Commentary Magazine


The Soviet Threat

To the Editor:

. . . At some point in the course of Angelo M. Codevilla’s article, “Is There Still a Soviet Threat?” [November 1988], I found myself wondering why, if things were so bad, the Finlandization of Western Europe had not already occurred. Various answers suggested themselves: (1) It is much more difficult to invade territory than to defend it, and therefore the Soviet Union does not yet possess so substantial an advantage as to be deemed a credible threat; (2) the troop reliability of Warsaw Pact forces is, to say the least, poor . . .; (3) notwithstanding Soviet civil-defense efforts and the reduced credibility of U.S. strategic arsenals in the wake of a conventional invasion, substantial damage to valued Soviet assets is credibly threatened by the British and French nuclear arsenals, should the Soviets over-whelm NATO troops; (4) the Soviets would rather engage in adventurism on the strategic periphery, thus maximizing their cost/benefit ratio, than confront NATO head on; (5) though some facts suggest an offensive Soviet posture, others might bear a different interpretation. For example, the forward deployment, and greater integration, of Warsaw Pact forces under Soviet command is very likely a way of guaranteeing that the Soviets retain control of their bloc, especially in a crisis, as much as anything else.

These are only the most obvious of the explanations for the fact that, notwithstanding superiority in materiel, Western Europe has not yet been “Finlandized,” much less invaded. If these are among the “intangibles” to which Mr. Codevilla alludes with contempt, I am amazed that he shrugs them off. Clearly, they are as much a part of the strategic equation as materiel. . . .

In view of such considerations, it seems to me that our civil and military leaders are neither so stupid nor so unpatriotic as might be inferred from Mr. Codevilla’s article. . . . I am, relatively speaking, a hard-liner, but I believe that shrill, tendentious articles like Mr. Codevilla’s do more harm than good, by damaging the credibility of hard-line positions in a situation where many are all too eager to grasp the soft line. . . .

Michael David Blume
Annapolis, Maryland

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To the Editor:

. . . I think Angelo M. Codevilla and many others err when they connect the Soviet Communist system per se with a military threat to the Western world. . . . It is not Communism but Russia itself, regardless of which political system happens to be in power, which is the threat. Mr. Codevilla says “a Soviet Union governed by traditional Russian conservatives . . . would be a pleasant problem to have.” On the contrary, traditional conservative Russia was an expansionist, aggressive nation, always feeling about for opportunities to increase Russian power. The threat to us derives not from Communism but from Russian nationalism, though knee-jerk hostility toward Communism continues to blind many to this fact. . . .

I doubt that the Russians are capable of developing Western-style liberalism, . . . but even if they were, there would still be the old Russian insecurities to contend with. Nor should we forget that a liberalized society too can be dynamically and aggressively expansionistic. . . . Consider the fact that Britain’s imperialistic expansion took place in an atmosphere of political liberalizing at home. Consider finally that the United States, always a Westernized liberal nation, fought aggressive wars with Mexico and Spain and expanded its influence worldwide while proclaiming liberal ideals.

Russia, the nation that Kipling called “the bear that walks like a man,” is not going to be miraculously transformed by glasnost and Perestroika into an innocuous teddy bear.

Joseph Forbes
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

Angelo M. Codevilla accurately notes that the current period of neo-détente in this country masks the fact that there is still a Soviet threat in this world. . . .

Doubts about Soviet aggressive designs in Europe should have been dispelled by the discovery of a spy ring in Europe headed by U.S. Army Sergeant Clyde Conrad. This ring provided information on NATO nuclear-missile sites, communications, battle plans, supplies, and reserves. . . .

Though by itself the Conrad ring was not nearly as serious as the Walker spy ring, which provided Moscow with the ability to decipher millions of U.S. Navy messages, it was nonetheless a serious spy operation. It also strongly suggests the existence of other such rings all over NATO Europe. But even more important is that it shows that the Soviet Union takes invading Europe seriously. Why else would it want NATO battle plans and other such information? The Soviets know they may have to invade Europe someday and thus want to be able to win. . . .

