During the four decades that followed World War II, the United States faced a rigid and hostile Soviet Union. The resulting state of international tension led to two wars in which U.S. troops fought Soviet proxies, precipitated a number of regional conflicts and compelled the two countries to spend vast resources on defense. In a paradoxical way, however, this tension also maintained global stability as each of the superpowers restrained its allies and clients and avoided direct military confrontation. It is generally agreed that this period of history has now come to an end. Understandably, not a few political and military figures in both countries look back with nostalgia on the days of the Cold War.

With the approach of the 21st century the international situation is assuming new and as yet only dimly understood shapes. Various processes are at work, the most important of which may well be the waning of the nation-state, the principal organizing force of Western society and its possessions since the seventeenth century. Pressures from below in the form of ethnic separatism, guerrilla movements, religious fundamentalism and terrorism sap legitimate governments of their traditional authority. At the same time, emerging supranational bodies limit the scope of sovereignty. The flow of capital ignores national frontiers. So does the movement of populations, which surpasses anything experienced since the great migrations of antiquity. Escaping war or driven by the quest for economic opportunity, tens of millions of people uproot themselves. Just how far this migration has progressed is revealed by the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, which dispossessed from this minuscule country more than one million migrant workers in less than a month. The politics of the future are likely to be less predictable as the number of international actors grows exponentially. Just as the classical empires of the nineteenth century gave way to a multiplicity of nation-states, so too are the nation-states of today reeling from the pull of centrifugal forces. One cannot escape the impression that much of the modern world is entering a period of neo-feudalism.

The Soviet empire, until recently, managed by dint of extraordinary controls to isolate itself from these disruptive processes. Six years ago, however, its leadership realized that for this stability it paid a heavy price in the form of economic stagnation and public apathy, which threatened to transform the Soviet Union into a second-rate power. The Soviet leadership concluded that things had to change, but it had no program. The leaders seem to have thought the system was basically sound and could be set right by an infusion of fresh vigor. Gaidar Aliev, a one-time member of the Politburo, has said in fact that Mikhail Gorbachev was chosen to head the party precisely because he seemed more "energetic" than his competitors, expecting him to use his energy to advance the communist cause.1 It is clear in retrospect that the Soviet leadership, including Gorbachev, greatly underestimated both the immensity of the task confronting anyone inclined to tamper with the status quo and the determination of its beneficiaries to resist change. Victims of their own propaganda, the leadership believed the communist regime to be in need of mere renovation.

The Soviet leadership soon learned, however, that it had inherited a thoroughly decrepit structure, no part of which could be repaired without causing other parts to totter. As this realization dawned, cautious corrections gave way to reforms, reforms to more fundamental changes, and fundamental changes to the virtual rejection of the Leninist-Stalinist legacy. The result of these incremental changes was to expose the vaunted stability of the communist regime for what it was: an artificial rigidity imposed from above and devoid of internal supports. What had been created by force could only be sustained by force; the price was national rigor mortis.

The reforms carried out at an increasingly rapid pace since 1985 shattered the illusions the Soviet regime had assiduously cultivated among its people: that they stood in the vanguard of progress and enjoyed a degree of security known nowhere else in the world. To justify increasingly fundamental reforms, it became necessary for the Soviet leadership finally to tell the truth about the country's condition, which indeed was worsening even as reforms proceeded. All these factors had the effect of plunging the Soviet people into a kind of collective depression. Tatiana Zaslavskaia, director of a major Soviet polling institute, finds the population in the grip of extreme anxiety and pessimism:

When a year ago we asked people whether they had confidence in tomorrow, 62 percent answered negatively. But in September of this year, only one-and-a-half percent still had confidence. Even in Moscow they numbered only five percent. And in many regions of the country, we could not find a single person who did not fear the future.2

Perestroika has thus laid bare the fraudulent nature of the communist system and, in so doing, has induced in the country a state that Zaslavskaia describes as one of "nervous exhaustion." No tampering with institutions or procedures can overcome this national malaise; it lies at the bottom of the plight gripping the Soviet state and Soviet society.

