September 1991 (vol. 7, #6) 1601 N. Tucson Blvd. Suite 9, Tucson AZ 85716 c 1991 J Orient


After the August 19 coup in Moscow, President Bush was asked: ``Do you actually know who's in charge right now, and more specifically, who's in charge of the Soviet nuclear arsenal?''

The President replied: ``I don't imagine there's been any change in that. And we don't know who's in charge, except that they say Mr. Yanayev is in charge'' (Washington Post 8/20/91, emphasis added).

Arms control experts said that the Soviet nuclear arsenal was ``as safe as ever.'' According to Bruce G. Blair, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, ``the situation would have to become much more dire...involving clashes with military units inside the Soviet Union, before we would have to worry about a breakdown in nuclear command and control.'' Still, the experts felt that one could not dismiss the possibility of Soviet nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists or extortionists. Nor were they certain of the role of the KGB, which controlled Soviet nuclear forces until the mid 1960s.

Perhaps the Soviets will sell some of the nuclear weapons for hard currency. William F. Buckley, Jr., suggested selling them to us. But what if they sell them to Saddam Hussein instead? (It is likely that the Iraqis are still mad at us.)

The White House will monitor the situation closely, and the President can return from Kennebunkport at any time to handle new developments. Intelligence is not perfect, however. Administration officials stated that they had ``no inkling'' that a coup was imminent, although Moscow News reported ``the feeling we are balancing on the verge of a right-wing coup'' in the May 5-12 issue. Prior knowledge might not have made any difference anyway. ``Who's on first over there is up to them,'' said President Bush (Wall St J 8/23/91).

Did the Coup Fail?

Whether the coup was a failure depends on what its purpose was.

``In hindsight, the coup seems to have been doomed from the start,'' stated columnist Tom Wicker, due to the startling ineptitude and indecisiveness of the plotters. They did not silence Yeltsin; they did not kill Gorbachev; they did not take swift control of all broadcasting facilities; they did not even cut all the telephone lines.

Nonetheless, Wicker is convinced: ``There is no longer a realistic threat if there ever was of a return to the Cold War, or even to the old style of repressive government in Moscow.''

So is Mary McGrory: ``The Russian people...won a victory that time cannot take from them.'' She still has a worry though: ``Bush was indisputably in charge. The crisis...greatly improved his chances to get fabulous sums of money for more Star Wars...gadgets that had been going out of style before the Stalinists in the Kremlin decided to resurrect the Cold War notion that the world is a dangerous place.''

Just after the coup, a US Congressmen stated before television cameras that ``the world is a more dangerous place today than it was yesterday.'' After Gorbachev returned, the danger lifted: the dreaded right-wing coup had happened but had been foiled for all time.

German officials are calling for major assistance to the post-coup government. Some have charged that the Group of Seven contributed to the unrest that caused the coup by failing to give Gorbachev a large financial aid package at the July summit.

Heartened by the speedy reversal of the coup, some Western businessmen are more eager than ever before to invest in the Soviet Union (Wall St J 8/23/91).

Even Richard Perle said that ``there are things we ought to do...for a Soviet Union that is profoundly reformist that we weren't prepared to do when there was a struggle between the reformist and the center'' (Wall St J 8/22/91).

As to arms control, Frank Gaffney may be sounding an alarm about the possibility of a ``Potemkin coup,'' but President Bush wasn't very worried, even when the hard-liners appeared to be in control: ``Hard-line governments in the past adhered to certain I don't think we need to raise that specter [of cheating] at this point.''

Power to the People?

In Moscow, 150,000 people showed that they had the power (and the courage) to stand in front of tanks and dare them to shoot. This time, the tanks turned back.

Russians may soon have the right to vote for opposition parties. But there are still some rights that they lack. They cannot accumulate wealth. Their savings were recently confiscated by Gorbachev with the withdrawal of large ruble notes, and anticipated hyperinflation may complete the destruction of the mostly worthless currency. They cannot buy a piece of land due to the bureaucratic restrictions. If they win ``democracy'' (as opposed to individual rights under a limited government), they are still at the mercy of a million KGB troops, countless informers, and an entrenched bureaucracy. And they don't know who's got the button either.

While ordinary Russian citizens may be feeling empowered, ordinary Americans have good cause to be more aware of their own vulnerability. There are several lessons to be learned from the coup:

Even if we know who's got the button today, we don't know who will have it tomorrow. (We do know that the missiles it controls are aimed at us.)

Even if we know who has it, we can't necessarily stop him from pushing it, although we could pay whatever tribute is demanded.

If the missiles are launched, we have no defenses.

Is it time for grassroots democratic action in the US?