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Soviets Can Make Cuts Be Major or Minor

December 11, 1988|STEPHEN M. MEYER | Stephen M. Meyer is the director of Soviet security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for International Studies

According to Mikhail S. Gorbachev, 500,000 men, 10,000 tanks, 8,500 artillery pieces and 800 aircraft will be unilaterally cut from Soviet conventional forces by 1991. Has Christmas come early for NATO?

This gesture was a long time in coming. Twice in the past two years, it was rumored that about five Soviet divisions would be withdrawn unilaterally from Eastern Europe. Nothing happened, and as late as last summer, Gorbachev was still insisting that there would be no unilateral cuts in Soviet conventional forces. Mutual asymmetric reductions were necessary--the position of conservative elements in the political leadership and the military.

In high-level Soviet discussions last spring about the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces, Defense Minister Dmitri T. Yazov and then-Chief of the General Staff Sergei Akhromeyev pointedly noted that no cuts in armed forces personnel would result from the INF reductions. No one questioned this position, and subsequently officers and soldiers from disbanded missile units were reassigned to other jobs. Isn't it curious that this obvious opportunity to reduce personnel was passed over only six months ago?

Gorbachev must have faced a fairly solid consensus against any major unilateral cuts until the Central Committee meeting this fall produced a shift in political forces within the Politburo. The political realignment that followed at least temporarily removed the opposition. With its likely Politburo patrons neutralized, the military's vehement objection to unilateral cuts lost political relevance. The Soviet military is not a powerful independent force in Soviet politics; Marshal Akhromeyev's presumed retirement-in-protest and Gen. Yazov's threat to retire are pretty meager responses to Gorbachev's fundamental challenge.

The high politics of this decision suggest that, independent of the new morality, these cuts represent to Soviet political and military leaders more than a publicity stuntor a cost-free gesture. There is a strong relationship between Soviet leadership politics and policy changes. Nikita Khrushchev, at an analogous height of his political power, initiated far-larger cuts in the Soviet military Establishment. Yet within a few years of his ouster, Soviet conventional military power was once again growing in all dimensions.

Meanwhile, there is a curious mismatch in the numbers that Gorbachev mentioned. The six Soviet tank divisions to be removed from East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia comprise at least 70,000 men and about 2,000 tanks. Yet Gorbachev said that 50,000 men and 5,000 tanks would be removed. If this discrepancy is not the result of hasty preparation, then 20,000 men from these units will be reassigned to other jobs with Soviet forces in Eastern Europe while a little more than 100 tanks from each of the 26 remaining Soviet divisions will be removed.

The key seems to lie in Gorbachev's claim that the remaining Soviet divisions in Eastern Europe are being restructured. The Soviet army has for a number of years been experimenting with a corps structure--the merger of two divisions into a single, leaner unit. While Gorbachev paints this restructuring in terms of moving toward a more defensive posture, Soviet military commentaries suggest that this new approach offers equivalent offensive fighting power with better economies of manpower and equipment. If the equipment reductions are made among older-generation systems, then overall readiness levels in these units may actually increase.

The removal of assault units and bridging equipment from Eastern Europe--if carried out--adds yet another wrinkle. If one subscribes to the often-mentioned threat of a short-warning Soviet blitzkrieg attack against Western Europe, then one cannot help but be impressed by this gesture. It further reduces the efficacy of a surprise Warsaw Pact heavy armor attack. But quite frankly, this "threat" has been more hype (good for bludgeoning defense dollars out of Congress) than anything else. A premeditated Warsaw Pact attack on NATO would require many weeks, if not months, of preparation and mobilization. While the return of this equipment to the front would complicate already huge logistics problems, it would not be a major constraining factor if the Soviet Union decided to go to war. Nevertheless, these changes represent useful confidence-building measures.

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