If a few years ago a Soviet strategist had been asked to describe his worst night-mare it would have contained the following elements: internal political and economic chaos; nationalities in uproar and some republics on the verge of secession; armed forces whose competence is questioned, whose status and political power is diminished, and who are in retreat from virtually all their forward positions; the loss of the buffer states of Eastern Europe; and, to make it all truly dreadful, Germany uniting under a NATO that remained essentially intact.

As the nightmare unfolds the screams in Moscow have thus far been suppressed. This is largely because, early on in his government, Mikhail Gorbachev was persuaded that there was not really a serious military threat from NATO and that acting as if this were the case imposed an unacceptable burden in both material and human resources while at the same time ruining relations with the West. Both effects made it more difficult to achieve the basic objective of domestic political and economic reform.

Mr. Gorbachev has held to this judgment even as the process that he set in motion inexorably removes every prop of the security system established by his predecessors since 1945. At each stage he has looked hard at the alternatives and concluded that if change cannot be resisted then it is best to stay ahead of it. Every time the old threshold of tolerance has been reached, the threshold has been raised.

German unification was assumed to be the sticking point to end all sticking points. Mr. Gorbachev clearly is anxious about it. He has his conservative colleagues muttering darkly about revanchism and invoking the sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War. Yet only a few days after Mrs. Thatcher urged a slowing of the pace of unification, because to go faster would be unfair to Mr. Gorbachev, he stated that unification was “inevitable.” Now he is preparing to enter into negotiations to settle matters in the “two plus four” talks, which will include his country’s old wartime allies and the two current German states.

The overriding impression is that having recognized that sustaining a separate East German state is beyond Soviet means, and with his domestic position weakening daily, Mr. Gorbachev has all but given up attempting to bargain. These days if a Western position is stated with any degree of firmness it soon becomes the Soviet position. This impression was confirmed when, early in February, President Bush proposed that the United States and the Soviet Union bring their troop levels in Central Europe down to 195,000 each, but then introduced an apparent inequality by insisting that 30,000 extra American troops would remain in the European rim, including Britain. Mr. Gorbachev accepted the proposal except for this inequality. When Secretary of State James Baker was in Moscow on February 9 his team was still wondering what sort of deal might be offered when Mr. Gorbachev conceded the 30,000 difference.

As we now enter a period of critical diplomatic activity we have come to be dependent on the Soviet Union playing a conciliatory, perhaps even passive, role in the restructuring of Europe. This contains two dangers. The first is that the tight timetable for reductions could be disrupted and the whole process thrown into disarray if Mr. Gorbachev were obliged by political pressure at home to toughen his stand (for instance over the neutralization of Germany) or, in the worst case, were to be replaced by a hard-liner.

A second danger is that at some future date an agreement accepted by the Soviet Union at a moment of chronic weakness could come to be bitterly resented by Mr. Gorbachev’s successors, almost as the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was resented by a humiliated Germany.

This situation creates a curious responsibility for the West to take account of long-term Soviet interests when designing the new security system.

The interest in containing German power is widely shared, including in Germany, and this is reflected in proposals for German agreement on the permanence of the current border with Poland, standard reaffirmations by German leaders of nonaggression and rejection of nuclear weapons, and statements from Washington that NATO’s military organization will not be extended into East Germany. After an internal row in late February the West German government now appears ready to keep West Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, out of the East.

Germany will still expect the removal of artificial constraints on its sovereignty, including the return of Berlin as a capital and the right to belong to alliances. Here Moscow has to be persuaded that neutrality is not a meaningful option and that if it is really concerned about Germany becoming a “loose cannon” in the center of Europe, then the best way to tie it down is to sustain its membership in NATO and the European Community.


This is still far from accepted in Moscow. Even if it can be agreed on there remains the tricky problem of Soviet forces in East Germany.

A substantial continuing Soviet presence is assumed under the other major agreement that diplomats are rushing to complete this year on conventional force reductions in Europe. Somewhat anomalously this agreement assumes that the two alliances will confront each other across a divided Europe but that it can now be done with fewer, although still quite large, military forces.

We can leave aside such minor questions as how the Warsaw Pact allocation is to be distributed when it is becoming an increasingly paper organization, and when East German forces are to merge with the Bundeswehr (indeed large chunks have already defected). Consider the level of 195,000 just set for Soviet troops in Central Europe. Agreement has already been reached with Hungary and Czechoslovakia for Soviet troops to depart their countries. Even if some remain in Poland (which is especially anxious about unification) this means that around half the current total of 340,000 troops in East Germany would remain.

In her speech on February 18 Mrs. Thatcher indicated that she would be prepared to see these Soviet troops stay in a united Germany. A simple statement from the German government that all existing international obligations would be respected would mean that they could even be there under the aegis of the Warsaw Pact. But is this really tenable?

It is unavoidable that Soviet forces will be around throughout Eastern Europe for some time to come. The process of demobilization will take years, largely because of the shortages of housing and employment at home. As many as 200,000 officers and NCOs will have to be accommodated with all the social and political dangers of large-scale disaffection among this group. Mr. Gorbachev wrote to President Havel of Czechoslovakia, explaining the difficulties of meeting the original timetable of all troops out of his country by the end of this year. In Moscow they agreed that the new deadline for withdrawal would be the middle of 1991.

It is one thing to recognize that Soviet troops will be in East Germany for much of this decade, quite another to have them there indefinitely by right. This will be deeply unpopular in East Germany where, for understandable reasons, there is a reluctance to have anything more to do with armed forces or alliances.

There is a tendency at the moment to write East Germans out of the script altogether, but it is quite possible that an elected government after March 18, relishing its brief moment of sovereignty, will ask all Soviet troops to prepare to leave.

Moreover, it is quite possible that Mr. Gorbachev will oblige. The logistical problems of sustaining these forces will be considerable, and once local goods and services have to be paid for in a real currency the costs will escalate. Impoverished Soviet troops appearing as an army of occupation, unable to carry out serious military exercises, and without a clear military role, would be in a hopeless position.

A decision in principle to leave and to set a timetable would throw the ball right back into NATO’s court. What would be the rationale for its stationed forces in Germany once the Russians had gone? The Soviet Union will remain a major military power, but the forward threat will evaporate and Eastern Europe will, if anything, become a buffer for NATO. Alliance commitments could be met by small garrisons, prepositioned weapons stores, and regular exercises, without keeping numerous bases.

It would be unfortunate if Germany’s allies insisted on maintaining substantial forces in the country even after the Russians leave. This would risk being interpreted in Moscow as an attempt to develop a commanding strategic position and, possibly more seriously, interpreted in Germany as a reflection of hostility rather than alliance. It would be tragic if forces that served well as protectors were seen to return to their original role as occupiers.

March 1, 1990

This Issue

March 29, 1990