How Soviets think: the unknown factor in the superpower equation

What worries me most,'' says a puzzled Moscow pedestrian I asked for his thoughts on Ronald Reagan a few weeks ago, ''is how little you Americans know of how we Russians think.''

Not just what the Russians think.

To understand the Soviet Union of the 1980s is, in large part, to resolve how a nation with an ever more sophisticated, subtle, and aware political elite still shoots down a civilian jumbo jet and takes six days to admit having done so.

From sidewalk to Central Committee, Russians' image of themselves differs strikingly from Americans' image of Russians.

Where Americans see strength, Russians - senior officials included - sense weakness and vulnerability.

Where the outside world sees brashness and aggressiveness, the Soviets convey a profound sense of insecurity, even fear.

The ''Soviet threat'' of which President Reagan speaks so often owes at least as much to weakness as to strength.

It has less to do with ballistic missiles than with a potentially destabilizing mixture of the Soviet mind-set, American rhetoric, and very real problems confronting the Kremlin at home in the 1980s.

The Soviet economy does not work right - a problem for which, the leadership knows, there is simply no easy remedy.

The Soviet people are increasingly difficult to manage for a political system still not quite sure how best to rule without the extremes of the gulag (labor camp) or the unifying cement of world war.

The Soviet decisionmaking apparatus, whether civilian or military, is slowed and confused in times of crisis by abiding rigidities.

And Yuri Andropov's startling no-show at last week's Revolution Day parade in Red Square is at the least a reminder of his mortality - and at worst, a warning bell for a second possible Kremlin power transition in as many years.

At least as important as who follows Mr. Andropov, if he should pass from the scene any time soon, will be how smoothly the changeover goes. That is hard to predict. But this second, unwanted transition would benefit from far less thorough preparation than the long-awaited passing of Leonid Brezhnev a year ago.

United States assertiveness, makes for potential instability. It is not so much Ronald Reagan's policies that matter in this equation - just as it is not really the Soviet military machine alone that is most threatening.

As Soviet foreign-policy specialist Alexander Bovin said at the time of last year's Israel-Lebanon crisis, the men who run Moscow are ''realists.'' They understand - and respect - strength. They have a keen sense of lines that should not be crossed.

And the Kremlin has entered a stage in its long post-Stalin transition where, as a ranking official puts it, both domestic and international considerations have dictated a ''long overdue'' focus on putting the Soviets' own house in order.

For all the talk in the news media, on both sides of the Atlantic, of a ''new cold war,'' the first years of superpower politics under Mr. Reagan have been remarkably serene.

There has been no Cuban missile crisis. No Berlin blockade. Nor, to draw on more recent comparisons, have Cuban troops shown up in a new Angola, much less Soviet troops in a new Afghanistan.

And the Middle East showdown of a year ago involved nowhere near the level of superpower brinkmanship of the Arab-Israeli war a decade earlier.

If there are unsettling signals, they have flashed in brief crisis episodes either ignored or soon forgotten by the world outside. And to the extent that a ''US factor'' has entered into the equation, it has had less to do with Mr. Reagan's policies than with his vocabulary.

When Israel thundered into Lebanon in the summer of last year, for instance, mere logic promptly convinced Soviet officials of their depressingly limited options. Moscow could, and did, spew invective. The Soviets could, and did, resupply a battered Syrian military. They could, and did, shift ''blame'' for the sorry state of affairs to crippling disarray within the Arab world.

But late in the game, irrationality took over. It is the most worrisome of responses in an age where no sane superpower would risk head-on confrontation.

It was a little, and ultimately harmless thing - a public warning to the Americans from then-President Leonid Brezhnev - but it was important for what it conveys about how Soviet leaders think and react.

What was surprising about the warning - which said that if the US sent marines to Lebanon, Moscow would ''build its policy with due consideration of this fact'' - was that it occurred at a time when the dispatch of marines was a clear possibility about which the Soviets knew full well they could and would do nothing.

''If it were up to me, I wouldn't have written this Brezhnev note,'' was the frank, morning-after remark of a ranking official who, colleagues suggested, had indeed been consulted. ''If we know we can't do anything, the less words, the better.

