JOHN BIERMAN December 19 1988



JOHN BIERMAN December 19 1988




On Wednesday, he stood at the podium of the UN General Assembly, delivering a speech that was viewed around the world as a diplomatic masterstroke. By the weekend, he was in Soviet Armenia, overseeing a massive relief operation for victims of one of the most devastating earthquakes in Soviet history. With stunning swiftness, tragedy followed triumph for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev last week. The natural calamity in Soviet Armenia forced him to cut short his New York City stay and cancel stops in Havana and London. But for all its horrific power, the Armenian quake could not overwhelm the international impact of the Soviet leader’s UN speech. Not only did Gorbachev announce a unilateral 10-per-cent cut in Soviet conventional forces, but his address was conspicuously free of the heavy ideological slant of previous Kremlin leaders. The speech, noted former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, “covered a huge range and developed a philosophy which, in my view, is unprecedented in Soviet history.”

At the end of his hour-long, first-ever address to the General Assembly, Gorbachev received a thunderous ovation. But throughout the day—as he lunched with President Ronald Reagan and president-elect George Bush, made a sightseeing tour of Manhattan with his wife, Raisa, and then attended a glittering UN reception in his honor—he received increasingly disturbing reports of the quake, which struck only nine hours before he began his address (page 38). Finally, when the full extent of the devastation and loss of life became clear—official estimates at the weekend numbered 40,000 to 45,000 dead—Gorbachev made a late-night decision to curtail his trip and fly home to take charge of rescue and relief operations. At midday the next day, standing on the tarmac at Kennedy International Airport, he said, “I have to be there in this effort.”

Genuine: Gorbachev’s message to the UN on Wednesday was appropriate to the season— one of peace on earth and goodwill between rival power blocs. But it went well beyond the expected expressions of pacific intent and readiness to compromise; inside the Soviet leader’s verbal gift wrapping was a Christmas present of genuine substance. In Eastern Europe, where the armed forces of the Soviet Bloc most directly confront those of the Western alliance, Gorbachev pledged cuts totalling 50,000 men, 10,000 battle tanks, 8,500 big guns and 800 combat aircraft. Gorbachev further pledged that Warsaw Pact forces would henceforth be deployed in a “clearly defensive” posture. And to give substance to that undertaking, he announced the withdrawal of an unspecified number of assault units, trained and equipped for purely offensive operations such as river crossings. He also promised “substantial” troop cuts in Mongolia, where

Soviet forces confront the Chinese across their mutual frontier.

And Gorbachev’s holiday surprise package contained other dazzling products of his new foreign policy. While Jews, Afghans, Ukrainians, Armenians and Balts demonstrated in the streets outside the UN, Gorbachev made farreaching proposals for tackling other pressing world problems. They included:

• Human Rights: Gorbachev said that problems would be solved “only in a humane way.” He claimed that there were now no Soviet citizens in jail for their political or religious beliefs and said that additional guarantees were being drafted to “rule out any form of persecution on these grounds.” He pledged that strict limits would now be applied on the delaying of exit visas for those in possession of classified information, removing from the agenda “the problem of the so-called refuseniks.” As well, he pledged that the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice would be binding in all human rights cases and that foreign broadcasts beamed at the Soviet Union would no longer be jammed. In a reference to the 1975 Helsinki Agreement—which guaranteed human rights in all signatory nations, but which Gorbachev’s predecessors had consistently violated—the Soviet leader declared: “The Helsinki process is a great process. It remains fully valid.”

• The Environment: Gorbachev called the situation “simply frightening,” and he proposed the establishment of a UN emergency environmental assistance centre, with experts who could rush to areas with especially urgent problems. He also offered to co-operate in setting up an international space laboratory to monitor the state of the environment. He added, “Time is running out.”