An understanding of the internal condition of the Soviet Union must precede any attempt to formulate a policy toward it. This prescription may seem obvious, but it was not always followed. The conduct of the United States abroad has been guided traditionally more by subjective desires than by objective realities. We approach foreign policy from a moralistic point of view. Experience teaches that the American electorate can be galvanized to support active involvement abroad only if persuaded that it serves a moral purpose. Appeals strictly to national interest do not work because most Americans see little to gain from foreign involvement, and realpolitik leaves them cold. This is said not in disparagement, but by way of caution. American moralism has been a force for good, even if on occasion tinged with hypocrisy, and it has appreciably raised the standards of international behavior. The trouble is that it tends to blind U.S. policymakers to the harsh realities of the world with which they must deal, for it prompts them to think in the same black and white categories to which they resort in the quest for domestic support.

Gorbachev has been pronounced a "miracle"; he has been anointed "man of the decade" and crowned with the Nobel Peace Prize. Although the American press reports in somber detail the collapse of Soviet society under his rule, the prevailing view in and out of Washington holds that Gorbachev must be supported at all costs because every alternative is worse. This may or may not be true. But what is better or worse is not the question to be answered in formulating a sound U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The question should be, what is more likely? Events inside the U.S.S.R. have their own momentum. Our ability to influence them is marginal at best, and all the more since foreign policy plays in them a minor part.


Although the most visible manifestations of the Soviet crisis are economic, the root problem is political. Having laid claim to the ownership of all the country's productive resources, the Soviet government has assumed responsibility for all economic shortcomings. And inasmuch as the communists have allowed no other party to share power with them, consumer discontent translates into a rejection of communism itself. Surveys conducted in July 1990 indicate that the number of citizens who "fully trust" the Communist Party has declined to 14 percent. This is considerably less than the number of those who express complete confidence in the army, 35 percent, or even the KGB, 24 percent. Between 80 and 90 percent of respondents reject socialism; the small minority still favoring it consists almost entirely of older citizens who fear that a loosening of economic controls will rob them of social welfare benefits in their old age.3

The political crisis has two principal aspects: a vertical conflict within the Communist Party between conservative and democratic elements and a horizontal conflict between the central government and the governments of the union's 15 constituent republics.

Gorbachev initially tried to implement reforms through the party apparatus. Like the other ruling institutions of the U.S.S.R., including the armed forces, the party is divided along generational lines. Unfortunately for Gorbachev, the democratic elements, accounting for about a third of the party's strength, are concentrated among younger members who hold subordinate posts. The older communists filling the ranks of the nomenklatura are rigidly conservative.4 They opposed and managed to block, mainly by means of passive resistance, Gorbachev's reform program because it threatened their privileges and their livelihood, both of which rest on the party's command of the economy.

Frustrated by this resistance, Gorbachev decided to invoke popular support, which he knew to favor change. To this end, he took the immensely risky step of shifting the center of gravity of political decision-making from the party to the state. He brought into existence a new institution, the Congress of Peoples' Deputies, many of whose members are popularly elected; he also infused life into the republics' moribund soviets. At the same time, Gorbachev emasculated the party by depriving it of its monopoly status as the country's only legitimate political organization, reduced the Politburo to impotence and stripped the party of the bulk of its revenues. These moves accomplished a veritable revolution by subverting the one-party regime, which had been the operational constitution of the Soviet Union since 1918.

The shift to state institutions, however, proved exceedingly difficult to realize. Under the Leninist-Stalinist regime, state organs had dutifully executed party directives; they performed no legislative functions and had no legislative experience. The disestablishment of the party, therefore, had a consequence similar to that produced in March 1917 by the abdication of the tsar, namely, administrative disarray. In the former case, the imperial bureaucracy dissolved; in the latter, the communist bureaucracy was disabled. Tsarism and communism had this in common: they provided the only administrative links connecting the vast empire. They did this in a rather mechanical fashion, however, without developing organic bonds to society. Once the central linchpin of the system snapped, the structure fell apart for there was nothing to sustain it from below. Gorbachev, like Alexander Kerensky, has since been desperately trying to prevent governmental collapse which his own measures provoked by devising ever newer institutions to fill the void. But so far the process of disintegration has eluded remedies. Confusion reigns. Writing in early 1990, liberal historian Yuri Afanasev had this to say:

Such an unwieldy governmental structure as ours . . . certainly has never existed anywhere. There are two chambers of the Supreme Soviet. There is also a Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, with its committees and commissions. Besides, there exists the Presidential Council and the Council of Ministers. Such a structure is hardly capable of operating normally. The division of functions, say, between the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and the Presidential Council is not defined. The president's authority is, as it were, executive, but there exists also the Council of Ministers, which lacks a precise sphere of activity.5

Since these words were written, two new bodies have been created: the Council of the Federation and the Council for National Security. The relationship of the first to the existing institutions is so imprecise that it cannot even be determined what, if any, functions are still left to the ministers.


