Prospects for Gorbachev Reforms? Cheney Backpedals Slightly

Times Staff Writer

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, backpedaling a bit, said Wednesday that there is no “significant difference” between his and President Bush’s views on the prospects for Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s reform efforts.

Cheney last week strayed from Administration policy and predicted in a television interview that Gorbachev would fail and be replaced by a hard-liner. No other government official had publicly offered such a gloomy assessment.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Cheney said that he spoke last week “perhaps with more candor than was warranted.”


Cheney said that his views remain “somewhat pessimistic” about Gorbachev’s prospects, while Bush has expressed hope that the Soviet leader’s reform program will succeed.

“We don’t see those as conflicting or contradictory statements,” Cheney said.

Cheney, who appeared before the panel to discuss the Pentagon’s budget proposal, said he had met with Bush on Tuesday and the two had “chuckled” at press reports of a split within the Administration on Gorbachev’s future and how to respond to the Soviet leader’s initiatives.

The Pentagon chief insisted that the United States should not unilaterally cut its defense spending or trim its military forces until the ultimate direction of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev becomes clear.

“I don’t believe that as secretary of defense I can recommend to the nation that we ought to make fundamental adjustments in our policy or reallocation of our resources away from the military sector based upon what the fates might or might not have in store for Mr. Gorbachev and his reforms inside the Soviet Union,” Cheney told the committee.

A retired Soviet general, visiting the United States as part of a peace delegation, derided Cheney’s opinions as “old thinking.”

“I have never heard that Mr. Cheney is an expert on the Soviet Union,” Lt. Gen. Mikhail Milshtein, currently a military analyst at Moscow’s Institute for the Study of the U.S.A. and Canada, said in an interview this week. “I doubt very much if Mr. Cheney really knows the political situation in Russia and the position of Mr. Gorbachev.”


He said that Cheney made his comments “for a purpose”--to rationalize continued high levels of defense spending and to support Washington’s cautious approach to arms control talks with Moscow.

“The United States, to justify anything in their military policy, has always presented the Soviet Union as the reason. Cheney talks of the possible fall of Gorbachev and says, ‘Be careful,’ ” Milshtein, 78, said.

“It’s obvious the United States needs a perestroika (restructuring) in its political and military thinking and it goes to people in the Pentagon especially,” the general said, using Gorbachev’s term for his efforts to reorient the Soviet economy. “It’s about time for them to look at these problems from a different angle.”

Milshtein said that Gorbachev firmly controls power in the Kremlin, despite Cheney’s observation that conservative elements who oppose his reforms ultimately are likely to oust him. “Some people are doubting, but the majority are supporting Gorbachev,” Milshtein said.

The general said that the Soviet Union is not only withdrawing troops and tanks from Eastern Europe, it is restructuring the remaining units “to give them a defensive character.” He said the process is expected to take about two years.