actually brought themselves to visualize the consequences should nuclear weapons ever be used. And the mechanical obedience to nuclear-attack orders, so strenuously cultivated in the training of Strategic Air Command bomber crews and missile controllers, could only seem sinister, even to those who agreed on its necessity and ultimate justification.
It was out of such abundantly understandable fears that the urge came to impose limits, to stop the process of addition and innovation, and if possible to reverse it by disarmament. To be sure, only a few extremely unofficial voices ever advocated unilateral disarmament. But at various times “freeze” proposals were floated, with varying success, and ever since 1969 the negotiated reduction of nuclear weapons has been a declared aim of successive U.S. administrations, though pursued with different degrees of enthusiasm and effect. From 1972 on, as a result of the Jackson amendment passed in the wake of the SALT I accords with their unequal limits on missiles (but not bombers) in favor of the Soviet Union, the declared aim of U.S. arms-control policy was redefined as the negotiation of equal limits on nuclear forces of intercontinental range.
When viewed on their own, in isolation from the wider military balance in which there is a non-nuclear inferiority to offset, equal limits no doubt seem fair and equitable. In the total context, however, they remove any numerical basis for compensation, and impose reliance on innovation alone to preserve an advantage of modernity if not of numbers, innovation became even more important when from 1983 onward the Reagan administration redefined the goal as equal limits set at very low levels. In fact, total abolition was actually achieved under the 1987 INF treaty for the narrow category of missiles of “intermediate” range.
But why should nuclear catastrophe have been risked during all the years since 1946 if there was that other option—namely, to build adequate non-nuclear defenses against non-nuclear Soviet attack?
In theory, non-nuclear adequacy was always obtainable, at least in Europe, because the Soviet Union has never had an advantage in population and means over the United States and its allies, not even in 1946 when Britain was the only U.S. ally of substance, and still less afterward as postwar Western Europe was gradually rehabilitated. In practice, it was only once, when it seemed that the Korean war might be only a diversionary prelude to an invasion of Europe, that the United States and NATO briefly attempted to plan for non-nuclear adequacy. A vast mobilization of ground forces was to be carried out, and military production for it actually increased for a time, but when the Korean war did not in fact spread, the intention was soon abandoned.
In all the years that followed until today, successive U.S. administrations have been inclined to spend rather more and most European governments have been willing to spend rather less, but both have refused the theoretical option of non-nuclear adequacy. The reason is often said to be economic, but it was always in truth impeccably strategic: security obtained by non-nuclear means requires an actual readiness to wage non-nuclear war, a “real” war with the maneuver of armies, massive artillery barrages, house-to-house fighting, bombardments (albeit non-nuclear), and so on. The danger of a much less probable nuclear catastrophe was and is preferred to a far more probable non-nuclear war, apt to be amply catastrophic in its own way, especially in today’s Western Europe with its fragile yet lethal chemical plants and nuclear power stations.
Thus, while a great deal of money was spent on non-nuclear forces, and still is, by both the United States and all its allies, it was never enough to buy adequacy. Nor was the money spent purposefully. Instead of maintaining forces realistically trained and realistically equipped (like, for example, the Israeli armed forces), much of current military spending goes for sundry technical embellishments of dubious tactical value, luxurious accommodations for overstaffed headquarters, the upkeep of entire military branches sustained more by tradition and bureaucratic weight than current military utility, high salaries and better pensions in countries without national military service, and the upkeep of overlapping military industries throughout the NATO alliance and beyond (with Japan being the worst offender). All that is deplorable but also inevitable: with non-nuclear defensive adequacy rejected because non-nuclear war is unacceptable, there is no definitive military purpose that could serve to discipline military planning and budgeting.
The customary language of strategic discourse therefore masks a deeper reality: U.S. and other Western nuclear forces have above all represented a response to Soviet implacability in preparing for war—a “real” war, and realistically intended.
