The reactions of the Soviet leadership to President Carter's harder line in Washington-Moscow relations have been significantly different from the attitudes prevalent in the Kremlin 15 years ago during another crisis, Vietnam. The present Soviet leadership has concluded that Moscow is now the beneficiary of a drastically changed political-military balance in the world.
Fifteen years ago, when President Lyndon Johnson began to involve American military forces in greater and greater strength in Southeast Asia, official commentary emanating from Moscow was decidedly apprehensive. Opportunities favorable to the advancement of Soviet goals were rarely mentioned. Constraints on such actions were clearly visible in American global military preponderance, and the strategy to adopt under the circumstances was defensive.
Moscow no longer characterized American decisionmakers as willing to pursue constructive policies aimed at lowering tensions between the two powers. Also, noticeably absent from Soviet commentary was any statement of confidence in Moscow's ability to influence Washington's policies, a fairly clear indication of Soviet leaders' evaluation of the relative power relationship between the two countries.
In 1965, Moscow was in a position of strategic-level inferiority, could neither match nor nullify the United States's ability to rapidly project huge conventional forces thousands of miles from North America, and was only beginning to recover from Khrushchev's neglect of theater forces in East Central Europe. But by 1980 the Soviet-American strategic relationship could be described as one of parity. The US's ability to project military force over intercontinental distances, while diminished, was still considerably greater than that of Moscow. The Soviets had greatly improved their European theater forces and had effectively demonstrated a capability for quick and massive thrusts into areas immediately adjacent to the Soviet frontiers.
In response to the Carter administration's recent reevaluation of its policy vis-a-vis Moscow, following the Soviet move into Afghanistan, commentary from Moscow both paralleled and departed from that of 1965.
Once again Soviet spokesmen professed to see a return to "cold war" tactics, attributed to the new ascendency of "reactionary forces," and "new and old hawks" in the current administration. American policy was recently evaluated as a return to a strategy relying on military force, in which Washington's capability for global military deployment would be used to support American positions more energetically than in recent, post-Vietnam memory.
But here the similarities end. Important Pravda editorials discussing the international situation, election speeches by Politburo members, and other statements and articles by Soviet analysts exuded a confidence clearly absent 15 years previous.
No longer was Washington seen as clearly capable of employing its global military forces with such telling effect. As Konstantin Chernenko, a possible Brezhnev successor, put it, "Times have changed and the correlation of forces in the world is different." Alexei Kosygin noted the US's "stubborn refusal to recognize the new realities," and senior analyst Georgi Arbatov emphasized the need for Washington to recognize that the American global preeminence resulting from the devastation of World War II was now only a memory that could no longer serve as the basis for reasonable policy.
During the last few months, Moscow revived its 1965 position that US-Soviet relations could not be normalized owing to American aggressiveness. The idea that Washington has been "sabotaging detente" by increasing the American military presence in the Indian Ocean is an extension of this argument. However , while 15 years ago Washington could act with relative impunity in Vietnam, now it is Moscow who dictates the turn of events in Afghanistan.
In contrast with 1965, the Soviets now characterized Washington as incapable of realizing its foreign policy goals, as unable to influence Moscow against its will, and as following a policy that was now out of line with its ability to affect events. A Pravda editorial evaluating American foreign policy and Leonid Brezhnev's January interview in Pravda both were notable in suggesting that now it was the United States which was constrained in its international actions, and that American policy would have to adapt to this new reality.
The Soviet leadership, for too many reasons to be discussed here, has generally perceived the world and acted on the assumption that power is its own imperative. Thus, the Soviet concept of detente has been of a period in which the US-Soviet military-political relationship is such that definite constraints exist, in the form of countervailing Soviet military capabilities, causing the US to reduce its reliance on military force as an instrument of policy. The corollary to this line of thought is that opportunities are opened up for the increased use of Soviet and Moscow-backed military force. The message from the Soviets since January has been to declare that, under what they perceive as a new political-military relationship, they expect us to act differently from before and to recognize that they too will certainly act differently.