THE Warsaw Treaty Organization met again in January in Budapest to discuss recent proposals made at the mutual balanced force reduction talks under way in Vienna. If this event produces little more than a ripple in Western capitals, it is because the Warsaw Pact is an organization whose viability as a multinational military alliance under Soviet leadership is often taken for granted. Closer examination, however, suggests a very different picture. Today, the Warsaw Pact is essentially a bilateral Soviet-East German military alliance in which the economic, political, and, hence, military importance of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to the Soviet Union has relegated the remaining East European states to secondary roles in Soviet strategy. This owes partly to East Germany's cultural and geographic proximity to the West, which offers the Soviets their most important channel of entry into the affairs of Western Europe. East German trade with the West Germans has made the GDR the USSR's chief source of Western technology.
The major Warsaw Pact development over the past few years, however, has been the deterioration of the economic and political situation in the rest of the bloc countries. The economic crisis of the late 1970s, continued East European indebtedness to the West, threatening price incongruities with the West; and Poland's economic collapse have forced the Soviets to rely militarily more on East Germany and much less on Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.
Thanks to economic growth rates which the GDR's pact neighbors can only envy, East German defense spending for military modernization has been sustained at a rate second only to the Soviets'. Buttressed by a program of social militarization and the most efficient suppression of internal political opposition and free speech in the Soviet bloc, the GDR military state seems capable of coping with any form of internal unrest. While the rest of the pact's non-Soviet armed forces often lack the equipment, training, and motivation to perform their mission alongside their Soviet comrades, today's East German forces are the best equipped, best led, and best trained of the pact's non-Soviet forces.
Constant infusions of new Soviet military equipment, intensive training with Soviet forces, and the prominent role assigned to East German officers in the pact's staffs testify to Soviet confidence in the East Germans. More than 1.2 million Soviet and East German armed troops are now spread over an area smaller than Ohio.
Politically, the chief beneficiary of this surge in East Germany's military strength has been the Soviet Union. In the wake of Poland's struggle with martial law, the GDR emerged as Moscow's primary military ally in the pact, filling the void left by Poland's economic collapse and the demoralization of its armed forces. During the 1981 Polish crisis, Soviet and East German leaders thought and behaved above all as policemen, trained to think first of internal stability and the continued survival of the political status quo. The GDR's delegation to pact talks on the ``Polish problem'' in December 1980 argued for a military solution to Polish unrest. Throughout the crisis, the GDR responded to solidarity's activities with military preparations for an invasion of Poland.
All of these points suggest that the Soviet-East German alliance now represents as much of a danger to Eastern Europe as it does to NATO. Historically, the leaders of the German and Russian states have turned to each other for support whenever their security interests were threatened by a third country. This was certainly true for Stalin and Hitler in 1939. This was also the case for East Berlin and Moscow during the pact's 1968 intervention into Czechoslovakia. The sad truth is that while a Soviet invasion of Poland in 1981 would not have filled the ``gutters of Moscow's streets with rivers of tears,'' remarkably few East Germans would have regretted the joint Soviet-East German military suppression of Moscow's Warsaw Pact ally.
Western military analysts may take comfort in the knowledge that economic stagnation and rising anti-Soviet nationalism elsewhere in the region make the Warsaw Pact without the East Germany irrelevant. Still, Western observers should also note that as long as the GDR remains economically and politically stable, the Soviet position in the region cannot be challenged and that the military threat to NATO remains credible.
The 1990s promise to be a period of considerable flux in East-West relations with Eastern Europe playing an important role in Europe's economic and security affairs. If Zbigniew Brzezinski and Seweryn Bialer, among others, are correct and the Soviet Union is really entering an epoch of protracted systemic crisis at home, it is only a matter of time until the East European populations seek to exploit this new domestic phase in Soviet ``destabilization'' to achieve greater political and economic independence from Moscow. Mr. Gorbachev's chief partner in the effort to manage or suppress these inevitable crisis will be the GDR. Given this, what can or should NATO do about the reactionary Soviet-East German alliance?
First, the West Germans must reexamine their economic relationship with the GDR to ensure that they are not subsidizing the Soviet economic and military effort in the region in return for minimal concessions in the area of human rights and marginal profits. The West Germans must recognize that while Russia's cultural and economic backwardness cannot match the attraction of West German society for the majority of the GDR's citizens, cultural affinity for the West did nothing to forestall the possibility of East German military support for the Soviets in a confrontation with the Poles in 1981.
At the same time, premature reductions of US military strength in NATO should be avoided, since they would signal both the East Europeans and the Soviets that the US and its allies lack the resolve and the power to encourage democratic processes in the region. If the US chooses to reduce its military presence, the Soviets should be made to compensate by disengaging their own forces from the region, more specifically from the GDR.
Lastly, NATO should recognize that the impetus for new policy directions will come from the Soviet leadership, which feels more and more besieged by forces at home and abroad that it cannot easily control. The Soviets may realize that their security interests will gain from a less rigid and heavy-handed approach in Poland or Eastern Europe. The West can encourage this economically and diplomatically by differentiating between the GDR and other Warsaw Pact states that contribute much less to the Soviet military effort in the region.
Maj. Doug Macgregor teaches government at the United States Military Academy.