It has been a constant factor in U.S. policy since 1917 that America's interests are best served by the preservation of the Soviet Union's territorial integrity. While it encouraged the dissolution of Western empires, Washington has supported the Russian empire by refusing to acknowledge the aspirations to statehood of the non-Russian peoples of the U.S.S.R. This policy has been implemented with such consistency that Washington chose to ignore the three Baltic republics' declarations of independence in 1990, even though it had never recognized their forceful incorporation into the U.S.S.R., treating them all along as de jure independent.

This policy of support for Soviet territorial integrity is based on two fears: that the instability and regional conflicts resulting from a breakup of the empire would balkanize eastern Europe and much of Asia, a potential development that is especially threatening in the age of nuclear weapons; and that expressions of sympathy for the national ambitions of the Soviet minorities would alienate the Great Russians, the country's largest and most important ethnic group. The first of these premises may be correct, but it is irrelevant; the striving of nations for independence has nowhere been impeded by considerations of regional or global stability. Applied consistently, such a consideration would require us to oppose the Soviet withdrawal from eastern Europe.6 The second premise is invalidated by evidence that most Great Russians not only do not wish to force their subject peoples to remain in the union, but want out of it themselves.

Since its inception in 1922 the Soviet Union has been something very different from what it purported to be. Although nominally a federation of free and equal nations, it was all along a unitary state governed by the Moscow-based and Russian-dominated Communist Party through its bureaucracy, army and security police. The national aspirations of the minorities who make up nearly half the Soviet population were assuaged by powerless institutions and meaningless rituals, while any genuine nationalistic expressions were suppressed and silenced. Beneath the tranquil facade of a happy comity of nations simmered ethnic animosities aggravated by competition over consumer goods, jobs and housing. It required only a loosening of central authority for these animosities to rise to the surface.

The disintegration of the union occurring before our eyes is not confined to areas inhabited by non-Russians. Nationalism often expresses aspirations as well as frustrations that in ethnically homogeneous regions may assume nationally neutral forms. This explains the rise of Great Russian nationalism and, along with it, the Russians' decline of interest in their colonial possessions. Opinion surveys conducted in May 1990 show that 43 percent of the inhabitants of the Russian republic wished to secede from the union.7 Contrary to widely held beliefs in Washington, a high proportion of Great Russians is consistently willing to concede independence to the other republics. This tolerance of separatism can be explained by a widespread feeling that the R.S.F.S.R., which has half the union's population but accounts for 70 percent of its industrial output and 80 percent of its exports, would be better off on its own.

The centrifugal forces do not manifest themselves exclusively at the republican level; some republics are themselves riven by ethnic discord. Within the Russian republic several minorities (e.g., Tatars and Yakuts) have staked claims to sovereignty. Elsewhere, small minorities living in the midst of large ones (e.g., the Abkhazians in Georgia and the Gagauz in Moldavia) have done the same.8 Finally, some Russian cities and territories have asserted sovereign status as well.

Nationalist passions are only one reason for this phenomenon. Behind it also loom economic and political factors. The failure of the central government to satisfy the needs of consumers and the breakdown of the economic distribution system compel each region to attend to its own needs. At the expense of the all-union economy, each hoards commodities for barter with other regions. This trend is perhaps a major reason behind the breakup of national unity, certainly in the Russian republic. A related factor is the greater trust citizens of every nationality place in local authorities, who are more familiar than the center with their particular needs. Thus the regional decentralization now underway is only partly driven by nationalist ideas; it is motivated in large measure by the inability of the center to provide proper economic and political leadership.

