by Mark Helprin
        Mr. Helprin is a novelist and political commentator.
               From the WALL STREET JOURNAL, 12/13/1988

     Mikhail Gorbachev is as arresting and as magnetic as someone who 
is being chased.  Like Khrushchev, he shows signs of frenetic 
overextension.  He must succeed before his opposition decides that he 
has gone too far without success.  So, he throws many plates in the 
air, and his solution to the problem of keeping them all up there is 
to add yet another.  He will restructure the economy--and the polity.  
He will make an accomodation with the West--and China.  He will deal 
with strategic arms--and conventional forces.  He will withdraw from 
Afghanistan--and reorganize the military.
     His latest initiative is probably less than he himself wants and 
far less than meets the eye, because he is laying down a double track.  
His concessions are carefully hedged to mollify his opposition, who, 
should he depart the scene, will find the apparatus in place for 
pursuing a policy quite different than his.  This is the price they 
exact for his experimentation.
     And he does what he does so brilliantly that when he left 
Manhattan to visit Ronald Reagan and George Bush in their place of 
exile on a tiny island in the harbor, the president and the president-
elect sat with him by the fire, in what looked like a daze.  As he 
held forth, they had the expressions of fish whose heads have been 
banged against the deck.  Remember the Spirit of Glassboro?  The 
detente of the '70s?  Now we have Voodoo '88.

