On the eve of the Reagan era in Washington, the Kremlin has just launched the clearest of warnings that it intends actively to keep on undermining Western influence around the world.
Not only that, but the Soviet strategy is to "inevitably" overcome and conquer. At least one seasoned Western ambassador here has rubbed his eyes at the bluntness of the warning (while at the same time wondering aloud to me if anyone in the West would pay the slightest notice).
Americans are not comfortable with Marxist logic and rarely encounter it. Dialectics are, let's face it, dull. Many Russians themselves shy away from them, and use them simply to impress their superiors, to win promotion.
Yet a brief look is, I think, necessary to try to understand how the Kremblin justifies its actions, and how it might be expected to act in the future.
The argument is about what Moscow calls the "balance of forces" in the world, or sometimes, the "balance of strength." It may sound both pompous and predatory , but it is eye-opening just the same -- and by no means unimportant.
As set out by Yuri Zhulin and Andrei Yermonsky in a recent edition of the weekly magazine New Times (which appears in several languages; the Russians can't be accused of keeping their ideas secret), there is a big difference between the balance of military strength in the world and the underlying balance of forces. One is arms, the other is classes.
Moscow "does not dream of world domination." But the US has stoked up the arms race. Why? Because while "military-strategic parity" is maintained, "the overall balance of strength in the world continues to change in favor of peace and socialism."
How's that again? Well, detente to the Russians is a state of nonwar in which Moscow is free to act as it sees fit to influence any country against the West. That process of influence is called "objective," preordained by "law."
By claiming it is all "objective," the Russians try to make it sound as though it is happening without help from the Kremlin. The argument accelerates by going on to claim that the West cannot, and should not, try to stop this "objective" course by force of arms. Any such effort would lead to "sharp aggravation," and no blame at all could be attached to "the struggle of the peoples against war and for social progress."
Moscow can undermine the West all it pleases and will keep on doing so, because that is inevitable "law." But the West cannot resist, because that is "aggravation."
The wicked West is trying to preserve the status quo. Moscow is not having any of that. The status quo is out. Changes is in -- Moscow's kind of change. This is ingenuous in the extreme. One American professor (Vernon Aspaturian of Pennsylvania State University) calls it, not outright falsehood, but "cognitive deception."
Moscow argues that just because Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia (Kampuchea), are all pro-Moscow, Moscow cannot be blamed. Historical "law" is simply appearing.
As Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev remarked to President Carter in Vienna in June 1979, after Mr. Carter complained about Cuban intervention in Africa:
"Why pin on the Soviet Union the responsibility for the objective course of history? . . ."
This kind of argument cannot be refuted by accepting Moscow's own definitions and terms. The West must argue from its own positions of strength -- not just military, but moral, spiritual.
New Times argues that the real issue is "combining organically the struggle for detente with the struggle for social progress." Heads we win, tails you lose.
Moscow's warning: The Soviet Communist Party has always "opposed the export of revolution," but "It is equally resolutely opposed to the export of counterrevolution."
Should the West argue that Moscow has no right to intervene in developing countries, the instant answer is that Moscow has a "duty" to support "national liberation movements." Do you really mean, New Times asks, that we should not resist the reinstatement of Pol Pot in Cambodia, that tyrant?
Should we really leave Angola "to the mercy of fate"? Should South Africa be allowed to "crush" African countries around them?
Should the Ethiopian revolution not be defended?
Should Moscow reject with words alone Western and Chinese efforts to return Afghanistan "to the darkness of even more barbarous medievalism"?
Told that the Ethiopians and Afghan "revolutions" were merely internal feuds that have riven both countries for centuries, Moscow says no -- they were genuine revolutions; that is, our kind.
No one, New Times warns, can stop the "objective reality" of the shift in the world class struggle, and "it is non- sensical to dream of preserving the status quo."
A clearer warning to Ronald Reagan is hard to imagine.
Of course, the Kremlin has limits on its ability to act: a faltering economy at home, the slowly growing realization that agriculture is still a mess despite huge efforts to save it, a shortage of hard currency. The goals for the 1981-85 plan are surprisingly modest. But the intent is clear, and the passing of Mr. Brezhnev from the scene will not be enough to change it. It may not alter for half a century or more.
"There is no question of any significance which can be decided without the Soviet Union or in opposition to it," pronounced veteran Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko at the 24th party congress in April 1971.
Grandiose? Just words?
It sounds less so today after Moscow has achieved: (1) parity in nuclear weapons, which has been formally acknowledged in SALT I and in talks on the unrattified SALT II; (2) the penetration of African countries by Cuban troops; ( 3) the move into afghanistan.
Article 28 of the Soviet Constitution of 1977, a document taken extremely seriously here, defines the goal of Soviet foreign policy in part as ". . . consolidating the positions of world socialism, supporting the struggle of peoples for national liberation and social progress . . . ."
The Soviet Union does have legitimate security and strategic interests, as all powers do. They cannot be denigrated or ignored. But a lot depends on who defines the word "legitimate."
When US Sen. Charles H. Percy, in a rare meeting with Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov in late November 1980, asked why the Kremlin was building so many arms, way beyond the country's "needs" for defense, Marshall Ustinov undoubtedly defined "needs" in a different way.
How, then, does one sort out the real from the rhetoric in Soviet statements? One veteran ambassador in Moscow in my time used to argue over dinner that it was a matter of deciding case by case.
When the press insisted for weeks that the late president of Afghanistan, Hafizullah Amin, had been a "CIA agent," the ambassador refused to believe they meant it. "Just words," he said -- and was later borne out by a senior Soviet journalist who told Westerners the claim was "just for the papers."
When the press claims the US is just a failing giant, the ambassador doesn't believe it, either: "They know the US will be around for a long time to come." When the Kremlin vehemently denies it is worried about the threat from China, the ambassador scoffs. The Kremlin worries every day, he believes.
But when Mr. Gromyko says no problem can be solved without the USSR, when officials vow they will never allow the US to be militarily superior to them again, when the press denounces dissidents such as the jailed Anatoly Shcharansky as "traitors," my ambassador friend nods and says, "Yes, that's the real voice. That's what they believe."
It's a matter of using instinct, past experience, a judgment of how they think.
One wise Japanese ambassador here once told me:
"The Kremlin constantly looks for the peaceful applications of military force. It builds arms every day -- and it talks peace. The str onger it gets, the more it says how friendly it is."