There exists considerable evidence that Gorbachev appreciates adequately neither the intensity nor the complexity of the nationalities question in his country. He is willing to concede that the republics have some genuine grievances and deserve a greater voice in decision-making, but he has no sympathy whatsoever for separatist tendencies, which he blames on extremists. The separatism of the Russian republic is especially galling to him. To thwart it, he tries one day to undercut Boris Yeltsin, the president of the R.S.F.S.R., and the next to enter into a partnership with him, neither with much success. He has delayed far too long in fulfilling his promise to replace the Soviet Union's pseudo-federalist constitution with one based on republican equality. The need for such a constitution became imperative once the Communist Party was deprived of its hegemonic role. As a result of this delay, separatism has intensified. The proposals for a new union treaty made public in November 1990 might have satisfied the republics three years ago, but today several republics, including Russia, reject them. The process of disintegration has reached a point where it seems unlikely that a new treaty, no matter how accommodating, will satisfy the more nationalistic republics. Once they insist on separation, they are unlikely to settle for membership in a federalist union.

At the end of 1990 Russia and several of the minority republics are already behaving as if they were sovereign states, insisting on control over taxes levied and resources located within their territories. They enter into diplomatic relations with each other and with foreign powers. Both Yeltsin and the new foreign minister of the Russian republic have made it known that they favor returning the Kurile Islands to Japan, a concession the Soviet government has adamantly refused to make. The most spectacular expression of this self-assertion was the decision of the Russian republic in the closing days of 1990 to withhold from the central authorities 85 percent of the revenues that it had traditionally turned over to them. Each day brings fresh illustrations of the impotence of the central authorities. The Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. declared on October 24, 1990, that its laws take precedence over those of the individual republics. Before the day was through, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian republic reconfirmed that, unless ratified by it, union laws had no validity in its territory. Likewise, the U.S.S.R.'s Supreme Soviet banned counter-demonstrations on the anniversary of the November 7 revolution only to find itself overruled by the city governments of Moscow and Leningrad. Counterdemonstrations did indeed take place in every major city marking the anniversary; those in Moscow were attended by Yeltsin himself.

The Communist Party establishment, along with the army and the KGB, are understandably appalled by these centrifugal forces, for they will be left holding the bag if authority passes from the center to the republics, each with its own economic administration, armed forces and security police. The struggle for the preservation of the union has turned into a fight for the survival of the nomenklatura. It is the last line of defense of the embattled apparatus of the old regime. Gorbachev, for all his liberalism, is still the chief of this establishment. And he has made it clear that he is prepared to abandon perestroika, to throw himself into the arms of his conservative opponents, in order to preserve the union and salvage the preeminence of the central government. His military advisor, Marshal Sergei Akhromeev, declared in a somber warning that the armed forces will not stand by and watch the union disintegrate.9 Other high officials and generals have issued similar statements. These warnings suggest that Gorbachev is prepared to unleash a civil war in order to keep the rebellious republics in the fold. It is a war that the central government cannot win; in the long run, it does not have forces adequate to the task and cannot fully rely on its non-Russian troops.

The disintegration of the union, therefore, seems fairly certain, all the more since a substantial part of the Russian population does not wish to remain in it. The possibility still exists that Moscow will come up with a federal constitution to satisfy the republics, but time is running out.

Political authority in the Soviet Union has devolved to the point where the central government can do little more than issue decrees no one obeys and engage in foreign dealings about which no one cares. In the opinion of many Soviet intellectuals, the "Soviet Union" has become a fiction.


Nature abhors a vacuum and politics abhors anarchy. The current situation cannot last because it satisfies no one. Unless the progressive decay of government is to result in the complete breakdown of organized life and turn the Soviet Union into a giant Lebanon, two alternatives appear likely: a gradual evolution of the individual Soviet republics toward self-sufficiency, or a reaction in the form of a coup that will, at least for a time, restore the union and reinstitute central authority by force of arms.

Opinion polls indicate that approximately two-thirds of the population of the U.S.S.R. favor democracy and a free market. At first glance, these figures appear to augur well for the future. They explain why Gorbachev and his associates dare not risk free presidential and parliamentary elections. But, unfortunately, democratic forces are divided and poorly organized. They consist of splinter parties gathered around powerful personalities. Attempts to form larger groupings have failed from lack of effective leadership and the fear that enforcing party discipline will lead to Bolshevik-type regimentation. Democratic politicians have gained control of municipal government in about fifty cities, but they face too many urgent problems to concern themselves with national issues. The political interest excited two years ago by elections to the Congress of Peoples' Deputies has waned because the new institutions brought no improvement in living conditions. People are disenchanted with democracy, perhaps because they had no inkling how much more difficult it is to institute than dictatorship.