• Third World Debt: Gorbachev described the issue as “one of the gravest problems” and said that the Soviet Union is prepared to declare a moratorium of up to 100 years on debt servicing by the least developed countries and, in some cases, to write off the debt entirely. At the end of 1987, Third World debt to the Soviet Union totalled roughly $60 billion, and to Western lender nations it was about 10 times as much. Gorbachev also called for the establishment of a specialized international agency to repurchase debts at a discount.

• Afghanistan: The Soviets have promised a complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan by Feb. 15, but Mujahedeen guerrillas pose a serious threat to the pro-Soviet government in Kabul. Gorbachev proposed a complete ceasefire, effective on Jan. 1. Linked to that, he suggested that both the Soviet Union and the West should cease arms supplies to their respective clients—a proposal that the Kremlin rejected when Washington raised it earlier this year. He also called for a UN force to keep the peace following the Soviet withdrawal. • Peaceful Uses of Space: Gorbachev called for the establishment of a UN world space organization to verify that weapons are not placed in orbit. He offered to incorporate within any system the Soviets’ controversial Krasnoyarsk radar station, which the Americans claim is used for military purposes, in violation of the 1972 ABM treaty.


Values: Overall, Gorbachev made a plea for what he called “the de-ideologizing” of relations between states. “We are not abandoning our convictions, our philosophy or traditions, nor do we urge anyone to abandon theirs,” he said. Then, in a phrase that may indicate the extent to which Gorbachev has cast aside Marxist orthodoxy, he added, “But neither do we have any intention to be hemmed in by our values.” As well, he suggested that the Soviet Union would no longer impose its own version of communism on its Eastern European satellites. “Freedom of choice is a universal principle that should allow for no exceptions,” he declared. Similarly, he appeared to pledge an end to the use or the threat of force as an instrument of foreign policy.

That marked departure from the past— combined with his ongoing campaign for openness and restructuring in domestic and foreign affairs—could be seen as another blow to Kremlin conservatives back home. But when Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze announced at midnight on Wednesday that Gorbachev was cutting short his trip, he angrily brushed aside questions on whether the early return was intended to head off a revolt within the Soviet hierarchy. In fact, the severity of the Armenian earthquake alone seemed to discount that possibility, and correspondents in Moscow said that they saw no signs of intraparty trouble. Still, Gorbachev’s force reductions were widely viewed as the reason for the retirement last week—officially, for health reasons—of Soviet armed forces chief of staff Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev. Akhromeyev had openly opposed unilateral reductions and, despite official denials, one wellplaced Soviet source told Maclean’s that “there can be no question” that the cuts were the cause of Akhromeyev’s departure.

Outgun: Meanwhile, NATO officials in Brussels pointed out that, even after the unilateral cuts, the Warsaw Pact will still heavily outman and outgun the Western alliance. Said a senior American officer at NATO headquarters: “They could still mount an effective surprise assault.” But while estimates of the relative strength of the two alliances vary, according to the widely respected Londonbased International Institute for Strategic Studies the breakdown is: main battle tanks — Warsaw Pact, 53,000, NATO, 22,200; artillery—Warsaw Pact, 46,500 guns, rocket launchers and heavy mortars, NATO, 13,700; combat planes—Warsaw Pact, 7,650 aircraft, NATO, 4,393; men—Warsaw Pact, 2.14 million, NATO, 2.34 million.

Parity: As it happened, Gorbachev made his announcement the day before NATO foreign ministers met in Brussels last Thursday to finalize the alliance’s negotiating position for forthcoming conventional force reduction talks with the Warsaw Pact in Vienna. And while the NATO ministers described the Soviet cuts as promising, they continued to demand much deeper Warsaw Pact reductions. A NATO communiqué proposed that each alliance should limit itself to 20,000 tanks. That would mean a cut of 23,000 tanks by the Warsaw Pact—in addition to Gorbachev’s unilateral reduction of 10,000—while NATO would have to relinquish only 2,200 tanks. The NATO statement—the result of two years of discussions within the alliance—also stipulated that no nation should be allowed to deploy more than 30 per cent of the combined European total of 40,000 tanks. That would limit the number of Soviet tanks in the region to about 12,000.

