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Moscow and the Third World

By Jed C. SnyderJed C. Snyder is president of the Washington Strategy Seminar and a consultant to the secretary of defense. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming ``Soviet Power in Transition, Challenges to the Empire.'' / August 31, 1990

A SOVIET colonel announced at a recent press conference that Moscow's military advisers in Iraq will remain there to fulfill ``contractual obligations'' to the Baghdad government. Shortly thereafter, however, the Soviet Union voted for a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of military force to tighten the Western naval blockade of Iraq. Despite the seeming contradiction between the UN vote and the press conference, they actually reveal a growing dilemma for Soviet policy in the third world. Does Mikhail Gorbachev adhere to his public pledges to demilitarize Soviet foreign policy and thereby gain the diplomatic accolades and desperately needed economic savings that would follow? Alternatively, does he pursue opportunities to maintain or perhaps even expand Soviet influence in key regions - such as the Middle East - where Moscow's arms sales and assistance programs have created potentially valuable and enduring client relationships?

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If Gorbachev wants the Soviet Union to retain superpower status while it struggles to manage its serious internal crises, he must follow both policies.

Gorbachev knows he has lost the East-West competition in Europe. The Communist parties in Eastern Europe have lost their legitimacy and with it their governing authority. In all but a few remaining pockets of obdurate orthodoxy, they have ceased to function effectively as the controlling agent in people's lives. The Warsaw Pact has ceased to function as a security system serving Soviet goals and objectives. Four decades of Soviet-enforced ``alliance'' can no longer be effectively sustained by the garrisoning of Moscow's divisions in Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, and Dresden.

Further, maintaining the overwhelming military superiority that Moscow has enjoyed on the East-West frontier is no longer a sensible investment. NATO itself may implode, thereby removing the compelling argument for Moscow to continue deploying large numbers of troops in the western military districts of the Soviet Union. A handful of divisions are likely to suffice where many score were required before. Gorbachev will continue to emphasize his role as the architect of a new common European order, while pressuring America's partners to dissolve NATO and loosen the strategic connection between Washington and the allied capitals.

In the third world, however, the security environment is shifting in ways that may suggest a continued - and perhaps even expanded - Soviet presence and investment. The end of the cold war in Europe may mark the beginning of a series of crises in distant regions that most Americans cannot locate without the help of CNN, but where Soviet ``advisers'' have been living and working for nearly four decades.

As in Europe, Soviet foreign policy goals in the third world will have to proceed primarily from non-ideological precepts. Determined Soviet efforts to export revolution have met with varying degrees of success (e.g., in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambigue, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and the former state of South Yemen), but the system itself has generally failed to take hold.

The failure to install pliant regimes throughout the third world, however, does not necessarily reduce the longer-term strategic incentive for developing and maintaining client ties to key states. It is difficult to take seriously Gorbachev's claims that Soviet ``new thinking'' in foreign policy has transformed an aggressive strategy into a benign series of relationships with friends and allies. The claimed ``new'' approach is founded upon an estimated annual expenditure of more than $15 billion in military and economic assistance, large arms sales programs, and the continued presence of more than 20,000 Soviet military advisers and technicians in some 30 countries.