When Henry Kissinger was secretary of state, he used to warn against the tendency in some American circles to see the Russians as "10 feet tall."
He was referring to the habit of endowing the Soviet leaders with supernatural foresight in planning the advancement of Russia's interests through strategic aggression. According to this view, the Soviet Union's enlarged intervention in Afghanistan is part of a step-by-step scheme to achieve hegemony over Southwest Asia and the Persian Gulf, with its precious oil reserves.
America's allies, however, are less impressed by the old men in the Kremlin, whose miscalculations over the years that have cost them dearly. Some of the European leaders are inclined to suspect that the Soviets' Afghan action will turn out to be an ad hoc mopping-up operation rather than a premeditated move toward some larger objective.
Past performance suggests this interpretation may be the sounder one. The history of Soviet initiatives in Ethiopia, Yemen, Somalia, Angola and Mozambique shows that they sprang not from far-sighted planning, but from the sudden chance to exploit (often unadvisedly) accidental openings and opportunities.
The Soviet presence and influence in these countries can be traced to spontaneous events -- ranging from assassinations to revolutions to political coups -- over which Moscow had no control.
The Afghanistan "opening" began in 1973 when Kin Mohammad Zahir was overthrown and Mohammad Daud emerged as president of a republican government. For the next five years, Daud, while markedly friendly to Russia, was technically nonaligned. In April 1978, however, he was assassinated in a left-wing coup that surprised Moscow as much as the rest of the world. From that point on, through, the Soviets were increasingly in the saddle.
Mohammad Taraki, who succeeded Daud as president, openly turned to Moscow for both economic and military aid Russian "advisers" poured into the country. Yet last September the Kremlin was again caught off guard when Taraki was killed in still another coup, this time staged by his political rival, Hafizullah Amin.
Under President Amin, Afghanistan rapidly deteriorated, with rebellion spreading and the armed forces dissolving. As 1979 ended, Moscow was faced with the decision the United States finally had to make in Vietnam: get out, or get in all the way. It chose the latter.
Russia stumbled into Ethiopia following a chain of events that began when famine prompted the army to depose Emperor Haile Selasie in 1974, the autocratic, unpopular ruler propped up for years by the United States. Hence, his overthrow was a blow to Washington. When Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as the head of the new military government, Russia was allowed to fill the vacuum left by the United States. The privilege of supporting Mengistu in his armed struggles with next-door Somalia and the Eritrean rebels has been immensely costly for Moscow, with few dividends yet collected. r
Mengistu has signed a "friendship" treaty with the Soviet Union, but he still turns thumbs down on a Soviet-style communist party in Ethiopia. The colonel has made it clear he intends to remain boss in his own country.
Russia's worst mistake was losing Somalia in its effort to gain Ethiopia. It got a foothold in Somalia in the first place only because Maj. Gen. Mohammad Siad Barre staged a successful coup in 1969 and made himself permanent president. Barre accepted substantial aid from the Russians and allowed them to build a strategic naval base on the Gulf of Aden. He was not, however, prepared to let them dictate his foreign policy. When the Russians began helping Ethiopia, Barre expelled them. It would not be surprising if the United States ends up using the base the Soviets paid for. s
The Soviet presence in South Yemen sprang from an internal struggle for power after the country won its independence from Britain in 1967. The man who came to power, President Salem Rubaye Ali, was once regarded as more pro-Chinese than pro-Soviet, but he was executed in June 1978 after a military coup installed Abdel Fattah Ismail. He, too, has signed a friendship treaty with Russia, but more recently has been edging toward unification with supposedly pro-West North Yemen.
Finally, Moscow has also negotiated friendship treaties with Angola and Mozambique, which were part of Portugal's colonial empire until the Salazar dictatorship was overturned several years ago. Moscow capitalized on this unexpected turn of events by backing the forces that came to power in both of the new states.
Nevertheless, the putative Marxist Angolans are now using Cuban troops to protect U.S. oil installations, and the Marxist leaders in Mozambique have been helping Britain and the United States establish a democratic government in Rhodesia.
In summary, all this spasmodic Russian effort can hardly be deemed a model of strategic planning.