Matters do not stand much better in regard to economic questions. In June 1990, two-thirds of the Soviet population expressed a preference for a market economy.10 Disaggregated, these figures give little grounds for optimism. It seems that by a market economy the respondents mean a system that promises affluence, but not its shadows-social inequality and unemployment. The oxymoronic "regulated market" launched by the authorities corresponds to the wishes of the majority of the Soviet people who want the prosperity of capitalism as long as incomes remain roughly equal and jobs are guaranteed. A mere 28 percent approve of a free market in the true meaning of the words, three percent less than those who prefer a strictly centralized economy.11 The remaining 41 percent would have their cake and eat it too. Zaslavskaia's polling institute finds that 75 percent of the population resent the owners of cooperative enterprises, the country's incipient capitalists, and the other 25 percent at best tolerate them. Only 32 percent of urban inhabitants want a business of their own; barely four percent of the U.S.S.R.'s 100 million rural inhabitants aspire to become independent farmers. It is her conclusion that the majority of Soviet citizens feels that "most of their daily problems should be decided not by themselves but, above all, by organs of the state."12

Such polls suggest that the prospects for political and economic democracy in the U.S.S.R. are not at all promising, and that the conservatives have a bigger potential constituency than appears at first sight. Behind the facade of complete renovation, old attitudes survive, as do the forces that hope to profit from them. The latter bide their time: the greater the disorder and the more disastrous the state of the economy, the better their chances of regaining power.

Of these forces, the most important remains the Communist Party, still the largest organized political force in the country. The party has suffered heavy blows in the past two years, losing its monopoly on political activity and its hold on the state apparatus. It now has to contend with rival parties and elected institutions on national and local levels. Its popularity has suffered a precipitous decline. Members are resigning at an alarming rate: 700,000 turned in their cards in the first eight months of 1990 alone, among them some of the country's preeminent political figures. A current joke in Moscow says that the party is offering dispensation from dues for one year to anyone who enrolls a new member, lifelong dispensation for enrolling two new members and, for three or more members, a certificate attesting that the holder never belonged to the Communist Party. Pravda, the party's main newspaper, has lost so many readers that its very survival is in question. Still worse looms ahead. The Communist Party is to give up many of its economic privileges, including exemption from taxes, rent-free tenancy of government buildings and a monopoly on publishing, its principal source of income.

Even so, the party is far from finished. It manages, as it always has, much of the countryside and many provincial towns yet untouched by perestroika. In the provinces, it is said, the regional committees of the party (raikomy) are the only effective organs of administration. Compared to the Communist Party's 17 million members, the democratic parties, none of which exceeds 100,000, appear unimpressive.

The greatest source of the party's latent power continues to lie in its command of the armed forces and the KGB. Gorbachev tried to divest the party of its traditional control over the armed forces, but he had only partial success. The Main Political Administration, whose traditional task was to indoctrinate military personnel and keep them ideologically in step, has been reduced to providing innocuous educational functions. But the party retains other means of keeping its grip on the military. For one, 75 percent of the army's officers and 100 percent of its generals belong to the party and are subject to its discipline. Second, the party continues to appoint the commanders of the armed forces. Finally, generals have managed to stave off attempts to introduce political pluralism into the military on the grounds that it would be divisive and destructive of discipline. While Article 6 guaranteeing the party's monopoly on political activity has been removed from the Soviet constitution, it remains intact in the military establishment. Here the CPSU is still the sole legal political party; since it has cells in all units of regimental size or larger, its hold on the military remains undiminished.

