Yuri Andropov
Yuri Andropov; drawing by David Levine

Much uncertainty surrounds the emergence of Yuri Andropov as general secretary of the Communist Party, the likely heir of four formidable predecessors during the sixty-five years of Soviet history. Lenin led his party through revolution and consolidation of power. Stalin revolutionized the Soviet political system and society through unbridled use of coercion and terror. Khrushchev shook the Stalinist mold, made Soviet foreign policy more active, and ended the country’s self-imposed autarchic isolation. Brezhnev attempted to institutionalize the bureaucratic process of policy making. In domestic affairs he achieved a degree of stability hitherto unknown under the Soviet political system, notwithstanding serious failures of the economy. Internationally, he supervised the transformation of the Soviet Union into a truly global power.

What can we expect of Andropov? Here I propose to review the principal problems and difficulties Andropov has inherited and to suggest how these are likely to affect the direction of Soviet internal and foreign policy.


Brezhnev occupied the office of first and then general secretary for eighteen years, longer than any other Soviet leader except Stalin. His rule was less dramatic and convulsive than that of his predecessors, but he left a strong mark on the entire Soviet system. His major achievements took place during the first decade of his rule. His last six years were marked by domestic stagnation, resistance to change, and foreign adventures that were dubious for the Soviet Union’s long-term interests and destructive of détente in the short run. He occupied office well beyond the point of usefulness to his colleagues, the ruling establishment, and the Soviet people. His experience illustrates once again that the absence of an established and accepted mechanism for transferring power is a costly luxury for a modern state with global ambitions.

Brezhnev aimed at first to reverse certain of Khrushchev’s experimental and iconoclastic policies in the interest of Party harmony and social and political stability. He sought to avoid confrontations among the top Soviet leaders and to provide both a higher standard of living for the population and the resources necessary to meet the demands of the “functional elites” in charge of the Party, the military, industry, and agriculture. In foreign affairs he wanted to translate strategic parity with the United States into equality on a global basis. In domestic matters Brezhnev’s years will be seen as the most predictable and quiescent of Soviet history; in foreign affairs he was more ambitious and unpredictable than any other Soviet ruler. He leaves a mixed legacy of achievements and failures that will weigh heavily on Andropov’s regime.

Brezhnev’s greatest domestic achievement was his ability to preserve Soviet social and political stability without resorting to mass terror, notwithstanding major economic, social, and political problems. For the leaders, the open Soviet dissenters were more an international embarrassment than an internal danger. Brezhnev succeeded in preventing large numbers of professional people from becoming a vocal opposition. The vastly expanded Soviet professional and educational class was brought into the bureaucracy; its members became pre-occupied with professional questions and committed to their careers.

Urban workers under Brezhnev remained docile except for isolated incidents of unrest and strikes. The peasants, crushed under Stalin by collectivization, began to enter Soviet society;as, for example, when they were granted passports for free internal travel and given access to the social security program. Finally, the Soviet “internal” empire, the multinational state, remained remarkably quiet at a time when ethnic politics and ethnic separatism created difficulties for both Western and third world nations. In the non-Russian regions of the USSR, most people identify more with their ethnic group than with the Soviet state and in those regions cultural nationalism has been strong. Still, among non-Russian elites there have been very few overt signs of political nationalism or of a quest for greater autonomy, not to speak of separatism.

The remarkable social and political stability under Brezhnev, particularly between 1965 and 1975, depended above all on the colossal Soviet repressive apparatus which regained status and effectiveness after Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin campaigns. No one should underestimate the continuing toughness and tenacity of this apparatus, with its system of surveillance and censorship, its prison camps and punitive psychiatric hospitals. No less significant, however, was the simultaneous and successful pursuit of economic growth, in industrial investment, in military spending, and in consumer goods—which thereby satisfied Brezhnev’s main constituencies. During Brezhnev’s first ten years, increased production for the consumer economy, especially of durable goods, raised the Soviet standard of living in the city and countryside. Moreover, Brezhnev sought greater equality in distributing real income; the growth of consumer spending benefited particularly the lowest third of the population.

