Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 17

The troubled Russian army gains new political clout

by Paul A. Goble*

*An earlier version of this article was presented at a hearingof the European Affairs Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committeeon Foreign Relations August 22, 1995

To reverse the Dickensian metaphor, these are the worst of timesand the best of times for the Russian armed forces: a combinationof poverty and power constitutes a threat to Russia’s developmentas a democracy, to Russia’s relations with her neighbors, andultimately to Russia’s relationship with the United States. Today,I would like to outline some of the conditions that define thetwo faces of the Russian military and then discuss the implicationsof those two faces singly and, more important, together, for thesebroader relations.

The Face of Poverty

Virtually every day brings fresh evidence of the collapse of theRussian military since the end of Soviet times: its rapid declinein size, its inability to attract recruits or even enforce thedraft law, its difficulties with paying its officers, feedingits men, or paying its electric bills, and its inability to maintainbasic discipline. Research and development has stopped in manyfields, and on November 1, the Russian army will cease to havethe legislatively mandated authority to buy food for the troops.Indeed, the number of such reports is now so large that many Russiansand even more Westerners have ceased to pay attention to whatis going on. As an article in Krasnaya zvezda put it August17, "Whereas in the past, turning off the electricity atstrategic objects caused a public outcry, the complete isolationof the Trans-Baikal military district headquarters in July wasnot even mentioned on the front pages of the newspapers."Last week, for example, the crew of a Russian nuclear submarinerefused to go to sea unless it was paid, and Russian naval officersmasqueraded as sailors in order to smuggle Western cars into Russia;the Russian media virtually ignored these incidents, and so far,they have not attracted comment in major Western publications.

Moreover, the war in Chechnya has been a black eye for the Russianarmy. After confidently telling Yeltsin that they could win thewar in a day or two, Russian commanders became bogged down ina terrible conflict that has cost up to 40,000 lives, led to thedestruction of entire cities in the North Caucasus, underminedpublic confidence in Yeltsin as well as the army, and raised questionsabout the ability of the army to prosecute this or any other war.The war sparked further draft evasion, highlighted weaknessesin the chain of command, spawned an active anti-draft movement,and has resulted in tales of unspeakable brutality and ineffectivenessamong the Russian officers serving there toward the populationand toward Russian soldiers, both draftees and those on contract.

Many of these problems began with the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan,others are rooted in the collapse of the USSR, and still othersreflect, as all armies do, the current problems of Russian society.But they have led to an image of the Russian army as a disorganized,impoverished, and incapable force, one that can safely be ignored.

The Face of Power

Hence, a recent interview by Defense Minister Pavel Grachev isall the more surprising. In the political bloodletting in thesecurity agencies following the Budennovsk hostage crisis, Grachevalone among the power ministers survived. And he told journaliststhat he had done so even though Yeltsin, Chernomyrdin and Kozyrevhad all voted for his removal in the Russian Security Councilsession. Where had his support come from? Grachev identified thesecurity agencies, the traditional antagonists of the Russianarmed forces. Such a statement would be remarkable for any servinggeneral and cabinet member at any time; such a statement in thecurrent context suggests that if the Russian army has lost onekind of power, it certainly has acquired another, and more immediatelypolitical, kind. It underscores Yeltsin’s dependence on the military,given his own weakened position, and may help explain Yeltsin’slatest plans to reconsolidate the Russian intelligence community,which could then be expected to play its traditional balancingrole against the army.

Three additional sources of power for the army are the nucleararsenal, which is the only basis for Russia to claim a seat atthe table as a superpower, the military, as symbol of nationalunity and past glory, and the relative nature of power. If thefirst two of these are self-evident, the last tends to be ignored.Even in its weakened position, the Russian army is still vastlylarger and more effective than any of the other militaries ofthe former Soviet states or of Eastern European countries. Thenext largest army in the region–Ukraine’s–is less than one-thirdthe size of the Russian one and suffers from all the ills thathave been visited on the Russian military. From the Ukrainian,or even more, the Baltic position, the Russian army looks formidableeven in its current weakened state. And we should not forget thatthe Russian army did win in Chechnya, at least this round, andcould easily overpower any organized military formation on Russianterritory. (Its record against terrorist activities is and wouldbe less impressive, but that is true of every army in the world.)

Consequently, the Russian army, or at least its senior leaders,have enormous and relative to Soviet times, autonomous power relativeto the society and to the current political elite even thoughthe military is mired in all too obvious financial and organizationaldifficulties.

The Two Faces Together.

Most analyses in Russia, among her neighbors and in the West focuson only one of these two faces, alternating between a dismissalof the Russian army as a force and fears that it will be the basisof a new Russian imperial campaign or geopolitical threat. AmongRussian reformers, the army’s woes are seen as the price of demilitarizingRussian society, and its political clout as presaging the returnof a Brezhnev-era kind of authoritarianism. Among Russia’s neighbors,the Russian army’s obvious weaknesses are sparking behavior thatonly further exacerbates their relations with Moscow, and itscurrent or potential strength is leading many to seek protectionfrom the West via NATO or some other mechanism, or to decide thatthey must make the best deal they can with Moscow before the armyretakes power. And among Western analysts and policy makers thereis a tendency either to dismiss the Russian army as a threat forthe immediate future or to see its political clout as presaginga return to the worst times of the past.

In few instances, however, is there any appreciation that thereal threat from the Russian army to everyone concerned arisesfrom the fact that the Russian army has both these faces, a situationthat not only presages a possible radical alteration of policybut also sets the stage for an increasing use of the army’s politicalclout to get the funds it needs to make the transition to a modernforce–something far more costly than the restoration of the Soviet-eramodel would likely be–or even more to use its force to followwhat many Russians now call the "Latin American variant."Under that scenario, the army would become the predominant powerbroker in society, would likely push for a forceful foreign policyto justify discipline at home, and might even split into factionswith different groups allying with one or more other forces inRussian society. In that event, the poverty and power of the Russianarmy might combine to lead the military to seek extraconstitutionalarrangements for its future.

* * * * *

In the Dickensian metaphor referred to at the outset, the greatEnglish writer observed not only that these were the best andworst of times, but that during that period, everything seemedpossible and nothing did. That observation, too, applies to thecurrent situation and should help to keep us from adopting a one-sidedapproach, one that will inevitably lead us to the wrong conclusions.

Paul A. Goble is Editor-in-Chief of the Monitor and Prism