How Russia Decides to Go Nuclear
Deciphering the Way Moscow Handles Its Ultimate Weapon
Whatever objectives the Soviet Union may have in the eastern Mediterranean, they must be presumed to be part of wider policies, and inevitably the effects of activities there extend far beyond the states immediately concerned.
The sizable Soviet naval presence in the Mediterranean, coupled with access by the Soviet air force to bases in the United Arab Republic and elsewhere in North Africa, has changed the balance of forces in the region, making it quite quickly an area of confrontation comparable in many ways with that in continental Europe. Perhaps it is more dangerous because less easily delineated, and because it is tied into a passionate gladiatorial contest which neither the Russians nor the Americans can be wholly confident of controlling. The Israelis obviously, but also the Jugoslavs and Turks, must sleep less soundly in their beds.
An examination of Soviet foreign policies since World War II suggests a readiness to take advantage of Western weakness wherever it occurs, both to further specific Soviet interests and to improve the Soviet-Western ratio. Concessions and mutually helpful arrangements are almost invariably accompanied by pressure exerted or tension generated somewhere else. While some observers saw the American intrusion into Cambodia as a "signal" for Moscow's Middle East policy-makers that the United States is prepared to take strong measures if necessary, it is hard to see how this could have been convincing, especially in the light of the subsequent American withdrawal back into Vietnam and the delayed and limited American reaction to Soviet installation of surface-to-air missiles near the Suez Canal and to Soviet pilots flying MIG 21s in the same area. Surely these Soviet actions constituted a much stronger signal in the other direction, advising the United States post hoc of a new level of Soviet involvement in an area which has become-by accident, evolution, circumstances or design-of more significance to Moscow than to Washington, except perhaps in terms of a highly unlikely (because mutually undesirable) ultimate superpower confrontation.
Diplomatic advantage with the Arab states, political leverage with their most charismatic and influential leader, an improved military position, an opportunity to discomfort the West-these do not seem sufficient to explain the immense military and psychological commitments that the Soviet Union has made in the United Arab Republic. It cannot be a coincidence that the line dividing the combatants, the rectification of which the Russians are making possible, is along the world's most important man-made waterway, which reduces by several thousand miles the trip between the Black Sea and the northwestern Indian Ocean. It is not, of course, the most important waterway for the Soviet Union, currently or potentially. Before its closure in 1967, only a small fraction of Soviet trade went through the Suez Canal; this would not significantly increase if the Canal were reopened in the near future, although Russian fishing vessels and merchant ships carrying other people's trade are increasingly operating in the Indian Ocean. From the Soviet viewpoint, it must be seen primarily for its strategic value, and this raises the whole question of Soviet policies in the Persian or Arabian Gulf and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean area.
The Canal is only part of the passage between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean-100 miles out of 1,200. Nowhere along the Red Sea are the Russians as involved or as influential as they are in the U.A.R., except perhaps in the Red Sea's southeast corner. Soviet arms-even for a time Soviet pilots-have made possible the republican ascendancy in the Yemen, and the port at Hodeida was rebuilt with Soviet assistance. Continued Soviet access here, at Aden and at Berbera on the opposite coast where the harbors and docks are being or have been improved by the Russians, must be assumed. Back in Egypt, they are building a new fishing port in the Gulf of Suez. They have become the principal supplier of arms to the Sudan. Relations with Saudi Arabia, the only other Arab state in the area, have been less cordial.
The Russians have thus not replaced the British in any formal sense. Their presence is more precarious; they are invited guests, resident or nonresident protectors, money-lenders: they have no constitutional authority or power. This makes them less an object of nationalist antagonism, but equally makes their tenure less secure. They have nevertheless replaced the British to this extent, especially due to their assured access to Egyptian air and naval bases: they have become the predominant external power from Port Said to Aden and Somalia.
