MIKHAIL Gorbachev has enjoyed enormous success since his ascent to power in the Kremlin in March 1985. He has promoted his own men and retired others, swiftly moving to transform the Soviet leadership from an aged, paralyzed group to a more dynamic and responsive one. While the West still knows little of the Soviet leader, his actions signify his firm intent to manage the Kremlin decision process. Change is most obvious at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko has been removed to become Soviet president. But it is the Soviet defense sector that has accumulated the most significant changes. Until his death in December 1984, Defense Minister Dmitri F. Ustinov exercised control over defense policy similar to Gromyko's in foreign policy. His power was less associated with his personal drive, however, than with the traditional monopoly of the defense establishment over
information necessary for decisions on defense policy. As a result of that monopoly, the Soviet military has long tended to determine its own requirements.
Gorbachev, it seems, is challenging this tradition with an attack on the defense institution. The Soviet defense sector has lost the votes it had on the ruling Politburo with Ustinov's death and the removal of Grigory Romanov, the military industry representative and a Gorbachev rival. Sergei Sokolov, Ustinov's successor as minister of defense, is a candidate member of the Politburo but has no vote. As a result, the Soviet military now has no official vote on top Kremlin decisions.
Gorbachev might be trying to limit the defense sector's role because the military, long a successful closed system, has threatened to be intractable to the policy directions that Gorbachev has in mind. Soviet military policy and strategy have been preoccupied for 30 years with nuclear weapons and their effect on the balance of strategic power. Although evidence is still weak on this score, Gorbachev seems less concerned with the nuclear balance than with trends in strategic power based on many factors.
For that reason, he might be a natural ally for Marshal Ogarkov, the former chief of the Soviet General Staff. Despite his loss of position in September 1984, Nikolai Ogarkov has continued to exercise a strange influence on the Soviet political scene. He has continued to argue in print for the view that cost him his job: The enormous nuclear potential of the United States and Soviet Union has created an impasse that deprives nuclear weapons of utility in wartime. According to Ogarkov, a nation must be c apable of fighting conventionally with modern weapons that integrate the latest advances of science and technology.
Ogarkov's arguments collide directly with the interests of the Soviet nuclear forces and their supporting industries. They complement, however, the directions suggested by Gorbachev. Ogarkov writes of reconfiguring Soviet military industry to produce modern conventional weapons. Gorbachev argues for modernizing Soviet industry overall. Ogarkov urges the Soviet military to acquire flexibility for a range of possible conflicts. Gorbachev speaks of national power in many forms to support a range of Soviet policy options. The two clearly seem to have goals in common.
If Gorbachev chooses to support Ogarkov, the two might become engaged in a delicate game to open the Soviet defense establishment to change. Rumors in Moscow speak of Ogarkov's reemergence as first deputy defense minister and commander in chief of the Warsaw Pact. Such an appointment would give him the prominence to challenge the nuclear traditions of the old regime.
The defense sector poses a stubborn problem for Gorbachev as he tries to effect change in the Soviet system: It demands careful handling. Gorbachev's approach on the surface has been to constrain the military role in decisionmaking. At the same time, he might be encouraging Ogarkov, a maverick reformer who retains a great deal of influence. Such moves are risky, but they offer the new Soviet leader a chance to exercise better control over the military than his predecessors did. With his own priorities a t home and abroad, Gorbachev needs the military to forward his policy, not obstruct it.
Rose Gottemoeller is a researcher with the Rand Corporation.