Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 19

By Stan Lunev

An extremely difficult situation has developed in Russia’s armed forces, which, according to Russian legislation, includes not just soldiers in the regular army but also those serving in the Interior Troops, the Federal Border Guard and Russia’s numerous special services. The military is perhaps the only organized force not directly involved in politics in today’s Russia. It has yet to emerge, as does anything, from the current complex crisis. Everything that happens in Russian society today directly affects the armed forces, which are shackled by the complete lack of ideas among the “old wise men” in the Kremlin for military development in the current situation. The crisis is grave across the board.

The Russian army is now poorer than it has ever been. Officers and generals go for months on end without receiving their salaries. Even employees of the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff are forced to spend their time off-duty working as salesmen, security guards, taxi drivers and porters to try to somehow feed their families. These, it should be noted, are considered the lucky ones by officers serving in remote garrisons–where it is hundreds of miles to the nearest town, where the possibility of finding extra work doesn’t exist, where officers attempting to feed their families and soldiers have no choice but to turn to the black market.

No one in Russia today is surprised by the reports on the military: mass desertion by servicemen and evasion of military service by draftees, murders and suicides of soldiers and officers, conscripts shooting their fellow soldiers, hunger among personnel in remote garrisons (who often only survive thanks to handouts from the local authorities).. Russian soldiers whose rations are a tin of cat food also have no choice but to sell what they have–the weapons and ammunition of which there is such an abundance today on the Russian black market.

All this is going on against the backdrop of widespread construction, both in Russia and abroad, of fantastic houses and country homes, built with funds stolen from ordinary soldiers by high-ranking generals and admirals who have been granted access to the trough by the commander in chief of the Russian Armed Forces–President Boris Yeltsin. The main criterion for gaining access to this trough is personal loyalty to Yeltsin and his family. The professional qualities of the military leaders are of essentially no consequence. This makes it hard to expect any rationality or consistency in military development in the Russian Federation. Its progress depends entirely on the whims and fancies of the commander in chief, who is often, for well-known reasons, hardly aware of what he is doing and saying.

Military development–if what’s going on in Russia today can be so described–is being implemented on the basis of both President Yeltsin’s recent rather baffling directives and the central precepts of the Russian military doctrine currently being devised. The mastermind and chief author of this doctrine, the secretary of the Russian National Security Service, Andrei Kokoshin, was reported by Russian Public Television on 22 September to have been relieved of this task, without explanation, but with the promise to “use him for individual assignments.” In view of this, it is hard to believe that anything the National Security Service has been working on for the last few years will ever be implemented in practice.

It should be pointed out that in drawing up this doctrine the authors diplomatically avoided naming the main enemy of the Russian Federation. They followed the recommendations and wishes of leading Russian military policy experts by preferring the term “the most likely source of threat” to Russia. The following were listed among these “sources” (Interfax-AIF no. 30-31, 1998).:

— political or military-political blackmail on the part of a coalition of western countries (not necessarily equivalent to the NATO bloc). to achieve political or geopolitical advantage; –the appearance in neighboring countries of state-sponsored parties and movements whose aim is the territorial partition of Russia or the separation of one region or another from Russia (the most likely threat could be posed by Ukraine, the Baltic states and Chechnya).; –the rise of territorial contradictions and their potential military-political implementation on the borders of Russia and the Baltic states; –troop maneuvers in Central Asia with the potential participation of China, Pakistan, Turkey and Iran, and also the rise of nonstate religious tendencies which could result in the break-up of certain post-soviet states; –the rise of full-scale military political instability in the Caucasus, related to a greater or lesser degree to attempts by Chechnya to achieve, by force, domination and control over main transport routes; –the rise of political and military-political contradictions between Russian and China apropos of cooperation on the border and the Chinese presence in the Russian Far East; –the rise of Turkish military and naval domination in the Black Sea basin. From this it is possible to determine the maximum size of an individual enemy. It would seem to be a state, unable to mobilize fully, with no more than 500,000 military personnel, 2000-3000 tanks (including up to 1500 tanks of modern design)., some 300 airplanes (including up to 100 new generation airplanes)., and up to 200 helicopters of various classes.