Implacability may of course be imagined or dubiously construed, but the intensity with which the leaders of the Communist party of the Soviet Union have overseen the accumulation of military power, and still do, allows no other interpretation. In 1946, while the United States, Britain, and such of their allies as had significant military forces were completing their demobilizations, millions remained in uniform in the Soviet armed forces, and a very ambitious rearmament was getting underway.
In spite of the catastrophic destruction left behind by the retreating Germans—with entire cities wrecked, dams sabotaged beyond repair, rail tracks pulled up, farms looted of cattle, and countless villages burned to the ground—1946 was the launch year for much new Soviet weapon production. In Kharkov, liberated from the Germans in 1943, lost again to Manstein’s counteroffensive, reconquered from the SS Panzer Corps after heavy artillery barrages and house-to-house fighting, the surviving population huddled in the ruins. But instead of hospitals, schools, or desperately needed housing, it was Transport Machine Plant Malyshev 75—a tank factory—that was rebuilt on a priority basis. It duly resumed production by the end of 1946 with the T-44 tank. The Soviet army already had many thousands of powerful T-34 tanks and heavier models too, but the T-44 was evidently considered somewhat better, and in fact that 35-ton machine with an 85mm gun was far superior to the U.S. 28-ton Sherman with its 76mm gun, which deactivated U.S. plants were in any case no longer producing.
Any other regime not implacably intent on preparing for war would have found a thousand better uses for the materials and skilled labor that went into the reconstruction of the Kharkov tank factory and the T-44 production line, but not the Communist party of the Soviet Union. Indeed, its leaders in and out of uniform very soon decided that the T-44 was not good enough; it was apparently considered unreliable. A crash development program was immediately launched, and within one year it yielded the first prototype of the T-54, an even better tank with a 100mm gun that was still formidable two decades later.
It was the same story with every category of weapon, from the Kalashnikov rifle placed in mass production in 1947, to field artillery, the first armored carriers, combat aircraft large and small, torpedo boats, destroyers, cruisers, submarines, and such costly ancillaries as assault bridges and submarine tenders. Over and above this enormous manufacturing effort that was unfolding while war production had essentially stopped in all other parts of the world, more skilled workers, engineers, and scientists were working at a feverish pace to develop new weapons, notably the first jet fighters and bombers, radars and anti-aircraft missiles and long-range rockets—and, of course, nuclear weapons too.
To begin to understand the implacability revealed by the postwar Soviet rearmament that started in 1946 within a few months of V-E day in a world disarmed or disarming, it is necessary to have some idea of the conditions in which the peoples of the Soviet Union lived at the time. Contemporary American notions of poverty are utterly misleading: at least in a purely material sense, they define conditions unimaginably luxurious by the Soviet standards of 1946. There is now a large memoiristic literature on the subject that one could cite, but it so happens that long ago I heard a viva-voce account from my own father, who visited Kiev in the winter of 1946. He was not a tourist from California captive to inappropriate standards. He came from Transylvania, the most backward part of Central Europe, and not unravaged by the war just ended. Yet my father was astonished by what awaited him in the Soviet Union’s third largest city. He would have been even more astonished had he known that Kiev was then much better provided in both housing and food than many Soviet towns, including Moscow.
My father found the rather privileged people he met living in communal apartments, one family to a room sharing kitchen and bathroom. The middle class, so to speak, was housed in prefabricated huts (possibly U.S.-made leftovers from wartime lend-lease) sectioned into family areas by thin partitions or sometimes only by blankets or canvas sheets hanging from wires. The poor survived in the numerous shacks improvised out of crates and tarpaulins that lined the walls of every courtyard. Even in the apartment houses of the privileged, there was no heating other than from the primus gasoline flames used for cooking, because though electricity was supplied at night, no electrical heaters could be had, and neither was fuel oil or coal available.
While Kharkov’s Transport Machine Plant Malyshev 75 was producing T-44s to supplement abundantly adequate T-34s and while great efforts were being made to develop the superior T-54, in Kiev many were dying of pneumonia that winter because the effects of the cold were compounded by the miserable insufficiency of the food: bread, kasha, cucumbers, onions, and radishes, with only salt herring and low-grade starchy sausage for protein, and that too in short supply. Throughout his one-month stay, my father did not see butter, eggs, or meat. Milk, he was told, was available but only for infants and ulcer cases—except that the ration often went unfilled.
