Soviet Major Rankles Top Brass

Boris Yeltsin protege urges dramatic new marching orders, and says he's winning converts. INTERVIEW: MILITARY IDEALIST

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

VLADIMIR LOPATIN is only 30 years old and holds only the rank of major, but he has managed to make life rather uncomfortable for the top brass of the Soviet military. Since his election to the new Soviet parliament last year, Navy Major Lopatin has led the charge of like-minded mid-level-officers-turned-politicians who favor a reform of the military that goes further and faster than anything the four-stars seem to have in mind.

He takes the podium regularly at Supreme Soviet sessions, and his pen is mighty - more than 50 articles published in the Soviet press this year alone. When his military superiors tried to have him expelled from the Communist Party last April, he fought and won. In July, he turned in his party card of his own accord.

Now Lopatin, a dour, stiff boy-man who turns on a toothy politician's grin at the sight of a camera, has turned in his epaulettes and joined an army of a different sort: the Yeltsin Brigade, a growing body of idealists - many of them about half the age of the Russian Republic's president - set to change the Soviet Union from the republic level.

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Quit the military

In September, Boris Yeltsin tapped Lopatin to become deputy chairman of Russia's new Committee for National Security and Interaction with the USSR Ministry of Defense and KGB. Lopatin says the position is tantamount to the rank of minister. And so, in keeping with his view that a defense minister should be a civilian, he quit the military.

But his agenda remains the same: a smaller, volunteer Army, removal of party organizations from the military, cuts in military spending, conversion of military production to civilian, and greater say on military issues at the republic level.

Lopatin visited Washington recently on a tour sponsored by Global Outlook, a California-based research institute that focuses on the security aspects of US-Soviet relations. The purpose of his trip, his first to the United States, was to educate and to be educated. Global Outlook also hoped that, by forging international connections, he would be strengthened back home, says research analyst Jennifer Lee.

In interviews, it was not difficult to see how Lopatin could make fast enemies among the power elite of the Soviet defense establishment.

``He is preaching reform with the same vehemence that he taught Marxism-Leninism,'' says Ms. Lee, referring to his stint as director of the Marxism-Leninism institute in the city of Vologda.

Top Soviet military leaders complain that the likes of Lopatin aren't running the show and therefore can't speak knowledgeably about how to do it better. But regardless, Lopatin claims his point of view is gaining currency among the military's officer corps - even its notoriously conservative upper echelons.

``If, in the beginning of this year, our conception of military reform was supported by a considerable part of the younger officer corps, a part of the middle-level ranks, and only a few in the upper levels,'' said Lopatin in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor and Radio Liberty, ``then now we are supported by an absolute majority in the younger and middle ranks of the officers' corps, and a part of the upper-level - more than just a few.'' Why?

``I think it's, on the one hand, a result of the growing understanding of the inevitability of these processes, and on the other hand, a result of the formation of a new Russian government,'' he says.

The first task of Lopatin's committee (it has no chairman) was to assess the current security situation of the Soviet Union. The group concluded that the operative concept equated security only with military aspects, to be provided by three ministries - Defense, KGB, and Interior.

``In our view, such an approach is deeply mistaken and, in and of itself, unsafe...,'' Lopatin says. ``We are widening the sphere of security to include questions of economics, ecology, politics, religious relations, national-ethnic relations, the informational-psychological sphere, the military, etc.''

Lopatin's committee is also operating from the premise that the needs of the individual and society take priority over those of the state, another departure from 73 years of Communist rule.

The future Soviet Union will look more like a commonwealth of states, rather than the centrally run arrangement that no longer functions, Lopatin says. He outlines the path to the future in four stages:

Establishment of the republics' sovereignty. With almost all 15 republics having already declared varying degrees of sovereignty, this stage is virtually complete.

Negotiation of bilateral agreements between the republics, on issues that range from the economic to the political. So far, the Russian Republic has reached economic pacts with five republics and is now also negotiating political cooperation agreements, beginning with Georgia. This process looks likely to continue through the end of this year and into the beginning of 1991, Lopatin says.

Definition of common approaches to sovereignty and how to provide for its defense.

``In order to defend those common interests, which face a common threat, it is evident that mutual understanding is needed on both defense and security,'' Lopatin says.

That's why, he continues, the Russian Republic proposes during this transitional period to delegate questions of defense and security - including nuclear weapons - to the central Soviet authority, but with ``the control and active participation of the union republics.''

Formation of practical structures for coordination and resolution of these common problems. That means the formation of a new type of ``center'' made of the highest organs of governmental power at the republic level. Lopatin envisions the structure of the new union looking something like that of the European economic? chkingCommunity.

As the largest of the Soviet Union's 15 republics, and the base for two-thirds of the Soviet ``military-industrial complex,'' according to Lopatin, the Russian Republic has taken it upon itself to try to coordinate this transition to a new type of union.

Lopatin moves through his explanation with the ease of someone who has gone over these premises many times, in meetings with Vice-President Dan Quayle, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, and others.

But when the talk turns specific, Lopatin backs away from specifics. If there's a shooting war between the US-led multinational force and Iraq, how, if at all, should the Soviet Union be involved? And what if war breaks out between Soviet republics or between local units within republics?

Put in curious position

These are issues that could well come to the fore before a new Soviet military decisionmaking process could be formulated. But Lopatin responds by sticking to the general outlines of a transition to a ``new type of center.''

It is also curious that someone who has been so publicly critical of the old-guard security establishment has been put in charge of a committee whose title calls for ``interaction with the USSR Ministry of Defense and KGB.'' But then, Yeltsin - and the young hot-shots he has assembled around him - haven't gotten where they are by being diplomatic.

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