Moscow's money troubles

As Ronald Reagan wrestles with the problems of the US economy, he will want to take note of even greater concerns in the Kremlin. The Soviet Union has just announced some goals for its new five-year plan, and these indicate the world's other superpower is not quite as "super" as some voices make it out to be. In fact so sluggish is the Soviet economy that it will be difficult for the Russians to meet their many commitments around the world and at the same time provide their peopel with a rising standard of living. This, in turn, could cause social unrest -- a prospect that must keep Soviet leaders awake nights.

Consider these weighty problems in the decade ahead:

* Oil production is levelling off. The goal for 1985 -- 620 million to 645 million tons -- is roughly that set for 1980 (and, moreover, not met). So the USSR, too, must prepare for an energy crunch. Leonid Brezhnev has already said that energy conservation is the nation's "No. 1 national task."

* Agriculture continues to languish, despite massive investment. The new targets for meat and grain production are scarcely higher than current levels. This means the Soviet people cannot look forward soon to an improved diet.

* Manpower is lacking. There is expected to be a shortage of 8 million workers in the next five years. This, together with a deterioration of the Soviet industrial plant, is expected to slow economic progress.

To the strains such factors create internally must be added the burden of Moscow's obligations abroad. It costs heavily to keep its clients under control. Cuba, for instance, now absorbs about $7 million a day. Afghanistan takes a heavy economic as well as military toll, a toll which includes the denial of sophisticated Western technology the Russians need to develop their resources. Then there is Poland. Fearing what might happen if the Polish economy is not stabilized, Moscow is pouring in $1.3 billion in aid to help ease the crisis.

Small wonder, then, that the Russians want to avoid a new spurt of the East-West arms race which, aside from the military dangers, would place evern more strains on their economy.

Should all this give a measure of comfort to the new US administration? It should certainly be considered a mtigating factor in weighing the strength of the USSR. In terms of economic power, there is no question which superpower is No. 1 in the world and which is better able to compete in the international arena (though this is no cause for complacency and for not making sure theUS maintains that advantage).

But Kremlin's economic plight may also carry challenges for the free world. Some analysts suggest that, as the Russians feel themselves increasingly squeezed on the economic front, they could become more aggressive in foreign policy. In the absence of economic or moral sway, they already rely on their military might to project power. The situation is especially dangerous in Eastern Europe, where a threatened loss of political control in Poland could invite another Soviet armed intervention.

There is little doubt the Soviet Union wants to avoid such a move. But, if it feels backed to the wall, there is little doubt it will move. this is why the West, while maintaining its own strength, must be careful not to feed Soviet alarms about Western intentions in Eastern Europe. As the men in the Krelim confront the problems of political succession, economic stagnation, and the stirrings of revolt within their sprawling empire, they are bound to be particularly edgy. Mr. Reagan will have to take all this into acocunt as he prepares to deal with them.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.