Like the rest of society, however, the Soviet officer corps is politically divided. The higher ranks are solidly conservative; the middle ranks, half democratic; the lower ranks, predominantly democratic. But it is the generals who direct army politics, and in recent months they have been increasingly outspoken in their opposition to Gorbachev's policies. They supported him initially because they realized that the country's deteriorating economic and technological base spelled trouble for the armed forces. What they apparently failed to anticipate was that meaningful enhancements of the industrial and technological base would require severe cutbacks in military appropriations and commitments. They are infuriated by the government's decision to give up eastern Europe, the fruit of Russia's victory in World War II. They despise glasnost, which they fault for the decline of Soviet morale and the rise of "Russophobia." They are appalled by massive draft dodging and by talk of an all-volunteer army. They feel that the armed forces, the mainstay of the regime, have been subjected to humiliations. This kind of open criticism of the government by men in uniform has no precedent in Russian history; it suggests the armed forces have slipped from Gorbachev's control and have made common cause with the most reactionary elements in the party, whose institutional base is the Russian Communist Party.

The KGB has made a rather ambitious bid to polish its public image. But according to a former high officer, Major General Oleg Kalugin, retired in disgrace, its activities have not changed. In sheer numbers, the KGB still exceeds the combined security forces of Europe, America and Asia (excluding China). According to Kalugin, there is not "a single sphere of life which does not feel the presence of the KGB's hand or shadow. . . . When we speak of the KGB's new look, we refer rather to cosmetics, to smearing rouge on the very faded visage of the old Stalinist-Brezhnevite school. The foundations, the methods, the procedures remain the same."13 Specifically, he and others accuse the KGB of emulating the tsarist Okhrana by placing agents provocateurs in democratic and ethnic minority movements to sow dissent.14 It is also believed to sponsor the ultra-conservative and antisemitic Pamiat.

Like the army, the KGB initially supported perestroika; and like the army, it grew alarmed over the scope of the reforms, closing ranks behind party conservatives. With 150,000 reliable troops at its disposal, the KGB has the capacity to quell hostile bids for power and to thwart pressures for genuine democratization.

There are thus formidable reactionary forces arrayed against the fledgling democratic and ethnic movements within the Soviet Union. United by a common ideology-hatred of the West and fear of democracy-these forces bide their time, hoping, as did the communist regime in Poland ten years ago, to give the opposition enough rope to hang itself. From conversations with Russian democratic representatives one gains the impression that, like the leaders of Polish Solidarity in their time, they underestimate the possibility of a crackdown.

There are numerous indications that, in order to prevent the breakup of the union, Gorbachev has indeed begun to move in the direction of a crackdown. On November 17, 1990, he sprung on the unsuspecting Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. a new program to enhance his already formidable powers to rule by decree. Under this new arrangement, the president will directly manage the ministers. The army and police are to be given broad arbitrary powers; the authority that the republics have arrogated to themselves is to be curtailed. These institutional changes have been reinforced by equally ominous shifts in personnel. Vadim Bakatin, the reform-minded minister of the interior, has been replaced by Boris Pugo, a hard-line KGB apparatchik. Pugo's deputy, Army General Boris Gromov, is widely suspected of entertaining political ambitions and is now well placed to deploy the Interior Ministry's several hundred thousand armed men in any future repressive action. The shifts have been interpreted to mean that the KGB and army have taken over the Interior Ministry. One well-informed German journalist has likened these events to the coup d'état of Louis Bonaparte in 1851.15 It was in response to these ominous developments that Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze resigned from his post, and did so in the most dramatic manner possible, in the hope of alerting his country to the dangers of a new dictatorship. The December 11, 1990, television address by the head of the KGB, Vladimir Kriuchkov, which he stated was delivered on behalf of Gorbachev, was the most disturbing manifestation yet that this danger was genuine. It was the first time since perestroika that a high official of the Soviet government charged Western intelligence agencies with conducting a "secret war" to subvert the country by supporting dissident movements. The implication of these remarks is that the democratic and nationalist opposition is guilty of high treason. If Gorbachev indeed supports these neo-Stalinist views and moves in the direction of a crackdown, he will have to abandon everything for which he has worked since coming into office and revert to the ways of the old regime. It is unlikely that he would be more successful in turning back the clock than Poland's General Jaruzelski was nine years ago. But he may try.


