Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 138

Recent weeks have seen a more boastful and a more seemingly belligerent military leadership emerge in Russia. Although President Boris Yeltsin’s weakening grip on power has probably been one factor in this development, most observers would say that the major catalyst for change was NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia. The West’s Kosovo campaign afforded Russian military and civilian hardliners alike the opportunity to step up their already sharp criticism of the Western alliance.

These same military and political figures also used the Balkans conflict to resurrect Cold War-era rhetoric of both an alleged confrontation between east and west and a growing threat to Russia by NATO. For Russia’s hardline generals, the surprise dispatch of paratroopers to Kosovo on June 12 represented a rare–and, indeed, a sweet–“victory” over NATO. The military high command simultaneously engaged in a bit more muscle-flexing during the recent Zapad (West)-99 military exercises, during which several Russian bombers were sent to probe NATO defenses around Iceland and Norway (see the Monitor, June 24; July 2, 6).

President Boris Yeltsin moved subsequently to rein in the generals by calling on them to work constructively with the West in Kosovo and by stating that a possible attack by NATO–as was hypothesized in the Zapad-99 exercises–does not constitute the main threat to Russia’s security. But Yeltsin’s admonitions lacked real credibility, given that the Russian president himself had enthusiastically embraced the June 12 dash to Pristina and had publicly congratulated one of its authors (see the Monitor, July 9).

More generally, of course, Yeltsin and the government were also guilty during the long Balkans conflict of uncritical support for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and of matching the rhetoric of Russian hardliners in their continuous denunciations of NATO and the West. In addition–albeit without providing any specifics–Yeltsin and top government officials also acquiesced to calls by military leaders for a new emphasis on rebuilding Russia’s armed forces and for increased defense spending. Meanwhile, the Russian military leadership pointed to the Zapad-99 exercises as a proof of sorts that the country’s armed forces remain a viable fighting force, and one capable of repulsing the West.