That situation will probably although not necessarily continue if or when the Canal is reopened; presumably it is designed partly to get the Canal reopened. But whatever local resistance there may be to Soviet involvement, no other major power is likely to intervene. All have managed to adjust reasonably comfortably to the closure of the Canal. Unlike the Soviet Union, none believes it has a major interest in it. None is near to it. None is expanding its interests or activities in the Indian Ocean. Only France has a residual presence, in French Somaliland, opposite the southwest tip of the Arabian peninsula. It is important, in present circumstances, that this remain in French hands,
Strategic interests and commitments, like trash, do tend to accumulate rather than to be deliberately acquired-to derive from many small decisions or events rather than a single grand initiative. Activity does not always denote intent. Traders go off on their own looking for markets or raw materials and end up with colonies which require protection; forces may be created for one purpose and when that is served may be employed, because they exist, for another. An innocuous acquisition in which someone else becomes interested assumes strategic importance. And so on.
While with the Soviet Union we can discount the individualistic merchant mariner, we cannot discount the idea that a part of a large navy created to meet the cold-war situation in the North Atlantic may be diverted to other areas as the European climate improves and as opportunities occur elsewhere. Taking this further, it seems likely that the Russians have finally come to see the possibilities of deploying power, envisaged and created for the defense of their continental interests, in more remote maritime areas, from which the British or the Americans are withdrawing.
What are the Russians actually doing in the Indian Ocean area? It is not easy to be sure either what or why. If we consider simply naval activities, there seems to be a small continuing presence, although the number of ships has risen to at least 25 on occasion. There has been one space recovery in the Ocean, and other special space-monitoring operations. There have been several extensive flag-showing tours by a small group of surface ships and submarines. During the large Soviet naval exercises earlier this year, most of which took place elsewhere, a destroyer flotilla was deployed in the Indian Ocean. Oceanographic, hydrographic and intelligence vessels are reported from time to time. All this does not amount to a major naval effort, and is less than the British have had or the French still have at times. The ships are without air cover. They could of course be reinforced, but most easily when the Canal is reopened. One can hardly credit that an Australian foreign minister should have lost his seat and office after saying, just before the federal election last year, that Australians should not panic at the sight of Russians in the Indian Ocean.
Yet modest though the Soviet naval presence may be-and we cannot be certain it is not larger than reported-its significance lies in four facts: (a) it represents a new initiative begun less than three years ago, and thus a new policy; (b) quite modest naval forces, judiciously used, can have quite substantial political effects; (c) there will apparently be decreasing competition from Western powers and their navies;[i] and (d) the Soviet naval presence must be considered in conjunction with its other activities in the region.
The most significant of these have been in the subcontinent which dominates the Ocean and after which it is named. India cannot want to depend unduly for its security on any single external power, but must feel it has had little alternative to Soviet support. Prior to the war with Pakistan in 1965, it drew arms from both Western and communist countries; when the Western supplies were cut off (from both India and Pakistan), India turned more solidly to the Soviet Union, and Pakistan to the Chinese People's Republic. Britain was unable to provide submarines on terms apparently as favorable as those of the Soviet Union, and thus India became a client of Russia not only for submarines but for escorts, torpedo boats and patrol boats, and for the training of their crews and the refurbishing and expansion of the base at Vishakhapatnam, on the east coast. The Indian air force is now predominantly supplied with Soviet aircraft, including MIG 21s made in India, and is considered the Indian service most oriented toward the Soviet Union. There is some Soviet equipment in the army, and senior officers have attended training courses in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Behind this situation lies what is for India an inescapable reality. The 1965 war demonstrated that the Indian armed forces could meet Pakistani attacks, but did not eliminate the humiliating memories of China's successful if limited invasion three years earlier. Since then China has become a nuclear power of growing sophistication. The principal external threat to India's security, as it sees it, is from communist China, either on its own or in conjunction with Pakistan. The British, however sympathetic they may once have been, are no longer capable of rendering significant help in the event of a second Chinese attack. The United States is reducing its commitments in Asia, and is seeking better relations with China. Only the Soviet Union seems able to supply aid in the desired quantity, prepared to give assurances, chronically antagonistic to Chinese policies, and ready at least along its own border to engage in conflict to contain the Chinese. And the stronger military relationship with the Russians satisfies elements in the Indian parliament whose support the Congress Party needs at times.
