View from Kremlin battlements: discouraging
Once the period of transition is over, the new leaders in Moscow cannot avoid taking a long look at the world around them - and noticing how poorly the policies of the Brezhnev years have served the Soviet state.
Put yourself in their place, take a long-range pair of binoculars, go up to the Kremlin battlements, and look out around the far horizon. What do you see?
Off to the East is a highly suspicious China, made doubly so by the support that Moscow during the Brezhnev era had been giving to Vietnam. Is it wise to go on encouraging Vietnam in a policy of hostility to China? That policy includes subsidizing Vietnam's military adventure in Kampuchea (Cambodia) against local forces supported by China.
Just beyond China is Japan, willing to be friendly and to cooperate in the economic development of Siberia - but only if Moscow will give up those Kurile Islands, which Stalin grabbed from Japan at the moment of Japan's defeat in 1945 . But Leonid Brezhnev could not bring himself to give up those islands, so Japan has been making friends with China instead.
Add that both China and Japan are made uneasy by Mr. Brezhnev's venture in Afghanistan. To both of them it seems to be another alien intrusion into Asia. It worries Japan particularly because Japan depends heavily on oil from the Gulf. Anyone who needs that oil shuddered when the Soviets moved into Afghanistan next door. Saudi Arabia is Japan's largest supplier of oil.
The Afghan adventure also worried India. Until then, India was a major client and looked to Moscow both for military weapons and industrial technology. India has been disentangling itself from the Soviet embrace since the beginning of the Afghan adventure, quietly and gradually, but steadily.
As for Afghanistan itself, the bloodletting there continues. Most reports suggest that Moscow is little nearer effective pacification of the Afghan tribesmen now than when the adventure began three years ago. Some 10 Soviet divisions have been tied down in the Afghan campaign.
On balance there is little but loss from the adventure. Besides frightening Japan and worrying India, it upsets the Islamic community, has helped trigger rearmament in the United States, including formation of a Rapid Deployment Force for the Middle East which is now beginning to be a serious factor in the affairs of that area.
The Afghan invasion has also helped to salvage the NATO alliance. That alliance has long been in trouble. Few alliances have ever survived as long as NATO has survived. The Western European allies are restless under Washington's leadership. If Moscow had left Afghanistan alone, had managed to be less intrusive in Poland, would the NATO alliance still survive? Certainly those two actions of the Brezhnev era have meant that when you look west from the Kremlin battlements you see the NATO alliance, not only still in existence, but growing stronger in latest modern weapons.
As of today those NATO weapons are more impressive than they seemed to be a year ago. The Pentagon has been telling the world for so long about how big and strong are Soviet weapons that a lot of people, including probably many in the Kremlin, believed them. But in the latest fighting in Lebanon, Soviet conventional weapons not only lost to American weapons in every combat but lost ignominiously.
Soviet SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) failed to bring down a single American-supplied Israeli plane. Indeed, the Soviet SAMs could not even defend themselves. All those put into Lebanon by the Syrians were destroyed.
Now turn those binoculars to the Far West and what do you see from the Kremlin walls? Not only does NATO survive, but the US is more deeply suspicious of Soviet policies and purposes than at any time since the original Cold War back in Harry Truman's days or perhaps the Cuban missile crisis of the John F. Kennedy era.
The essential fact is that when Mr. Brezhnev's successors look around them outside the East bloc they will see only two real friends - Vietnam and Cuba. And those friendships have had to be bought at a high price - so high that it becomes a painful burden on the Soviet budget. How long can Moscow go on subsidizing regimes whose economies are in tatters and that antagonize the other two most important countries in the world - China and the US?
The Brezhnev years have all but isolated the Soviet Union. It has been expelled from Egypt and rejected by most of Africa. China is alienated. India is suspicious. Western Europe is disturbed. Much of Eastern Europe is restive. The United States is angry and hostile. Soviet conventional weapons have been downgraded. The Soviet economy is stagnant.
What then would the new leaders do if they decided to try a new course?
They could reopen normal relations with China by pulling out of Afghanistan, reducing the subsidies to Vietnam, and taking away from their frontier with China some of those 47 military divisions.
They could ease relations with the US by, among other things, reducing their subsidies to Cuba and their encouragement of Central American revolution. They could ease the anxieties of Western Europe by softening their treatment of Poland.
Will the new leaders in Moscow do any of these things?
Not even they can possibly know today what they will do when they settle into the seats of power. But they are bound to take stock of their situation. Soviet military power - nuclear and conventional - has been hugely enlarged since the Cuban missile crisis. But it is built, in part, on conventional weapons that have proved less formidable than expected. And it rests on a shakey economic foundation.
In some ways, Soviet influence in the world is less effective and less widespread today than when Mr. Brezhnev took over from Nikita Khruschev 18 years ago.
If the new leaders are rational, they will want to think about policy changes that might reverse the decline of Soviet prestige and influence. The opportunities for change are mostly on the side of accomodation with the outside world.