The internal situation in the Soviet Union is so fluid and potentially explosive that it is impossible to formulate anything resembling a fixed policy. Trying to do so would be like planning the reconstruction of a city while it is being shaken by a violent earthquake. As long as the direction of Soviet policies changes course almost daily, U.S. policy must of necessity be appropriately flexible. One must be prepared for a range of alternatives, from a complete collapse of authority, through a variety of democratic or authoritarian regimes, to a bellicose military-police dictatorship. For obvious reasons Washington would prefer an integral state, administered by a democratically elected government, enjoying the benefits of a market economy and cooperating in the maintenance of world peace. The probability of the Soviet Union evolving into such a stable and stabilizing partner, however, is low. The forces unleashed by perestroika are unlikely to come to rest in this manner. Western attitudes still reflect the optimism of the early stage of Gorbachev's reforms, but the situation inside the U.S.S.R. no longer justifies these hopes.

American policy must adjust to the fact that Gorbachev is no longer a true representative of his country and that his base of popular support-below 20 percent according to recent polls-is too shallow to ensure his political survival, except as dictator. As of now the popular politicians of the U.S.S.R. are, without exception, republican and municipal leaders who seem more attuned to citizens' concerns, among them Yeltsin, who enjoys the backing of over 90 percent of Russians. Gorbachev has emasculated the Communist Party, leaving it to the mercy of extreme conservatives. The state institutions he sought as his new power base have broken up and function only, if at all, on the local level. He has given up the party without gaining an effective state machinery.

Much as he is honored abroad, Gorbachev is increasingly irrelevant at home: nothing short of a coup can restore his domestic power. Such a coup would inevitably entail a radical shift to the right, away from democracy, human rights and the free market, toward some form of authoritarianism employing traditional repressive methods. In other words, if Gorbachev wants to stay in power he has to abandon the reformist program that has brought him such acclaim in the West. The future of democracy in the U.S.S.R. depends no longer on him, since he has no hope of governing by popular consensus: rather, it rests on the survival of republican governments.

The possibility of the Soviet Union reconstituting itself as a unitary state appears slender. It is likely either to break up completely or to evolve into a loose economic community of fully sovereign states on the model of the early EC or the European Free Trade Association. In either event, that which is now the U.S.S.R. will have to be dealt with not only, or perhaps not even at all, through the Kremlin, but by direct contacts with individual entities.

If this assessment is correct-and it is shared by many Russian intellectuals-then Washington cannot continue to act on the premise that the U.S.S.R. alone is a legitimate partner. Whether we like it or not, the power of its central government has already eroded to such an extent that the loci of effective sovereignty are located below the all-union level. This reality calls for a two-track policy: contacts with the Soviet central government on issues that, as of now, it alone is qualified to handle, such as arms agreements, supplemented by direct communication with republican authorities. Foreign powers dealing with the Soviet Union will be well advised to test the shifting balance of power to determine, by trial and error, which institutions-central or republican-are in a position to sign as well as implement political and economic accords.

Notwithstanding several striking concessions on arms reductions, the thrust of the Soviet military effort goes on its merry way. Some Soviet economists assert that there have been no meaningful cutbacks and that the military sector continues to enjoy the highest priority in the economy. According to the prime minister of the Russian republic, defense-related industries in the R.S.F.S.R. still account for 55 percent of industrial output; other sources indicate that in Leningrad 85 percent of enterprises form part of the "military-industrial complex." Despite promises of "conversion" from military to civilian production, Izvestia reports that defense allocations in the 1991 Soviet budget will rise, especially expenditures for military equipment.16 None of these figures suggests that the Soviet Union is beating swords into plowshares. The implications of this evidence for the West are evident.

There is clamor in Europe and in certain sectors of American opinion for economic assistance to the Soviet Union to "save" Gorbachev. But billions of dollars in credits are unlikely to keep Russia stable and advancing toward political and economic democracy; its foreign debts have quadrupled from 1985 to 1989, to 85.8 billion rubles, without producing any improvements in the country's political or economic condition. Additional loans liberally advanced from many sources, including such unlikely countries as Saudi Arabia, will only serve to grease the rusty economic machinery that keeps the nomenklatura in power and enables it to sabotage reforms. One has only to recall how the tens of billions of dollars in loans granted to Poland, Hungary and Romania in the 1970s were used to sustain decrepit regimes. A group of liberal Soviet economists recently released a document arguing that the best way to help the U.S.S.R. is to refrain from helping it.17 In any event, as long as the bulk of Soviet industry works for the military, and as long as Moscow spends billions of rubles to prop up communist dictatorships in Afghanistan, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba, the Soviet government has no claim on help from the industrial democracies. Apart from food shipments, the one acceptable form of economic assistance to the U.S.S.R. is managerial know-how: that is, teaching business techniques to private enterprises and to those republics that have made a commitment to privatization.

