Countering the Russians

So far President Carter has handled the Afghanistan crisis with a judicious blend of firmness and prudence. He has not gone so far as to provoke a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. But by a host of punitive economic and cultural measures he has put the Russians on notice that their heavy- handed venture is not being taken lightly and cannot be continued without some cost to themselves. The strong West European backing for the President's policy and the swift move by 51 nations to bring the Soviet intervention before the UN Security Council should further help impress on Moscow the outrage and deep concern its actions engender throughout the world.

Domestically, Mr. Carter faces the wrath of many American farmers in his decision to withhold 17 million tons of grain ordered by the Russians. Indeed it will make many people uncomfortable that grain is being used as a diplomatic weapon. But we feel the President has taken the right course. The Russians will not be deprived of needed food, since the grain was intended to build up livestock herds, and the administration has assured farmers that it will place a floor under prices so they will not be unduly hurt. The point, however, is that reprisals will have a greater effect on the Kremlin if they demonstrate American willingness to make some sacrifices. As Republican presidential candidate John Anderson remarked, the embargo of foodstuff is a "first real test response to overt aggression." It is also a decisive gesture which, we hope, will persuade Washington's European allies to take similar strong measures against Moscow. The more widely international the response to Soviet aggression, the better.

This is not the way we would have the world turn as it enters the 1980s -- toward an escalation of East-West tension rather than continuing efforts to build cooperation. But the Soviet action leaves the US no choice. The Russians presumably calculated some adverse reaction if they grabbed Afghanistan and concluded nonetheless that the loss of a Marxist border state was too high a price to pay and that they could weather any international outrage. In their terms, detente with the West was perhaps perceived as not yielding hoped for rewards, such as a SALT agreement and trade concessions. The abortive flap over Cuba, among other things, may also have strengthened military voices in the Kremlin.

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Be that as it may, the world will only encourage further Soviet adventurism if it does not forcefully respond. It is not thought that the measures taken so far by the US or denunciation by the United Nations will actually compel the Russians to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan. They are designed as much to warn Moscow that a move elsewhere -- most notably Pakistan or Iran -- will be viewed with utmost gravity and invite tougher, perhaps military measures. The concern is a legitimate one. The Soviet Union, itself facing an oil shortage in the mid-1980s, has economic as well as geopolitical and ideological reasons for trying to extend its influence southward toward the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Going back to a full-blooded Cold War to deal with the latest Soviet aggression is not a viable answer. The age of nuclear weapons rules that out. But through sustained economic and diplomatic pressures and through the careful supply of weapons to the Afghan rebels, the Russians can be made to smart -- and kept so heavily bogged down in Afghanistan that their capacity for trouble-making elsewhere is diminished. Determined, strong response by the US and its allies and by the third-world nations may persuade the Soviet Union that its policy is indeed reckless and, in the end, self-defeating.

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