To be sure, what was happening in Kiev and Kharkov and all over the Soviet Union in 1946 is not now attributed to the Communist party of the Soviet Union. Nowadays it is blamed entirely on Joseph Stalin by Gorbachev and many other Communist party leaders, who freely criticize Stalin’s cruelties and irrationalities, even while reiterating their devotion to the party and its ideology. But it will simply not do to attribute the implacability of dominant military priorities amid civilian poverty to Stalin alone. Declared Marxists, of all people, should be the last to profess a Wicked Man theory of history; what about the structures and superstructures of Marxian theory, with its “scientific” proof that kings, emperors, and presumably dictators can only be the figureheads of ruling classes formed by historical processes? (It is symptomatic of the indulgence so lavishly extended to his non sequiturs that Gorbachev’s simultaneous reaffirmation of ideological faith and his condemnation of Stalin is not being ridiculed as it deserves to be.)
For non-Marxists, on the other hand, the refutation of the Stalin hypothesis can rest on factual evidence. For Stalin was safely dead and already much criticized a decade after my father’s visit to Kiev, and yet the Soviet Communist party’s accumulation of military power continued implacably. By reliable accounts, most people in Kiev and other Soviet cities still lived in communal apartments, usually in sordid circumstances with even minimal privacy impossible, quarrels over shared kitchens and bathrooms inevitable, and ill-humor made chronic by overcrowding. Butter, eggs, and meat were also still very scarce. But 1955- 56 were the years in which the Soviet Union’s first Mach-2 jet fighters, gas-turbine warships, nuclear-powered submarines, and long-range ballistic missiles were being developed on a hurried schedule, not without the makeshifts and improvisations that are otherwise normal only when war is underway, or believed to be imminent. No other regime could have extracted the material and scientific resources from the economy that the Communist party of the Soviet Union found for its military programs; no other regime would have tried, at a time when Soviet poverty contrasted more starkly with the affluence beginning to spread in Western Europe, where most traces of wartime destruction had already vanished.
A decade after that, in the mid-1960’s, a privileged minority in the Soviet cities had finally obtained one-family apartments (if very small and crudely finished) and food was a less urgent problem, though butter, eggs, and meat remained hard to come by. Nevertheless, the Soviet standard of living was still abysmal by the standards of all other industrialized countries, with normal consumption items in Western Europe still rare luxuries, or simply unobtainable. And yet the years 1965-66 marked the beginning of the greatest armament program in human history—a program which continued to grow cumulatively at a rapid pace for a decade, before decelerating to grow less rapidly but grow still for another ten years.
The results were vast. The Soviet Army was both expanded by a quarter, adding as many troops as NATO had in Western Europe, and also re-equipped almost entirely, with costly new self-propelled artillery, battlefield anti-aircraft missiles, and new tanks and combat carriers, as well as all the ancillaries of transportation and communications. The Soviet Navy was transformed from an inshore force (except for the submarine arm) to an oceanic navy with missile warships of excellent design, some large nuclear-powered cruisers (of a class rejected even by the U.S. Navy as too costly), the first air-capable ships for vertical take-off fighters, and the world’s largest fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. The Soviet air forces were also transformed by an entirely new generation of combat planes, including the world’s first supersonic bombers and the world’s largest helicopters. And the Soviet array of land-based and sea-based ballistic missiles soon greatly exceeded the striking power if not the accuracy of its U.S. counterpart.
It was revealing of the sheer abundance of resources allocated by the Communist party that in many weapons categories the Soviet armed forces acquired separate and specialized models for each specific role during the 1960’s and 70’s, in lieu of the multipurpose types that all Western forces had to accept for economy’s sake. Thus the twenty-year effort provided both air-superiority fighters and specialized interceptors, both close air-support and longer-ranged interdiction aircraft, both regular armored vehicles and lightweight types for the airborne forces alone, both medium and heavy ballistic missiles, and so on.