Since the Tashkent meeting in January 1966, the Soviet Union has increasingly participated in the management of relations between India and Pakistan, and has done so more successfully than Britain, the United States or the United Nations. This is partly because it has a more direct interest; partly because the two states-and particularly India-have nowhere else to turn; and partly because Soviet pragmatism is less affected by moral doubts and less ruffled by subcontinental passions. Soviet military aid to Pakistan, which was negotiated by the present Pakistani president in his previous position as commander-in-chief of the army, was not pressed upon an unwilling Pakistani government. It suited Pakistan because it filled gaps in Soviet-type arms (including spares and replacements) obtained from China,[ii] and because it discomfited India. It suited the Russians because it made Pakistan less dependent on China, and gave the Soviet government increased diplomatic leverage in Rawalpindi. Indians objected, but with far less volume and stridency than was ever the case with American military aid to Pakistan.
So long as the Soviet government is able to maintain its influence in both states, presumably it will do its utmost to prevent intracontinental conflict, which weakens both vis-à-vis China, and severely damages their economies, thus destroying most if not all of the value of foreign aid received. But influence is not usually a sufficient return on investment. Have the Russians received a more tangible quid pro quo from India or Pakistan? Neither of them nor the Soviet Union would be likely to acknowledge it. Suggestions that the Soviet navy has been given "bases" in India in Bombay, Goa, Cochin or the Andamans-or at Gwadar in Pakistan-have been strongly denied. But it is not denied that Soviet ships have access to some Indian dockyards and associated facilities in ways they did not have until recently. Soviet help to improve Gwadar, located near the Gulf of Oman, may be related to its use as a fishing port, but some Soviet fishing vessels are known to be used for military purposes, especially intelligence. Indians-one suspects with tongue in cheek-have certainly been vocal about this new Soviet "base." While there are no Soviet bases as such in the subcontinent, the strategic changes are dramatic compared with only a few years ago, when American reconnaissance aircraft flew out of Peshawar, when Western powers supplied or sold the bulk of all arms used in both countries, and when Soviet naval ships were never seen in the Indian Ocean's warm water ports.
A third key area is the junction between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Soviet and East European arms aid to Indonesia made possible its "confrontation" with Malaysia and Singapore in 1963-66, and made certain the collapse and continued weakness of the Indonesian economy. Whatever Soviet objectives were at that time, they failed. Sukarno's objectives, using Soviet weaponry, included the dismemberment of the Malaysian federation and Indonesian domination of the area, including the vital Strait of Malacca. Soon after the collapse of confrontation, the Soviet Union began to mend its fences with Malaysia and Singapore. It established trading missions, then embassies; it negotiated trade, shipping and airline agreements. It offered arms to Malaysia on favorable terms; it obtained access to Singapore's ship-repair yards, and apparently sought but failed to obtain the right to build its own facilities in the area. Again, the change in four years is dramatic. In Indonesia the Soviets have not regained the position they enjoyed before Sukarno began flirting with the Chinese, but neither have they sought to do so, perhaps believing that the political climate is too unfavorable, or that instability is endemic and there is no point in sending "good money after bad." By concentrating on the army and leaving sophisticated Soviet naval and air equipment to rust, President Suharto has virtually eliminated any dependence on Soviet goodwill other than to "reschedule" inherited debts.
The British Conservative government's decision to retain forces in the Malaysian area after 1971 may have affected Soviet plans (if any) for naval or military involvement there, but they will not greatly ameliorate the economic difficulties caused by Britain's retrenchments in the two states. Here the new trade agreements, Soviet purchases of Malaysian rubber (it is the largest buyer) and use of Singapore's repair and replenishment facilities, are tangible gains. When the British finally go home, perhaps accompanied off the peninsula and island by the Australians and New Zealanders, Singapore may well find the Soviet Union the only major power interested in paying for the services the small nation has to offer, built up by the British and by local industriousness over 150 years, and now suitable for an expanded Soviet Indian Ocean fleet.
Like the Suez Canal when open, the Malacca Strait is used for the passage of naval and mercantile shipping between the eastern and western Soviet Union (other than during the brief summer period when the northern route is open), and for Soviet supplies of arms and equipment to the communist forces in Vietnam and Laos. It will not have escaped the Soviet Union that about 90 percent of Japan's oil also travels through the Strait.
A fourth key area, especially as long as Suez is closed, is the region of sea lanes around South Africa, used by some 24,000 ships each year. In this respect, the Soviet "fishing" agreement with Mauritius, negotiated in 1969 and signed this year, is of special interest. The agreement provides for Soviet assistance to the Mauritian fishing industry and the creation of a joint enterprise. In return, Soviet fishing vessels are entitled to use Port Louis for loading and unloading, replenishment, repairs and replacement of crews brought in by the Soviet airline Aeroflot.