''But there was a feeling we had to show the image of a superpower.''

He and other officials later suggested this feeling was particularly acute at a time of clear ''pre-transition'' in the Kremlin, and of almost ''gloatingly anti-Soviet'' rhetoric from the White House.

The Korean airliner crisis is another, and more disturbing, illustration of the complex factors at work on the Soviet mind.

For one thing, the same systemic problems that so unsettle the Kremlin about its national economy proved to work, or perhaps not work, on the Soviet Far Eastern Anti-Air Defense Command.

Even from updated US accounts it seems likely that the fighter pilots who chased and downed the crowded civilian jet had no idea what plane they were rocketing. They appear to have assumed they were after the US spy plane that had turned back toward US territory more than two hours earlier.

The same rigid centralization and disincentives for individual initiative that plague the civilian sector conspired to ensure the tragic outcome.

The Far East commander, senior officials make clear privately, contacted Moscow relatively early in the affair. Notwithstanding the public Soviet version , an official says that the local chief would not ordinarily have had the authority to order the downing of the Korean plane.

The system, it appears, simply didn't work.

Though Moscow was consulted, the Korean plane subsequently left, then reentered Soviet air space. It was not until the plane was about to leave for good, both Soviet and US accounts indicate, that its fighter-jet pursuers were in position to do anything about the ''intruder.''

Here, with the plane's imminent ''escape'' apparently ruling out full consultation with the top brass, what two senior officials separately term the ''military mentality'' took over. Which is worse, the local commander seems to have asked himself, downing an ''enemy'' plane - the natural reaction in a nation primed to assume the worst of the outside world - or taking the responsibility for letting one go.

The answer is virtually automatic in the Soviet Union - whether you are a shopkeeper, airline reservations clerk, traffic cop, construction worker, or anti-air defense commander. Play it safe. Don't risk taking the initiative.

And the automatic impulse, after the fact, was to play for time, avoid any suggestion of error, then go on the propaganda offensive.

It took nearly a week for the Soviets to give their full version of events - at an unprecedented news conference by armed forces Chief of Staff Nikolai Ogarkov.

The day after Marshal Ogarkov's news conference, I showed a senior civilian official a transcript of the military chief's remarks and asked for comment.

Better late than never was the gist of his reply. But on several points, he remained unhappy. ''For instance, when Ogarkov was asked whether, if we had known there were 269 people aboard we still would have fired, I would have said flatly, 'No.' '' Marshal Ogarkov's reply had been longer and a good deal less explicit.

Another senior official suggested that old-Russian insecurity, translating in crisis to something approximating siege mentality, had played a part in the way the Soviets had publicly handled the affair. ''Almost immediately, there was this tidal wave of accusations and propaganda from the rest of the world. . . .''

More telling were the comments of another official, a prominent member of the party Central Committee, with whom I talked at length a few days later.

We were trapped, he said in effect. We had two terrible choices: ''First, the plane is let through. This would mean the Soviet Union would find itself humiliated - that the Soviet Union will tolerate anything. . . .

''It would put us in the position of supplicants in the superpower equation.''

''Or . . . the plane is not let through. Then you (Americans) shed public tears over the incident and accuse the Soviet Union of inhumanity.''

Initially, the official had seemed reluctant to discuss the incident at all. When I said my main interest was to understand not so much what had happened but why, what thought processes had operated, his attitude changed visibly. ''I will tell you,'' he remarked, ''because from your question, it is clear you see what the main issue is.''

The main issue - though senior officials, as part of the issue, would not phrase it so explicitly - is that the Soviet Union senses that only huge ballistic missiles make it a superpower.

Part of this may spring from a history of intermittent invasions by a superior force, organization, or civilization. Long before the Bolsheviks took power, for instance, there was the case of the Greek cleric who, on a visit to Russia, was for years barred from leaving lest he carry home tales of Russian backwardness.