Again, what was done during those two decades and more is not nowadays attributed to the Communist party of the Soviet Union, but rather to the “years of stagnation” (a most inappropriate sobriquet as far as military matters are concerned) or, more specifically, to Leonid Brezhnev and his cronies. We now have a Bumbling Man theory of history—or would have if Gorbachev’s regime were not also implementing limited, reversible, but so far continuing measures of democratization and liberalization, which imply that it was not Brezhnev after all who was responsible but rather the Communist party of the Soviet Union, whose power is being diminished in limited, reversible, but tangible ways.
If that were the whole of the current Soviet reality, and if the processes of democratization were sure to continue, there would be no grave strategic problem facing the West. True, the United States and its allies would still have to manage the delicate transition from the nuclear deterrence of Soviet implacability to a new relationship with a Soviet Union transformed into a normal Great Power. Like any other Great Power, this new Soviet Union that Gorbachev promises would no doubt strive to keep what it has, and would be eager for more if possible. But it would also be subject to normal inhibitions on its external conduct, and to a normal dominance of domestic priorities, including demands for higher living standards.
Unfortunately, however, there is another component of current Soviet reality, and a very familiar one. In Gorbachev’s fifth year in power, with Brezhnev now condemned and Stalin dead for the last forty-seven years, the Soviet Communist party remains implacable in supervising the accumulation of military power. The U.S. defense budget has been in decline for the last four years, the defense budgets of other NATO countries are also in decline, but splendid Mig-29 fighters, heavyweight Mig-31 interceptors, an impressive new battle tank, and two mobile ballistic missiles (one similar to the ever delayed American Midgetman, one similar to the ever opposed American MX) are only the most advertised items in what is still by far the world’s largest arms-building effort. And that military accumulation proceeds in a Soviet Union far more impoverished than had been realized until the revelations of glasnost. We now know that thirty million pensioners have to live on monthly incomes of under 60 rubles a month (less than 60 U.S. dollars when it comes to buying butter, eggs, or meat); that Soviet hospitals are so ill-supplied that patients must bribe attendants to obtain bedpans and bandages, with such prosaic items as hypodermic syringes very scarce; and that even the low living standards observed in Moscow, Leningrad, and other long-visited cities remain unachieved in many other places.
In a world where Danes and Belgians cannot “afford” to allocate 3 percent of their gross national product to defense, and where Americans will not agree to much more than 5 percent, in spite of living standards that are no longer even comparable with those of the Soviet Union (all comparisons across exchange rates are void when it takes skill, luck, or connections to obtain the steak or the pound of butter that Americans, Belgians, or Danes “pick up” on their way home), the implacability of 1989 differs only slightly from that of 1946.
Gorbachev has promised a forthcoming 14-percent reduction in military expenditures by 1991.1 But since his dramatic announcement failed to contain the information that Soviet military expenditures increased by roughly 3 percent per annum in the three years from his accession to power through 1987, one cannot say whether the reduction will be greater or smaller than the increase. Gorbachev has now declared that all previously published Soviet defense-budget figures were false and has supplied his own figure for current spending as 77.3 billion rubles, some three times as high as the false numbers of the past. But 77.3 billion rubles is only $128 billion even at the greatly inflated official rate of exchange—less than half of U.S. military spending—and the enormity of Soviet military power cannot possibly come that cheap.
The fact that the new budget figure is misleading does not, however, indicate a deceptive intent in the Stalinist manner. Again, thanks to glasnost, we now know that Gorbachev simply cannot provide the Soviet defense-budget numbers, because aircraft, submarines, missiles, and the rest, and their separate components, and the materials that go into them, are all priced on hopelessly misleading scales whereby a worker could buy either three pounds of coffee or a tank with his monthly salary, if either were on sale.
