Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 12

Russian defense minister Pavel Grachev makes a play for power

by Aleksandr Zhilin

Even as the fighting winds down, Chechnya is making an ever greaterimpression on the domestic politics and foreign polices of theKremlin. Finding itself in a blind alley in the North Caucasus,Moscow is attempting to create the illusion for others that itnow is in control of the military and political processes in thiscomplex region. But in an important respect, Moscow–or at leastpolitical Moscow–is not in control of itself.

Two Scenarios for War

There are now two versions circulating as to how and why theKremlin got involved in Chechnya in the first place. Sourcesin Yeltsin’s personal administration say that initially the crisiswas planned in order to lift Boris Yeltsin’s standing in the polls. The Russian media had said for a long time that the regime ofChechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev was a criminal one and that illegalityand banditry were at large in that North Caucasian republic. As a result, many around Yeltsin thought that a victory over theChechens would bring political benefits.

Such people calculated that a lightning fast victory in Chechnyawould bring Yeltsin some political dividends and at the very leastslow the catastrophic decline in his standing with the Russianpeople. Consequently Yeltsin himself, prior to the attack onChechnya, spoke a great deal about the need to fight crime ofall kinds, a popular issue in Russia. Those near Yeltsin alsoassert that the Russian president had no doubt that the war inChechnya would be a short one. Deputy premier Sergei Shakhraiand defense minister Pavel Grachev convinced him of this, Yeltsin’saides say now.

Nevertheless, there were some in the president’s entourage whohad doubts about whether a war in Chechnya would end quite soquickly or even whether that would in fact be in their interests,and they worked out a strategy for that eventuality, one thatthey also saw as profitable. Such a situation could also workto Yeltsin’s benefit, they concluded, by allowing him to introducemartial law throughout the country and to delay both parliamentaryand presidential elections. In the opinion of such democraticpoliticians as Yegor Gaidar and Grigoriy Yavlinsky, such a developmentwould have suited many in the president’s entourage, defense ministerPavel Grachev, the then interior minister Viktor Yerin, and otherhighly placed officials whose positions, and ability to stay outof prison, would have been at risk if Yeltsin were to depart fromthe scene.

But the calculations both of those who thought the war wouldend quickly and of those who thought it would last a long timecollapsed because Russian society did not come to see the warin Chechnya as Yeltsin’s aides had intended. Much of the reasonfor this was the way in which General Grachev conducted the campaign. In particular, Russians were horrified by the unbelievable barbaritydisplayed by Russian forces in the Chechen republic when artillerybarrages destroyed entire cities and towns. In this case, itwas obvious to everyone that the first victim in this war wasthe population, and in many cases its ethnic Russian component.

This negative reaction to the war on the part of the populationwas completely unexpected by Yeltsin and his aides, the latternow admit. Pavel Grachev, for example, has said that he neverexpected that people in the region would try to block tanks withtheir own bodies, or that Russians would sympathize with them. Both in the Kremlin and in the defense ministry, there was acomplete lack of understanding of how the Russian people felt.

The West, alas, initially closed its eyes to what was takingplace in Chechnya in order to give Yeltsin the opportunity topursue the first variant of the war. But by so doing, Westernleaders thus allowed the conflict to deepen and spread. The Russianpresident was not able to cope with the situation because hisgenerals and his defense minister, above all, were doing everythingthey could to promote the second scenario, a long war with thebroadest possible consequences for Russian society. The war inChechnya expanded and Yeltsin became a hostage to circumstances,and to Grachev, who exploited this situation.

Today, observers note that the defense minister has such enormousinfluence on the president that it is already difficult to determinewho controls whom. As for the situation in Chechnya, sourcesin the General Staff say that Yeltsin in general did not, anddoes not, control the actions of forces there and relies exclusivelyon defense ministry reporting about what is taking place there. That this is actually the case is suggested by the fact thatthe military actions against the Chechens did not stop even foran hour when Yeltsin ordered an end to bombing and to artilleryfire on civilian targets.

