Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 9

Pavel Grachev: Disgraced but Indispensable

By Aleksandr Konovalov

Rumors about Minister of Defense Pavel Grachev’s imminent and inevitable resignation have become a tradition in Moscow, and are now perceived by the public as a permanent feature of Moscow’s political life. Well-known analysts have more than once forecast that the defense minister’s days in office were numbered, and that he had been chosen as the next "sacrifice" to be made by the president for the sake of the latter’s political viability. However, every time these rumors have been spread Mr. Grachev has emerged unscathed, and, moreover, it appears that he feels increasingly confident about his place in the President’s entourage.

If we analyze the accusations most often made against the defense minister, we have to conclude that most of them either have nothing to do with him, or refer to him only partially.

Back in early 1995, President Yeltsin expressed his dissatisfaction about military reform being implemented too slowly. In the beginning of his current campaign, the president made a more explicit and caustic remark about the subject.

Almost all experts in the field (as well as the Russian military themselves) understand all too well that no military reform has been or is being implemented in Russia, with the exception of the issuance of new uniform on which a two-headed eagle replaced the red star on service caps. The beginning of any military reform requires the country’s political leadership to set clear goals that the military must achieve.

We have to remember that Russia inherited some 85 percent of the former USSR’s "military machine," including armed forces, arms and military industries. At the same time, Russia’s economic potential, its population, territory and resources amount to only 55 percent-65 percent of that of the USSR. With the collapse of the USSR, the per capita "military burden" in Russia increased dramatically. To add to the trouble, Russia is experiencing a deep economic crisis. It must also be noted that Russia inherited not 85 percent of fully functioning "military machine," but desultorily admixed fragments of the former USSR’s military structure. The former USSR’s military structure had been created by that state (which had its specific ideology) to meet its specific needs, including that of supporting a global-scale military confrontation with its ideological opponents.

For example, during the Soviet era the armed forces were to be ready (if necessary) to conduct a large-scale amphibious operation in Nicaragua; to "demonstrate the Soviet Naval flag" near Angola’s coastline; or to intercept American transport vessels in the Atlantic. None of the above mentioned tasks has anything to do with Russia’s present security interests. Therefore, Russia is facing the task of converting these desultory fragments of the former Soviet military system into an armed force corresponding to Russia’s present security requirements and her economic possibilities. It is absolutely clear that no defense minister is able to resolve this problem alone, especially given the fact that the funds which are being allocated to the Russian Defense Ministry (according to expert assessments) are barely sufficient to maintain an army of 650,000 men — and Russia currently has 1.7 million people mobilized. In this situation, Pavel Grachev is doing what many would do in his circumstances: He is trying, in vain, to stretch the "shrinking blanket" of funds over the gigantic "body" of the military.

The second accusation often pronounced against Grachev is related to the failures of the military campaign in Chechnya. The crushing defeat sustained by the Russian army on New Year’s night in 1994 (after Pavel Grachev’s repeated public assurances that the city could be taken in a few hours by a single paratrooper regiment) served graphically to illustrate the real situation of the Russian Armed Forces. However, it must be noted that no army can demonstrate good combat efficiency while being ordered to act on her own territory, bomb her own cities and kill her fellow countrymen. It is crystal clear that it was not Grachev who unleashed the war in Chechnya: it is the Russian political elite which was responsible.

It is a fact, however, that while acting in Chechnya the federal troops showed a complete lack of coordination: Russian aviation and artillery often fired at their own people. But how could they be well coordinated if the state has no funds to ensure adequate training of this colossal army, and at the same time lacks the political will to have the army reduced to a size that the country can afford? After all, to stay in good form a pilot-interceptor must have 220-250 hours of training flights a year, while Russian pilots today can only afford 20 hours of training flights a year. How could tank and armored vehicle crews deploy efficiently if many of them had seen each other for the first time in Chechnya? Nearly all the units introduced in Chechnya were combined units.

Without a doubt, Grachev is not responsible for the horrible situation in which the Russian army has found itself, but he is quite fit for the role of "ritual victim" to appease the public. Why then is the president waiting?

For two reasons, it seems to me. First of all, Pavel Grachev has understood the simple truth: the worse the general situation in the country, and the worse the situation in the Army, the more the president is dependent upon the defense minister. Therefore, the minister dares to state publicly that any criticism of him is being made by those who seek to have the president overthrown. Statements like this smell of overt blackmail. In other words, Grachev is not reconciled to the role of docile victim in a big political fight and is not going to go down alone. Additionally, the defense minister knows a lot. It would be very careless of Boris Yeltsin to provoke Mr. Grachev into making "revelations," especially considering the upcoming presidential election. Such "revelations" could inflict irreparable damage on Boris Yeltsin’s reputation.

However, this is still not the major argument against firing Grachev. It is possible to remove Pavel Grachev from his post and to ensure his loyalty and "silence" by granting him an appropriately cushy position and guaranteeing him a quiet and well-rewarded life. For example, the position of Russia’s ambassador to the Vatican remains vacant — but that might not be enough for the defense minister. In any case, this problem can be overcome.

A much more difficult problem that the president would face if he decides to remove Pavel Grachev from his post is that of a replacement for him. The new minister must be a person who is, on the one hand, acceptable to the Army and will not provoke a sharp protest from the generals and officers, and on the other hand 100 percent loyal to the president. The president cannot afford to have the Army entrusted to a general who is either overtly or covertly opposing him. It appears that the president has very few (if any) suitable candidates to choose from.

According to Russian tradition, the post of the defense minister can be filled by a general (we have to dismiss the option of a civilian defense minister as unrealistic in the current pre- election situation) who has graduated from either of two academies (including the General Staff Academy), whose service record includes being the commander of a military district or an army and preferably has had combat experience. Given the fact that Boris Yeltsin’s popularity in the Army is low the task of finding such a person appears very difficult, indeed almost impossible, at the present moment. A candidate would either be suitable to the Army but too independent-minded and non-conformist (whom Boris Yeltsin could not rely on in a crucial moment); or be devoted to the president but not respected in the Army and hence unable to manage and control the force. Both possibilities are equally unacceptable for Boris Yeltsin.

Thus, it can be concluded that in removing Pavel Grachev from his post at this time the president would create more problems than he would resolve. This situation might change only if something catastrophic occurs in connection with the Chechen war.

The commanders of the federal army in Chechnya appear to have understood the recent presidential decree on the political regulation of the Chechen crisis in a way vastly different from how the author of the decree had meant it to be understood. General Tikhomirov, the commander of the federal army group in Chechnya, has stated that negotiations can be conducted only on the issue of "disarmament and unconditional capitulation." Among the military, the feeling is gaining momentum that an attempt is being made to "steal" the victory (which cost so much in effort and human lives) from the army by ordering it to back off at the final stage of the campaign. This issue may provoke frictions and complications in relations between the Army and the top political leadership. Such complications can, on the one hand, force the president to decide against the defense minister but on the other hand, in such a situation, Grachev’s loyalty to Boris Yeltsin might acquire added significance. With things as they are today, it appears unwise for the president to launch an undertaking as risky as the replacing of the defense minister until after the election.

Russia certainly needs a different defense minister since, in regards to his professional qualifications and intellectual potential, it is obvious that Mr. Grachev is unfit for the office. Nevertheless, the president will try to postpone the resolution of this problem until after June. In fact, our "after June" future appears too uncertain at this point to draw any serious forecasts about who might become our defense minister.

Translated by A. Kondorsky