How militaristic is the Soviet military?

DURING the tenure of Konstantin Chernenko as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, we outside observers will have the Soviet military under close watch. If there is to be a considerable period of adjustment for both people and policies following Yuri Andropov's death, then the military would seem to be in an ideal position to obtain resources and to exert influence. Mr. Chernenko, who as Leonid Brezhnev's chosen successor staunchly defended Brezhnev's ''peace program'' for detente with the West, may be especially eager to prove his adherence to a strong defense posture. And the other most powerful man in the Politburo, Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov - the voice of the military in top party councils - will be there to be sure he does.

The question, ''How much influence does the Soviet military have?'' has been debated for years - President Reagan expressed concern on the subject recently - and deserves continuing examination. This should lead to a further question, less often tackled: ''What kind of influence is Soviet military influence on policymaking: baleful, beneficial, or neutral?'' Or as the question might be put , ''How militaristic is the Soviet military?''

Soviet history testifies to the ferocious determination of the Communist Party to maintain close control of the military. In the past, outstanding individuals (e.g. Tukhachevsky, Zhukov) were ruthlessly purged or removed if their popularity was seen as threatening party control or the image of party control. This determination to hold tight control has not lessened. There is no possibility of the military ''taking over.''

Still, the increasing bureaucratization of Soviet society does seem to have confirmed the privileged standing of the military, as a group, and to have increased its influence on broad policy consideration, if not on specific decisions. The Politburo is in charge, but the military is now strongly represented there. Moreover, military technology (e.g., the short decision time in a nuclear conflict) has brought the views of military leaders into greater prominence, just as the role of the Defense Council has gained in stature. The uncertainty and flux in the leadership, beginning with the several years of Brezhnev's declining health, have given the military view more weight when resources are allocated or broad policies discussed. The increased public role of military leaders reinforces this impression. So if the military is not taking over, its behind-the-scenes weight is becoming steadily more ponderous.

How bad is this? Does it mean that the Soviet regime is becoming more militaristic, in the sense of pursuing aggression, throwing its weight around on the world scene?

It seems possible that, on the contrary, at times the Soviet military may not be so ''militaristic'' as some of the civilian leaders. Historical evidence suggests that the Soviet military is (a) hungry for as much military might as it can possibly acquire; (b) cautious, despite increased power, in undertaking military actions; (c) afraid of the results of nuclear war at whatever level.

As for building up military might, this is not uncommon for any country's military establishment, even ours.

In the post-Andropov period, the Politburo will find it harder than ever to say ''no'' to the generals and admirals. These officers share the national neurosis about being under attack on all sides; they are convinced the United States will stay ahead of them in vital technology; and they are determined to keep on getting militarily stronger. There is absolutely no evidence that the Soviets can be intimidated into slowing military growth. Only agreed limits, such as the SALT/START process envisaged, can curb such growth. Failing this, Soviet civilians will keep handing growth money to the military.

As for conventional military actions, those who believe in a ''Soviet blueprint for world conquest'' will believe that the Soviet military sought the invasion of Czechoslovakia in order to put more troops into Central Europe and sought the invasion of Afghanistan to be closer to the Persian Gulf. While the Politburo decision to invade was complex, it seems highly probable that the decisionmaking was civilian, not military; that lack of perceived opposition was crucial; and that ideology played a large role in the tragic determination. It is the political leaders who are bent on expanding Soviet influence around the globe. As their power grows, their willingness to use that power grows also. Military leaders, for their part, will undertake any task they are assigned and will ask for immense resources to prepare for the grandest tasks imaginable; but they are at bottom cautious, not rash.

As for the threat of nuclear war, the argument in their military writings is that the Soviets foresee fighting and winning a nuclear war. Far more convincing is the view that Soviet writing about ''victory'' in nuclear war is ideological (passages about the inevitable triumph of communism are obligatory in all writing), while the main thrust of authoritative Soviet pronouncements is on the imperative necessity of avoiding nuclear war. There is no real evidence that the Soviet military seeks to push the civilian leadership toward nuclear war.

If the foregoing is correct, the upshot is that a larger voice of the Soviet military, to the extent that it is emerging, is not necessarily baleful, does not necessarily mean that the USSR will adopt more aggressive (militaristic) policies. It does mean that in the Chernenko period the military will put forward their claims for resources and status with emphasis and success. And they will urge that the civilian leadership not let the Soviet Union be pushed around. Military men do not like to take humiliation or defeat.

Therefore, this growth of Soviet military weight - coupled with what some see as a similar process in our own country - should warn us that tension spots on today's map can be terribly dangerous. Backing away from confrontation is harder. And seeing through military lenses may make diplomatic courses harder to see and to choose. The deepest problem is not the militarism of the military, but finding the will - in the mentality of the armed camp - to negotiate our conflicts of interest.

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