Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 2

In addition to its substantive implications for Russian defense and foreign policy, the approval by Boris Yeltsin last month of a "National Security Concept" (see yesterday’s Monitor) appears to mark the reemergence of the Russian Security Council as the country’s premier agency in the formulation and implementation of national security policies. Approval of the concept could signal a parallel rise in the political authority of the Council’s secretary, Ivan Rybkin. If so, it would bring to a close an approximately 18-month period during which the Council found itself relegated primarily to dealing with Kremlin policy toward Chechnya while being pushed to the margins of Russian national security decision-making. Indeed, until recently the Security Council was reportedly referred to derisively within the Kremlin as the "Chechen Affairs Ministry." (Segodnya, December 27)

It was not always so. Created by a presidential decree in the spring of 1992 and headed by Yury Skokov, the Kremlin’s gray eminence during the initial period of Russian statehood, the Council amassed considerable power despite dubious constitutional grounding. Subordinated directly to the president, the Council also became a lightning rod for tensions in the increasingly acrimonious battle that was shaping up between Yeltsin and his political opponents in the Russian parliament. Skokov was forced out of the secretary post in April of 1993, following his failure to back Yeltsin in that deepening confrontation, and the influence of the Council has waxed and waned since that time. The Council and several of its leading figures were widely criticized for their key role in the decision to launch military operations in Chechnya in late 1994 and early 1995.

The authority of the Security Council appeared to reach a new zenith in June of 1996 when Yeltsin unexpectedly brought Aleksandr Lebed onto his presidential election team and into the government. Lebed, a former general with considerable support in the armed forces, was made secretary of the Security Council and was expected to have a strong say in national security decision-making and, especially, in the restructuring and reform of Russia’s military forces. But the post-election antagonism that developed between Lebed and the rest of the Kremlin team led quickly to a diminution of the Security Council’s — and Lebed’s — authority. In late July of 1996, the Russian president created a new agency, the Defense Council, which was given primary responsibility for military reform as well as a strong voice in other areas of defense policy. The creation of the Defense Council was clearly aimed at counter-balancing Lebed’s influence within the government, and by the time the maverick general departed in October of 1996, the Council had come increasingly to occupy itself with Chechen affairs. The mild-mannered Rybkin, in every way Lebed’s opposite, was named the new secretary of the Council.

Russia’s new National Security Concept and an accompanying decree by Yeltsin (see Rossiiskaya gazeta, December 26; Segodnya, December 27) appears to invest Rybkin and the Security Council with considerable powers in the identification of threats to Russia’s security (foreign and domestic), in the formulation of counter-measures, and in the implementation and oversight of government policies in the area of national security. The document appears also to raise Rybkin’s status relative to Russia’s various "power structures" — i.e., the Defense and Interior Ministries, the Federal Border Service, and the various intelligence services — and to confer upon Rybkin a coordinating role in their activities. This same role was long sought by former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, and then by Lebed. More recently, the regular army had attempted to win that role for the General Staff.

Given the enormity of the restructuring being mooted for all of Russia’s armed and security forces, the designation of a strong coordinator makes sense. But whether Rybkin carries the political clout necessary to rein in the country’s independent military and security chiefs, and whether he will get the necessary support from the Kremlin, remains far from certain. Meanwhile, the elevation of the Security Council now raises questions about the role of the Defense Council, as well as that of Russia’s State Military Inspectorate and its head, Andrei Kokoshin. A civilian and former First Deputy Defense Minister, Kokoshin was named to his current post only in late August. He was himself given a coordinating role in defense matters, moreover, that appears to overlap at least in part with Rybkin’s. Such considerations suggest that more changes atop Russia’s national security establishment may be forthcoming, and also the possibility that the latest developments may represent just one more shuffling of hats among Kremlin regulars.

Cautious Words from Russian Arms Traders.