The things that worry Moscow
Leonid Brezhnev made a speech in the Kremlin last week which tells us quite a lot about the anxieties of the people who run the affairs of the Soviet Union.Skip to next paragraph
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The occasion was unusual. The Soviet leader was speaking to ''the command personnel of the armed forces'' of the Soviet Union. All the top marshals and generals and the top civilians of the armed services were present - a total of some 500 persons.
They were not there as Mr. Brezhnev's guests. He, in effect, was their guest. ''I accepted the proposal of Dimitri Ustinov for the meeting,'' he said at the beginning of his speech. Mr. Ustinov is the Minister of Defense in the Soviet government. Mr. Brezhnev came flanked by the two other members of the Politburo who are usually mentioned as his most likely successors - Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.
The implication was obvious that there are deep anxieties disturbing the sleep of the leaders of the Soviet armed forces and they had called upon the top politicians of the government for assurances that something is being done about it.
Consider first the list of promises Mr. Brezhnev made in his speech to the Soviet military high command.
1. He will continue ''doing everything within our power'' to improve Soviet relations with China.
2. ''Our economic executives'' are to ''remove the shortcomings'' in the economy. He mentioned ''metal, fuel, and transport'' as the ''bottlenecks.''
3. The government will do all it can ''to eliminate in the future the need for grain purchases abroad.''
4. ''The level of combat readiness of the army and navy should be higher.'' He said ''special attention should be given to the commanding of troops.''
5. He said ''it is of exceptional importance to wield weapons in a masterful way.''
6. He recognized a ''lag'' in military technology which he said is ''inadmissible.'' He promised that ''scientists, designers, engineers, and technicians will do everything possible to resolve successfully all tasks connected with this (the lag).''
Now make a mental note that this speech follows after the spectacular failure of Soviet weapons during last summer's fighting in Lebanon and after the failure of the Soviet army to crush out opposition in Afghanistan. It also follows after the much publicized need of the Soviets to import grain from overseas to maintain adequate food rations at home, and the failure after some two years of trying to regain ''normalization of relations with China.''
This is a list of all of the well-known weaknesses in the present condition of the Soviet Union. Its economy is stagnant, down almost to zero growth. Its troops in Afghanistan are doing no better, if as well, as American troops did in Vietnam. Motivation is apparently at a low level in the Afghan fighting.
Soviet anti-aircraft batteries failed to shoot down any Israeli attackers during almost daily air to ground battles between the Israeli air force and Syrian ground forces. The Israelis knocked out all the Syrian SAM batteries in Lebanon. Something is wrong with Soviet technology both in fighter aircraft and in surface-to-air missiles.
In the text of the speech as distributed by the Tass news agency the relationship with China comes first among the points of weakness recognized. Technological, economic, and command problems all follow after the passage on China.
Try to put yourself in the position of one of the top Soviet marshals. What would cause you the most anxiety?
As you (in imagination) look out over the Kremlin walls you can see the United States with two Trident submarines already at sea and seven more building , cruise missiles and Pershing IIs almost ready for deployment, the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force coming on rather better than anyone expected - and 47 Soviet divisions tied down along the Chinese frontier by years of bad blood between Moscow and Peking. Add that another six or seven divisions are tied down in Afghanistan.
The one thing that would bring quickest comfort to any Soviet military leader would be a reconciliation with China, thereby releasing those 47 divisions for use elsewhere. But all that Mr. Brezhnev could say to them about this highly important matter is that ''we sincerely want a normalization of our relations with that country and are doing everything in our power toward this end.''