COLUMN LEFT/ CARL LEVIN : If Yeltsin Goes, America Is Still Secure : Clinton budget foes argue for bigger outlays, but we would have years to meet any new Russian challenge.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) is chairman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on coalition defense and reinforcing forces.

Some critics of President Clinton’s budget blueprint are using the crisis facing Russia’s Boris Yeltsin as a rationale for higher military spending here at home. It is clearly in our interest to have Russia’s trend toward democratization continue. But even if Yeltsin falls, there is no immediate prospect of a renewed security threat from Russia that justifies higher U.S. defense budgets.

Plans still in place for the U.S. military are based on assessments that President Bush and his advisers made years ago. They assumed we would be facing military forces of a size and capability almost unimaginable now. Since they devised our “base force” to meet those perceived threats, the Soviet military has rapidly deteriorated.

The Warsaw Pact is gone and the former Soviet Union is divided, splintering the military and reducing weapons production. Russia can no longer rely on Warsaw Pact armies from East Germany and Poland--if it ever could. Political and ethnic divisions are boiling within Russia and funds for the military are extremely scarce.

The Red Army has dwindled to about half its former size, smaller than the forces of the European NATO countries. Morale among the remnants is low. Infrastructure, air defenses, supply and communications networks to support Red Army forces are also divided haphazardly among several states. Russia’s navy is crippled by insufficient fuel supplies and spare parts.


The Bush defense budget did not take into account these very real changes in the threat. The Clinton budget begins to do so, making an additional modest reduction from 1.6 million to 1.4 million in the active duty U.S. military. Many of our allies in Western Europe are making deeper cuts in their military forces. None of them has determined that Yeltsin’s situation merits reversal of the build-down in their armies.

It is unclear what the effect will be on Russia in the unfortunate event that Yeltsin does not survive as president. But there is no indication that any of his potential successors would be hostile to the United States, our allies or our direct security interests. Chaos and further disintegration of Russia into its ethnic component parts will keep Russian leaders busy, whoever they are.

Finally, if a security threat to the United States and its allies were to materialize, we would have ample time to respond politically or militarily. While he was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee last year, Les Aspin, now secretary of defense, concluded that the United States would have years of warning of a new Russian threat, enough to generate substantial forces from scratch.

The greatest potential threat from Russia, especially if Yeltsin falls and instability increases, is the thousands of nuclear weapons still deployed there, along with those that have been retired to storage. Command and control of these weapons, and their potential spread to other countries, pose a security threat to the United States and the world right now, even with Yeltsin in power. We cannot effectively counter the pressing threat of nuclear proliferation from Russia by keeping another 200,000 personnel in uniform or by spending billions more dollars for the Strategic Defense Initiative.

What we can do is to speed the use of funds already available for dismantling and securing of Russian weapons. And we need far stronger controls on ballistic-missile technology and a much tougher system of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. We can have both for a fraction of the cost of planned “Star Wars” research.

Our nuclear deterrent will remain strong, even at greatly reduced levels. And if a change of leadership in Russia stops or slows down missile retirements planned under the START and START II treaties, we could take similar action at a very low cost.

The best way to assure a continued decline in any military threat from our former adversary is to play a leadership role in supporting the development of democracy in Russia, and getting our allies to help.

The Clinton defense budget is the right response to changes in the former Soviet Union, because it begins addressing post-Cold War threats and makes appropriate reductions from Bush’s plans, so as to help get our civilian economy going again. The challenge faced by Boris Yeltsin does not justify increasing the Clinton budget.

The Cold War is over, but old Cold War thinking is not. Red ink, not the Red Army, is the greater challenge to preserving America’s strength.