Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 132

In what appeared to be yet another effort at reining in military hardliners while retaining their political loyalty, Russian President Boris Yeltsin warned top commanders yesterday that they must avoid direct confrontations with NATO. In remarks at the Kremlin before senior officers from both the regular army and Russia’s various security forces, Yeltsin told the generals that “each one of you must pursue one policy, the policy of the president. We won’t have any outright quarrels with NATO, but we won’t flirt [with it] either. We will be following what NATO is doing and will be working out our tactics together” (AP, Russian agencies, July 8).

The Kremlin gathering yesterday marked the second time in less than a week that Yeltsin has met personally with the top brass. On July 7 Yeltsin and a large delegation of Russian government officials made a rare visit to the Defense Ministry (see the Monitor, July 7). The unusual attention showered by Yeltsin upon military leaders appears to have two goals. One is to rein in those hardline generals who, by many accounts, are responsible for pushing Russian policy in the Balkans toward confrontation with NATO. The surprise move by Russian paratroopers to Pristina on June 12 has thus far been the most notorious manifestation of the policy, which appears to have also shown itself in subsequent, difficult negotiations between NATO and Russian military officials over Moscow’s peacekeeping role in Kosovo. In addition, the High Command appeared to use a recent series of military exercises–in the course of which Russian bombers approached NATO territory–as another opportunity to do some anti-Western muscle-flexing (see Monitor, July 2,6).

While curbing the generals, however, Yeltsin is seeking also to keep their political loyalty by demonstrating his government’s concern for their problems. The two meetings with military leaders is one way he is trying to convey this message. A series of pledges–albeit it vague ones–are also part of the strategy. Yeltsin has suggested he will seek to raise military salaries, ensure the timely payment of wages, and–at the least–hold the line on overall defense expenditures (Vremya MN, July 6). All of those are attractive policies to a military command suffering from acute cash shortages.

Yeltsin’s sudden wooing of the military leadership–indeed, of the “power structures” in general–is probably also motivated by political considerations. As one Russian newspaper commentator observed on July 3, Yeltsin has always looked to ensure the loyalty of his generals during times of acute political tension (Kommersant daily, July 3). That is certainly the case now. Amid growing political uncertainty in Moscow, Russia is looking to play a major role in the Kosovo peacekeeping operation while simultaneously gearing up for what could be a fresh armed conflict in the Caucasus. Some in Moscow have warned that the armed forces–and Russia’s paratroopers in particular–will be hard pressed to conduct both operations at the same time (Segodnya, June 22). Yeltsin seemed to be suggesting in his remarks yesterday that a serious confrontation with the West is the last thing that Moscow needs under such circumstances.