We are now told that bookkeepers, economists, and assorted other experts are collecting figures from all the various weapons-building ministries and the armed forces in order to compile a meaningful defense budget. They will certainly need a great deal of talent to succeed, for without a market to set prices how does one determine what each weapon costs? In trade within the Eastern bloc, the problem was solved long ago for standard commodities such as coal, oil, and base chemicals by simply billing at Western market prices. For all other products, officials on each side can only bargain as best they can in complex barters that equate so many East German cars with so many meters of Rumanian cloth, and so on.
In other words, the pricing problem cannot be solved at all, and throughout Eastern Europe the sovereign remedy has been to trade with the outside world as much as possible, especially with the West, leaving only substandard products unsalable elsewhere for intra-bloc trade. The new crew of Soviet budgeteers faces exactly the same problem. Because the inputs (aluminum, steel, machinery time, electricity, etc.) are also priced arbitrarily, the only recourse of the new budgeteers is presumably to look for comparable Western prices. They might now have to sponsor a novel form of espionage to find out Western unit costs for mortars and jet fighters, nuclear-powered submarines and ballistic missiles. Even then, complex adjustments will be needed to offset differences in specifications and production rates. The process is apt to take years, and given all the differences, the results will be uncertain at best.
It follows that no matter how sincere Gorbachev might be (there is now irrefutable evidence that he knows much more about the Western media than about the Soviet economy), he cannot in fact reduce the Soviet defense budget by any specific percentage as he has promised. He could stop costly development programs, of course, but so far there is no sign of that.
And here we come to a dimension of current Soviet reality and one specific antecedent which is a good deal more significant, and far more sinister, than Gorbachev’s confusions about the basics of the Soviet economy. This is a reality that far transcends any quibbles or carping, and any impatience with the slow progress of liberalization in a sea of oppressive controls (photocopy machines are still under KGB control, exit visas are still a rare privilege). For it seems that along with all other Soviet institutions, the military industries too have received their perestroika assignment: to upgrade the quality of weapons, in order to offset as quickly as possible the promised numerical reductions in the armed forces. As Army General Alexei D. Lizichev, chief of the Main Political Directorate of the USSR Army and Navy, and as such a most senior figure in the regime, explained via Radio Moscow on February 12, 1989:
Naturally, during these two years [i.e., before the reductions in troop levels] our industry, our scientists, our designers, our working class will create the equipment which will fill in for the quantity which we are reducing; that is, qualitative parameters will really come into operation.
Unless the Lizichev statement is mere hot air, and there is every evidence that it is not, we must therefore confront the reality that, Gorbachev or no Gorbachev, the party’s implacable policy of military accumulation is set to continue, albeit qualitatively rather than by mere volume.
Normally there would be nothing dramatic about the continuation of a process. But consider once again the circumstances: military budgets of the U.S. and all other Western nations are in decline and have been for some years; weapons production is everywhere slowed down; and the development of new weapons is being delayed. It thus seems that the 1946 rules are still in effect, even without Stalin, even with Gorbachev. Notwithstanding the numerous specific deprivations, some extreme, revealed by glasnost amid a generic standard of living much lower than in any other industrialized country, the Communist party of the Soviet Union, as General Lizichev now tells us, is not satisfied with two new mobile ballistic missiles, Mig-29s and Mig-31s, the new ultra-fast attack helicopter, and the rest of late-model Soviet military production: the “working class” and the rest must apparently work on a two-year crash program to assure that the “qualitative parameters will really come into operation.”
The standard explanation is that Gorbachev is biding his time before “taking on the military-industrial complex.” Perhaps—though he fired a Minister of Defense and several Marshals easily enough. But we now come to the antecedent that casts a sinister light on the totality of current Soviet policy under Gorbachev. Before his advent to power, during the militarily very dynamic “years of stagnation,” the Communist party of the Soviet Union ensured that the Soviet armed forces were lavishly equipped in all respects, except one. For reasons that only philosophers may one day uncover with certainty, the development of advanced electronics could not be assured by abundant resources alone, as with other high technologies of military value, from aerodynamics to metallurgy, from rocketry to nuclear engineering.