At the same time, strong arguments can be advanced in favor of extending economic aid to the countries of eastern Europe where communist forces have been routed and which present no military threat to the West. These countries may not be able to accomplish the difficult transition to democracy and free enterprise without outside help. The 17 percent vote garnered by the Czechoslovak communists in recent elections and the astonishing showing in the Polish presidential elections by an unknown candidate who promised an economic miracle suggest the possibility of a sudden turn to the extreme left or right. In the countries of eastern Europe with the least developed democratic traditions-Bulgaria and Romania-the risks of economic despair leading to a triumph of extremism, including a return to communist totalitarianism, are very real. Were this to happen, hopes for a reintegrated Europe would be shattered.


Perestroika, reform of the Leninist-Stalinist system, has failed: it has proven impossible to repair the rotten structure. The system is dismantled, but not yet replaced: the six years of Gorbachev's rule have been destructive. We now confront a country in the throes of accelerating anarchy, in which rival forces gravitate to opposite ends of the political spectrum. The democratic elements, having abandoned the leader of the central government, rally around republican figures, notably Yeltsin. Gorbachev's instinct for self-preservation drives him into the arms of conservatives. The only hope for democracy lies in the ability of the republics to assert their sovereignty because those who want the preservation of the union and its traditional institutions require a dictatorship.

The United States and its allies cannot afford to view the Eastern giant as one fewer problem on their foreign policy agenda. We may have won the Cold War, but its consequences will be with us for a long time. It will take decades to overcome the spiritual and material devastation that communism inflicted on the Soviet Union and its possessions. For this reason, we cannot rest on our laurels; the world is entering a new epoch of instability that the Soviet Union, too, will not escape.

1 Golos Armeni, Oct. 7, 1980, cited in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Daily Report, no. 200, Oct. 19, 1990.

2 Komsomolskaia pravda, no. 249, Oct. 30, 1990.

3 Izvestia, no. 332, Nov. 29, 1990.

4 A poll reported in Argumenty i fakty, no. 29, July 21-27, 1990, showed that 68 percent of delegates to the 28th Party Congress wanted to maintain "democratic centralism"; 67 percent favored the party retaining its status as the "vanguard" of society, and 64 percent felt it ought to play a leading role in the army and the KGB. Since delegates came from the upper echelons of the party, however, these statistics may overstate the strength of its conservative constituency.

5 Strana i mir, no. 3/57, 1990, p. 30.

6 The fate of intercontinental missiles, should the U.S.S.R. fall apart, is indeed very troubling. There are good reasons to expect, however, that the Strategic Forces and the KGB, which control these weapons, would prevent them from falling into the hands of the republics, none of which has expressed an interest in them in any event.

7 Argumenty i fakty, no. 21, May 26-June 1, 1990.

8 Many Georgians and Moldavians believe that these separatist movements are instigated by Moscow as a means of diverting and blunting their own striving for independence.

9 Sovetskaia Rossia, no. 261, Nov. 14, 1990.

10 Rabochaia Tribuna, July 29, 1990.

11 Argumenty i fakty, no. 21, May 26-June 1, 1990.

12 Komsomolskaia pravda, Nov. 30, 1990.

13 Argumenty i fakty, no. 26, June 30-July 6, 1990.

14 Leningradskaia pravda, Oct. 21, 1990, cited in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Daily Report, no. 214, Nov. 9, 1990.

15 Christian Schmidt-Häuer in Die Zeit, no. 50, Dec. 7, 1990.

16 Izvestia, no. 339, Dec. 6, 1990.

17 The Anti-Communist Manifesto, Lev Timofeyev, ed., Bellevue (WA): Free Enterprise Press, 1990.

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  • Richard Pipes is Baird Professor of History at Harvard and the author of The Russian Revolution. In 1981-82 he served as director of East European and Soviet Affairs in the National Security Council.
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