A SOVIET colonel announced at a recent press conference that Moscow's military advisers in Iraq will remain there to fulfill ``contractual obligations'' to the Baghdad government. Shortly thereafter, however, the Soviet Union voted for a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of military force to tighten the Western naval blockade of Iraq. Despite the seeming contradiction between the UN vote and the press conference, they actually reveal a growing dilemma for Soviet policy in the third world. Does Mikhail Gorbachev adhere to his public pledges to demilitarize Soviet foreign policy and thereby gain the diplomatic accolades and desperately needed economic savings that would follow? Alternatively, does he pursue opportunities to maintain or perhaps even expand Soviet influence in key regions - such as the Middle East - where Moscow's arms sales and assistance programs have created potentially valuable and enduring client relationships?
If Gorbachev wants the Soviet Union to retain superpower status while it struggles to manage its serious internal crises, he must follow both policies.
Gorbachev knows he has lost the East-West competition in Europe. The Communist parties in Eastern Europe have lost their legitimacy and with it their governing authority. In all but a few remaining pockets of obdurate orthodoxy, they have ceased to function effectively as the controlling agent in people's lives. The Warsaw Pact has ceased to function as a security system serving Soviet goals and objectives. Four decades of Soviet-enforced ``alliance'' can no longer be effectively sustained by the garrisoning of Moscow's divisions in Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, and Dresden.
Further, maintaining the overwhelming military superiority that Moscow has enjoyed on the East-West frontier is no longer a sensible investment. NATO itself may implode, thereby removing the compelling argument for Moscow to continue deploying large numbers of troops in the western military districts of the Soviet Union. A handful of divisions are likely to suffice where many score were required before. Gorbachev will continue to emphasize his role as the architect of a new common European order, while pressuring America's partners to dissolve NATO and loosen the strategic connection between Washington and the allied capitals.
In the third world, however, the security environment is shifting in ways that may suggest a continued - and perhaps even expanded - Soviet presence and investment. The end of the cold war in Europe may mark the beginning of a series of crises in distant regions that most Americans cannot locate without the help of CNN, but where Soviet ``advisers'' have been living and working for nearly four decades.
As in Europe, Soviet foreign policy goals in the third world will have to proceed primarily from non-ideological precepts. Determined Soviet efforts to export revolution have met with varying degrees of success (e.g., in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambigue, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and the former state of South Yemen), but the system itself has generally failed to take hold.
The failure to install pliant regimes throughout the third world, however, does not necessarily reduce the longer-term strategic incentive for developing and maintaining client ties to key states. It is difficult to take seriously Gorbachev's claims that Soviet ``new thinking'' in foreign policy has transformed an aggressive strategy into a benign series of relationships with friends and allies. The claimed ``new'' approach is founded upon an estimated annual expenditure of more than $15 billion in military and economic assistance, large arms sales programs, and the continued presence of more than 20,000 Soviet military advisers and technicians in some 30 countries.
In some instances, these strategic initiatives have created large debts to the Soviets. Moscow's supply of arms to Saddam Hussein's regime during the Iran-Iraq war, for instance, has created a debt of more than $6 billion. Iraq's inability to export appreciable amounts of oil during the war with Iran prevented Baghdad from paying its bills for nearly a decade. Saddam's success in nearly doubling world crude-oil prices over the last three weeks to about $30 a barrel will create a windfall for the Soviet Union. The USSR exports nearly 3.5 million barrels of oil per day and tens of billions of cubic meters of natural gas annually. Soviet reliance on energy exports is now critical, having grown to nearly 80 percent of its current foreign earnings. Unfortunately for Gorbachev, production problems have actually reduced Soviet oil exports over the last several years, limiting the USSR's ability to exploit the current price spiral. Even with this production cutback, however, Saddam has improved Soviet hard currency earnings.
The Soviet Union surely does not want a war in the Persian Gulf, but Moscow's relentless arming of Iraq - which has included providing Scud-B ballistic missiles (a suitable delivery system for chemical weapons which the Iraqis have improved upon by extending their range) and MIG-29 and SU-24 aircraft (which increase the flexibility and the range of the Iraqi air force) - has created the danger that Moscow could be dragged into a regional conflict by a reckless client.
A similar danger has been created with Syria, another radical Arab state determined to match Israel's military capability and totally dependent for this goal on Soviet military largesse. While the Soviets have proclaimed that they will no longer support Syrian President Assad's quest for military parity with Israel, Soviet arms deliveries to the Damascus government have not been substantially reduced. This creates yet another debt problem for a weapons-hungry client unable to pay in hard currency.
Moscow may or may not always share a political affinity with aid or arms recipients like Vietnam, North Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Cuba, Syria, Iraq, and Libya, but all of them can certainly be described as variably hostile to Western interests. This alone may be sufficient rationale for continued Soviet investment. At a time when the Soviet Union is facing a tremendous economic crisis and unprecedented pressures to reduce non-domestic expenditures, it is difficult to explain these enormous third world investments, on other than strategic grounds. In addition, with the withdrawal of perhaps half of all Soviet forces from Europe, Mikhail Gorbachev may be compelled to occupy the Soviet military with a new mission in the third world.
Gorbachev's strategy in the Gulf crisis may be founded on the belief that he can observe on the sidelines, playing the concerned superpower by joining the UN sanctions chorus and cutting off additional military supplies to Baghdad, but also refusing to remove his military advisers from Iraq or participate in the multinational naval armada forming in the Gulf. By refusing to adopt a more active stance on the Gulf crisis - possibly including a mediating role to which Foreign Minister Shevardnadze has alluded, but which has not materialized - the Soviets effectively contribute to the stalemate. Soviet mediation could eventually force President Bush to withdraw the substantial US military presence in the Gulf region, thereby allowing Gorbachev to pocket a diplomatic victory. In the short term, meanwhile, the Soviets will continue to benefit from the immediate cash windfall of the crisis, while limiting the risk that their military forces will become involved.
Saddam Hussein's ruthless annexation of Kuwait should awaken those who believed that the end of superpower confrontation in Europe meant the end of superpower competition in other regions. While Saddam is likely to operate independently of anyone's direction, including Gorbachev's, his million-man army is essentially a Soviet Frankenstein monster, brought to life through more than a decade of substantial military assistance and sales.
How many other Soviet ``monsters'' are out there? How much will Moscow be willing to spend in order to remain a superpower, capable of influencing events and creating difficulties for the United States and its allies in regions that have historically held little interest for our publics? Perhaps that Soviet colonel bears the real message of Moscow's ``new thinking.''