The dramatic penetration of Soviet air space by a 19-year-old West German pilot has reinforced the argument of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's supporters that the key to more reliable defense lies in better management, not more hardware. The shakeup in the leadership that came in the wake of the flight should silence or inhibit those within the defense establishment who have reportedly been accusing Mr. Gorbachev of neglecting defense in favor of arms control. And it should also accelerate the process, initiated under Gorbachev, of strengthening civilian control over the military.
Mathias Rust, who landed in Red Square last Thursday, brought down a Politburo member and a senior military commander, and has probably triggered a major overhaul of the Soviet armed forces.
The Soviet response to the incident has once again demonstrated what Soviet President Andrei Gromyko aptly called the ``iron teeth'' behind Gorbachev's smile - the willingness to act decisively and brutally if the situation requires. In the past, Gorbachev has shown his teeth in important but less controversial situations, such as confrontations with the United States or Britain over allegations of spying. This time he has hit one of the major institutions of Soviet power, the Soviet armed forces.
The fact that the Soviet leadership did not act on the affair until Saturday, when Gorbachev and former Defense Minister Sergei Sokolov had returned from the Warsaw Pact summit in East Berlin, leaves little doubt that the decision to crack down was Gorbachev's. His action this time must leave his adversaries in little doubt of how he would act if he ever felt his own position was threatened.
The resignation of Marshal Sokolov, a candidate (nonvoting) member of the Politburo, was announced late Saturday night.
Sokolov's replacement is Gen. Dmitri Yazov, a relatively junior commander who has leapfrogged many senior commanders, including Chief of General Staff Sergei Akhromeyev, who is a rank higher than General Yazov, and First Deputy Defense Minister Petr Lushev.
The announcement of Yazov's appointment was quickly followed by a statement from a special session of the ruling Politburo that Marshal Alexander Koldunov, who was the commander of the elite air defense forces, a deputy minister, and a World War II hero and fighter ace, had been fired for ``negligence.''
The statement added that the Politburo had passed a resolution on the ``strengthening of the leadership of the Ministry of Defense.''
It also noted that the prosecutor's office was investigating both the violation of the Soviet airspace by the West German pilot and ``the action of officials in this situation'' - a hint that senior military officers might go on trial for incompetence.
Yazov's appointment suggests either that the civilian leadership is looking for a malleable commander of the Soviet armed forces, or that the Politburo plans to clean out the leadership of the forces.
What does seem clear is that Yazov will not be an interim appointee: At age 63, he is 13 years younger than his predecessor.
One indicator of the Kremlin's attitude toward Yazov should come in mid-June, when the Communist Party Central Committee is scheduled to hold its next plenum. The meeting will almost certainly accept Sokolov's resignation from the Politburo; it could also name Yazov to take his place.
Until Saturday, Yazov was a deputy defense minister in charge of personnel, a relatively obscure position which he had held for six months. He was also one of the more junior of the 40 military members of the Central Committee. He was elected a candidate member of the committee in 1981, and was not promoted to full membership at the 27th Party Congress in March 1986.
His background has probably brought him into contact with at least two current members of the Politburo. As military commander of the Far Eastern forces from 1984 to the end of last year, he must have met Gorbachev during the Soviet leader's visit to the Far East in July 1986. And as an Army commander in the Transcaucasian military district from 1972-74, he would have known Geidar Aliev, who was party chief of the Central Asia republic of Azerbaijan, where the district is headquartered.
But the Politburo member whom Yazov probably knew best is the man whose name has now become synonymous with corruption: Dinmukhamed Kunayev, the party chief of the Asian republic of Kazakhstan until last December.
Yazov was commander of the Central Asian military district, based in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, from 1982-84.