The INF treaty has removed the one force in Europe, Pershing and Tomahawk missiles, that can guarantee the destruction, on short notice, of the second and third echelons of the Soviet army. It is these follow-on forces that are the real threat in any invasion of Europe, and Pershings and Tomahawk missiles were put in Europe precisely to hold them hostage, and thus be able more effectively to flesh out NATO’s nuclear deterrent ability. Other systems are simply incapable of credibly threatening these forces. . . .

Thus the threat is real, and recent events have made it more ominous for the future. Whether we will act is unfortunately doubtful.

Michael Daly
Wakefield, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

. . . As Angelo M. Codevilla points out, the defense spending of the United States—in real terms—has been decreasing for the past four years at an alarming rate. Even more important, as Mr. Codevilla emphasizes, is the fact that U.S. capability vis-à-vis the USSR has been declining at an accelerated pace. Years ago we could get away with dismissing Soviet numerical superiority, content with the knowledge that the quality of our weapons was superior to the Soviets. But as Mr. Codevilla notes, this is no longer the case. . . .

The situation President Bush faces today is far more serious than the one President Reagan inherited from the Carter administration. In 1980 Reagan was elected partly on a promise to close the window of vulnerability—a situation in which the USSR could theoretically eliminate the land-based leg of the U.S. strategic-nuclear triad by expending only a relatively small fraction of its ICBM force. By holding most of its strategic forces in reserve, the USSR could then credibly deter the United States from launching a retaliatory strike by threatening to annihilate its population centers. What President would be crazy enough to order a retaliatory strike at the USSR knowing that he would be signing the death warrants of hundreds of millions of American civilians? Obviously, the side that gets the first strike in is the side that dictates the surrender terms of its opponent in the nuclear age. To make a long and dismal story short, the Reagan administration has done nothing to close the window of vulnerability. In fact, as Senator Sam Nunn has noted, the window has opened even wider during the Reagan administration. . . .

It should be noted that the window of vulnerability is not merely a fixation among right-wing ideologues. Democrats within the Carter administration were also deeply concerned about the growing exposure of U.S. strategic-nuclear assets to a Soviet first strike. This is precisely why Carter decided to deploy 200 MX missiles on an enormous racetrack in the Nevada and Utah desert. Although there were certainly flaws . . . in this proposal, it made a lot more sense than what the Reagan administration ultimately did with the MX missiles. By deciding to deploy them in existing (and vulnerable) Minuteman missile silos, not only did the administration fail to solve our strategic dilemma, but it gave the Soviets an even more inviting target. . . .

If President Bush is indeed serious about his commitment to build a strong defense, he should begin his administration by addressing the window-of-vulnerability issue. In the absence of strategic defense, the new President could enhance the land-based leg of our nuclear deterrent by deploying a large number of mobile ICBMs which is, of course, what the Soviets have been doing. In the long run, it is SDI which offers the free world its greatest hope of preventing potential nuclear aggression or intimidation. Angelo M. Codevilla has performed an admirable service by revealing the true nature of the threat we face.

Geoffrey C. Church
Los Angeles, California

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Angelo M. Codevilla writes:

Michael David Blume wonders why the Finlandization of Western Europe has not occurred. But in fact, Europe’s growing accommodation to Soviet power is surely less honorable and more dangerous for us than Finland’s submission ever was.

After World War II, the isolated Finns were forced into economic arrangements that subsidized the Soviets, into following a neutralist foreign policy, and into refraining from public criticism of the Soviet Union. But the Finns made the best of bad circumstances. The Finns never entertained, much less spread, illusions about the Soviets. They made the best military preparations for self-defense that they could. Today, as in 1941, the Soviets could overwhelm Finland, but they would pay even more dearly now than they did then.

By contrast, contemporary Western Europeans have followed German leaders—Egon Bahr, Willi Brandt, and Hans Dietrich Genscher—into a largely gratuitous appeasement of the Soviet Union. They have made safe circumstances into perilous ones. Instead of spending roughly 6 percent of GNP on defense as the U.S. does, Europeans spend half of that—and transfer the remaining 3 percent to the Soviet bloc in various kinds of subsidized trade. Moreover, Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterrand, and Ciriaco De Mita of Italy have fostered illusions about the Soviet Union within their own bodies politic, and have insisted that the U.S. follow their lead in granting Gorbachev’s desires.

