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Soviets: Optimism and Skepticism

Yevgeny Primakov, head of a Moscow think tank and reputed confidant of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, wrote the other day that the export of world revolution has become outdated as a Soviet foreign-policy concept. The Soviet Union, he said, must seek national security not so much through military as through political means.

Primakov said that there must be an end to excessive military spending if the Soviet Union is to close the economic gap with the United States. He asserted that Warsaw Pact doctrine now calls for “defensive sufficiency” in which East and West would seek military parity at lower levels.

Skepticism will be in order until Soviet behavior in the world catches up with rhetoric. That hasn’t happened yet; Soviet troops are still trying to impose a Communist government on Afghanistan, and it is far from clear that under Gorbachev’s leadership the Soviet Union is really prepared to back away from the support of anti-Western revolutionary forces elsewhere in the Third World.

It would be wrong, however, to close one’s eyes to the possibility that Soviet foreign policy is indeed moving toward a more accommodationist posture--not because Gorbachev and his colleagues want to do the West any favors but because a period of calm in East-West relations is needed while the leadership tries to rejuvenate the Soviet economy.

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Primakov is the director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations--a middle-level job. Under Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost , or greater openness, such people are not necessarily speaking for the Kremlin when they write in specialized journals. However, Primakov’s relationship with Gorbachev--and the fact that his remarks appeared in Pravda, the official voice of the Soviet Communist Party--makes his article especially noteworthy.

Americans have learned through experience, however, that their own leaders sometimes say one thing and do another. Simple prudence requires that statements by Soviet leaders and their spear-carriers be subjected to the same skepticism.

It’s worth remembering, for example, that Soviet talk about settling for “defensive sufficiency” has so far not prevented the maintenance of forces that, in the eyes of Westerners, are more threatening than Moscow needs for a purely defensive strategy.

However, some Western analysts think they see signs that Moscow has decided that its interests lie in promoting better relations with important Third World countries like Mexico, Argentina and the oil-producing Arab states--even at the expense of support for revolutionary forces in those areas. Some experts also are persuaded that Gorbachev is looking for a face-saving way out of Afghanistan. But doubts will remain until and unless Gorbachev proves the optimists right.


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