That the Soviet Union should have fallen behind more and more as electronics advanced in importance, even while being so successful in rocketry and all forms of metal work (as exemplified by its titanium-hulled submarines), should not perhaps be so surprising, for the development of new electronic devices has also resisted the ministrations and vast funding of large, bureaucratized corporations. It has not been IBM and still less the Japanese giants so competent in the mass production of high-quality appliances that have given us the microcomputers and minicomputers, the high-speed chips and the higher-speed wafers, the supercomputers and the parallel computers, and all their peripheral ancillaries. Perhaps it is merely a matter of size: when innovation can take so many different paths and only a few lead to a desired destination, only a multitude of independent ventures is sure to contain some that do find the right path. Or perhaps it is a matter of free and fluid communications: when innovation is so rapid, enthusiasts who can freely exchange ideas will easily overtake scientists and engineers of equal competence whose intercommunication is blocked by security restrictions, the lack of reproduction equipment, travel restraints, and even telephone lines too unreliable for computer data links—as was and is the lot of Soviet electronics experts.
Whatever the true causes, it had be come obvious by the end of the 1970’s that the Communist party of the Soviet Union had at last encountered an obstacle that its proven methods could not overcome. That the Soviet consumer was thereby deprived of personal computers and all manner of computerized appliances was a matter of indifference to a Communist party that reserved all luxuries for a privileged elite of its own choosing, while denying even free access to butter, eggs, and meat to the population at large. But the military derivatives of advanced electronics were becoming increasingly significant in land warfare (ballistic computers, laser range-finders, etc.), ever more important in air and naval warfare (navigation and attack systems, missile guidance, electronic warfare), and potentially decisive in strategic-nuclear warfare, as exemplified by the varied advances so quickly achieved under the SDI program.
In other words, by the end of the 1970’s, the true core of the entire Soviet system—that is, the system of military accumulation—was in a state of acute crisis. In response, from 1979 on, the then-chief of the General Staff, the Soviet Union’s and the party’s top military officer, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, pressed for change, using much of the language now made familiar all over the world by Gorbachev. He said nothing of liberalization or democratization, but he did anticipate all the major themes of perestroika, complaining of the stagnation of Soviet (military) research and development, pointing out that Soviet (military) progress would remain in a dead-end street without structural change, and stressing the importance of advanced (military) electronics in modern conditions.
In another anticipation of Gorbachev’s methods, Ogarkov inaugurated a glasnost of his own by using the public prints to press his case. It had long been customary for high-ranking Soviet officers to publish, but instead of the routine mix of self-congratulation and exhortation, Ogarkov signed a series of increasingly strident articles2 in which he claimed that action was urgent because the United States was actively preparing for world war, demanded even greater military spending, and warned that beyond a certain point, technological advantages could become absolute, negating both superior numbers and better generalship—the traditional ingredients of Soviet military superiority.
On June 10, 1982, the few hours of air warfare between Israelis and Syrians in Lebanon confirmed Ogarkov’s worst fears. That Israelis should defeat the Syrians in jet-fighter combat was not unexpected, but in the past all human and material factors had resulted in 10-to-l or at most 20-to-l ratios in favor of the Israelis. On June 10, however, the addition of a clear electronics advantage in Israel’s fighter aircraft, missiles, and airborne early-warning resulted in a sensational air-combat ratio of 85 (or 89) to zero. Worse, the Israelis had begun the day by destroying sixteen batteries of Soviet-made anti-aircraft missiles (enough to equip a fair-sized NATO army) without losing a single aircraft, by using an array of U.S. and Israeli-made electronic-warfare devices (as well as excellent tactics).
That was the very kind of absolute technological advantage in electronics that Ogarkov had warned could utterly overcome numbers and devalue generalship, thus negating the entire Soviet strategy of military accumulation. In the aftermath of the Syrian debacle, Ogarkov’s complaints became even more vehement, his demand for an acceleration of military research and for institutional reform (e.g., of the Soviet Academy of Sciences) even more outspoken. When in 1983 the United States launched the Strategic Defense Initiative, with its promise of unleashing technological development in many sectors previously neglected by the U.S. armed forces, Ogarkov increased his emphasis on the strategic-nuclear aspect of the Soviet Union’s technology crisis, and raised the temperature even higher. It was thus Ogarkov and not Gorbachev who first breached the complacency of the Brezhnev regime.
