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Russia's Potential Claws

Despite internal turmoil, Moscow's military-industrial complex is largely intact; its conversion to peaceful production must be accelerated

By Victor BasiukVictor Basiuk is a consultant on science, technology, and national security policy in Washington. / January 9, 1992



ON Dec. 13, President Bush signed into law the congressional appropriation of $400 million to assist the former Soviet Union in dismantling nuclear weapons under the START treaty and unilateral initiatives. Less than a week later, on Dec. 18, Secretary of State James A. Baker III concluded his talks with the four nuclear-armed former Soviet republics, which assured him of their willingness to comply with the agreed-upon destruction of nuclear weapons.

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These steps are important and much needed, but the present focus on the destruction of nuclear weapons should not be at the expense of attention to another important potential threat to international security: the Soviet military-industrial complex.

Of the three principal pillars of Soviet power - the Communist Party, the KGB, and the military-industrial complex - the first has been declared illegal and disbanded, and the second has been reorganized and its power largely neutralized. The third pillar has been affected to a considerably smaller degree, however.

This military-industrial complex is located principally in Russia. Boris Yeltsin views Russia as the successor to Soviet military power - including nuclear - and thus provides a certain protection to the military-industrial complex. Some of its plants - especially those of limited usefulness - are being converted to civilian use, and the complex is not as powerful as it used to be. Nonetheless, its basically centralized structure remains.

As the principal remaining authoritarian structure of the former Soviet Union, the military-industrial complex in Russia is a potential threat to democracy in the region, particularly in Russia. Only recently, in connection with the formation of the new Commonwealth of Independent States, concerns were voiced in the former Soviet Union of another potential coup, this time emanating from the military-industrial complex. In the longer run, its preservation in the present form is a potential threat to Unite d States national security as well as that of other nations.

A parallel with Iraq comes to mind. After the heavy pounding of Desert Storm, US authorities assumed that the potential threat of Iraq was neutralized for many years to come. Yet the basic structure of power was preserved, and now we know that our assumptions were unduly optimistic. With passage of time, the present weakness of Russia could be misleading, too.

A direct approach to Russian authorities, encouraging them to restructure the military-industrial complex, is not likely to be successful at this time. Besides, it is a highly complicated process and a huge task that US technical assistance would find difficult to accomplish even if the Russians were cooperating. An indirect approach might be more promising.

UKRAINE has about 30 percent of the old Soviet military-industrial complex within its borders. It has no interest in preserving it, but what it needs is a considerably smaller, cost-effective defense industry along Western lines to support its own military forces, whose intended size has been scaled down from an original 450,000 soldiers to 200,000.

The Ukrainian component of the Soviet military-industrial complex is integrated with that of Russia; until recently, it was subordinate to Moscow, not Kiev. Thus, any restructuring or dismantling of the military-industrial complex in Ukraine would offer a more manageable experience as well as a great deal of insight into Russia's military-industrial complex. Ukraine is likely to welcome US technical assistance for this purpose, which could be provided at a relatively low cost.

The problem, however, is complicated by the fact that the dismantling of Ukraine's military-industrial complex is likely to produce some undesirable side-effects: a release onto the domestic and international markets of highly skilled, weapons-trained personnel and of military technologies that could be both domestically and internationally destabilizing. Therefore, this task must be undertaken within the framework of a more comprehensive restructuring of the nation's still largely centralized, state-dom inated economy toward a market economy. In this way, the undesirable side-effects could be absorbed in the overall effort.

The organizations presently intended to provide comprehensive technical assistance for economic systemic change in the former Soviet Union - the Agency for International Development (AID) and the World Bank - are not particularly suitable to deal with matters involving national security, even if assisted by the Department of Defense. An Institute for Economic Restructuring and Business Management, a private regional organization intended to operate within each republic under the umbrella of top US and fo rmer Soviet universities, is currently under consideration by the US government; interacting with AID and the World Bank, it would be much more flexible and effective for this task.

The Institute's Ukrainian component could address the issue of the military-industrial complex as an immediate high-priority item, while its Russian counterpart would be acquiring experience in assisting in an overall restructuring of the nation's economy and in partial conversion - a useful prerequisite for the time when it might be possible to address the problem of Russia's huge military-industrial complex in a comprehensive way.

After acquiring sufficient experience with helping to restructure the Ukrainian component of the Soviet military-industrial complex, the US might be in a better position to persuade Mr. Yeltsin that an enduring democracy in Russia calls for the dismantling of the Russian military-industrial complex as presently known. Considerations of Western security call for such an action, too.