Gorbachev and Soviet Policy in the Third World

By Goodman, Melvin A. | McNair Papers, February 1990 | Go to article overview

Gorbachev and Soviet Policy in the Third World


Goodman, Melvin A., McNair Papers


RECENT EVENTS AROUND THE WORLD seem to indicate that Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev has made major changes in Soviet policy in the Third World. From developments such as the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, to a general decrease in military operations and arms transfers worldwide, evidence shows an increased Soviet willingness to seek political solutions to regional problems. While we in the West welcome such change with cautious optimism, we should nevertheless scrutinize it under the light of the history of Soviet foreign policy.

Thus I begin this paper with a look at the growth of Soviet foreign policy since the mid-1950s, noting the many Third World gains the Soviets have made. With these in mind, I next assess the changes themselves that Gorbachev, apparently disillusioned with military power, has initiated in Soviet military and foreign policy.

In looking at the future, I see Gorbachev showing no interest in replacing bases lost in Egypt and Somalia in the 1970s, or even in upgrading the poor facilities that Soviet naval vessels use in Angola, Ethiopia, South Yemen, or Syria. The current turmoil in East Europe, moreover, represents a direct challenge to all the USSR's radical allies and clients in the Third World.

If the Soviet Union is unwilling to challenge revolutionary change on its western frontier, then Third World leaders can only conclude that Moscow will do even less in areas far from Soviet territory.

The Evolution of Soviet Third World Policy

Three decades ago the Soviet Union was a continental power whose military reach was limited to regions contiguous with its own borders. Today it is a global power with worldwide naval deployments and the ability to monitor Western naval forces. It has gained access to naval and air facilities in strategically located client states and is a factor to consider in any regional crisis or conflict.

However, the Soviets have rarely been willing to lend direct military support to key Third World clients in military engagements with US allies. A confidant of high-level Egyptian leaders, Mohamed Heikal, has recorded examples of Soviet reluctance to give military assistance to the Arabs at the time of the 1956 Suez Crisis and the 1967 June War. In the case of the Suez War, for example, Heikal has written that:

   Immediately on arrival in October 1956 Kuwatly
   [president of Syria] asked to see the Soviet leaders. He
   insisted that Egypt must be helped. "But what can we
   do?" asked General Secretary Khrushchev.

      Zhukov [Soviet defense minister] produced a map
   of the Middle East and spread it on the table. Then turning
   to Kuwatly, he said, "How can we go to the aid of
   Egypt? Tell me! Are we supposed to send our armies
   through Turkey, Iran, and then into Syria and Iraq and
   on into Israel and so eventually attack the British and
   French forces?

      Khrushchev folded up the map and told Kuwatly,
   "We'll see what we can do. At present we don't know
   how to help Egypt, but we are having continuous
   meetings to discuss the problem."

Heikal relates another example that occurred more than ten years later, during the Six-day War:

   It was when Badran [Egyptian defense minister] and his
   party were leaving in June 1967 that the real misunderstanding
   took place. Marshal Grechko had come to the
   airport to see them off, and he was chatting to Badran
   at the foot of the aircraft steps. He said, "Stand firm.
   Whatever you have to face, you will find us with you.

   Don't let yourselves be blackmailed by the Americans or
   anyone else." After the plane had taken off, the Egyptian
   ambassador to Moscow, Murad Ghaleb, who had
   heard Grechko's remarks, said to him, "That was very
   reassuring, Marshal," Grechko laughed, and said to him,
   "I just wanted to give him one for the road." (1)

The evolution of the USSR's Third World policy since the mid-1950s has reflected its perceived national interests and its ability to capitalize on international developments.

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