Beware, the Army Is the Soviet Institution That Works


May 30, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

THE HAGUE — The Hague. - Civilian control of the military is now an issue in the Soviet Union, where it was never a problem before.

In the past, military subordination to government and ruling Communist Party was not only a matter of principle but was enforced by the system of political commissars in the army, parallel to the army command structure, which originated with Trotsky in the civil war.

Today the disintegration of party and state authority leaves the army the only solid all-union structure that survives in the Soviet Union. It is a socially and nationally integrated force, with an officer corps that considers the army to be the guarantor of constitutional order.

Military industry remains the working part of the Soviet industrial economy, which otherwise is in decomposition as a consequence of Mikhail Gorbachev's structural reform projects foundering in incoherence and indecision.

The Western debate over aid to the Soviet Union considers mainly the civilian economy. But the military control the high-technology industrial sector and remain the biggest single consumer of the nation's production and resources.

Mikhail Gorbachev himself has acknowledged that the U.S.S.R. has ''the most militarized economy in the world and the largest defense expenditures,'' still consuming (according to him in 1990) some 18 percent of Soviet national income. Others, of course, put that figure higher.

Thus the military establishment itself is an enormous obstacle to that redeployment of resources essential to successful reform as well as to the success of any program of foreign aid.

At the same time, the army finds itself with a humiliatingly reversed professional mission. Defender for the past 40 years of an East European defensive glacis that reached to the Elbe River, the army during the past two years has been compelled to carry out a unilateral withdrawal, subsidized by its former enemies, yielding positions conquered at atrocious cost during World War II.

Its mission today increasingly is an internal one, a development of considerable import for the U.S.S.R. It now defends what remains of the political order, repressing separatists and autonomists in the Baltics, the Transcaucasian republics and Moldavia. No army likes political duties of this kind police work and the logical reaction is to blame the political leaders who have brought army and country to such a pass.

Russian army officers also experience a devastating loss of social standing and respect, and even of economic security, as a consequence of the country's crisis and the East European and East German withdrawals.

Sergey Rogov, of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, reports that last year there were more than 173,000 officers without official housing in the U.S.S.R. Thirty-thousand more now are arriving from Hungary, Czechoslovakia and, eventually, from Poland. Sixty-three thousand military families and 13,000 unmarried officers are returning from East Germany.

The German government is building housing in the Soviet Union for these returning troops as part of its program of aid to expedite their retreat a bizarre transaction, humiliating to the Soviet officer corps. Germany's assistance, however, is still not enough, and proposals have been made that the other Western powers put up more funds.

This comes when the United States is asking its allies to pay for its own military redeployment in a new role as guarantor of international order. That presents the bizarre prospect of both ''superpowers'' being subsidized by the Western allies to maintain military establishments geared to levels of mutual deterrence of slight relevance today.

The Soviet subsidy, however, may be a cheap price to pay for removing Soviet power from Central and Eastern Europe, considering the alternative.

Mr. Rogov was one of the Soviet participants in a meeting just held at The Hague under the auspices of the Netherlands Foreign and Defense Ministries and the Netherlands Atlantic Commission, comparing the Western systems of parliamentary control of the military with those emerging or failing to emerge satisfactorily in the formerly Communist countries in the East.

The fact is that good armies do not disintegrate as the political structure in which they exist decomposes. They are left intact as the authority of the state recedes.

They are, if anything, strengthened as their leaders realize that power to organize and command rests with them, while it is being lost elsewhere. And armies, of course, are by definition forces of nationalism and conservatism.

The principal threat to the Soviet Union today is the threat of disintegration posed by the collapse of the national economy and the autonomist or independence movements in the republics.

The country's integrating forces in the past were the state apparatus and the Communist Party. The former now experiences chaotic pressures as a result of perestroika, and the latter has for more than four years been in full political as well as moral retreat or rout.

The Soviet army remains intact. It would be scare-mongering to say that there will be a military takeover in the Soviet Union, or a militarization of the Soviet state, but these are possibilities that no longer can prudently be dismissed.

Moreover, there is very little the Western powers can do to influence the outcome, whatever Mikhail Gorbachev thinks.

A fundamental condition of the Soviet crisis is that the collapse of state and party structures prevents foreign economic assistance from producing seriously constructive effects. It is, as a European diplomat with much experience in the U.S.S.R. has recently said, water cast on sand.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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