During the same decade, moreover, an increasing number of workers were able to gain higher status than that of their parents. More people took part in local self-government, such as the municipal soviets. Equally important was the continuing indifference of workers to “high” politics. In the “internal” empire, consisting of non-Russian republics, policies of repression and Russian administrative controls were combined with considerable cultural autonomy and private economic activity. Most of these regions had a standard of living higher than that enjoyed by the Russians, especially in the countryside.


Brezhnev’s second major domestic achievement was in Soviet decision making and in reducing conflict among the elites. In contrast to the cruel personal dictatorship of Stalin and the erratic confrontational style of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, for the first time in Soviet history, brought elites from all the major institutions into the top decision-making body, the Politburo. He reversed Khrushchev’s practice of frequently replacing high officials. While Khrushchev gave Soviet elites a sense that their lives were secure from terror, Brezhnev gave them security of office. Conflicts among elites responsible for such “functions” as agriculture and industry and those responsible for governing regions were resolved through bargaining and compromise. Brezhnev’s authority was unquestioned, but it remained low-key, with a stress on conciliation.

Under Brezhnev, the Soviet Union also scored its greatest international triumph—strategic parity with the US and the Western alliance. For the first time in Russian and Soviet history, the Soviet Union became invulnerable to foreign attack. Thus was accomplished the main goal proclaimed by all Soviet leaders, the goal in whose name countless millions suffered want, cruelty, and terror. The steadily growing and shrewdly balanced military program brought not only security from attack but the means to project forces far beyond Soviet borders. The Soviet Union’s global status was established.

The failures of Brezhnev’s regime are no less visible, especially in the Soviet economy. At his death in 1982, the gap between the Soviet gross national product and that of the US and Western Europe almost matched the gap when Stalin died in 1953. Two years ago, Japan overtook the USSR in industrial production and replaced it as the second largest economy in the world. Except possibly for military technology, Soviet technological development is now probably further behind that of the West than it was under Khrushchev. The Soviet economy has entered a period of deep noncyclical economic crisis, seemingly without remedy.

Until the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union used steadily increasing amounts of labor, capital, land, and cheap natural resources to ensure an annual growth rate of about 5 percent. The system is no longer able to muster these forces at the same rate. The economy has reached a stage where the traditional Soviet methods of mobilizing workers and capital will no longer yield sustained rapid growth.

Other factors make the situation worse. First, the Soviet system of management—central planning, crudely defined incentives, and mass mobilization—is poorly prepared to meet the requirements of intensive growth, which depends on increased productivity of labor and capital, on innovation and the diffusion of technology. Second, the “forced” industrialization of earlier decades proceeded without developing the basic systems of transportation, communication, storage, distribution, and services that would keep pace with the growth of manufacturing, mining, and agriculture. Soviet leaders will be forced to spend enormous sums on such “infrastructure” at the expense of precious capital that could otherwise be used to improve the productivity of labor and energy.

Third, the Soviet Union in the 1980s faces unfavorable demographic trend—a rapid overall decline in the number of new workers, an increasingly large proportion of whom will be non-Russian. Soviet authorities will either have to force a migration of non-Russian, predominantly Central Asian, labor to European Russia and Siberia, where most industry and new mineral resources are located, or else they will have to invest at great cost in the industrial development of Central Asia and Transcaucasia. Either solution would exacerbate ethnic tensions.

Fourth, the Soviet Union faces the near exhaustion of cheap natural resources such as oil, timber, iron, and other minerals. Production costs rise dramatically as such resources are extracted from increasingly remote areas in the north or far east. In addition, the need to replace aged machine stocks with advanced machinery, essential at a time of labor scarcity, will be affected by the inefficiency of the machine industry and the shortage of investment capital. The Brezhnev leadership repeatedly postponed to some unspecified date the vital technological renovation of Soviet industry in favor of traditional methods of growth. To Andropov’s great misfortune that time has come. Finally, agriculture remains the most vulnerable part of the economy, notwithstanding the enormous investments of the Brezhnev era.

Without major renovation of the economy, a lower growth rate will have a serious and unpredictable impact on social stability. Living standards of Soviet workers during the 1980s can at best remain constant and at worst decline. This will be a new experience for the very large majority of Soviet citizens who did not know the postwar years of hunger and repression under Stalin. Moreover, the movement of their children into the middle-level and professional occupations will decline as a consequence of sagging industrial growth, lower spending on education, and stiffer competition from children of the new middle class. Soviet leaders cannot know how workers will react to a period of prolonged austerity.