It is no exaggeration to point out that in today’s international struggles Western Europe, more often than not, lines up with the Soviets—or with Soviet clients—against Americans. For example, not only did the German government make no attempt to stop German firms from building Libya’s chemical-weapons plant, but it lied to the U.S about its complicity, and lined up with the Soviet Union and the rest of Europe in opposing any action on the part of the U.S or Israel to destroy the factory. Other examples, like Nicaragua and the Middle East, come all too readily to mind.

The Germans still want U.S. troops on their soil. But increasingly they want these troops not to be armed with nuclear weapons. In other words, they want them as hostages. Americans have no reason to be confident about the Germans’ attitude toward these hostages during a crisis. Germany is moving so wholeheartedly toward the Soviet sphere of influence that a year ago Chancellor Kohl felt it necessary to tell Le Monde that “Germany is not for sale.” In today’s Germany, it is more costly to utter anti-Soviet statements than it ever was in Finland.

Far be it from me to suggest that all of this results exclusively, or even primarily, from Europe’s military inferiority. The tangled chain of causality probably runs in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, the size of the Soviet Union’s military preponderance surely contributes to the Europeans’ incentive to purchase peace at our expense.

Mr. Blume’s denigration of military facts is downright cavalier. I wonder if he would be so relaxed about the Soviet Union’s military advantages in Europe if he were a member of a reserve unit scheduled to be aboard the first eastbound reinforcement airplane, or if his children were stationed on the Elbe?

Mr. Blume feels safer because of the well-known fact that Poles, Hungarians, etc. hate the Soviets. But how would he—or American policy-makers, for that matter—answer a hypothetical Polish commander who asked: “We’re willing to turn against the Soviets if they attack you—but only if you Westerners can show us that you have both the will and the means to make sure that when the smoke clears we and our families are no longer under Soviet control”? Without a good answer to that question, hopes for defections from Warsaw Pact ranks are unfounded.

Mr. Blume believes that British and French nuclear arsenals credibly threaten “valued Soviet assets” “in the wake of a conventional invasion.” Really? Which ones? And what French and British assets do the somewhat more potent and largely invulnerable Soviet strategic forces threaten? I would suggest that Mr. Blume try his hand at a memorandum to the President of France and the British Prime Minister explaining to them what net gains (or losses) their countries might reap by actually shooting nuclear warheads at anything at all in the Soviet Union. The governing reality here is that deterrence works both ways, and that it works in rather precise relation to each side’s actual capacity to achieve military victory.

As for the Soviets’ preference for the “strategic periphery,” I think Mr. Blume is about a decade behind the times. Europe and Japan are paying tribute today not because the Soviets have seized Angola, or even because of the (thus far failed) attempt to control the West’s sources of oil. No. They are issuing tens of billions of dollars’ worth of hard-currency “gift certificates” in large part because the East-West military balance is now such that it is no longer reasonable to hope for safety by being on the American side. Does Mr. Blume believe that Europe would be paying tribute if the central military balance today were as it was in the 60’s?

If Mr. Blume wishes to be reassured by the fact that Soviet attack troops, in addition to being capable of winning a war, are also capable of holding down Germans, Czechs, Poles, etc., I can only suggest that the next time a mugger points a knife at him he remind himself that the knife can also be used in the mugger’s domestic quarrels, and as a fancy toothpick.

The “intangibles” which the Secretary of Defense has used to minimize the significance of the atrocious numerical comparisons between Soviet and NATO forces are “leadership, training, and morale”—and have nothing to do with Mr. Blume’s arguments.

Finally, it is Mr. Blume, not I, who uses such “tendentious” words as “stupid,” “unpatriotic,” and “shrill.” Mr. Blume describes himself as a “hard-liner.” Fair enough. My article was neither “hard” nor “soft.” It was: “just the facts.”

