Is the Soviet Union on the rampage? Faced with the Afghanistan invasion, with Soviet advisers and Cuban troops in Angola and Ethiopia, with Russian-backed Vietnamese troops in Cambodia, the world community has been forced to reassess the Kremlin's motives and long-range objectives.
This is reflected in sharp differ- ences of opinion among senior diplomats here. These can be classified into three main groups:
On the left, a relatively small number are ready to find excuses for the Russians. They believe that Moscow is acting from legitimate defensive impulses and out of an old, perhaps paranoiac, fear of being encircled.
On the right, another small minority shares President Carter's gravest misgivings. It is convinced that the Soviet Union is aggressive and expansionist; that Moscow poses a real threat to world peace.
In the middle, the great majority rejects both these interpretations as being too simplistic -- even though most of these nations severely condemn the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
This center group takes a more complicated view of Soviet foreign policy. It is convinced that a superpower's foreign-policy initiative cannot be neatly categorized as being as defensive or offensive. It also believes that Soviet diplomatic and military actions must be analyzed in the context of their relation to United States actions. The majority opinion is that Soviet and US strategies are closely interrelated.
In private, many ambassadors express views that stand in sharp contrast with their governments' officially professed standpoints. Some communist diplomats, in fact, are among the most severe critics of the Soviet Union while some Western diplomats take the most benign view of Soviet foreign policy.
The sharpest attacks on Soviet behavior are made by a handful of Anglo-Saxon countries as well as by countries that is the past have been under Soviet domination or that today feel directly threatened by the Soviet Union.In the words of one key ambassador:
"Stalin pursued a defensive strategy. He wanted to hold on to Eastern Europe and erect a solid, protective wall around the USSR. But today the USSR not only moves boldly beyond her sphere of interest but resorts to force to further her global interests without bothering to find an ideological cover for her interventions."
"In the past," the ambassador added, "the Soviet Union intervened to protect an ally, to rescue a friend, or to support an anticolonial revolution. In Afghanistan, no such revolution had taken place and the "friend" was brought along in the Red Army's luggage."
"The USSR believes the West to be soft, divided, immersed in consumerism, incapable of taking risks," this diplomat continued. "She takes advantage of local conflicts in the third world to bring strategically located countries under her control. She will never agree to split the world with the US because she is convinced that in the end the world will be hers to take."
Another high-ranking diplomat expressed similar views: "Brezhnev himself speaks of 'Soviet global interests'; and when a country like the USSR has airborne forces and nuclear weapons, where does one draw the line between its defensive and offensive preoccupation?"
"The truth of the matter," he went on, "is that Moscow still operates from under the axiom that 'what is good for the Soviet Union is good for communism'; and since it is the Soviet Union's duty to support revolutions worldwide, she believes she is fulfilling her mission by expanding her empire."
At the other end of the spectrum, some countries take a charitable view of Soviet behavior. Those directly allied to the Moscow claim that interventions in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola, and Ethiopia were purely defensive and thus justified. Some nonaligned countries agree that the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was primarily defensive, but they refuse to excuse it.
The ambassador of a country particulary friendly to the Soviet Union makes the arguments that in Afghanistan there was a US- Chinese threat; that in Ethiopia the revolution was threatened by Somalia; that in Angola the revolution was threatened by South Africa; and in Cambodia it was threatened by pro-Chinese counter-revolutionary elements.
Another ambassador from a communist country harbors deep reservations about the manner in which the Soviet intervention was carried out in Afghanistan. But he still feels that, without Soviet support, "progressive" forces everywhere would be annihilated by Western imperialism.
One independent-minded and articulate diplomat put forward a slightly different view:
"The Soviet Union is traditionally afraid of being encircled. Its hold over Eastern Europe is shaky, and dangerous gaps are growing inside the Warsaw Pact."
On the other hand, the ambassador continued, "The Chinese threat has been growing since [Chairman] Mao's death. In the south, with regard to Iran, the Soviets not only never tried to topple the Shah, but had excellent relations with him, even though they knew him to be pro-American. What the USSR wanted in the south above all was stability. The Shah's collapse came as a blow to the US , but posed serious problems to the USSR as well.
"The Americans made the mistake of trying to compensate for the loss of Iran by strengthening their hand south of Iran, where they pulled Egypt and Israel closer together, and northeast of Iran by supporting the rebellion against [ Afghan President] Amin. The fear of seeing that traditional buffer state fall in the hands of an American-Chinese coalition and become a threat to its borders explains the Soviet decision to act in preemption. Moscow overreacted. It cannot be excused, but still its intervention must be put into perspective."
As for Angola and Ethiopia, the same diplomat, who is familiar with African affairs, commented: "The Cubans and their Soviet friends have acted out of revolutionary solidarily. But these regimes are not truly communistic even though they claim to be so. Basically they are nationalistic, and Soviet demonition of these countries is illusive and ephemeral."
A West European ambassador with Cabinet experience, who has observed the Soviet Union for a long time, concurred with this view.
"In Afghanistan," he said, "as in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet Union acted in order to avoid losing what she considered to be hers. Since the West had made no fuss when [former President] Daoud was toppled in '78 by a communist coup, Moscow believed that Afghanistan belonged to its sphere of influence.
"Basically" he continued, "the Soviet Union still lives by the Yalta agreement. She understands the US when it uses force to consolidate its realm. She expected the Americans to intervene in Portugal after the revolution and to intervene in Iran after taking of the hostages. As a revolutionary influence worldwide, the USSR is an extinguished volcano. She can help third-world countries free themselves from Western control, but she cannot truly communize them, much less help them toward development. Tough and ruthless as it may appear, Soviet foreign policy is basically designed to protect the USSR's borders."