The progress of Soviet-American relations has not been as relentlessly downhill in recent months as many analysts have suggested. The messages issued from Moscow have actually ranged from inviting to insulting. On April 9, General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko claimed in a Pravda interview that the Kremlin was ready to deal with Reagan, even during an election year. Meanwhile, the hail of anti-Reagan rhetoric continued, especially as the Soviets prepared to pull out of the Olympics. Such gambits as the interview lead one to ask, Do the Soviets know what they want? Do they know what they are doing?
The answer to both these questions is at least a partial no. Soviet leaders are busy these days, but not wholly with the concerns of organized, forceful leadership. They are reaching for power, and as a result, their system for making decisions is probably in an uproar.
Leonid Brezhnev at the height of his power was able to dominate Kremlin decisionmaking. His authority stemmed from his ability to control bureaucratic elements, especially staff organs that channel information to the leadership. His personal staff ensured that he had the information needed to make a decisive presentation of his point of view, and probably kept him abreast of his rivals' pet positions. The General Department, which reviews every policy paper on its way to the Politburo, ensured that he knew what was going on in the government ministries. Brezhnev also developed a system of consulting relationships with experts in science, manufacturing, and other fields. In that way, he ensured that expert advice was getting to him without interference from institutional actors such as the Ministry of Defense. These consulting relationships, which other leaders also employ, are the closest they come to admitting alternative opinions to their decisionmakng.
Despite Brezhnev's firm grasp on power, his authority did not excuse him from seeking agreement with other leaders. They could override him if he went too far. Brezhnev was limited by his incomplete grasp of technical issues, a failing entirely proper, since heads of state are not supposed to be caught up in the details of silo dimensions or farm machinery production. Other Politburo members were in command of these details, because they controlled individual government and Communist Party organizations responsible for the myriad sectors of the Soviet economy. Brezhnev was a leader strong enough to impose his will in general issue areas important to him, but the means of implementing policy were subject to tight scrutiny by his fellows and the experts under them.
What is the difference nowadays? Obviously the strong leader has disappeared, along with a few of his most powerful peers. As a result, no one exercises a strong influence over the direction of policy, and no one controls technical details as they were for the last decade. The departments of the Central Committee are working with individuals newly charged with national security responsibilities. These include Grigory Romanov, who Yuri Andropov put in charge of monitoring defense industries, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who was charged with economic strategy and foreign policy in his tenure. The demands that these two men make on the Central Committee staffs must differ considerably from those of their predecessors. Dmitri Ustinov, who held the defense industry portfolio for years, participated in the major Soviet defense buildup of the 1960s and 1970s. Romanov, by contrast, although long active in naval development issues, did not have such a wide access, so his staff is probably focused on filling his needs for more basic information. In effect, powerful individuals long in command of government and party organizations have been replaced by individuals, still powerful, but new to the bureaucracies in their charge and they do not represent the expertise that Brezhnev's peers had.
Staffing is more in a state of flux in the offices of the decisionmakers. Overall upheaval in staffing is likely to be one large reason why Soviet policy has taken such leaps in recent months. Although not the only reason, it feeds on several important facts: There is no strong leader in the Kremlin to impose his will on the direction of policy, and marshal the staff forces necessary to maintain its impetus. There are few Politburo members in command of expert staffs to serve as a check on policy initiatives from any source, powerful or not. In fact, only two Politburo members, both of the Brezhnev generation, are in such a position: Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko and Minister of Defense Ustinov. But these individuals represent important institutional interests in Soviet foreign policy. Their bailiwicks, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense, are dominating that policy, largely because they have remained intact under strong direction through two leadership successions. But by dominating policy, these ministries have stymied it. The newer Politburo members would almost certainly prefer to base decisions on the recommendations of their own staffs, not on those of those two ministries. They therefore must wait until their staffs can handle the issues with confidence.
The result of this waiting game? A leadership figure may be able to advance a policy initiative, but he cannot maintain it for long. Chernenko's Pravda interview was a good example. In effect, Soviet policy takes a step here and there, but mostly stands still on the positions best suited for consensus. Where the United States is concerned, the easiest consensus is an anti-American one.