Yet another source of serious conflict in the 1980s may be deteriorating relations between the dominant Russians and the other nations of the USSR. Tension in the non-Russian regions will increase if the central government cannot maintain a rising standard of living and ceases to tolerate private economic activity. In this situation the aspirations of the ordinary working population could fuse with the growing ambitions of well-educated non-Russian elites who may seek greater freedom from Russian controls.

As the stability achieved during Brezhnev’s first decade became ossified during his last years, the older generation of Soviet elites, like its chief, clearly outlived its usefulness. Unable to deal adequately with the accumulated and growing ills of the economy, the old guard still refuses to give way to younger officials whose expectations of upward mobility have been frustrated by Brezhnev’s gift to top leaders—security in office. Ordinary Soviet consumers still live in a drab world, a world of shoddy goods and chronic shortages. Not only did the standard of living stagnate or decline in Brezhnev’s last years, but the economic achievements of the 1960s and early 1970s could not hide the moral decay and corruption that now pervade the entire society. Andropov inherits a situation in which bribery, fraud, and theft are an accepted way of life, even instruments for redistributing national income. The working class lacks motivation to work hard and its record of absenteeism and alcoholism is the highest of any industrialized nation.

Soviet culture remains a wasteland—Victorian, tradition-bound, and stultified. The official refusal to tolerate experiment and freedom of expression has forced the most talented Soviet artists and writers into voluntary or involuntary exile. Brezhnev’s record on human rights was worse than Khrushchev’s. He subjected nonconformists to long imprisonment in labor camps, commitment to psychiatric wards, harassment, loss of employment, and enforced isolation.

In international affairs the Soviet Union has ceased to be an ideological model not only for revolutionary forces abroad, but also for some countries under Soviet domination. Soviet policies created no lasting international coalitions, only fragile “marriages of convenience.” Soviet economic and cultural resources are too meager to serve the aims of Soviet foreign policy, especially when they are compared to those of the US. The only significant assets of Soviet foreign policy are its arsenal of weapons and its military assistance abroad. These produce few lasting achievements and only increase the dangers of regional conflict, since Soviet interests have been seen as best served by the threat or fact of armed struggle.

The unresolved crisis in Poland is only the most dramatic sign of an irreversible process of political, economic, and military decline in the “external” Soviet empire. And only during the last months of Brezhnev’s rule did his regime begin to moderate the conflict with China, which had mounted dangerously throughout his years in office. But perhaps the most important failure of foreign policy under Brezhnev was the collapse of détente with the US, which had been the cornerstone of his foreign policy. During his last years, the regime gave no hint that it had any ideas of how to restore détente or of what to substitute for it if this proved impossible.

Brezhnev’s legacy is thus a complex one, marked conspicuously by the expansion abroad of a power that is declining domestically. It may well be that the Brezhnev era will be remembered as a time of lost opportunities. Internally, the Brezhnev leadership succumbed to its own conservative tendencies and the pressures of vested interests, and thereby lost the opportunity for major reform of the Soviet economy. The first decade of Brezhnev’s rule offered the essential conditions for such reform—a high rate of growth and availability of resources to undertake a transition to a less centralized economic system. Today the new leaders must choose between reform and decline under much harsher conditions; and they will encounter far greater difficulties should they decide to carry out any major reforms.

Externally, the Brezhnev leadership succumbed to the easy temptation to exploit temporary American weakness following the Vietnam war and the Watergate crisis and pursued an ambitious expansionist policy by military means, for example in Africa and Afghanistan. During the early 1970s, when the military strength of the US and Western Europe remained basically stable, the Soviet Union lost the opportunity to secure durable agreements on arms control and reduction by mounting a steady military buildup. The predictable response of the US set back prospects of accommodation, perhaps for a very long time.


When power shifts from one top Soviet leader or group of leaders to another, the political system is severely tested. The strains on the system may now be all the greater since the regime must face within a relatively short time the replacement not only of Brezhnev but also of a significant number of aged officials in the functional bureaucracies, both central and regional. Yuri Andropov’s appointment as general secretary of the Party marks only the most dramatic and critical phase of the complex succession process, for we know from the past that successions do not end with the appointment of a new leader. They continue for a number of years, during which the nominee consolidates his position and forms a durable coalition of loyal subordinates. All the previously successful general secretaries had to survive serious challenges to their rule or their policies from other contenders or coalitions before they became undisputed leaders. All were able to depend on the crucial support of the professional Party apparatus, which dominates the most powerful decision-making body, the Politburo, the top executive body, the Secretariat, and the institution that symbolizes legitimacy, the Central Committee.