Ogarkov’s attempt to launch a perestroika for purely military purposes failed and because he insisted overmuch, in September 1984 Andropov finally removed him from his exalted position.
There is no doubt that Ogarkov’s remedy was fatally incomplete. He had begun demanding greater resources for the armed forces at a time when the Solidarity crisis in Poland was inducing even Brezhnev to call for greater supplies of consumer goods and food, and he totally failed to see the necessity of a greater openness in mass communications and scientific discourse to stimulate and encourage domestic technological advancement. Above all, his only foreign policy was accelerated war preparation, overlooking the great contribution that arms control and a relaxed detente-inducing stance could make to the reduction of the electronics gap, by concurrently slowing down Western military innovation while increasing Soviet access to Western technology.
That is why the Ogarkov antecedent casts a sinister light on the totality of Soviet policy under Gorbachev. Except for the uncertain progress of democratization, all aspects of Gorbachev’s policy, foreign and domestic, are compatible with the pursuit of a more modern qualitative form of military accumulation, with an emphasis on high technology in general and advanced electronics in particular. Reductions in current Soviet forces and “old-technology” military production—including any and all withdrawals of Soviet forces facing NATO in Central Europe—would obviously contribute to that objective and should not be misinterpreted as proof of diminished long-term military ambitions. And while Ogarkov’s incomplete remedy would have failed, Gorbachev’s version—which adds a literally disarming mass-media detente campaign throughout the world and glasnost to the restructuring of industry and the scientific establishment—is showing every sign of success, in its foreign dimensions at least.
Whether Gorbachev is witting or unwitting in his perfection of Ogarkov’s scheme, whatever his true purposes may be, and no matter how they may have evolved, the facts are that Western military technology is advancing much less rapidly than it did, that the embargo on electronic-technology exports to the Soviet Union is increasingly being lifted, and that the various arms-control proposals are themselves reducing the technology gap, by systematically inhibiting the development of new Western weapons, in the nuclear realm especially.
Only the irregular progress of democratization and liberalization breaks the Ogarkov-Gorbachev equation. Every day there are contradictory reports. When Gorbachev or his Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, the ex-KGB official now sanctified by the media, pulls off another typical arms-control disinformation stunt (such as timing the clamorous announcement of the withdrawal of some outdated nuclear weapons to coincide with a NATO meeting), the Ogarkov-Gorbachev equation is reinforced. When Gorbachev guardedly defends the democratization under way in the Baltic states, or Shevardnadze takes a break from media manipulation abroad to conciliate opinion in his native Georgia, the equation is weakened. When we see the central authorities tolerating the spread of glasnost to remote regions of Siberia, one hypothesis is confirmed, and when we read of the new repressive decrees of the Supreme Soviet that threaten to reverse much of the liberalization, the other hypothesis seems more plausible. Probably the Gorbachev regime is moving on two contradictory paths concurrently, a common enough occurrence in governance everywhere.
This does not mean that our Soviet policy must await a final clarification that may never come, remaining passive under the increasing pressure of the impatient at home and abroad. There is in fact a valid goal for our Soviet strategy in general and for arms control specifically, but it is neither a totally inappropriate quest for “equality” in nuclear force levels that ignores the need to balance Soviet non-nuclear advantages, nor even a parallelism between nuclear and non-nuclear arms control, as some more sophisticated voices have suggested.
For reasons far from disinterested, the only valid course is to make Soviet democratization the key determinant not only of our arms-control policies, nuclear and non-nuclear, but of all policies toward the Soviet Union across the board, in regard to technology transfer, capital flows, joint ventures, trade in general, space cooperation, and more. Instead of allowing each of these to unfold in a narrow departmental context, wherein each agency of government is apt to pursue its own narrow goals (e.g., NASA’s quest for more funding under joint U.S.-Soviet schemes), all relevant action should be closely linked to the progress of democratization, with specific moves on our part made or not made in response to what happens in the Soviet Union.
