A New Russian Threat? Not Soon


April 09, 1993|By JEFFREY RECORD

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Those who cannot accept the fact that the Cold War's demise permits major cuts in defense spending are pointing to the prospect of Russia's reversion to a reactionary, ultra-nationalist state.

Such a scenario is certainly plausible, given Russian history and the present economic chaos in that country. Russia has little experience with either democracy or modern capitalism. Autocracy was the hallmark of both czarist and communist Russia, and even Boris Yeltsin has threatened to rule by decree.

Conservative and reactionary sentiment is already building among a dispossessed communist nomenklatura, an impoverished military-industrial complex and a demoralized military establishment. All have been profoundly humiliated by the rapid and unexpected transformation of the Soviet superpower into a basket case.

Even a reactionary and ultra-nationalist regime in Moscow, however, could not hope to reconstitute the kind of global threat to U.S. and Western security posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. New geographic realities, the embarrassment of Operation Desert Storm, and huge force losses driven by economic weakness and the Soviet Union's disintegration have all combined to preclude resurrection of a Soviet-style military threat.

Consider, for example, Europe's new military geography. Just five years ago, an attack-oriented 20-division force was deployed in the heart of Europe, only 100 miles from the Rhine River and 300 miles from the English Channel. Defending NATO forces, though powerful, had little room to maneuver and depended heavily on reinforcements coming from North America across 3,000 miles of water. Soviet forces facing NATO enjoyed secure land lines of communication stretching just a few hundred miles across Eastern Europe to the Soviet border.

Today the Warsaw Pact no longer exists and Russian forces are leaving eastern Germany, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Russian forces are also evacuating Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states, which once formed the West ern Military Districts of the old Soviet Union. Russian forces now would have to travel almost 1,000 miles simply to reach reunified Germany's eastern border. That's a long march, and it would likely be hotly contested by countries along the way.

The loss of empire in Eastern Europe and in the Baltics and Ukraine also torpedoes any effective attempt to challenge U.S. supremacy at sea. The Russian navy, always short on easy access to the high seas, is now being stripped of all but one secure base in the Baltic (Saint Petersburg), and has lost to Ukraine its huge naval complex at Sevastapol in the Black Sea as well as much of its Black Sea Fleet.

A Russian military leadership already demoralized by the abrupt loss of superpower status has been further disheartened by increasing qualitative inferiority to the West in both manpower and weaponry. Operation Desert Storm, which was conducted against an army recruited, organized and equipped along the Soviet model, revealed the vastly greater fighting power of the highly motivated and well-trained volunteer soldier over the sullen and poorly-trained conscript.

Desert Storm also revealed a pronounced U.S. superiority over Russia not only in such military technologies as stealth bombers and airborne systems that track and detect distant enemy ground forces on the move, but also, more surprisingly, in some less exalted technologies in which the Russians were regarded as pre-eminent, such as main battle tanks. Against the U.S. M-1 Abrams, the vaunted Russian T-72 might as well have been made of cardboard. The few Abramses that were destroyed or damaged beyond repair were all victims of friendly fire from other Abrams tanks.

During the Cold War, which began and ended in Europe, the Soviet Union relied on a combination of geographic advantage and numerical superiority to offset NATO's qualitatively better forces. Russia is now geographically disadvantaged, and is fast losing its numerical advantage.

Huge chunks of the old Soviet military establishment were transferred to Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other non-Russian republics; desertion and mass draft avoidance have crippled recruiting; plummeting defense spending and acute fuel shortages (Russian oil production has dropped 50 percent in the past seven years) have immobilized most of the Russian navy and much of its air force, and Moscow is now implementing an arms-control agreement that eliminates Russia's longstanding numerical superiority in the vast region between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains.

In sum, a new Russian government, even if decidedly hostile to the U.S. would inherit a broken military establishment that would take at least a decade to ''fix'' to the point where it could pose a truly global threat to the West. For the foreseeable future Russia will remain a regional power, and the United States the world's only superpower.

Jeffrey Record is author of ''Hollow Victory,'' a recently published book on the Persian Gulf War.

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