This appears a fairly thin end of an uncertain wedge, but should be seen less in the context of the present situation, when Mauritius retains close links with Britain, than with the situation possible in a few years' time. The Mauritian economy, and especially its export income, is heavily dependent on sugar. The greater part of this is sold to the United Kingdom at preferential (inflated) prices under the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement. Most of the rest is sold, at world prices, to Britain and Canada. The agreement runs until 1974, but before then Britain could have entered the European Economic Community and had to forfeit Commonwealth preferential arrangements.
On Mauritius there is a British naval radio station, covered by an agreement that also runs until 1974 and thereafter until terminated by either party on one year's notice. Whether or not Britain will have a need for such a station by the mid-1970s, and whether or not Sir S. Ramgoolam's successors in the Prime Ministership will be agreeable to Britain's remaining, the Russians can scarcely fail to be interested in this very useful equipment or site.
Soviet naval ships, including a helicopter carrier, have been reported taking an interest in the Mauritian-owned islands of Saint Brandon, 250 miles to the north, and the Chagos Archipelago, the British islands in the central Indian Ocean which are available for use by the United States. Soviet mooring buoys have been laid in the Mozambique Channel and elsewhere, perhaps to facilitate submarine refueling. Further north, Soviet technicians have expanded and modernized the port of Mogadishu, in Somalia. The Soviet Union is the principal supplier of arms to Somalia, and has also given military aid to Tanzania, Uganda and militant African nationalist groups.
The two helicopter carriers, Moskva and Leningrad, the recently created naval infantry, and a developing "fleet train," or float support capacity, have made the Soviet Union able, to an extent at least as great as the United Kingdom, to intervene at a distance. Presumably there will be more carriers built, some of which might take V/STOL aircraft. Access to a range of port facilities around the Indian Ocean has helped with problems of replenishment and crew recreation. If land-based air supply or support ever seem requisite, the groundwork has already been laid for access to appropriate airfields.
The one area where we might have expected the Russians to be especially active, but where they have not, is the Persian or Arabian Gulf. There could be a simple explanation: the British have been there for many years, and under the Wilson government had decided to leave by the end of 1971. There was no point in raising suspicions of Soviet intentions while there were British forces there, suspicions which might induce them to remain. Another conceivable explanation is that the Russians are not especially interested in the Gulf and the Persian and Arabian oil wealth. This is only just conceivable, although some observers believe that the Soviet Union has an abundant supply of oil for the indefinite future. Even if this were true, which is disputable, it would not affect the worldwide strategic importance of the Middle East oil industry,[iii] the desirability of obtaining access to the world's cheapest oil and so conserving national resources, and the fact that many of the Soviet Union's new oil discoveries have been made thousands of miles from its industrial West and from the oil- importing countries of Eastern Europe.
The Soviet Union has by no means ignored Iran and the Arab oil states in recent diplomacy. It has long had more than a diplomatic interest in Iraq and Iran, and Soviet forces left the latter after World War II only reluctantly. Oil and natural gas are being supplied by overland pipes from both states, and both are the recipients of Soviet economic and military aid, as well as straight investment. Soviet naval ships have shown the flag in the Gulf. Among the smaller Gulf states, Britain's political patronage and modest military presence have maintained internal and international peace. Perhaps one of the most unfortunate acts of the Wilson government was to announce the end of this relatively inexpensive operation, long before there had been any local demand for it. It is too early to see how much British presence and influence Mr. Heath can salvage. The Labour policy appears to have been based on two assumptions: that any British presence in the Gulf is bound before long to stimulate nationalist sentiment and anti-British feeling; and that investment which cannot be protected by local indigenous governments cannot be protected by a remote and alien one. There is just enough truth in these propositions in general to make them almost wholly misleading in particular cases. As the Shaikh of Dubai said to the London Times correspondent, "Who asked them to leave?"
