Northern Exposure

Northern Exposure

Mini Teaser: Soviet commandos were killing citizens in the Baltic republics last January, in part because the old military thinking and the groups whose interests are served by it are alive and well in Gorbachev's newly packaged Soviet state.

by Author(s): Alvin H. Bernstein

Soviet commandos were killing citizens in the Baltic republics last January, in part because the old military thinking and the groups whose interests are served by it are alive and well in Gorbachev's newly packaged Soviet state.  The Soviet military has always been hypersensitive about its vulnerability on the northern flank.  Recent radical changes in the European security structure play to such fear and heighten anxiety about the Baltic states' demands for independence, as well as about the implications of those demands for the military's future.  If we wish to understand what is happening now on the borders of the Soviet Union, and where it might eventually lead (or be led), we have to answer an unwelcome question: If the Cold War is over, why do we still feel a chill wind?

The old geostrategic views that drove foreign policy before Gorbachev are still influencing policy now.  Had there been a war in Europe in pre-perestroika days, the Soviets would have fought a fierce holding action on the northern flank (what the Soviets called the Northwestern Theater of Operations, or TVD) in order to ensure a decisive defeat of NATO forces on the Central Front in West Germany (the Western TVD).  Victory would have had to have come quickly, before the conflict went nuclear or the Warsaw Pact's economy broke under the strain of protracted war.

The creation of forces necessary for such ambitious war plans provoked a counter build-up in the West and led to an arms race in the 1980s which, as we know, the Soviet economy could not sustain and from which Mikhail Gorbachev sought to escape.  It also produced a counter maritime strategy for the region that drove Soviet military planners to distraction.  U.S. naval and naval air forces, by deploying to northern waters, would threaten the USSR itself and so prevent the Soviets from concentrating on the Central Front.  Superior U.S. anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, meanwhile, would imperil the Soviets' most survivable nuclear retaliatory strike force--their valued fleet of ballistic submarines (SSBNs).

In Gorbachev's new world, such military calculations were supposed to become obsolete.  NATO's defensive might would dissipate because the West would believe that the USSR was becoming a democracy.  Many Western observers, however, have been more impressed by the centrifugal forces unleashed by perestroika, the dilapidated state of the Soviet economy, and the effective dissolution of the Warsaw Pact military alliance, than by professions of incipient liberalism.

Real changes in Soviet concepts of security, needless to say, emerged in stages.  Even after Gorbachev promised the United Nations, on December 7, 1988, that he would unilaterally withdraw six tank divisions from Central Europe, the Soviet General Staff continued to think it could conduct a successful preemptive attack on Western Europe.  It assumed, however, that it could march the Red Army through friendly Eastern European nations--an assumption that promptly crumbled along with the six puppet regimes in Central Europe.

Now, as the possible area for conflict in Europe shifts from West Germany's eastern border toward the Polish-Soviet frontier, thereby demolishing the Central Front strategy, the Soviet military appears to be hatching fresh plans and advocating concomitant diplomatic tactics.  The geostrategic importance to the Soviet Union of the Scandinavian and Baltic countries will increase as the protective layers of Central Europe--the non-Soviet Warsaw Pact nations--fall away.  The northern region will come to be viewed as essential to stopping Canadian and American forces from crossing the Atlantic.  From the perspective of the Soviet General Staff, these forces, once in Europe, would no longer simply reinforce the Central Front, but would be able to march through the now-friendly countries of Western and perhaps even Central Europe to the Soviet frontier.

Such a view of the new strategic imperatives would explain recent Soviet initiatives for mutual naval disarmament.  These will probably seek to remove U.S. carrier forces from Northern Europe, establish the northern waters as an ASW-free zone, terminate U.S. access to early-warning facilities at Thule in Greenland, and close the NATO base at Keflavik, Iceland.  The goal may be less to enhance global stability than to limit NATO's future capacity to reinforce its rapidly thinning Western forces.  It is worth noting that the Soviets are still modernizing their forces in the Baltic and in the Leningrad Military District.

The issue is whether the Soviets are genuinely willing to construct a new, inclusive European security structure that will lock a democratized East into Europe, or are simply in the process of transferring the "Iron Curtain" from what was the inter-German border to the Polish-Soviet frontier.  If the possible area for conflict in Europe merely moves east and north, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania may replace the German Democratic Republic as the probable center of crisis in the 1990s.  This could result in a Europe less stable than the one we knew during the Cold War.

Essay Types: Essay