Overshadowed by more dramatic events in Russia, Moscow is steadily unwinding one of the last vestiges of its once-formidable European empire.
With remarkable precision, the pullout of Russian military forces from the former Soviet satellite states of Central and Eastern Europe appears to be continuing largely on schedule, according to those monitoring the troop movements.
Despite the political turmoil at home, both discipline and morale are said be holding, Western military sources said.
Out of an estimated 600,000 Soviet troops deployed in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, about 113,000 are said to remain in the region today, most of them in eastern Germany.
“The (withdrawal) operation is running according to plan . . . and I don’t see anything that would keep it from staying that way,” Maj. Gen. Hartmut Foertsch, the German army officer responsible for liaison with Russian forces, told reporters earlier this week.
The withdrawal of about 180,000 Soviet troops stationed in Czechoslovakia and Hungary during the Cold War has already been completed.
About 4,000 troops, mainly logistics personnel, remain as the final elements of the 55,000-strong Soviet force once deployed in Poland, while well over half of the 380,000 Red Army soldiers based in the former East Germany have returned home.
At the time of the collapse of Moscow’s East European empire, there were no operational Soviet military units stationed in Bulgaria or Romania.
The last Russians are expected to leave Poland by the end of this year and, according to Foertsch, fewer than 40,000 will still be in Germany at that time.
“We anticipate the withdrawal will be completed as scheduled by the end of August, 1994,” he said.
Only in the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia--until 1991 part of the Soviet Union--have there been consistent reports of delays in the pullout of Russian forces and tension between Moscow and the host governments.
In the latest of a series of public statements by Baltic and Russian authorities on the issue, Russian Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev declared at a meeting of NATO and former Warsaw Pact defense ministers in Brussels on Monday that deteriorating social conditions in Russia, coupled with a lack of housing for returning servicemen, had forced a suspension of pullouts from all three Baltic states.
Grachev’s comments follow other, similar statements in recent months and are viewed by some Western analysts as linked more to the present power struggle in Moscow than to the pullout itself.
“It is not pleasant to hear, but it’s become pretty standard stuff,” said Jan Trapans, coordinator of external relations for the Munich-based RFE/RL Research Institute, who recently returned from the Baltics. “There was a lot of frustration (in the Baltic states) at the lack of progress.”
Still, even here, there has been movement.
U.S. intelligence estimated the strength of Moscow’s military forces in the three Baltic nations at the time of their independence from the Soviet Union at around 130,000. By early last month, there were indications that just under 50,000 Russian troops were still there.
Western analysts, including Trapans, said that while the structure of the Russian forces in the Baltics gave them only a marginal military value--some units there are said now to have more officers than men--they remain politically useful for Moscow, partly as a support for the major Russian military bases in Kaliningrad, to the west, and partly as a tacit protector of the large Russian minorities in the region.
Elsewhere in the former Eastern Bloc, however, there appear to be few problems.
All Russian troops are expected to be out of Poland by the end of 1993, and senior German army officers responsible for monitoring the withdrawal of Russian forces from Germany claim that events in Russia have had only a marginal impact on the 109,000 soldiers and 81,000 dependents and civilian staff that remain in the country.
“The morale at the moment is very high because the living conditions basically are better here than in Russia,” Foertsch told reporters. “Those who are here have a roof over their heads, a job and are paid in hard currency.
“That doesn’t alleviate all the worry and uncertainty about their own futures, but they count,” he said.
In Senate testimony Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher expressed concern that Russian soldiers returning home without homes or jobs could add to already severe social tensions in Russia. To help alleviate some of these shortages, he said, the United States is considering sending American specialists to help supervise housing construction there.
In part, however, these worries have been eased by a massive, $4.7-billion construction program, underwritten by the German government, to build 36,000 housing units in the former Soviet Union for returning troops and their families. According to German sources, more than 8,500 units have been completed and another 17,500 are either under construction or in planning.
Foertsch said the Russian force in eastern Germany is no longer a military threat because it is effectively cut off from its motherland and does not have the structure of an integrated fighting unit.