But much is of more recent vintage: the West's diplomatic, and at times military, bid to isolate the Soviet regime in its first years, for instance. Or, the sense here that only a desperation of convenience produced the brief World War II alliance of the West with Soviet Russia. A greater impulse is of even later manufacture. The immediate postwar years were ones of true cold war. The Soviet state had, inevitably, won world recognition as a great power. But this was a nuclear age, and a rival, greater power - the US - held first a nuclear monopoly and, for a long time thereafter, commanding nuclear superiority.

The 1970s, in many ways, began ever so slowly to dent the Soviet sense of not quite being a superpower. Huge-scale rearmament produced at least ''parity'' with the American nuclear arsenal. Richard Nixon inaugurated a process of summitry and arms talks that - in ways more important to the Soviet psyche than a Westerner might assume - formally and publicly established the Kremlin as an ''equal'' partner with the US on the world diplomatic stage.

True, Soviet officials knew, the Americans remained fundamentally stronger. Their economy worked better. Their military-industrial complex maintained a technology gap that Moscow finessed by reliance on enormous land-based ballistic missiles.

This sense of compensation for technology with brute muscle is one reason Moscow has so far rebuffed Reagan strategic-arms proposals that would, in one official's words, ''force'' Soviet modernization.

Still, time would even out the US-Soviet superpower equation, officials here supposed during detente.

But as the Soviets see it, the ''psychological'' gains of the postwar years have nearly evaporated.

When the Brezhnev warning on the Mideast came last year, officials suggested a catalyst that, to the American eye, seems oddly trivial: Ronald Reagan's rhetoric. Particularly galling for the Soviets had been Mr. Reagan's remark, before the British Parliament, that Marxism-Leninism would inevitably find itself on the ''ash heap of history.''

Trade sanctins, or efforts to that end, also played a part. But it was not so much the sanctions themselves. These, from an economic point of view, could be circumvented. What hit home was the sense that the world's truly secure superpower felt it could treat Moscow in such a cavalier fashion.

''We are not El Salvador or Panama,'' a senior official remarked at one point.

Another, a few weeks ago, digressed in an interview on arms control issues: ''I don't think the proper comparison in our relations with the Americans is the cold war. . . . We have regressed even further, to a point where the very question of acceptance, recognition, of the Soviet Union is called into play.''

Domestic factors are at least equally important in fueling Kremlin insecurities. Brezhnev's Mideast warning came at a time of pre-transition in Moscow - or, as one official put it in the closest thing to informed local confirmation of a power struggle one is likely to get here, ''a time of personal differences'' within the leadership.

The Korean plane incident, similarly, seems to have occurred at a time when Yuri Andropov was not only out of Moscow for his annual vacation, but also ill.

Such junctures tend to create in Soviet officials a much keener awareness of what one of them terms ''our public opinion'' - a reference not to voters, obviously, but to that shared sense within the political elite of the necessity to maintain, or credibly establish, Soviet superpowerdom.

A more fundamental domestic reinforcement of superpower insecurity, meanwhile , is the Soviet people itself.

That there is no visible threat from that quarter is immaterial. The powers that be are sensitive nonetheless.

The Kremlin fundamentally mistrusts the Soviet people. Indeed, sometimes Soviet people seem to mistrust themselves. Raised in a system where authority, not the individual, makes most key decisions, Soviet citizens, particularly older ones, can more than occasionally be heard to hanker for the more ''orderly'' times of Stalin.

The Korean jet affair offered examples of the insecurity of the Soviet powers that be about the people over whom they have power. The delay in going public derived partly from the perceived need first to explain the incident in terms that would best play at home: the time-tested idea of a threat from foreign quarters that Moscow had no choice but to counter.

Yet even after airing the full details, the Soviet media's main thrust seemed to reflect a deep sense of uncertainty. The emphasis was on excerpting, as selectively as the Soviet version required, bits from Western, and particularly American, newspapers. The tacit assumption was that the Soviet people might not take their own leadership's word at face value - but that if the New York Times or Washington Post weighed in, well, that was a different matter.

By the same token, a particularly effective and energetically pressed element in the Soviet version was to point out that the downed airplane had the most sophisticated of Western guidance equipment. Translation: Western technology, unlike ours, just doesn't break down.