During each succession the nominee has had to respond at least to some extent to the demands and hopes of the political elites, especially of the groups that are his main constituencies. During each succession the nominee and his opponents court the favor of Soviet citizens by making exaggerated promises and offering popular programs. (We do not know how and why, but during the initial stages of the succession the popularity of the nominee or his opponents is a source of power even in the authoritarian Soviet regime.)

What do we know about Yuri Andropov that helps us to anticipate the character of his leadership? He is a Russian, born in 1914, the son of a middle-class railroad employee. Unlike his three predecessors he is not of worker or peasant origin; but he has had little formal education. He completed a course in inland water transportation at a vocational school in the 1930s, but he failed to finish his studies either at the provincial university, where he read Marxist-Leninist philosophy, or at the Higher Party School in Moscow. He belongs to the Brezhnev generation of Party officials who managed to avoid Stalin’s purges and advanced quickly as a result. Between 1951 and 1967 he worked in the Central Committee’s department for East European affairs. He was ambassador to Hungary during the 1956 rebellion and later became secretary of the Central Committee responsible for the Soviet “external” empire. In 1967 Brezhnev appointed him head of the KGB, a position he held longer than any previous chief.

By all accounts Andropov is a sophisticated man whose knowledge and tastes have been acquired through self-education. He has never set foot in a non-communist country, but as head of intelligence he would have gained vast experience of foreign affairs. He has had more to do with running the East European empire than any other leader and his years in the KGB have given him intimate knowledge of both Soviet politics and the problems of enforcing order and discipline in Soviet society. But he lacks direct experience in managing the Soviet economy and will have to rely heavily on economic specialists newly promoted or currently in place.

Andropov rose quickly during the last months of Brezhnev’s life, but not by Brezhnev’s choice. In May 1982 he moved from the KGB to the Party Secretariat. This decision, taken by the majority of the Politburo, showed the sharp decline of Brezhnev’s power and exposed divisions among the leaders. Had Brezhnev retired from office, the victor would probably have been Brezhnev’s protégé Chernenko, who had taken over first the supervision of Party organization from the failing contender, Kirilenko, and then the day-to-day direction of the top Party institutions relinquished by Brezhnev. Andropov’s main asset was his reputation as a leader who was not only forceful but had broad experience, a rare combination in the current Politburo. The coalition backing him probably included some of the older Politburo members for whom he was a man who had made an impressive career on his own—unlike Chernenko, who had long worked in Brezhnev’s shadow. Andropov probably had the support of the younger members of the Secretariat seeking a candidate who—unlike Chernenko—would be willing to depart from Brezhnev’s policies and who seemed to promise both a change in policies and strong leadership.

Andropov will not be able to feel secure until he replaces with hand-picked loyalists some of the present members of the Politburo, Secretariat, and Presidium of the Council of Ministers. His first promotion to full membership in the Politburo after Kirilenko “retired” in November 1982 was Geidar Aliev, Party chief of Azerbaijan and former head of the KGB in that republic, and thus an Andropov loyalist. For the first time in Soviet history, two veterans of the KGB are Politburo members. Andropov should benefit enormously from his fifteen years as head of the secret police. By now he must know whatever may be embarrassing in the dossiers of every member of the Central Committee; he can command obedience from fear if not from loyalty or agreement with his policies.

Whether Andropov will face serious challenges before becoming undisputed leader will depend on how he deals with the domestic and foreign issues facing him. That these questions are now so formidable and urgent may seem to argue for unity and collective leadership, that is, for a repetition of the pattern of succession we saw after the fall of Khrushchev in 1964. But the problems I have mentioned are so pressing that they may provoke fierce divisions among defenders of various institutional interests; then we may see again the kind of confrontations among leaders that took place during the succession from Stalin to Khrushchev between 1953 and 1957.