Still, despite NATO’s insistence on numerical parity, many independent Western analysts claim that numbers alone can be misleading. They say that NATO has an advantage in the quality of its weaponry and communications equipment and in the motivation and training of its troops. They also point out that conventional military wisdom holds that an overall numerical superiority of at least 3:1 is essential for an attack to have any real chance of success. In addition, there are political considerations that may override the issue of numbers. Said Geoffrey Pearson, executive director of the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security: “If we don’t respond in some way, the incentive won’t be there for [the Soviet reductions] to continue. In the past, we’ve said we want to see deeds, not words. Well, these are deeds, [and] I think public opinion will say ‘Let’s get on with it.’ ”

Risk: In Washington, Paul Warnke, senior arms-control negotiator during the Jimmy Carter presidency, also welcomed the Gorbachev speech. “We challenged him to put his money where his mouth was,” said Warnke, “and he put it there.” Another noted U.S. arms-control advocate, retired admiral Eugene Carroll— deputy director of Washington’s Centre for Defence Information—said: “Gorbachev is giving up a key element of his offensive force. It does have a measurable effect, and we must at some point approach the Soviets with a response.” Former NATO commander general Andrew Goodpaster maintained that the cuts “open the way for reductions on both sides of the line.” He added, “It could be the most significant step since NATO was founded.”

As well, Stephen Sestanovich, director of Soviet studies at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, pointed out that Gorbachev had taken a risk in overruling his military commanders. He added, “He may face political problems at home unless he can show that his move has brought concessions from the West.”

Urgent: While the reductions were almost universally applauded, they were in line with Gorbachev’s urgent need to divert resources from military uses to the country’s flagging economy. Experts also noted the nation’s serious manpower shortage, which makes it difficult for the Soviet Union to maintain its armed forces at the present level of about five million. The manpower problem had made it likely that Moscow would propose mutual reductions at the forthcoming conventional arms talks in Vienna. But Gorbachev’s immediate and unilateral cuts had not been widely expected.

So surprising was the announcement that Reagan and Bush—who flew separately from Washington to New York City while the Soviet leader was speaking—learned of it only after their helicopters landed at Governors Island, a Coast Guard base in New York harbor. There, when the three leaders sat down to a lunch of chicken soup followed by veal with quail-andlobster sausage, Reagan told reporters that he “heartily” approved of the troop cuts. Asked for his reaction, Bush replied: “I support what the President says. I’m vice-president.” Gorbachev laughed at the tact of his reply, calling it “one of the best answers of the year.”

In fact, officials who attended the 2 U-hour luncheon described the atmosphere as spontaneous and cordial, with plenty of humor. But the leaders also discussed substantive issues, with the emphasis on continuing Soviet-U.S. contacts after Bush takes office next month. Reagan lifted his glass to Gorbachev and said, “I’d like to raise a toast to what we have accomplished, what we together have accomplished, and what you and the vice-president after Jan. 20 will accomplish together.” And after lunch, Gorbachev told reporters, “If you wanted one word from me to describe what happened, I would use the word ‘continuity.’ ”

Last Thursday night, in what may prove to be the final news conference of his presidency, Reagan described Gorbachev’s visit to New York City as “happy and historic.” But he made it clear that—unless his successor sees things differently—there was no likelihood of a U.S. gesture to match Gorbachev’s force reductions until parity had been reached between the two sides’ forces. Nor, Reagan said, did he think that the cuts were sufficient to allow Washington to reduce its level of defence spending. For all the goodwill generated by Gorbachev’s latest initiative, it seemed that past suspicions had not yet entirely disappeared.

JOHN BIERMAN in New York City with ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Moscow, WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington and PETER LEWIS in Brussels