The policy implications of abiding Soviet insecurities are not perfectly predictable.

Considered decisions - those that fully work through a modernized policy machine - may prove largely immune. A senior official argues that ''economic reform'' might be slowed as a result of ''psychological barriers'' created by Reagan-era ''anti-Sovietism.'' But even in a political vacuum, that process would be a drawn-out affair, to say the least.

Yet also likely to come into play - indeed, already coming into play - is the leadership's approach to cultural, intellectual, and artistic life. To speak of a ''crackdown'' on artistic experimentation is a little difficult when literary, musical, dramatic, or other cultural ventures are already so constrained. But the authorities can, and recently have begun to, turn the screws yet tighter.

Perhaps the most worrisome of potential effects on the home front, to go by private remarks of various officials of the post-Stalin era, involves intellectual ''freedom'' within the power elite. This is a key element in the overall process of ''transition'' from Stalinism for the Soviet system.

And at least some officials express concern that the more Kremlin insecurity is encouraged, the narrower will be the bounds of permissible inquiry and discussion for the younger analysts, specialists, and advisers who have been brought into the policy machine in recent years.

Internationally, the main effects of reinforced insecurities are likely to be felt on issues of crisis, where time considerations severely limit the extent to which decisions are filtered through the policy machine.

Marshal Ogarkov was careful, in his news conference, to discourage Western suggestions that the Korean airliner incident raised the possibility of similar foul-ups on a nuclear scale.

A prominent party Central Committee member added privately that the Kremlin's failure to use the hot line or other channels to get in touch with the Americans before shooting at the ''spy plane'' would not apply should a nuclear crisis arise.

But he did note: ''Without doubt, I think that what the present US administration says and does makes for much higher tension. It creates a hair-trigger atmosphere. . . . Some accidents, whether such as the plane incident or others, become inevitable.''

For some Soviet officials, particularly the professional propagandists, such remarks are the transparent preface to a charge that, much to the dismay of a peace-loving Kremlin, a ''madman'' named Ronald Reagan has shredded detente and nudged the world toward a nuclear abyss.

The officials do not explain why, without Ronald Reagan but with a peculiarly Russian mind-set that seems to have survived detente largely intact, the Soviets both positively identified, and fired on, another Korean civilian airliner over Soviet territory in 1978.

More interesting are the remarks of those ranking officials who view the ''decline of detente'' as no simple creature of Mr. Reagan and acknowledge that Soviet actions, like the invasion of Afghanistan, have played a part.

Their argument is not so much that it is time to oust Mr. Reagan and magically resurrect the embryo stage of the Nixon-Kissinger era, although that would certainly please them.

''What I think is necessary, above all,'' says one such official, ''is a return to the idea of equality . . . of acceptance of the idea that the Soviet Union is not a country to be dictated to by the Americans.''

''This factor of acceptance is vitally important,'' argues another official. ''Reagan, in this sense, really knows how to hit the sensitive psychological button here. . . .

''I would not speak in terms of restoring detente with the Americans. I would use the word 'normalization,' in the sense that it is abnormal for two nuclear powers to have the relationship we now do. . . . Maybe for Israel and the Arabs it is normal, but not for the US and the Soviet Union.''

I asked one official in effect how Moscow had expected US officials to view moves like the dispatch of Cuban troops to Angola in 1975 - for the Americans, one of the first big cracks in the structure of detente.

For the Soviets, in fact, the ''crack'' had come earlier - with the Americans' bid explicitly and publicly to link most-favored-nation status in trade to freer emigration rights for Soviet Jews.

But the official said the Angola crisis was not, as some in the West have suggested, a conscious Kremlin reaction to the emigration dispute.

''I would say only that if Soviet-American relations had been stronger, it is possible, probable, there would have been no Cubans in Angola. . . .

''There is no direct link. But generally, bad relations (between the superpowers) contribute to an environment where critical options, like the Cubans in Angola or us in Afghanistan, are used.''

Last of a series. Other articles ran Nov. 15, 16, and 17.

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.