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How to Aid a Country That’s Coming Apart : Caution and emotion compete as Soviet winter grows closer

The Soviet Union as it has existed for the last half-century is no more. A successor system has yet to emerge, though desperate efforts are going forward to salvage from the ruins of the old some broad measures of economic and political cooperation among the 15 republics. That process, even if it can be quickly completed, will do little to head off expected near-term economic catastrophe. The Soviet Union--to continue using what has become only a term of convenience--urgently needs foreign help. On that everyone agrees. But where exactly is that help to come from, and to whom can it most effectively go?

The second question has begun to answer itself in the last few days. At their meeting in Kennebunkport last week, President Bush and Britain’s Prime Minister John Major agreed that the West should forget about trying to channel help through a central government that has demonstrably become incapable of governing, and instead deal directly with the separate republics. “Life-line teams” are to be sent soon to weigh the food needs of the republics as winter approaches. This makes sense in terms of putting emergency shipments of food and medical supplies where they are most needed. Logistically, though, it is a potential nightmare. The effort to assure an equitable and efficient distribution of relief could require complicated and costly air- and sealifts of supplies to each separate, needy republic.

The reason such an effort will probably be required is among the reasons that the Soviets face such calamitous shortages. The problem isn’t so much that crops have failed--in most cases, plenty is planted and much is harvested. The problem is that enormous quantities of food never reach consumers but instead go to waste because of wholly inadequate transportation and storage systems. Shortages seem sure to go on until these systems--roads, rail lines, refrigerated trucks and warehouses and the like--are modernized. That’s likely to take years, maybe decades, and require billions in investment.

The humanitarian impulse calls for pitching in with as much American aid as can be given. The practical voice asks how this help would be paid for, particularly in a time of recession and staggering budget deficits. Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, offers one intriguing answer. He proposes transferring up to $1 billion from the coming year’s military budget to provide humanitarian aid to Soviet citizens. Aspin calls his idea, which would affect less than 0.5% of the Pentagon’s budget, “defense by different means.” The defense in this instance involves helping to alleviate conditions that threaten Soviet stability and so international peace.

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The Pentagon, unsurprisingly, is appalled at the idea. President Bush, while not dismissing it, says it’s premature. Maybe, but it’s also worth a closer look, not least at its fiscal virtues: No new appropriations would be required, the budget agreement would not be disturbed, the deficit would not be increased. And, in a still evolving new era that has already seen the strategic threat to the West recede notably, national security would not be jeopardized.

The Soviet Union, and its successor, is going to need international help for a long time to come. It’s going to need emergency aid in the next few months, and after that it’s going to need an enormous amount of foreign investment, technical advice, loans and credits to rebuild its infrastructure and shape a market economy. Aspin and others in Congress think a modest diversion of Pentagon funds could help greatly to lessen the immediate threat facing ordinary Soviet citizens. It’s an idea worth careful and serious examination. But quickly, please, because the threat of hunger that now hangs over a country in disintegration is destined only to grow larger.


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