More likely than any immediate challenges to Andropov’s leadership are attempts to undermine or circumvent the power inherent in the office of general secretary. The statutory power of that office is so great, however, that even a politician less skillful than Andropov could use it to thwart opponents. As chairman of the Politburo, the general secretary controls both its agenda and the timing of its deliberations. As chief executive of the most powerful bureaucracy of all, the Party apparatus, he can appoint and dismiss key officials in all the bureaucracies. As chairman of the Supreme Defense Council, he is in a position to supervise the entire military-industrial complex. Brezhnev, moreover, set a precedent for the general secretary to become head of state as chairman of the Supreme Soviet. This post was left conspicuously vacant after Brezhnev’s death and remains so.

The question now is not simply whether Andropov will try to exercise the inherent powers of his office to the utmost but whether he will have the time to use those powers to push through new policies. Andropov is sixty-eight years old, and has had a heart attack. After eighteen years of Brezhnev, we should not be surprised if two changes at the top take place during the 1980s. Andropov may consolidate his power more rapidly than his predecessors did and then begin immediately to press for important changes in Soviet policies and in the structure of government. If he fails to do so, the second succession, from Andropov to a much younger leader, will have to shape post-Brezhnev politics and policies.

When it comes to support from the Party apparatus—the key factor in the power of a Soviet leader—Andropov may seem to differ from his predecessors. He did not become general secretary directly after long service as a Party functionary, having spent fifteen years in the KGB before he was elected to the Secretariat in May 1982. Still, if Andropov was not recently in the Party apparatus, he is clearly of it. For twenty-seven of the forty-six years of his active political life he was a Party official; and during the five years preceding his KGB appointment, he had the highly influential position of Central Committee secretary. No one should discount his ability to maneuver within the Party apparatus.

As for the elite groups responsible for “functions,” now as in past successions each group is concerned primarily with the fate of the institution over which it presides. In the past, each elite group, whether in charge of housing or heavy industry or energy production, hoped to gain both prestige and increased allocations of resources from the new leader. In the present situation of economic stringency, each group fears that its position will erode and that its allocation will fall or, at best, will increase more slowly.

Yet one can detect a consensus regarding the new leader that cuts across most of the bureaucracies. There seems general agreement among them that the stagnation and decline of Brezhnev’s last years must be reversed, however much particular groups differ on the means. They appear to agree as well on the necessity of strengthening social discipline and enforcing order after the deterioration in public and private behavior during Brezhnev’s last years. Clearly no member of the Politburo is better qualified to respond to these desires than Andropov, with his long experience as the country’s number one policeman.

Such elite hopes, however, are directed toward society at large. How will the political elites respond if, as seems likely, Andropov pursues a campaign for law and order within their own bureaucratic fiefdoms? Here, Aliev’s new appointment to the Politburo and to the post of first deputy prime minister might well cause disquiet—he is best known for suppressing corruption in Azerbaijan. But one general demand of the political elites Andropov will probably satisfy quickly. He will most likely push upward the frustrated middle-aged officials whose promotions have long been blocked by Brezhnev’s old guard. If he does so, he will probably secure a grateful, loyal, and effective power base.

At first, Andropov will no doubt promise Soviet citizens a better life in exchange for harder and more disciplined work. Yet he has a smaller margin of maneuver than his predecessors did because he starts at a time when the economy has a lower rate of growth. To improve the standard of living quickly would require deep cuts in military spending, thereby estranging one of the most important constituencies Andropov needs to consolidate his power. A major long-term effort to transform the economy—and a sustained rise in the standard of living ultimately depends on this—would show few results at first and claim greater sacrifices from consumers during the first few years in which it was tried.

If Andropov plans a long-range transformation of the economy, he may well strengthen the repressiveness of the system so as to ensure obedience during a time of austerity. Some experts predict that he will, for a start, make some gestures that will be attractive to consumers—lowering some prices, increasing the supply of some scarce items. My own impression from many Soviet sources is that the Soviet public does not expect much improvement along this line—indeed, public expectations of more consumer goods seem lower than they were during the last two successions. I suspect that what the ordinary citizen hopes for is curiously close to what the elite hopes for—a strong leader. Of course the man in the street hopes that a strong leader will concentrate on the abuses of the gigantic Soviet bureaucracy and not on the inadequacies of workers in the factories. Andropov may concentrate on both and may even partly succeed in correcting both.

