The Soviet Union is more powerful, and more insecure, than at any time in the last 10 or 15 years. So what will Moscow do now? In this hot capital on the Potomac the question transcends almost any other.
Seweryn Bialer of Columbia University sets the stage for the question in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Yes, the Soviet Union has achieved most of Stalin's goals. It has become a global power, feared by friend and foe alike. Its expansion is enormous. It retains control over an extensive internal and external empire in which it has military and political dominance. It has achieved strategic parity with the United States. But it is beset by troubles.
The Soviet socioeconomic and political system is held in contempt by Marxists and non-Marxists alike. Instead of drawing economic benefits from its empire it must help it economically. The standard of living of the Uzbek peasant is higher than of his Russian counterpart.
On the international front Soviet expansion has reached a temporary peak. In the Middle East it has lost its pivotal position in egypt. China is moving toward potential alliance with the West. Afghanistan is more troublesome than expected. Poland presents a challenge that is unprecedented -- not merely to the Soviet empire but to the Soviet Union itself: the very stability of the social systtem may be in question. Finally, there is the United States. The old relationship of competitive accommodation has shifted; detente is over; the US, for good or ill, has embarked on one of the greatest arms buildups in history. Obviously the cost and risk of Russian expansion in the 1980s is higher and the danger of confrontation significantly greater than in the past.
So what does the Soviet Union do now? What are the aging Soviet oligarchs planning?
For one thing, Dr. Bialer surmises, they may be contemplating their own succession problems. The 26th Party Congress (February-March 1981) was the first in Soviet history at which no changes in the upper echelons of the leadership took place. One of the things that could happen is a disorderly struggle for power; yes, even the emergence of alternative policies when the present rulers leave the scene.
The new leaders will have limited knowledge of international relations and will have to learn on the job. There wil probably be greater volatility, for a while, and uncertainty may be even more pronounced. Probably the new Soviet leadership wil try to reform the antiquated economic system but if so it will run straightway into the competing cost of Soviet military expenditures; almost certainly Russia won't give up its hard-won parity with the West, but the economic burden may weigh down more heavily.
At the end Dr. Bialer can't guess what will happen. The contest between Russia and the West, the nuclear arms race, are agonizingly expensive and frightfully dangerous. Men of good sense wouldn't contenance them. But each country blames the other. Can the contest be controlled or checked? Dr. Bialer isn't preachy. He tries to guess what lies ahead in Moscow:
"The dilemma and choices of the 1980s are harsher and more difficult than any faced by Soviet leaders since Stalin died. In all areas of domestic, military and foreign policy, the Soviet Union stands at a crossroads no less significant than at the end of the New Economic Policy in the late 1920s, and at the death of Stalin in 1953. As yet, Soviet policy is moving in accordance with the legacy of inertia of the 1970s.
"We may expect, however, that this inertia will interrupted in the 1980s, and that a new Soviet policy will start to emerge."
Th e answer could come any day now.