1980s >> 1989 >> no-1015-march-1989

The Gorbachev Cuts

When Mikhail Gorbachev offered to cut Soviet forces in Europe by half a million, there was an enormous surge in the dollar on world stock markets. The cold war is no longer good business.

This thought was uppermost in the minds of the Politburo when they decided on their change in policy. The Soviet economy is in serious difficulties, and spending on arms is throttling the profitable redevelopment of civilian production. Officials concede that military spending is over 2£0bn, but it is probably lose to five times that amount, or 16 per cent of Gross National Product. Their total does not include the cost of weapons research, development and production, and fails to take into account the cost to the rest of the economy of the diversion of scientific personnel and the priority allocation of scarce material resources to the military sector. This should be set against an expected budget deficit of £33.3bn next year. The Russian press is openly calling for reductions in defence spending to arrest the continued decline in living standards. Cuts in nuclear forces of the sort envisaged in the START talks will have only limited benefits for the civilian economy. Large-scale cuts in the more expensive conventional sector can be expected to show immediate and tangible results, particularly in the release of skilled labour power.

The result of these economic pressures has been a shift in the basis of Soviet military strategy. After the Second World War emphasis was on the primacy of attack, and the building up of sufficient forces in East Europe and the western USSR to overwhelm NATO in the event of a war. The NATO countries meanwhile exploited their superior technological/economic base to counter the larger but cruder Soviet forces. Today, the Soviet economy can no longer support the scale of production required to maintain that numerical advantage. As a result, the doctrine of attack has been replaced by the defensive doctrine of “Reasonable Sufficiency”.

And this is not just a personal whim of Gorbachev. Military leaders are becoming concerned at the decreasing numbers of eighteen year-olds available for military service. There is also an increasingly vocal opposition to conscription in the turbulent Baltic republics and among university students, and the army is having increasingly to rely on “non-Russian” youths from Central Asia whose loyalty to the state cannot be guaranteed. When the Defence minister, Dmitri Yazov, addressed the armed forces in Red Square in November, he emphasised the need for a smaller, more professional and better equipped army along Western lines.

This is the background to cutbacks outlined by Gorbachev at the UN in December. He pledged to remove 10,000 tanks, 8,500 artillery pieces, 800 combat aircraft and 500,000 troops from eastern Europe and the Western military districts of the USSR within two years. Of particular significance is the decision to scrap six of the fifteen forward-based tank divisions in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. This will remove 5,000 tanks, or 40 per cent of Soviet strike potential on the Central Front. Assault crossing troops will also be withdrawn, along with their combat equipment. The cumulative effect of these measures will be to curtail severely the ability of Soviet forces to attack NATO from a standing start, especially in view of the series of river barriers which would have to be crossed. Furthermore, a reduction in forces in the western USSR would deprive an attack of critical reserves. Gorbachev has promised that the forces which remain would take up a defensive posture.

In political terms, this marks an important transition. The Cold War confrontation is being transformed, as the superpowers wrestle with declining economies and seek to consolidate their international positions by negotiating agreed spheres of influence which can be held at an acceptable cost. The Soviet state now accepts that the priority must be domestic reconstruction, which requires capital and technology from the West. It wants, therefore, to see a stable balance of power in Europe at much lower levels of force, while it pursues closer economic ties with the EEC; Gorbachev has called this the construction of a “common European House”. Last summer the Soviet state officially recognised the existence of the EEC, and despatched an ambassadorial team to talk about trade deals. At the end of October a German delegation packed with businessmen and bankers visited Moscow to put the finishing touches to a £1bn credit agreement to modernise Soviet light industry. Thirteen joint industrial ventures are already under way and thirty-five more were discussed during the talks.

The consequences of the new Soviet strategic thinking will be keenly felt in Eastern Europe. Gorbachev has explicitly renounced the so-called “Brezhnev doctrine” which committed the Soviet Union to intervene militarily if Moscow’s clients were in danger, as they were in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979. The troop cuts give substance to his assertion that military force cannot solve the economic problems faced by the Soviet Empire at this historical juncture.

In sum, we can say that the Soviet retreat from its garrison positions in east Europe and its reduced capacity for offensive conventional warfare have come about, not because Gorbachev is an overwhelmingly pacific character, but as a result of the economic weakness of the Soviet state. It should also be noted that this is not disarmament; the Soviet Union will still retain a formidable armed capability. The thrust of the present policy is to bring the structure of the armed forces into line with the capabilities of the economy and a growing crisis of labour power.

Andrew Thomas

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