Pursuing Breathing Space With Unilateral Arms Cuts

<i> Larry T. Caldwell is a professor of political science at Occidental College. </i>

Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s speech to the United Nations served two important objectives--one political and one military.

He has set out politically to deprive the West of its “implacable and terrible enemy.” His initiatives are part of the “new thinking” in Moscow that, as Georgi Arbatov has written, is “helping destroy the established anti-Soviet stereotypes and revive the attractive force and prestige of socialism.”

The growth of Soviet military power and its use in support of Soviet foreign policy in the 1970s and ‘80s had counterproductive effects from the Kremlin’s point of view. Soviet commentators have singled out the invasion of Afghanistan and deployment of the SS-20 missiles as “mistakes.” But the problem is broader. The Soviet military buildup fed the arms race and caused, as many Soviet observers now admit, economic damage at home.

Gorbachev is very serious about altering the Soviet Union’s image as a military threat. He must do so if he is to find a “breathing space” in the arms race within which to rebuild the Soviet economy and restructure the political system. He had a narrower set of military objectives for the U.N. speech.


First, at the arms-control level, it has been clear that conventional arms control must constitute the next item on the agenda. The mutually balanced force reduction negotiations in Vienna have gone nowhere for more than 15 years, largely because of NATO’s insistence that the Warsaw Pact reduce its forces asymmetrically and because of difficulties concerning verification procedures. Gorbachev’s announcement demonstrates his desire to break out of this impasse.

That the Soviet leadership was thinking about unilateral steps had been tipped by several sources. The most dramatic was an article in Pravda in October by the customarily cautious and tight-lipped Arbatov. His indictment was harsh. He attacked the traditions of “ultra-secrecy” and charged that Soviet behavior had become “fossilized . . . on questions of defense and foreign policy.” He attacked the “model” of lengthy arms-control negotiations, which “presupposes prolonged bargaining and, inevitably, much wasted time.” It is difficult to avoid the impression that Gorbachev’s bold stroke at the United Nations reflected the same impatience. If this interpretation is correct, Washington and Brussels should not simply pocket the promised reductions and assume them to be a down payment of good will for the future negotiations.

Second, it is highly unlikely that the retirement of Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev as Soviet chief of staff and his replacement by 49-year-old Col. Gen. Mikhail A. Moiseyev was simply routine and for literal “reasons of health.” Although Akhromeyev may well have been in poor health, the fact that his retirement was announced in New York by a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry suggests political conflict. There has been a wide-ranging debate over military affairs for more than a year, with the military on the defensive over a number of issues. It has resisted unilateral force reductions and protested civilian meddling in military affairs.

The proposed cuts themselves, if carried out, will go a substantial way toward correcting the military balance in Europe. These matters are complicated, and much depends on details that we do not have, but even what Gorbachev said on Dec. 7 is significant. First, he proposed to “withdraw by 1991 six tank divisions from East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and to disband them.” The best public source (the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London) identifies 11 Soviet tank divisions in East Germany, 2 in Czechoslovakia and 1 in Poland. Thus Gorbachev has proposed a reduction of more than 40%. He has also called for withdrawing 50,000 troops (out of about 500,000 stationed in these countries)--a 10% reduction--and 5,000 tanks. He has promised similar reductions in the “European part of the Soviet Union.” Perhaps most important, he promised reductions of “assault landing troops . . . including assault crossing units with their weapons and combat equipment.” These are forces that look particularly offensive to NATO, and their withdrawal would begin to give substance to Gorbachev’s claim that the Soviets are moving toward a “defensive only” doctrine.


Thus Gorbachev’s initiative at the United Nations reflects both a general strategy to reshape the Soviet image abroad and a specific set of military objectives. He needs to present a more benign Soviet face to the West to reduce the economic pressure of the arms race and to obtain time for restructuring Soviet society. He has risked the displeasure of his own military officers by taking action unilaterally and by imposing a new defensive military doctrine. His policy is clear, but there is not yet persuasive evidence that he has reduced military spending, and he has not yet accomplished the transition to a new military posture.

The U.N. initiative promises a first significant step to reduce military costs and to build a more defensive force. If he succeeds, he will set dynamics in motion that will shake Washington and NATO capitals in the months ahead.