By all accounts Andropov is a complex man, a strong personality with a remarkably subtle sense of politics, a leader very different from his two predecessors, who were shrewd but relatively simple men. But he has so far given little hint of how he conceives the future. As a leader of the second rank under Brezhnev, obliged to show personal loyalty to the leader of the centralized state, he could scarcely reveal his convictions. In view of his professional record, there is no reason to believe, as some have suggested, that he is a closet liberal; if we take account of the autonomy he can now command, it would be foolish as well to conclude he is incapable of undertaking reform.

Khrushchev responded to Stalin’s legacy of paralysis and terror with vigorous and erratic innovations. Brezhnev followed Khrushchev’s “harebrained schemes” with policies emphasizing firmness, predictability, and slow change. Andropov will probably attempt to replace Brezhnev’s immobility and the deep problems it has produced with a determined effort to change outmoded policies from above and to install new people. Whether far-reaching changes will actually take place remains an open question; for the political price of such change will be very high, and may be perceived as higher than the price of trying to muddle through.


What domestic change takes place will probably occur in the control of social behavior, in agriculture and in the economy generally. Andropov has clearly received a mandate from his colleagues to move against the rot, bribery, and reluctance to work throughout Soviet society. He will no doubt apply severe measures to make people work harder. He will probably crack down on dissent, absenteeism, bribery, corruption, and theft of government property. Far from liberalizing the system, his methods will strengthen its authoritarian character.

As for Soviet agriculture, which remains the single greatest obstacle to a rise in living standards, far-reaching changes are probable. The Soviet economy can no longer afford to invest immense sums in agricultural policies that don’t work. Andropov may undertake to reform Soviet agriculture along lines followed in China and in some Soviet experiments during the past decade. While preserving the collective farm as an administrative unit, Andropov could insist that the family become the basic working group, with each family allotted pieces of collective farm land and rewarded in relation to its productivity. Or, what is less likely, he could adopt the Hungarian model and transform the collective farm into an independent unit that would for all practical purposes act as a private enterprise. In the short run at least, the food situation would improve if increased investment and acreage were allowed for private plots on collective farms.

It is harder to anticipate how Andropov will deal with industry and the system of planning, management, and incentives. No doubt he will organize major discussions on improving the economy, drawing on schemes for reform prepared by Soviet economic institutes for the post-Brezhnev leadership. Small-scale experiments and marginal reforms are bound to result from such discussions. For example, in order to improve the economic situation, Andropov might allow new service establishments—restaurants, repair shops, etc.—to be organized virtually outside the socialized economy. He may also create a privileged new group of industries working solely for export and enjoying advantages hitherto reserved for military production. But I have yet to meet a Soviet economist or official who believes that installing an extensive market system on the Hungarian model is possible in the USSR—not least because of the diffusion of political power that would result from such a change. Decentralization of the economy would tend to increase the power of non-Russian elites, a threatening prospect for the Soviet rulers. Andropov will try to shore up the industrial economy, but he will not radically reform the Soviet industrial system.

Much more can be said about the ways the succession will influence Soviet foreign policy and international behavior. Andropov’s main concern must be to insulate domestic politics and his still unconsolidated leadership from foreign challenges and international crises. This will probably be a time of “carrots,” not “sticks,” for Soviet foreign policy. For the last two years, Soviet foreign policy has remained relatively passive, in part because the Soviets have become overextended, whether in Poland, Afghanistan, or Ethiopia, in part from the desire to preserve détente with Western Europe and to deny ammunition to the Reagan administration in the months before theater nuclear forces are to be deployed in Europe. The struggle for succession and the decline of Brezhnev’s ability to rule also inhibited new moves abroad.

Until Andropov consolidates his position, we should expect that Soviet foreign policy will continue to be cautious. Low-cost gestures of international reconciliation could well be made, such as Sakharov’s return from exile, or an amnesty for political prisoners, or the expulsion of some prominent Soviet dissenters. We may expect more overtures to the US ranging from friendly speeches on the need to improve relations to a “peace offensive” combining new proposals on arms control and reduction, along with a major propaganda campaign in the US and Western Europe to promote the nuclear freeze and “no first-use.” The large element of propaganda in such peace campaigns should not, however, prevent the US from seriously exploring new Soviet initiatives for arms reduction or control. Meanwhile, Soviet policy will probably be muted in such danger spots as the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, where confrontation with the US is most likely.

