Don't underestimate the Soviet Union

The Reagan administration deserves credit for reminding the American public as well as friends and foes that, contrary to the Kremlin's boasting, the Soviet Union, far from riding the tide of history, is confronted with serious problems both at home and abroad, problems for which elderly members of the Politburo do not seem to have any realistic solutions. And yet one is uneasy hearing the President call communism a "bizarre chapter" of human history likely to be closed in the foreseeable future once and for all, or Secretary of State Alexander Haig declaring that "the Soviet Union shows clear signs of historic decline." Excessive optimism about an inevitable disintegration of the communist regime in the USSR is analytically unsound and has dangerous political implications.

A major crisis of the Soviet system is possible but far from imminent. It is true, as the 26th Party Congress demonstrated, that the ruling gerontocracy is running out of steam and appears to be unable -- indeed unwilling -- to develop new bold ways to address rapidly accumulating difficulties in both Moscow's domestic and foreign policies. The signs of those difficulties are manifold:

Economic growth rates are declining. Agriculture is in constant crisis. Industrial productivity is falling. An era of cheap labor and resources is over. consumers are increasingly dissatisfied. A Russian-dominated elite is faced with demographic trends favoring ethnic, particularly Muslim, minorities. Writers and artists vote against the petty official controls with their feet, leaving the homeland in great numbers.

In the foreign policy realm the picture is also anything but rosy. Soviet assertiveness and heavy-handedness have contributed to Russian self-encirclement. The US abandoned an evenhanded policy toward the USSR and the People's Republic of China and moved in a direction of semi-alliance with the latter. The Kremlin's arrogance and insensitivity was to a large extent behind the Sino-Japanese rapprochement. And an endless buildup of the Soviet military power has provoked the West into a new major rearmament effort. Finally, the popular peaceful revolution in Poland underscores the fragility of Soviet control over Eastern Europe.

Nevertheless, prudence requires us to pause before making confident projections on the basis of Moscow's dismal performance. for there will soon be a political succession in the Soviet Union and it is by no means certain that the new leadership will be as inept, unimaginative, and indecisive as Brezhnev and company.

There is room for reform and innovation even within the narrow margins of the soviet system and this room has not yet been explored. Furthermore, the recent CIA revision of its prognosis of the prospects for the USSR's oil production in the 1980s is a useful reminder against assuming that there can be no improvement in Russia without a radical structural change.

Soviet communism may be declining but it is still the number one producer of oil, coal, steel, and concrete. The USSR's economy is definitely slowing down but still growing. And the masses, while increasingly alienated from the regime , are unlike their Polish counterparts in indicating little if any inclination to challenge the authorities.

All this is not meant to suggest that brezhnev's successors will necessarily find the wisdom and courage to offer the determined and flexible leadership needed. But since there is no way of knowing for certain, the West has no realistic alternative but to assume that the Soviet challenge is not going to disappear.

This is especially important because of the possibility that even a collapse of the communist regime would not abolish Russia's global assertiveness. For the extraordinary Russian preoccupation with security and unusual reliance on force and coercion considerably predate the Bolshevik Revolution. In addition, nationalism bordering on chauvinism flourishes today across the Russian political spectrum -- from the elite to the dissidents. There is a real danger that, if some of these nationalists who do not hide their contempt for the "decadent" and "corrupt" West come to power or gain greater access to power, Russia may undergo a messianic revival.

One should hope that Russian nationalists would understand the need to turn inward and, instead of pursuing a policy of aggression, would focus on rebuilding the shattered foundations of the Soviet economy and society. But the hopes of Westerners have too often been frustrated by Russian history to provide guidance for American policy toward its main adversary.

Meanwhile, in the US, illusions about the collapse of the Soviet regime can generate at first excessive optimism and then a sense of betrayal after the expectations are frustrated and the need to stand up to the Russians does not disappear despite all effort and expenditure. Vietnam offers a persuasive lesson of how counterproductive in the long run predictions of a light at the end of the tunnel can be in terms of preserving a national security consensus.

Finally, in Europe, where influential circles do not share the Reagan administration's preoccupation with the Soviet military threat, assertions regarding the temporary nature of the Soviet imperial phenomenon could be used as an excuse to avoid making a contribution to common defense.

In short, President Reagan would be wise to base US policy toward the Soviet Union on an assumption that the Soviet challenge will be with us for a long time and adjust his rhetoric and that of his associates accordingly.

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