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Russia: Book Explains Collapse Of The Soviet Military

  • Charles Fenyvesi

Washington, 25 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In a book reviewers are already declaring a classic, retired Lt. Gen. William Odom, the former head of the National Security Agency and now a professor at Yale, traces the roots of collapse of the Soviet military, a development that seemed if anything even more improbable than the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Published by Yale University Press, Odom�s "The Collapse of the Soviet Military" argues that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev�s critical early decision to initiate unilateral force cuts set in motion the decay of a military machine that many had thought was the world's strongest.

According to Odom, Gorbachev hoped to convince Western leaders that the USSR was determined to institute additional cuts through arms control agreements. Gorbachev moved ahead with his reforms, "almost by stealth," Odom says, a campaign that confused the generals and gave way to a gradual disintegration of the Soviet armed forces. Between 1987 and 1989, Odom writes, Gorbachev revised both communist party ideology and military doctrine, and he fought with the conservatives who recognized the deadly implications of his glasnost policy, such as political awakening among national minorities. Odom describes Gorbachev as "alternately advancing and retreating."

By late 1989, Odom says, the party was losing control, the military elite was alienated, and the armed forces began to show signs of disintegration. For the military, the catastrophe became clear in 1989 as the wave of withdrawals from Eastern Europe overwhelmed its capacity to cope. And their difficulties with this policy change were compounded by a virtual revolt among conscripts whose mistreatment Odom believes was the fault of the officer corps but also reflected the weakening of Communist Party and KGB controls.

Draft evasion became commonplace and lost its moral stigma. Finally, Odom�s research revealed that tensions among the different nationalities exacerbated "the horrible patterns of barracks life and contributed to the collapse of the military and the dissolution of the Soviet Union more than it is generally acknowledged.

The accumulation of these factors, Odom concludes, created a situation which turned the once powerful Soviet military into what he calls "a house of cards."

Odom�s interviews with senior Russian military and political figures reveal that the generals might have been able to save the Soviet Union but chose not to. By failing to act collectively in the August 1991 crisis, he suggests, the generals missed their chance to alter the course of history. By acting individually, they opened the doors of power to Boris Yeltsin. The words Odom uses most frequently to describe Gorbachev are "duplicitous" and "cunning." He detested the military, Odom is convinced, but neither a single general nor a junta could stop him as long as he remained the party leader -- and his opponents in the Party could not unite around another leader. Yegor Ligachev, Odom writes, tried half-heartedly to battle Gorbachev, but the author writes that narrow-minded ideologue saw no alternative to perestroika other than neo-Stalinism and had neither the skills nor the stomach for returning to a failed system. At the same time, Odom�s view clearly is that Gorbachev did not really know what he wanted -- whether he truly wanted political liberalization and whether he understood what his reforms would do to Soviet institutions.

Gorbachev "tinkered" with the military and the economy, the two pillars of the old system. "As Gorbachev persevered on his course to reduce the military and to raise expectations of market reforms," Odom writes, "he broke the stabilizing vicious circle, and the Soviet Union collapsed."