A second major concern of Soviet foreign policy during the succession period is to hold on to international positions judged vital to Soviet interests. From what we know of Andropov, the key position for him lies in Poland where he will find that few compromises are possible. Even if the militarization of Polish political life is relaxed more quickly than planned, the restoration of even a modest version of the free Solidarity movement seems impossible. Should new troubles explode in Poland, direct or indirect Soviet reaction will likely be swift and harsh.

Another position the Soviets will attempt to maintain, regardless of the high cost, is the détente with Western Europe, and particularly with West Germany, in view of the dim prospects for a rapprochement with the United States. At the least, the Soviets hope that the Western Europeans will intervene to force some change in America’s policy toward the Soviet Union. At the most, the Soviets hope to shatter the NATO alliance by exploiting differences in US and Western European military policy and attitudes toward the Soviet Union. Andropov will doubtless meet with Western European leaders, perhaps travel to their capitals. Very likely he will make new offers concerning nuclear forces in Europe before the German elections in March 1983. Such courtship of Western Europe certainly does not suggest that the new leaders no longer consider US-Soviet relations their central concern. It is clearly a second-best policy.

A third tendency of Soviet foreign policy during the succession period will probably be to cut losses abroad in order to dissociate the new leadership from Brezhnev’s failures. Andropov may be expected to accelerate the efforts made during Brezhnev’s last month to improve relations with China. He may withdraw some troops from the Chinese border and make a dramatic visit to Beijing. Notwithstanding a recent statement by Tass in Moscow reaffirming the Soviet position on Afghanistan, he may also try to end the embarrassing stalemate there by discussing some formula to end the civil war—for example a new coalition government, demilitarizing and neutralizing Afghanistan under international supervision, and a staged withdrawal of Soviet forces. But it is also possible that Andropov will seek a military victory in Afghanistan. What is least likely is that a man of his character would tolerate a stalemate for long.

Andropov may try to reverse Brezhnev’s sour relations with Japan, the Soviet Union’s natural and potentially important partner in developing Far Eastern and Siberian resources. He could renew the 1957 Soviet proposal calling for the transfer to Japan of the two southernmost Kurile Islands in exchange for Japanese investments that would be repaid with Soviet raw materials and even oil. Further, he may consider the gradual withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola in return for international guarantees against South African incursions in Angola, even before the question of Namibia is settled.

Any show of weakness during the process of consolidation would compromise Andropov’s standing with his colleagues and provide fuel for the opposition. The simple truth is that in the Soviet Union only a very strong and well-established leader can afford to make conciliatory responses to foreign pressures. If American policy makers believe that the Soviet Union can be pushed to make major concessions during this transition period, they may soon discover that the fear of appearing irresolute can cause dangerous Soviet overreactions to any challenge.

Andropov’s predecessors, and indeed their opponents within the Soviet establishment, relentlessly pressed toward the goal of matching and surpassing the armed might of the Soviet Union’s chief adversaries. In this succession, for the first time, the new leader controls awesome military power; for the first time the leaders of the USSR believe the country is safe from foreign attack. For the Soviet leaders, Brezhnev’s greatest achievements were the extraordinary buildup on the Soviet Union’s western and eastern frontiers, strategic parity with the US, and the new ability of the Soviet armed forces to reach distant parts of the world. In the long run, Andropov like his predecessor will probably want to translate this military power into greater international political influence.

In the short run, however, we cannot exclude the possibility that having achieved (or, as some would argue, overachieved) these large strategic goals, Soviet leaders will reappraise their national security interests and the aims of their military policy. Both the relative and absolute costs of the projected Soviet military establishment during the next decade will be greater than at any time during the last twenty years. A Soviet effort to match America’s reaction to its recent buildup could set off a new and virtually uncontrollable arms race. This costly prospect could impel the new leaders to decide that a reconsideration of military policy is one of the most important tasks facing them. Under enormous pressure from other competing elite groups, they may no longer automatically allocate constantly growing funds to the military. Such a step may prove one of the few benefits for the United States from the new regime of Yuri Andropov.

This Issue

February 3, 1983