In other words, among the most likely enemies are Russia’s regions, neighbors or other states not too far away. Russia’s troubled regions are themselves making more and more noise about their intention to distance themselves from the Kremlin. Russian experts, however, indicate that there is another, very significant “source of threat.” They refer, diplomatically, to the “specific nature of the policy of the USA” and the “possibility of such developments in the geopolitical situation as could lead to a confrontation between Russia and the West,” which is “certainly undesirable, though it can not be totally ruled out.”

Moreover, it is noted that “this is connected first and foremost with the fundamental differences between Russian and US interests as regards the question of the geopolitical status of the post-soviet space (Interfax-AIF 20-26 July 1998).. It is necessary to shake off the illusion of the possibility of some sort of military-political partnership with America. Russia is seen in the United States as a state which will sooner or later reestablish its power and be capable of military-political domination of Eurasia, and possibly the neighboring areas. It is precisely because of this that Washington is trying to take full advantage of Russia’s temporary period of weakness, creating a set of relations to limit Russia’s freedom to maneuver in the future.”

“In effect,” Russian analysts believe, “the USA is forming, with its strategy of ‘geopolitical pluralism’, a geopolitical coalition which will become a military-political one when Russia becomes strong again. It would be irresponsible not to recognize this. It would also be irresponsible to ignore the nature of U.S. policy in the countries of the former USSR–particularly since the view of the advocates of territorial partition of Russia is gathering momentum in American political circles. Testament to this is the warm reception among the American elite for Zbigniew Brzezinski’s book ‘The Big Chessboard,’ in which he openly calls upon the United States and the West to encourage the federalization of Russia. In the final analysis, there are more supporters of Brzezinski’s views among Washington’s political elite and ruling clan than there are people advocating a pro-Russian stance. The United States’ doctrinal rejection of global war in any form, and its preparation only for regional and local wars, should also not be taken too seriously.”

This is the opinion of Russian experts, but military men always need to have some sort of enemy to train their troops to fight against. They identify this enemy directly and unambiguously: the United States and its NATO allies, as demonstrated by the strategic air force exercises in April this year and the Northern Fleet exercises in August, which took place under the direction of Yeltsin himself, who watched the maneuvers from the bridge of the unique nuclear missile cruiser “Peter the Great.”

With the manifold problems brought about by Russia’s military and political rulers with President Yeltsin at the helm, however, Russia’s leaders are not in a position to have an army to match NATO. They are forced instead to undertake a so-called reform of the military, designed to preserve the country’s strategic potential while almost totally ignoring the requirements of the regular armed forces. The only exceptions are a few divisions of the so-called “Praetorian Guard” stationed around the capital, whose role is to defend the Kremlin in the event of an extremely adverse military-political development.

In particular, as Izvestia reported on August 14, “the fact that military reform has been underway in the army for more than year is not news. We know that new versions of the armed forces have been created, among them the Strategic Missile Troops, which now combine the old Strategic Missile Troops, the Military Space Forces and the Space Missile Defense Troops (which already existed in Russia while the United States was still talking about the need to create them–author).. A completely new force has been created–the Air Troops–as a result of the merging of the former Air Force and the Anti-aircraft Defense Troops. There have been sharp cuts in the Ground Forces, which now have three divisions in permanent combat readiness, fully equipped with personnel and equipment. The strength of the landing troops has been reduced. All this has led, in the opinion of the military, to heightened combat readiness and efficiency in army structures and, most importantly, has created the preconditions for full-scale military exercises, in which the army has hardly engaged over the last few years. There have also been other achievements. Nevertheless, the mood among the troops is gloomy rather than optimistic.”

