REVEALING the true colors of a tyrant, Mikhail Gorbachev now seeks to thwart the democratic will of the independent republics of his former empire by bidding for the support of the veteran Red Army generals.
He is responding to the declaration of independence and formation of a commonwealth by Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia by encouraging what amounts to a military coup.
That puts the truth nakedly, but even his remaining apologists in the West cannot escape this fact: He seeks to enlist the power of arms to overrule the decision of elected representatives of the freed peoples.
The new line of our discredited stay-in-the-union set is that Gorbachev is seeking only to control the nuclear weaponry in four of the newly independent states, and that it is in the interest of world safety that the West discreetly support his struggle to maintain central Kremlin control.
The opposite is true. The danger to order in the former internal empire comes from entrenched apparatchiks seducing the troubled military. The resistance of the unelectable old guard to ineluctable change is the main source of instability.
What is causing the U.S. ambassador, Robert Strauss, to bewail the "wild card" of the Red Army, and inducing our new director of central intelligence to send solons to dictionaries with his predictions of "xenophobic atavism"?
Not the responsible and orderly transfer of power undertaken by Boris Yeltsin, until recently the object of scorn as a "buffoon" by Brent Scowcroft, President Bush's much-touted strategic aide. Not the historic referendum for freedom by Ukraine, instructed not to indulge in "suicidal nationalism" by Bush in his infamous "Chicken Kiev" speech.
On the contrary; the fears of upheaval and chaos being fanned by so many union-minded Gorbachevites are caused by the clique trying to exaggerate those fears to cling to power. In the French proverb quoted by Madame de Pompadour to Louis XV: Apres nous le deluge.
Consider what Gorbachev, reformer without a cause, has done in response to this week's swift but peaceable replacement of the Soviet Union with a commonwealth of the core republics.
He marched to the old Defense Ministry, reminded the generals that he still held the title of commander in chief and admonished Marshal Shaposhnikov for having prematurely welcomed the commonwealth's proposal of a sharing of "strategic military space."
If the defense minister had been Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev, Gorbachev's first choice to replace the faithless Marshal Yazov after the August coup, few doubt that the Red Army chief would have saluted and obeyed Gorbachev orders to assert the Kremlin center's military control over the republics.
But Shaposhnikov was a Yeltsin choice, and is torn between protecting his sponsor and saving his officer corps from the hardships of demobilization. He temporized.
In the face of this threat from the old union's Defense Ministry, Yeltsin did what he did during the August coup: went publicly to the Russian regional commanders (and privately to the arm of the KGB in Moscow now under his control). He promised "to make the life of servicemen better" to counter the Gorbachev bribes.
Thus has Gorbachev's appeal to military leaders increased the potential for civil war, even as he hints at its dire consequences. More likely, however, the Gorbachev military move has started a different kind of war -- a bidding war between politicians for the support of the military.
The first thing the new republic's economies need is a drastic reduction in military spending; the last thing needed is pressure to maintain expensive forces. But if you were a general, with your lifelong colleagues facing unemployment, wouldn't you play one politician off against the other?
Postponing demobilization takes food off civilian tables and prevents recovery. That is the terrible consequence of Gorbachev's latest grab for power.
Our diplomatists should stop wistfully dreaming of him as a source of stability and see him for what he has become in his final throes: a tinhorn despot reaching for military mastery; a source not of nuclear control but of civil upheaval; and a man trying to arrange a deluge to follow his certain downfall.