Soviet Military Shakeup

August 27, 1991

Somewhere in the vast land area that is or was the Soviet Union and on its ships at sea, there are still 4 million military personnel, 27,000 nuclear warheads and thousands of tanks, aircraft, artillery and other instruments of war or population suppression. How this vast force will be shaken up, downsized and distributed as the nation unravels is a security question for the whole world.

Warning bells were ringing following reports that putschists seized Mikhail S. Gorbachev's equivalent of a nuclear black box before their attempted coup d'etat collapsed. Nevertheless, U.S. experts are convinced there is virtually no danger that "renegade" military elements could or would grab control of weaponry capable of launching a strategic attack against the West.

Still, the upheaval shaking the Soviet military establishment is so monumental that other nations can scarcely be indifferent. The West's alliances and military spending are largely a response to the perceived Soviet threat. To the extent it dissipates or internalizes, it will affect military budgeting worldwide and, hence, the global economy.

The key question is what happens to the Soviet forces as six or more republics secede, the central government shrivels and the Russian Republic gains more and more power. Of the 22 ICBM deployment fields in the Soviet Union, only four are outside Russia. None of these intercontinental rockets can be launched without authorities punching the correct key codes in Moscow.

Who are these authorities? For the moment, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the reformist officers he has newly placed in charge of the Defense Ministry and the KGB. But with Soviet authority being subsumed by Russian authority, a new situation is developing. Whoever controls Moscow controls the armed forces. These could be preeminently Russian armed forces under Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

Russia's security concerns, like the concerns of any other nation, are a function of geography and whatever the current power dTC balance may be. For all of the Cold War period, Soviet military commanders were transfixed with the need to defend Muscovy with forward bases in the Baltics. Hence, their resistance to Baltic independence. Now that it has become inevitable, the rejuvenated Soviet high command will have to reassess -- and come to the logical conclusion that there is no longer a threat from the West (if there has ever been).

The more promising external outlook, however, contrasts with the troubling internal situation within Soviet borders. Ethnic disputes, nationalist passions and republican rivalry could lead to serious strife. An exchange with tactical nuclear weapons is not inconceivable. What is left of the Soviet Union could be Yugoslavia writ large.

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