Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 130

In a move probably not unrelated to developments in Kosovo, President Boris Yeltsin and a large contingent of top cabinet officials made a rare appearance at the Russian Defense Ministry on July 2. The ostensible purpose of the meeting was to review the results of last month’s Zapad (West)-99 military exercise, which has been described as the largest set of maneuvers to be conducted by the Russian armed forces since the collapse of the Soviet Union (see the Monitor, July 6). Yeltsin used the appearance before the high command to underscore what he said was the success of Russian diplomacy in the Balkans. He said that Moscow had played the key role in brokering a Balkans settlement, and applauded the “independence” of Russia’s foreign policy in this regard. That independence, according to Yeltsin, constitutes “the most important element for stability in Europe and the entire world.”

Yeltsin’s appearance before the generals, and particularly his decision to bring top government officials with him, was clearly intended to underscore to the military leadership the Kremlin’s concern over the army’s problems. Yeltsin also admitted that he bears some of the responsibility for those difficulties. “Delays in payments of financial support, the problem of housing and the decline of the social status of military personnel–these are in many ways due to the shortcomings of government and of the president,” Yeltsin said in an excerpt shown on Russian television. “None of us will be relieved of our responsibility” (Reuters, Russia TV, July 2; Kommersant daily, July 3).

But, based on reports which have appeared so far about the meeting, it is unclear whether Yeltsin offered military leaders any of the substantive changes in defense policy–and particularly increases in defense spending–they have been seeking. Indeed, in a separate Kremlin meeting on July 5, Yeltsin offered nothing better than an exhortation that defense spending next year be no lower than this year’s level. And, though he also spoke of a salary increase for Russian servicemen and of efforts to ensure that wages are paid on time, he apparently made no move to include added financing to cover those policies in next year’s budget (Itar-Tass, July 5).

Some of Yeltsin’s July 2 remarks may have been displeasing to at least some of the assembled military leaders in other ways as well. The Russian president’s accent on the success of Russian diplomacy in Kosovo appeared to ignore what many generals probably consider the one crowning achievement of recent Russian policy in the Balkans: the surprise move by Russian paratroopers into Kosovo on June 12. Hardline Russian generals, moreover, have been critical of the government’s Kosovo diplomacy, and particularly of the peace settlement agreed to by Russia’s special envoy for the Balkans, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, a one-time political officer who now oversees the Defense Ministry’s contacts with foreign governments, has accused Chernomyrdin of selling out Russia’s and Yugoslavia’s national interests during the peace negotiations.

Yeltsin appears also to have disappointed at least some of the generals in another regard. He told the high command that regional conflicts–and not aggression by foreign powers–constitute the main threat to Russian security. “The threat of major military aggression against Russia remains in the realm of theory,” he was quoted as saying, “but the danger of regional conflicts exists.” That remark may have been directed in part at the deepening conflict in Russia’s Caucasus region (Reuters, Russia TV, July 2). But more to the point, it appeared to undermine the rationale for the Zapad-99 exercises themselves, which were directed at repulsing a possible massive attack from the West. Along with the surprise move into Kosovo, the exercises had appeared to be a display of muscle-flexing by the armed forces, and to reflect the growing influence of hardline military leaders.

Yeltsin also used the July 2 meeting with Russian military leaders to call once again for parliament to ratify the START II strategic arms reduction treaty. According to Roman Popkovich, the head of the Duma’s Defense Committee, Yeltsin urged that preparations go forward for a possible follow-up START III accord (AP, July 2).

If that message was welcomed in Washington, another recent action by Moscow undoubtedly received a frostier reception. U.S. officials announced on July 3 that an American military attache serving at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow had been declared persona non grata by Moscow and had left the country several days earlier. Lieutenant Peter Hoffman was said by officials in Washington to have been a specialist in military intelligence who was also part of the U.S. delegation which negotiated the Helsinki agreement on peacekeeping in Kosovo. A Clinton administration spokesman speculated that the expulsion may have been in retaliation for a U.S. decision to expel an official from Russia’s Mission to the United States on accusations of spying (New York Times, AP, July 4).