Quite late to be sure, but the West finally spoke out againstthe barbarism of Russia in the North Caucasus and that forcedthe Kremlin to seek some justification for what it was doing.

What was Behind Budennovsk?

The hostage tragedy in Budennovsk, and the retirementsof Federal Security Service chief Sergei Stepashin and interiorminister Viktor Yerin which followed from it, appear to be logicallyconnected. True, Grachev has survived at least for the time being,even though it was precisely his inability to manage the situationin Chechnya which led to the unbelievable cruelty of Russian forcesthere, and thus put Russia at risk of terrorist attacks from infuriatedChechens.

A retired general staff colonel, Aleksandr Kondrashov, has saidthe following about these events and their interrelationship:"The events in Budennovsk must be considered in the contextof Russia’s domestic and foreign polices, and also in terms ofthe interrelationships of the force ministries–or more preciselyof the force ministers. That Yeltsin could use such a scandalon the eve of the G-7 meeting in Halifax suggests a great deal. Because precisely such an event could help justify the barbaricactions of federal forces in Chechnya. Certainly, the presidentwas not informed about all the details of this event, but eventhe uninitiated could see that he was certainly concentrated onefforts to obtain the maximum foreign policy dividends from theevents."

And Kondrashov adds that "until the last minute of his stayin Halifax, Yeltsin attempted to do everything he could to conveyin an emotional way the very cruelty of the Chechens in Budennovsk,without apparently noticing that not only the leaders of the G-7,but even journalists, were laughing at him behind his back. Yeltsin’sbehavior suggests that he really believed what he was being toldabout events in Budennovsk, and considering the president’s physicaland psychological state, it was easy for his entourage to convincehim that what they were telling him was the entire truth."

Now let us consider the actual situation in Budennovsk. ShamilBasayev was the ideal person for this script: hard, ambitious,and with just the right kind of background. Some journalistsand experts noted that Basayev must have had help from some specialservice in order to be able to bring so many guns into the region. These observations are completely correct. But the real questionis which special services were involved, and which of the powerministries really needed a Basayev figure?

Basayev had long been an object of the GRU’s attention. And whenBasayev fought in Abkhazia, he fought not accidentally on thepro-Russian side. Russian specialists there taught him how toconduct and lead military operations, and Basayev proved a goodpupil. We Russians educated Basayev to be a first-class warrior.

In my opinion, the entire Budennovsk operation was organizedin a marvelous way. Basayev and his detachment were providedwith a corridor into the city and a way out. And I am equallysure that he, having obtained some indication that he would getaway with what he had planned, nonetheless did not and does notunderstand that he was only a pawn in a larger "political"diversion.

The entire "misfortune" of Budennovsk was that theoperation was not brought to a successful conclusion. BeforeYeltsin went off to Halifax, he gave his consent to plans forthe massive use of force against the Chechen "raiders." Whose plans were these? Without any doubt those of his closestcolleague, Pavel Grachev. The only remaining task was to destroyat the same time the hostages and the Basayev forces by turningthe Budennovsk hospital into a funeral pyre. The orders weregiven, armor was brought in and the Alpha Special Forces unitwas dispatched, after the usual words about the need to end thesituation with minimal loss of blood.

But then Chernomyrdin interfered when no one had expected himto. If the premier, whom the force ministers had devoted littleattention to in recent months, had acted in the traditional wayby phoning Grachev and Yerin and only asking that something bedone, the operation they had planned would have been completed. However, the prime minister made an unusual move by using thetelephone and exploiting the news media to good effect as he didit. It is clear that Chernomyrdin was trying to insure himselfagainst Yeltsin’s anger in case the premier failed to end thehostage crisis. But without suspecting anything of the sort,Chernomyrdin tied the hands of those who were supposed to completethe Budennovsk operation.