Joseph Forbes rightly reminds us that regardless of what happens in Moscow, Americans will always have something of a problem with a large, populous Russia: “Traditional, conservative Russia was an expansionist, aggressive nation.” Poles, Ukrainians, Turks, and Kazakhs would agree. But Cubans, Vietnamese, Angolans, Ethiopians, Nicaraguans, and Yemenis would shake their heads in disbelief. The czars were not interested in such faraway places because the interests of Russia, though large, are of a concrete, limited nature. Unlike the interests of a regime animated (even only formally) by Communist ideology, Russia’s interests do not involve world domination.

Thus the “old Russian insecurities” would be far more tractable than those of a regime whose very legitimacy, such as it is, consists in a bunch of tales according to which people who worship God and create wealth—anywhere—are the enemies of mankind.

Michael Daly rightly notes the “ominous” military threat the INF treaty has created for the West, but doubts whether we will act. He is right. Although there are a number of things we can do to remedy this situation, the prerequisite for adopting any of them is seriousness about military matters. But it is precisely this quality, alas, that is lacking in our leaders. See my monograph, The Cure That May Kill (London, 1988), for a study of the reasons none of the possible military remedies for the problems created by the INF treaty is likely to be implemented.

I thank Geoffrey C. Church for pointing to the nub of my article: a thread of military unseriousness has run through administrations of both parties. The issue is not properly one of Right versus Left, much less of Democrats versus Republicans. It is one of seriousness versus unseriousness.

Perhaps the most ominously unserious tool of contemporary policy-makers is to define problems in such a way as to give the appearance that certain actions, or inactions, are resolving them. But definitions do not change reality; they only serve to avert the eyes of those who make them. For example, in 1979-81 the U.S. government defined the military problem in Europe in terms of the presence of some 2,000 warheads atop Soviet SS-20 missiles. That was wrong. The problem was that Soviet military forces, overall, had become capable of crushing NATO fast. The U.S. government defined the interim solution as the deployment in Europe of 572 American intermediate-range warheads, and the ultimate solution as the removal of the SS-20s. In 1986 Gorbachev obliged us by proposing the INF treaty in which both the SS-20s and the American intermediate forces were banned. But the treaty specifically allows the Soviets to substitute the SS-25, a new and better missile, for the SS-20. Thus the INF treaty left NATO militarily weaker than it had been and talking wistfully about “compensatory measures.” Worse, it was thoroughly befuddled because, according to the U.S. government’s definitional framework, NATO’s principal problem had just been solved.

Consider also Afghanistan. When the Soviets placed 100,000 troops in that country, the U.S. government began to aid the Afghan resistance, and defined the solution to the conflict as the withdrawal of Soviet troops. This formulation blinded American policymakers to the heart of the matter: the Soviet Union’s desire to control Afghanistan without interference from the West.

In 1988 the Soviets offered a deal that fulfilled the Americans’ unserious definition of victory. Soviet troops would be withdrawn in exchange for the end of American and Pakistani support for the resistance. The U.S. government jumped at it, and cut off much of its aid to the resistance. But withdrawal is not the point: the point is the relative strength of forces on each side.

Finally, consider Gorbachev’s announcement at the UN that he would unilaterally cut the Soviet armed forces by 10 percent and remove 10,000 tanks from Eastern Europe. Note that the Soviet side is now ahead of NATO by far greater numbers, and that its superiority is more than quantitative. The Soviet Union has weapons—primarily mobile anti-missile devices, mobile ballistic missiles, and air defenses—that the West does not have. Remember that the last time a Soviet dictator (the even more liberal Nikita Khrushchev) cut the Soviet armed forces it was to streamline them into the much more fearsome instrument we have today. But above all remember that the prerequisite for serious consideration of the meaning of Gorbachev’s cuts depends largely on what happens on the Western side of the equation. If Western Europe lets down its already submarginal guard, Gorbachev will wind up with an even more favorable military balance than he has today.

In sum, seriousness means looking at the real world rather than at convenient images thereof.

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