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Russia: Analysis From Washington--The Russian Army A Threat To Russia?

Washington, 17 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - A leading Moscow foreign policy research group says that the Russian army is rapidly becoming a threat to the Russian people and their government even though it can no longer defend them against any foreign foe.

In a report published in the Moscow newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on Friday, the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy argued that the Russian government's failure to support the army, the collapse of the country's defense industry, and half-hearted and inconsistent efforts at military reform had devastated the Russian army.

Unless immediate steps are taken, the Council report said, the Russian military would "within three years" either "disappear as such," "break up into armed groups which will support themselves through the arms sales or robbery," or even stage a coup that "could grow into a dictatorship or civil war."

This is only the latest of a series of high-level public warnings about what the deteriorating conditions in the Russian army may soon lead to. Two weeks ago, for example, Russian defense minister Igor Rodionov warned that failure to provide more funds to the military might mean that its commanders would lose control of the country's still enormous nuclear arsenal.

And earlier last week, Yuri Baturin, secretary of the Russian Defense Council and a close advisor to President Boris Yeltsin, said that "if things go on like this for another two years, we may have a navy without ships, an air force without planes, and a military industry incapable of producing modern weapons."

At one level, these statements are clearly part of a campaign by the military to extract more resources from the Russian government. Rodionov is scheduled to meet with Yeltsin today to discuss budgetary allocations to the military and the country's defense industry. And using such scare tactics to achieve one's budgetary goals is very much part of more open political systems.

But it would almost certainly be a serious mistake to dismiss these predictions of disaster as only that. No one disputes that the Russian army is in trouble.

The issue instead is whether conditions in the Russian army have deteriorated to a point where the command hierarchy might break down, where some commanders might decide to use force to support themselves and their troops, or where some senior military men might even decide to attempt to seize power at either the center or in one or more of Russia's farflung regions.

Despite a history of often draconian discipline and a tradition of staying out of the country's political life, there are increasing indications that the chain of command may be stretched even if it is not yet broken and that ever more military men are prepared to act illegally to enrich themselves or to take care of their men.

The Defense Ministry's much-publicized difficulties in finding reliable units to fight in Chechnya not only help to explain why Russia lost on the battlefield there but also suggest that the general staff can no longer simply issue orders with complete confidence that they will be obeyed.

Although Chechnya was certainly a special case, the fact that Russian generals are now having to think about which of their orders will be obeyed and which will not is a clear indication of the decay of the chain of command on which a military must rely.

And reports in the Russian media of officers and soldiers stealing and selling military equipment to enrich or support themselves are now so common that they often pass without notice.

But the extent of the problem was unintentionally highlighted by the observation of a Russian military justice official. He noted that such thefts had recently declined but only because the market for weapons in Russia has been saturated by earlier sales.

And the large number of officers and men who are either going hungry or are forced to work second jobs to feed themselves and their families because Moscow has not paid them their salaries suggests that such problems will only increase unless something is done to ease their situation.

But with regard to the third and most ominous of these predictions -- that the Russian military might stage a coup and provoke a civil war -- there is little evidence that anyone inside the army is thinking about that possibility. As throughout Russian and Soviet history, few military men appear at all interested in taking the enormous risks that getting involved in politics would entail.

On the other hand, as the Council report notes, there may be some political figures outside the army who might like to put it in play. The report states that the Russian army should remain outside of politics until it becomes clear just what kind of a political system Russia will have.

By suggesting in the context of the problems of the military that the question of Russia's political system remains open, the report implies that some are or may soon try to draw the military in to promote their own goals.

But even if that worst possible outcome does not happen, the Russian army's deteriorating conditions do make it a threat to Russia's future and hence to Russia's relations with the outside world.