IMAGINE you are a defense planner at the Soviet Red Army's General Staff, looking out to the West. Over the centuries, a succession of invaders from Polish knights to Adolf Hitler's panzers have thrust into Russia, your homeland. But for 45 years, your defense lines have been set forward in the center of Europe, a position won through much blood and sacrifice.
Now, within the space of less than a year, the Red Army's defense lines have crumbled along with the Berlin Wall. By next year, all Soviet troops in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and most in Poland will have left; in East Germany by 1994 at the latest.
Although the NATO alliance is virtually untouched, even strengthened by the reunification of Germany, the Warsaw Pact is a dead letter.
That is how the world looks to Maj. Gen. Sergei Bogdanov, the tough 50-year-old head of the sensitive center for operations and strategic research of the General Staff. In his first-ever meeting with a Western correspondent, he gave a military man's view of Soviet security today.
For decades, Soviet military philosophy has been to emphasize the attack, to overwhelm the enemy with massive firepower, on the theory that the best defense is a good offense.
Circumstances are forcing the Army to think again. For the first time, civilians are entering the defense debate. Not unlike critics of the defense establishment in the United States, they question the value of massive defense costs when the country's economy is collapsing. And with the end of the cold war, Soviets are also asking, ``Who's the enemy?''
The military leadership is careful not to contradict the broad policies set by President Mikhail Gorbachev. ``There are no nations who we could suspect of preparing a war against us,'' he said during his latest visit to Germany. But a clear difference emerges in the details of their comments.
General Bogdanov stiffly echoes his commander in chief. From arms control agreements to meetings between leaders, including military men, he says, ``positive international changes have reduced the tension between the two blocs.''
``But,'' the general adds, with obvious emphasis, ``although the direct threat of armed attack against the Soviet Union is disappearing, I personally believe that one cannot boldly say there is no danger, no threat to the Soviet Union at all.''
This isn't just one man's notion. That view inspires the Defense Ministry's draft military reform plan. ``There is no guarantee against the irreversibility of the positive changes in the world,'' the draft warns.
A careful analysis, Bogdanov says, yields the conclusion that NATO and the US continue to want to operate ``from a position of strength.'' Despite the ``dramatic change'' in Soviet forces in Eastern Europe, NATO forces are unchanged, ``and it is quite dangerous to us.''
EVEN US-Soviet cooperation in the Persian Gulf crisis has a dark side for the Soviet General Staff.
``The conflict brought the US and Soviet Union closer together,'' the general notes. ``But being a military man, I noticed the US command acquired a sizable experience in mass movement of troops.''
Meanwhile, he worries about the leaders of Eastern Europe moving to dissolve the Warsaw Treaty Organization. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, he says sharply, issues statements to try to ``appease the public, but we know a unified Germany will dramatically strengthen NATO.''
Although the Soviet Union has adopted a defensive military doctrine, Bogdanov adds, the US continues to ``encircle'' the Soviet Union with bases. It has not renounced the first use of nuclear weapons, as the Soviet Union has, and the US nuclear attack plan is ``still valid.''
As proof, the Soviet military points to modernized US submarine-launched Trident II missiles and highly accurate low-flying cruise missiles, which can carry either nuclear or conventional warheads. Bogdanov surprisingly admits that ``unfortunately'' the Soviet military can not detect the launch of American cruise missiles, making them ``most dangerous types of weapons.''
Such skepticism finds an eerie echo in the statements of the US Department of Defense, including in the most recent edition of ``Soviet Military Power,'' an annual report. The Soviets, the booklet notes, continue to modernize their land-based nuclear missile systems, which are potential first-strike weapons. Defense Secretary Richard Cheney argues there that, despite the evident changes, ``the military might of the Soviet Union is enormous and remains targeted on the United States and our allies.''
``It looks like generals are making threats to each other,'' satirically remarks Maj. Vladimir Lopatin, the leader of a military reform movement among young officers. He is one of a growing group of critics within the Soviet Union who have forced open the first genuine debate on how to define national security.
``The Soviet Union now has more chances of being destroyed as an entity by economic crisis or ecological crisis, or by the total collapse of its domestic structure, than by any threat from abroad,'' says Alexei Izyumov, a specialist at the USA-Canada Institute.
Although defense spending has been reduced, Mr. Izyumov and his colleagues contend that it still far exceeds the actual threat. Nor, he argues, has the military tried to define what spending level would be appropriate.
GEN. Nikita Chaldimov, a liberal military voice and head of the Army and Society public association, agrees that the direct threat from the West ``is now history.'' But dangers remain, including from a ``new Khomeini or another religious fanatic'' or from an explosion of nationalism.
Soviet defense officials have spent several years elaborating a new military doctrine, putting the emphasis on defense. Mr. Gorbachev first articulated this in 1986, coining the phrase ``reasonable sufficiency'' of armed forces. No longer, the doctrine says, should the Soviet Union try to match the West, weapon for weapon.
The doctrine which existed before 1985 ``envisioned wars,'' explains Bogdanov, and sought absolute symmetry between the Warsaw Pact and NATO forces. ``As a result of that, we were dragged into the arms race.''
``In the early 1960s, we developed a concept which envisioned a preemptive nuclear strike that could be carried out if the aggressive designs of a potential aggressor were detected,'' he says, revealing aspects of nuclear strategy with unusual frankness. ``The new doctrine rejects the possibility of war and it emphasizes prevention of war and preparation to repel aggression.''
In a fairly striking contrast to years of Soviet calls for complete elimination of nuclear weapons, Soviet military leaders now unofficially accept the long-reviled concept of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction advocated in the US. Bogdanov says the Soviet Union should have ``minimal nuclear means which ... in case of a nuclear strike by another state could inflict unacceptable damage in response.''
General Chaldimov agrees. ``There was a time when we proposed eliminating all nuclear weapons with one stroke. Given present circumstances, it's not realistic.''
The Ministry of Defense reform plan foresees a 50 percent cut in strategic nuclear weapons by the year 2000, the target of the treaty now being concluded with the US. Later, the treaty's ceiling of 6,000 warheads could be further lowered to 4,000 warheads, says Bogdanov.
The shift toward reliance on a nuclear shield reflects the real decrease in conventional forces, which had always been the backbone of the Soviet armed forces. Total Soviet strength will drop from 3,993,000 to 3,730,000 by mid-1991. By 1995, the Defense Ministry says, it will reach around 3 million. By the end of the reform plan, the year 2000, the Army should be 10 to 12 percent smaller, though more mobile. Air defense units are expected to shrink by 20 percent and the separate Air Force by 8 percent.
Only the Soviet Navy is not slated for cuts. The Soviets insist that the overwhelmingly superior US naval forces be brought closer to parity with them, a goal totally rejected by Washington. The Soviet Union has always been primarily a coastal, defensive naval power, argues Vice Adm. Nikolai Martynyuk, deputy commander of the Soviet Pacific Fleet. The US fleet can float 15 aircraft carriers, he told the Monitor.
Asked about large-deck carriers being built and tested in the Black Sea, the admiral quickly replies, ``Even if we deploy the one carrier that took about 10 years to build, it can change nothing.... If a miracle comes and we have 15 carriers, our fleet could become an attack fleet. But I don't dream about this.'' Second in a series. Monday: Reform in the ranks.