And thus the coming apart of the Kremlin team took place. Yerinand Stepashin lost their posts, though both might have been introuble even if the Budennovsk operation had succeeded. In thefirst case because of a too diligent collection of materials aboutcorruption in the army and elsewhere, and in the second becausehis interior forces threatened to overwhelm the army, and hisobsequiousness toward Yeltsin had offended Pavel Grachev. Butthe real reason that Yerin fell is his simplicity. He never understoodthat it is never enough to be devoted to the master; you mustmake the master somehow dependent on you.

And as a result of these departures, Grachev strengthened hisposition in the Kremlin to an unprecedented degree. He no longerhas any competitors among the force ministries and the presidenthimself is very much dependent on him. I think that AleksandrKorzhakov understands this, and that is why he has faded in recenttimes. Grachev has become the queen who has eclipsed the kinghimself.

Having taken the president under his control, the defense ministeris now attempting to take steps in order to become master of theentire situation. Grachev’s declaration that all forces oughtto be subordinate to him is confirmation of this. His plan wouldleave all the ministers in place but put himself above and incontrol of all of them.

The saddest part of this play is that the king does not understandthat as early as this fall he could be spending his days in thequiet of the Moscow suburbs. Those planning this won’t need aForos this time.

This is my opinion of course, but there is a definite logic inwhat I have outlined. Even more if you consider that after theprovocation in Budennovsk there was the shooting of the familyin the suburbs of Grozny amidst the optimism about some sort ofresolution at the Grozny peace talks.

Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin: An Uncertain Balance

Only at first glance does the interrelationship of Boris Yeltsinand Viktor Chernomyrdin seem well defined. In fact, the situationis far more complex. People around the president say that Chernomyrdin’spolitical rise has disturbed Yeltsin, who is very jealous abouthis exclusive access to the country as a whole, and who wouldlike to have an occasion to put Chernomyrdin in his place at nocost to himself.

But Viktor Chernomyrdin is more clever than the president’s aidesthink. While Yeltsin was in Halifax, Chernomyrdin seized thepolitical initiative and in fact ended the advance of Russianforces in Chechnya. In the course of several days, he ceasedto be an apolitical administrator and became one of the most promisingpoliticians in Russia. That is because he demonstrated to a Russiansociety tired out from uncertainty that a sober-minded leadercan guarantee a certain level of stability in the country. Andthus Chernomyrdin’s standing with the people climbed to new heights.

Nevertheless, the premier remains in a very difficult situationbecause his political chances depend to a very great degree onthe success or failure of the peace talks in Chechnya. If militaryactions are resumed, those supporting the president will do everythingthey can to accuse Chernomyrdin of making a fatal concession tothat terrorist Basayev, and thus allowing Dudayev to regroup hisforces and resume his attacks against Russia.

The negotiators in Grozny face the difficult task of bridgingthe gulf between Moscow’s insistence on the territorial integrityof the Russian Federation and Chechen desires for independence.A group of generals led by Pavel Grachev has no interest in anypeaceful outcome; they want ever more violence and more victims. Yeltsin is playing their game: his order about basing Russiantroops in Chechnya almost broke off the talks.

The Yeltsin-Grachev play against Chernomyrdin is very dangerousif one recalls the obvious dependence of the president on thedefense minister. Grachev’s own efforts to reform the military,and to pull more power into his own hands, have an especiallydisturbing aspect given how unpopular he has become in the countryat large and thus how difficult it is for Yeltsin or anyone elseto justify his continuing in office.

A military committee is being created in the president’s officewhich will be in charge of all armed formations in the RussianFederation, and Pavel Grachev has been assigned as its head. In such a situation, Grachev is the real supreme commander evenif Yeltsin retains that power on paper. And if Grachev achievesthis, a military coup will have taken place even if no one isremoved from any of the highest offices of the land.

Already today, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and all other majorcities are under the control of the military and the interiorministry, under the pretext of warding off terrorist actions fromthe Dudayev forces. In such a situation, the military could actvery quickly. Never before in Russian history has the army beenso close to the helm of the ship of state, and that is one ofthe most serious dangers for Russia and the world.

Aleksandr Zhilin is the Editor of the Security Problems Departmentof Moscow News