The newspaper notes that a decision has been taken reduce the size of the Russian army this year by 400,000 soldiers. Last year 200,000 jobs were struck off the lists of career staff. In terms of actual servicemen, this is somewhere between 150-200,000, including those of retirement age. The problem is that the military is unable to let them go compassionately or even legally–for the all-too-familiar reason of adequate funds to do so. From the Air Force alone, 6,500 have been made redundant this year, and as yet they have been paid no wages, no compensation, no relocation allowances.

The wage backlog today stands at three months. Some officers try to get their money with the aid of tanks or axes (as happened in the Taman armored division).. There are not, however, enough tanks and axes to cover all the financial institutions. The widely publicized program to provide those released from the army with apartments, using the famous “state housing certificates”, is also faltering. To take the example of the Air Force again: 1,500 certificates have already been issued, but only 100 have received apartments. The allocation of money to solve this problem has fallen far behind the number of vouchers issued, threatening the entire program with total collapse.

Nevertheless, the minister of defense, Marshal Igor Sergeev, believes that military reform has entered a new stage. And this stage, the minister thinks, is the “Principles (concepts). of the state policy of the Russian Federation for military development”–a document signed by President Yeltsin. The ministry of defense believes that this document consolidates the first stage of military reform, and lays out the prerequisites for renewing all the other components of the state’s military organization. It now remains to enhance the coordinating role of the General Staff, to agree the boundaries of military districts which will incorporate all the power structures of the territories, and to create “an effective, rational military organization of optimum structure and strength, with a solid logistical and social base.”

It should be noted that the opinion of the minister of defense, as quoted in the newspaper, is his opinion. It may not reflect the actual state of affairs, particularly in view of the fact that rumors about Igor Sergeev’s “poor state of health” and, therefore, his imminent dismissal, have been circulating for some time in Russian military circles. In particular, there were reports (Interfax-AIF, no. 34-35, 1998). that a decree on this was expected during the president’s recent appearance at the Northern Fleet maneuvers. “The forecast [however] was wrong. But if this dismissal does take place, the appointment of a new minister promises to be very interesting, for the criteria for the post are very clear. It is unlikely, however, that the Kremlin will manage to find another Grachev.”

It is notable that the Kremlin bosses simply cannot abide the more intelligent and authoritative military figures. As soon as any of these achieves public recognition, they are quickly bundled out of the armed forces by a well-established method: They are awarded one of the highest military honors or a higher rank, and within a few days or weeks are removed from their posts without any explanation of the “king’s displeasure.” This is exactly what happened to Igor Sergeev’s predecessors, the former directors of the Federal Border Service and the Security Service, Generals Nikolaev and Kovalev, and to many others replaced by figures less authoritative but more loyal to the president and his family.

In view of this, if there is a social uprising in the country, it is difficult to believe that a military dictator could seize power in Russia from the ranks of the retired military leaders (Such an uprising could happen soon: The corrupt policies of the president and his entourage are leading Russian society towards it, and experts, amazed at the patience of the Russians, have already begun to speak of it.). Since their dismissal from service, they have been gradually and relentlessly destroyed politically, by means of the Kremlin-controlled media.

And if there is a social uprising in Russia, it is highly unlikely that the demoralized and crisis-ridden army will rise up in defense of the occupants of the Kremlin, whom even the “Praetorian Guard” would find it difficult to protect. Power in the war-ravaged country would be seized by one of the well-known and totally irresponsible politicians–to be precise, “populist patriots”–or a military man currently unknown to the public, from the ranks of those who would suit, at least temporarily, both the downtrodden citizens and the criminal groups in today’s Russia.

The fact that the Russian army is beginning both to slip from the Kremlin’s control and to participate in the political games being played in the country is attested by recent publications in the Russian mass media. According to a report in the Washington Times of 27 September, quoting Segodnya newspaper, the Russian army is “Ready for War–Civil War.” “If even the General Staff recognizes that the situation among the troops is explosive and threatening, it means they are not entirely sure that they can control their subordinates during any abnormal situation,” the paper said. “In that case, dealing with a financial default would seem like child’s play.”

Stanislav Lunev was formerly a colonel in Soviet military intelligence (GRU).