The federal proposals made by Britain for the small states of the area appear as precarious as they have been elsewhere. In view of the substantial and highly profitable British and other Western oil investment in the region, and the various irredentist and chauvinistic claims by states at present restrained by Britain, a precipitate British withdrawal would be unfortunate, leaving openings for alternative protection and political management, and local expropriation of Western assets.
This might not significantly affect the flow of oil to the West. It is in any case by no means under British control, and as is often said, you cannot drink it: it is the overwhelming source of income, but to earn income it must be sold, and there are limits to the additional amounts the Eastern bloc could take. Western organizations control all the marketing and much of the processing of Middle East oil throughout the West and in many third-world countries as well. If necessary, other suppliers could meet temporary interruptions to the oil flow. Yet the diplomatic, strategic and economic leverage which could come from increased Soviet influence over the principal oil producers is not something which the West can lightly concede.
How likely would the Soviet Union be to seek to replace Britain in the Gulf, or to stimulate local nationalist activities against Western interests? The precedents in the area and elsewhere are not comforting, and no other state would be powerful enough, near enough and interested enough. Yet likelihood is not certainty, and there would be local resistance; there would be competition from other states, notably the U.A.R. and possibly communist China or even Japan, not to mention Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. In view of so many claimants for influence in so rich a region, and fortified by its success in the Indian subcontinent, the Soviet Union might be tempted to undertake the same kind of management operations here. What Britain did for so long, surely a socialist superpower can do.
This is speculation, but it is not thereby frivolous. As to Sino-Soviet antagonism and rivalry, this could become a real factor, as it is in many places far away from their tense common border. It is not simply a contest for leadership among the communist or nonaligned states: it is a public and declared conflict. Chinese support for Palestinian guerrillas and other local revolutionary movements runs counter to Soviet policies and complicates the whole Middle East situation. In black Africa, rivalry is keen in Uganda, Kenya, Zambia and the two Congos, and among liberation movements; only in Tanzania do the Chinese appear to be ahead. There have been reports of Chinese naval activities in the Indian Ocean: ships were sighted in May near the Andamans, and China is helping Tanzania build a small naval base near Dar-es-Salaam. However, China's navy is not large enough to provide a significant presence in the Indian Ocean, and its impact there for some years can at best be psychological.
In India and Pakistan, in its sympathetic attitude to Burma, as in its activities in Indochina, the Soviet Union is patently motivated in part by an attempt to contain, restrain or out-influence the Chinese People's Republic. The Brezhnev kite-flying suggestion in June 1968 for a Soviet- backed "system of collective security in Asia," while ostensibly not excluding Communist China, was clearly directed at it (and only secondarily at the United States) and was accordingly not taken seriously by the countries before which it was flown. It is difficult to believe that Soviet help to Southeast Asian states will ever include combat forces sufficient to resist Chinese aggression. The massive Soviet arms, economic and psychological aid to North Vietnam has made possible the continuation of the war and Hanoi's relative independence from its giant neighbor.[iv] The Soviets are going to retain for as long as they can this position of influence, so important in their triangular relationship with China and the United States.
One cannot easily add up what all this amounts to, any more than one can add up American policies into a single coherent whole. The Soviet Union has built itself a modest capacity for long-range intervention, but would be quite incapable for many years of major operations far from home. Universal pragmatism has tended to replace universal ideology, providing some strange bedfellows which national interest has not easily reconciled. Periodically, the Kremlin has shifted or lifted its vision, seeing new openings, new opportunities. South and East of Suez, the lengthening Soviet influence is more shadow than substance, but the shadows give warning of more substance to come.
[i] The presence of a few American Polaris submarines and a small surface squadron does not explain the variety of Soviet activities indicated here.
[ii] The cultural revolution affected Chinese production of military equipment, as of other industrial goods, and export deliveries have been and still are far behind contract in many items.
[iii] The development of new oil fields, especially in North and West Africa, have reduced Western Europe's dependence on Middle East oil, but it still amounts to 45 percent of all oil imports. If the Suez Canal had not been closed, most of this would have gone through the Canal. An Israeli pipeline from the Gulf of Aqaba has been constructed and the U.A.R. is in the process of building one from the Gulf of Suez to the Mediterranean. But even if the Canal were reopened, supertankers would still make it profitable to use the Cape route.
[iv] That it also led to enormous destruction within North Vietnam is presumably not lost an neighboring peoples.