     He has paralyzed the notorious skepticism of the American press 
with the magic of his ambiguity.  But if instead of sleeping in his 
arms one looks carefully at his proposals, modest wisdom may defeat 
overcredulous haste.
     The initiative was offered disingenously.  A man who says that he 
has not come to score points then magnanimously forgives the Third 
World its not exactly overwhelming debt to the Soviet Union, clears 
his throat, and bats his eyelashes at the West.  The arms-reduction 
proposals were delivered several days in advance of much more 
stringent demands from NATO.  Despite the Van Buren transition, Mr. 
Bush has not hit the ground yet, much less running, and he must have 
loved receiving a fait accompli while handcuffed and tranquilized.
     That the arms-reduction decision was accomplished unilaterally 
immunizes it to the sting of verification.  With no NATO 
participation, Mr. Gorbachev, like a writer without an editor, can 
avoid cutting out what is dearest to him.  Because no agreement 
exists, nothing is even vaguely binding:  What the general secretary 
giveth, the general secretary can taketh away.  And he is to be 
admired for awarding to himself immense space in which to maneuver.
     A reduction of 500,000 troops appears stunning until one 
remembers that the Soviet defense establishment consists of 5.2 
million regulars, 6.2 million ready reserves, and 55 million other 
reserves.  If the 500,000 were decommissioned early into the reserves, 
the reduction would be merely a change in the active/reserve ratio.  
If the cut came from the reserves themselves, it would be even less.  
Seven hundred thousand of the 5.2 million regulars are railroad, 
agriculture and construction troops.  If the railroad troops were 
taken out of their uniforms and called railroad workers and they still 
operated the rolling stock essential for the Red Army's logistics and 
transport, the reduction would be a ruse.
     What if the cuts came from category II or category III divisions, 
manned at only 50%-75% and 20%, respectively.  Would the full 
divisional strength be counted?  Even if the counting were accurate, 
cutting category III divisions alone represents less of a troop 
reduction than a restructuring to emphasize fully ready formations at 
the expense of the slower-to-mobilize cadre units.  The reductions may 
merely trim administrative fat across the board and make Soviet 
divisions even leaner, or they may be concentrated on the eastern 
front with China, or result from the planned transfer of some 
noncombat tasks to civilians.
     The Soviet draft pool has declined by one-third since the late 
'70s, and in view of unrest in the autonomous regions, a change in the 
ethnic mix of the army may necessitate a reduction that preserves a 
higher ratio of Slavs.  In any case, these cuts represent just over a 
4% reduction of regulars and ready reserves over the next two years.  
In the two years that have just passed, Soviet forces grew by 6%.  
Since 1982 they have grown by almost 25%.  Certainly most of the 
people who are now euphoric about the proposed 4% reduction were not 
even aware of the 25% addition.
     Of the 50,000 troops that Mr. Gorbachev promises to withdraw from 
the front, one must ask, where are they going?  They represent 
slightly more than 5% of active Warsaw Pact troops in the area.  If 
they withdraw they will reduce the pact's lead from 20% to 15%.  But 
the front is where the territories of the two alliances narrow.  Each 
alliance already keeps more than twice as many active troops farther 
back, where they are less vulnerable and do not choke the field of 
maneuver.  In sum, he is moving 50,000 troops from a forward area 
where about a million are stationed to a rearward area where two 
million are stationed.
     This is sound policy in view of three developments--the INF 
treaty, which makes the rearward area a sanctuary beyond the range of 
most of NATO's tactical nuclear weapons; the development of weapons 
capable of searching out enemy formations behind the front lines but 
at limited ranges; and Soviet military doctrine's rapidly evolving 
love affair with maneuver.  The West is ecstatic because the Russians 
are modernizing their army.  Is voodoo a strong enough word for this?
     The general secretary left himself even more leeway concerning 
hardware.  Eliminating 10,000 tanks, 8,500 "artillery systems," and 
800 combat aircraft will nonetheless leave the pact with 58,000 tanks 
to NATO's 30,000; 54,000 "artillery systems" to NATO's 24,000; and 
8,750 non-naval combat aircraft to NATO's 7,500.  But that is not the 
point.  Neither is it that the Soviets have 20,000 T-55 tanks that are 
more appropriate to Benin or Algeria than to a European battlefield, 
and that 10,000 of these are supposedly in storage near the inter-
German border, where half of the proposed cut is supposed to take 
     The heart of the matter lies not in numbers but in velocity.  The 
reductions are to take place over two years, which is at the rate of 
5,000 tanks, 4,250 "artillery systems," and 400 aircraft per year.  In 
the first half of this decade the Soviets were producing about 5,000 
tanks, 4,000 "artillery systems" and 2,500 aircraft each year.  Since 
then, the numbers of aircraft have declined as they become more 
complex and capital intensive, but tank production keeps apace.  In 
fact, during Mr. Gorbachev's tenure, Soviet military production 
capacity has increased.  At the United Nations he spoke about 
converting two of three military plants.  This will have enormous 
impact on the swords-into-plow-shares factions in the West, but less 
of an impact on the 150 major final-assembly plants and 3,500 
subsidiary facilities in the Soviet military industries.
     Mr. Gorbachev gave no assurances about production.  If it 
continues at customary rates, the reductions he promises will result 
in two years of zero net growth rather than contraction.  Meanwhile, 
and partly in reaction to the initiative in question, the West's 
equipment (and manpower) levels are bound to contract.  They have 
begun to do so already.  By the time Mr. Gorbachev has implemented his 
concessions, the Warsaw Pact will have increased its lead over NATO, 
albeit at a slower rate as a result of his new program.

     If there is an encouraging component of the program it is the 
promise to reduce bridging and assault units near the front, for these 
are essential to aggressive action.  But where will they go?  As far 
as anyone knows, they may just be redeployed farther back to better 
advantage.  Nothing specific was proffered, though Mr. Gorbachev said 
of the Soviet forward divisions that, "Their structure will be 
different from what it is now; after a major cutback of their tanks it 
will become clearly defensive."  The immense volume of words the 
Soviets have expended over the years (including the four Gorbachev 
years) professing that their deployments were purely defensive is now 
impeached by a single sentence, which, perhaps not surprisingly, makes 
exactly the same claim.
     Much has been made of Mr. Gorbachev's sincerity.  I do not doubt 
his sincerity, but neither do I doubt his ambiguity.  To paraphrase 
Shakespeare, specificity is all.  Because the promised arms reductions 
have precious little specificity, they must be approached with greater 
than usual care.  Now is the time not for euphoria and reflief but for 
sobriety and vigilance.  If you want to die in your bed, you had 
better not walk in your sleep.

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