It is more than doubtful that the United States can actually promote the democratization of the Soviet Union by such means, except perhaps in small ways (as opposed to the enormous passive influence of the U.S. as an example of stable pluralism). And it would certainly be counterproductive to set preconditions for each specific move on our part, to publish a menu of U.S. concessions available in exchange for specific acts of democratization. We should not expect Soviet Communist party leaders, or indeed Russians at large, to be more open to foreign benevolence than the Panamanian opponents of General Noriega (it is another matter where non-Russians are concerned). But these objections do not apply to what is here proposed: to monitor Soviet democratization as it unfolds, and to act accordingly after the fact.
As noted, this would not be a disinterested policy. Democracy is a value in itself, but in suggesting that U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union should be conditioned by the progress of Soviet democratization, a specific and material purpose is intended. In 1989 as in 1946, the Soviet Communist party’s method of military accumulation is to restrict consumption severely, allocate disproportionate resources to military purposes, and reserve a carefully graduated affluence for a hierarchy of its own selection. Aside from the party-state leaders themselves, in effect the owners of the regime, the hierarchy includes its defenders (senior KGB and MVD policemen, propagandists, etc.), those whose activities contribute to the regime’s image at home and abroad (favored artists, athletes, skilled disinformers à la Vladimir Posner and Georgi Arbatov, etc.), and those who participate directly in the process of military accumulation (top scientists and engineering managers, high-ranking officers).
It should be noted that aside from securing material resources for its purposes, the simultaneous denial of affluence to the masses and its allocation to the chosen few also served and still does to procure talent for the regime: Posner might be making a fortune selling deodorants on TV if he lived in the West instead of being a prime Soviet propagandist; Arbatov could have made an excellent wheeler-dealer if not a confidence trickster instead of being a leading manipulator of useful fools abroad; and countless figures of less dubious technical talent who would have attained private wealth or fame had they lived in the West can satisfy their ambition only by serving the regime—because its method ensures that all professional activity remains very poorly rewarded unless it is directly regime-enhancing as well. While in the West private wealth sometimes bribes public officials, in the East public officials systematically bribe private talent.
Because the party has owned and controlled the resources of the entire Soviet economy, it has thus been far more powerful and more effective than a mere dictatorship. And, as we have seen, it has used this power to pursue military accumulation implacably.
But if the Gorbachev regime chooses to allow a continued democratization, both at the Republic and the all-Union level, both by formal political processes and by extending private and cooperative ownership, thereby also reducing the party’s control over resources, it cannot possibly hope to retain stability while still enforcing its present priorities in allocating resources. Democratization without rising living standards cannot energize the Soviet economy as the party leaders intend, but only cause more riots, strikes, and protests (all already common). Thus unless the Gorbachev regime means to use increasing force to control the very political pressures that it is releasing,3 it will progressively have to transfer resources from military accumulation to private consumption (and to investments in the consumer sector), and it will also have to allow the replacement of the present hierarchy of economic privilege with a natural hierarchy of economic achievement.
That is why the progress of Soviet democratization is the only possible guarantee that Gorbachev’s policy is not just an improved version of the Ogarkov program for high-technology military accumulation, and should thus be the only guide of our own Soviet policy.
1 No doubt for the sake of the added plausibility of spurious precision, at the UN Gorbachev had stated the reduction as 14.2 percent.
2 Reviewed by Abraham S. Becker, “Ogarkov's Complaint and Gorbachev's Dilemma”; and Jeremy R. Azrael, “The Soviet Civilian Leadership and the Military High Command 1976-1986,” in two RAND papers (R-3541-AF and R-3521-AF, respectively).
3 A seemingly nonsensical course but by no means implausible: a new riot-control police is being organized. Even that, it should be recognized, is a component of liberalization: a fully repressive regime intimidates too effectively to face riots.