The Puzzle of a Russia in Retreat


April 01, 1991|By HENRY KISSINGER

The weakening of the central authority of America's principal strategic rival is certainly a short-term geopolitical advantage. It reduces the immediate military threat while creating new opportunity to ease local crises. Soviet restraint in the Gulf War exemplified the extent of Moscow's preoccupation with its domestic problems.

At the same time, a collapse of the Soviet Union would produce dangers of its own. Almost all the Soviet republics contain large, unhappy minorities. Civil war could trigger mass migration into the fragile new democracies of Eastern Europe or into adjoining countries in the Middle East. Repression could spill over into military action against neighboring territories. And who in the end will control the Soviet military forces, especially the nuclear forces? What will be the legal status of existing agreements with the Soviet Union?

Since the 18th century the Russian monolithic state has been pressing against its borders. Historians are still debating whether the seemingly inexorable Russian expansion sprang from inherent aggressiveness or from having extensive open frontiers and suffering repeated foreign invasions. Russia's neighbors would have found such disputes academic, for nothing they did seemed to assuage their relentless neighbor: Since the 18th century, Russian armies have invaded Europe at least a dozen times. In the 19th century they pressed on Asia and the Middle East; the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 was essentially over the control of Manchuria and Korea.

But Russia's historic role in preventing hegemony in Europe (even while, at times, itself seeking it) must also be recognized. The defeats of Napoleon, of Imperial Germany and of Hitler would have been impossible without Russian help. Thus Russia faces us with a paradox. When monolithic, it threatens domination; but if impotent, it threatens disequilibrium.

The ideal outcome for both the peace of the world and for the Soviet Union would be a state strong enough to defend itself but not so centralized as to be able to conduct geopolitical offensives; sufficiently cohesive to fulfill aspirations truly common to all its peoples but not subject to absolutist rulers manipulating foreign dangers and embarking on international proselytizing missions.

Such a Russia has never existed. But any likely outcome must diminish significantly the Soviet capacity to project large ground armies abroad, especially against technologically advanced countries. In case of a new crackdown of central authority the reasons will be practical: saving the army to control domestic unrest combined with the inability to modernize during inevitable economic isolation. In the event that the constituent Soviet republics form a loose confederation it will be for structural reasons: the inability to command a consensus for expansionism.

Repression would surely strain the economic and cultural links with the industrial democracies created since perestroika. Soviet leaders might then well revert to invoking the familiar specter of a hostile world. But the security context would be quite unlike that of the Cold War.

For one thing, the isolation that would result from repression would widen the technological gap between the Soviet Union and the industrial democracies, progressively reducing the Soviet military potential. Then, the Soviet armed forces would be located 800 miles farther east, and the need for vast standing armies might well be challenged internally. So long as the Soviet Union maintains a substantial nuclear arsenal -- as it is sure to do -- it will be able to deter invasion by the implicit threat of nuclear retaliation.

Thus, while instinct may draw Soviet leaders toward repression, realism may counsel confederation of at least the core republics (Russia, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Byelorussia) and probably several of the others except the Baltic states, whose independence seems inevitable. In time, Soviet leaders may even recognize that expansionism has been the bane of Soviet history and that security can best be achieved by a more defensive posture. For only thus can they gain access to the aid, investment and technology they need to become a modern state.

In either case, a shift in Soviet priorities is likely. When Bismarck expelled the Austrian Empire from Germany, he advised the Austrian ambassador that his country should shift its center of gravity from Vienna to Budapest. The recent turmoil bids fair to move the Russian center of gravity east of the Urals. An integrated, technologically advanced Europe and a Japan on the way to becoming an economic superpower -- both backed militarily by the United States -- are too formidable to challenge directly.

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