1980: it was a bad year for Moscow

In Moscow at this turn of the year there must be a few of the more perceptive men in the leadership who wish Soviet policy had chosen a different course for the year 1980.

The biggest event in world affairs during the year has been the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the consequences of that invasion. Those consequences have been entirely unfavorable to the position of the Soviet Union in the world. Never before has it been so isolated, so weak in ability to influence events outside the range of its armed forces, so short of willing clients.

Add that the Soviet economy is sluggish to the point of stagnation. And the stubborn Afghans have not yet been beaten into total submission to Moscow's will.

Only the latest consequence of that Kremlin decision, which shattered the mood of Christmas a year ago, was the coolness of the reception accorded Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev when he visited New Delhi in mid-December.

India has long been the only important power to seek and cultivate what could almost be called "friendly" relations with the men of the Kremlin. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has not broken off that relationship entirely. She needs , or thinks she needs, a relationship with the Soviets to balance off the power of China in Asia. But she cannot like or approve having Soviet troops roaring around Afghanistan. She let Mr. Brezhnev know how she felt.

Before that, the invasion of Afghanistan had revived NATO, helped persuade the West Germans to accept nuclear weapons, shocked most Communist parties around the world, horrified the other members of the Warsaw Pact, killed SALT II , driven US exports to the Soviet Union down from $3.74 billion in 1979 to $1.32 billion in 1980, reduced the availability of grain, thus causing meat shortages, stimulated an abrupt rise in US defense spending, and helped to elect Ronald Reagan, who proposed even higher Us defense spending.

The year 1980 brought other events. To Americans, the taking and holding of their diplomats in the Us Embassy in Tehran by the Iranian revolutionaries was a humiliating experience. Yet, in the long view of history it may turn into no more than an episode in the often-difficult relationship of the United States to the peoples of the Middle East. Once the hostages are fitted back into normal and routine lives, the matter will cease to block a logical reconciliation between Washington and the new regime in tehran.

1980 was also a year in which Americans finally realized that some of their industrial fabric was getting out of date, and that something had better be done to regain a strong competitive position in world markets. The American economy was not as sluggish as the Soviet economy, nor in as deep trouble as the British economy which spent much of the year well into double-digit inflation in spite of determined Tory government efforts to get it under control. But US economic weakness was an important feature of the year. It might have been some slight consolation to the men in the Kremlin when they reviewed their own shortcomings.

And 1980 saw Israeli making what seems to be a solid and probably even a lasting peace with Egypt, but shying away from the final step contemplated at Camp David for a "comprehensive" peace with its other Arab neighbors. As the year ends, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin is still planting more Jewish settlements in Arab lands, still arresting and even shooting Arab student demonstrators who fly the Palestinian flag over their universities, and still refusing to accept the idea that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza must end so that the Arabs who live there may lead their own lives and govern themselves.

But much more important than all of these other features of the year 1980 has been the decline in Soviet stature and influence in the world.

In one sense President Carter in Washington "overreacted" to the Afghan invasion. He treated it as though it meant a final end to a phase of history called "detente." It did not end detente entirely. West Europeans, particularly West Germans, have too much at stake in detente to let it go overboard over an event in Asia, not in Europe. And while Washington shut off the flow of high-technology items, and much grain, to the Soviets, it did not break off diplomatic contact or close the door on a possible resumption of detente.

Detente could still be revived some day, provided that the Soviets do not follow up the invasion of Afghanistan with something else as brutal and closer to Europe.

We must presume from the known evidence that they came to the verge of such a deed during December. They ringed Poland with about 60 divisions of their own and with satellite forces. They may still move many of those divisions into Poland either overtly and massively, as in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, or partially under the guise of Warsaw Pact maneuvers -- leaving major cities untouched, but in obvious control of the countryside.

If they do, the NATO allies have already made their decision to apply important sanctions. The European Community has agreed that it will break off trade with the Soviets and with such other Warsaw Pact countries as might join in the military movement into Poland. The effect will be a further strengthening of NATO ties, further anxiety about Moscow and its behavior throughout the third world, and a trend around the world to pull away from Moscow.

But whether or not the russians do take further military action against dissent in Poland, the essential fact exposed by the Polish crisis is that the Polish nation would, if it could, resign from the Warsaw Pact, get rid of its communist government, and rejoin the Western community of nations. Poland wants out just as much as do the East Germans, the Hungarians, the Czechs, and the Romanians.

What true and willing friends does Moscow have today on whose loyalty the Kremlin could count in a pinch?

Bulgaria is about the only one, and even the Bulgarian government has of late been seeking to open more cultural and economic relations with the West. Cuba and Vietnam are loyal, so long as their subsidies continue. But the subsidies mount and the cost must by now be a serious burden on the Soviet economy.

There are still Soviet military missions in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and South Yemen. But all four are showing signs of wanting independence of action. Moscow's only new recruit during the year was Syria, whose government is in deep trouble at home and among its Arab neighbors. That government committed an act of desperation in signing a friendship treaty with Moscow.

There was a time when Western experts on the Soviet Union used to speculate whether some day Moscow might convert its empire held together by force into a commonwealth of nations tied together by common interest and trade. The military invasion of Afghanistan at the beginning of 1980 and the crisis over Poland at the year's end proved that the men of the Kremlin have no concept of anything other than an empire tied together by force.

The time for such empires is running out. 1980 raised a question: Was Soviet historian Andrei Amalrik correct when he predicted the break up of the Soviet Empire -- in 1984?

The events of 1980 made that possibility seem more realistic than the experts had previously conceded.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.