Moscow's 'safe choice' Kremlin reaffirms preference for seasoned officials by naming Sokolov to top Soviet defense post

In a swift, smooth transition, the Soviet Union has installed a new defense minister to replace Marshal Dmitri Ustinov, who passed away last week. But perhaps at least as significant is what the Soviet leadership did not do.

It did not, for example, choose to bring another member of a younger generation into this country's ruling circles. The new man chosen to head this country's military, Marshal Sergei Sokolov, is only three years younger than Mr. Ustinov.

And it did not use the occasion to help resolve another, much more important leadership question - namely, who will succeed the Soviet leader, Konstantin Chernenko, when he leaves the political arena?

The Kremlin plays by an arcane set of political rules. It is left to Western analysts to study the outcome, and to try to determine the process which led to it.

So it was with the passing of Dmitri Ustinov.

Only 42 days ago, a member of the ruling Communist Party Politburo, Victor Grishin, stood in Red Square and assured reporters that Ustinov had missed the annual Nov. 7 military parade there because of a ''cold.''

In fact, as a government commission later revealed, Ustinov was struggling with a number of serious medical problems. When he died last Thursday, the government waited 24 hours to make the announcement. Then began a ritual that the Kremlin has followed so often in the past four years with the passing of two Soviet heads of state and a number of other high-ranking party leaders.

A commission, headed by Politburo member Grigory Romanov, was appointed to plan the funeral. That set off speculation that Mr. Romanov, formerly the boss of the Leningrad Communist Party, would be named defense minister. After all, Ustinov had followed that route into the defense minister's post. And the most recent Soviet leaders - Mr. Chernenko and Yuri Andropov - headed the funeral commission for their predecessors.

This time, however, the Politburo departed from the script, and reached into the ranks of the military to choose the 73-year-old Sokolov, formerly a deputy defense minister, for the post.

Was that a snub for Romanov, who is often mentioned as one of the contenders to succeed Chernenko as party leader? Far from it.

In fact, the move may have actually bolstered Romanov's political fortunes and kept him in the running for the post of Soviet leader.

Romanov would have seemed to have the right credentials for the defense minister's job. Like Ustinov, he had a civilian background, and his appointment would have reaffirmed the Communist Party's continuing dominance over the military.

But most analysts believe that the defense minister's job would have been a political dead-end for him. The reason? To bolster the defense minister's standing with the military, he is usually made a marshal in the Soviet Army, and wears a uniform.

Most Kremlin-watchers think that once Romanov had donned military garb, he would have virtually forfeited the chance to become the Soviet leader - and improved the chances of the No. 2 man in the Kremlin, Mikhail Gorbachev, to become No. 1.

Mr. Gorbachev has just returned from a highly successful trip to Britain and Scotland - a visit cut short by the need to return for Ustinov's funeral. His strong standing in the West (even Britain's Margaret Thatcher avowed that she ''liked'' Gorbachev and could ''do business'' with him) complements an equally strong standing here at home.

Members of the party's Central Committee openly identify him as the No. 2 man in the ruling Politburo, and say he must be considered the likely successor to Chernenko.

But Romanov apparently also has a following within the Politburo. He is also a member of the Central Committee Secretariat, another requisite for succeeding Chernenko.

Sokolov, then, represented what one diplomat here calls a ''safe'' choice as defense minister. He apparently holds orthodox views that are not in conflict with the party leadership, and there was thus little hesitation in naming him to the office. In fact, the choice was made public less than 24 hours after the announcement of Ustinov's death.

But in choosing Sokolov, the party bypassed other, younger men. Only three months ago the party removed Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, the obvious front runner to succeed Ustinov, from the race.

An after-the-fact reading of speeches by the two men suggests that Ustinov and Ogarkov may have had their differences over military strategy. Still, Ogarkov had undeniable prominence before his unexpectedly precipitous fall. Whether Ustinov had a role in engineering his defeat may never be known. And it remains to be seen whether Sokolov will be able to attain the political prominence that Ustinov enjoyed.

Preliminary analysis by Western diplomats suggest that he will not, and that Ustinov's passing will leave an important gap near the top of the Kremlin heirarchy.

Some Soviet citizens also share that perception.

Upon hearing of Ustinov's death, one man, as he walked in Moscow's bitter cold, said, ''This is important.''

''Now,'' he said, ''there is only (Foreign Minister Andrei) Gromyko and Chernenko.''

Indeed, Ustinov, Chernenko, and Mr. Gromyko composed a troika that represented the ''old guard'' in the ruling Politburo.

It is unlikely that anyone else could have filled Ustinov's shoes. But the choice of his successor suggests that the aging Politburo was unwilling to let a younger man even try.

Moreover, they were similarly unwilling to give Mikhail Gorbachev undisputed claim to the party leader's role, assuring that there could be further surprises when the next major transfer of power takes place within the Soviet leadership.

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