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Russia: Analysis from Washington -- Air Force Commander Feels No Compunctions

Washington, 26 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A statement by the new chief of the Russian air force that he has no regrets about having given the order to shoot down a Korean civilian airliner in 1983 and would do so again raises a series of disturbing questions both about this individual and about the military and political system of which he is a part.

Colonel General Anatoliy Kornukov told the Russian television program "Hero of the Day" last Thursday that he would "always be sure" that his order to shoot down the KAL flight that had strayed into Soviet airspace over Sakhalin Island was correct. Moreover, he added, "If something like that would happen now, I would act the same way."

The shooting down of that civilian plane and the killing of all 269 people aboard was one of the chilliest moments in the Cold War. Not only was it criticized by many Western leaders, but it has been denounced by Russian President Boris Yeltsin as one of the greatest tragedies of that period.

But if Yeltsin has denounced it, he now also appointed to command of the Russian air force the man who fifteen years ago gave the order to shoot down that plane and who continues to insist that he acted properly and would do so again.

This episode raises three serious questions:

First, why did Yeltsin do this?

Second, what are the real attitudes of the high command of the Russian military today?

And third, and most important, how can Russia or any of the other post-communist states proceed to a democratic future without a full acknowledgment of the crimes of the Soviet past?

Yeltsin's role is especially murky. More than any other Russian leader, he has spoken out forcefully against the KAL shootdown. Consequently, it is more than a little surprising that he should now appoint the man who ordered it to the command of Russia's air force. Why then did he take this step?

Several explanations suggest themselves. Yeltsin may have believed that Kornukov had learned his lesson, although the general's statement last week suggests otherwise. Or Yeltsin may have felt that he was the best available candidate, especially given Yeltsin's push for a complete revamping of the military establishment.

Alternatively, Yeltsin may not have had a choice in the matter. He may been pressured to accept the dictates of hardliners in the military and at the foreign ministry.

Or the appointment may be a reflection of Yeltsin's own current thinking, a desire on his part to stake out a tougher line similar to the one adopted by his Soviet predecessors.

But whatever Yeltsin's intentions, the rise of this Soviet-trained general calls attention to how little has changed in the psychology and views of the Russian military. While many Russian generals appear to have accepted the new post-Soviet reality, Kornukov's comments show that not all of them have escaped the suspiciousness and aggressiveness of the Soviet military.

Kornukov's promotion is likely simultaneously encourage those who have not changed their way of thinking since the end of the Soviet era and to discourage those who have advocated a change in the way they conduct themselves in the new environment.

But Kornukov's elevation and his unapologetic stance about an action almost universally condemned inevitably raise a far broader and more difficult question: how can Russia or indeed any post-Communist country move forward without an honest assessment of what its current leaders did in the past?

Since the collapse of the Berlin wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, many in both the West and the countries immediately involved have argued that a thorough-going evaluation of the past actions of officials would lead to chaos or even bloodshed.

According to this view, the past actions of current officials should be kept in the past both because so many current officials have problematic backgrounds and because many of them have demonstrated a new commitment to democracy and freedom, a commitment that in itself represents a kind of atonement.

But if this argument is not without weight, it is also not without difficulties. Not only does it make it difficult for those who have been victims of such past actions to feel that the new democratic political system will give them justice, but it means that the ideas that animated such officials in the past may continue to drive them in the future.

And as the Kornukov declaration shows, that danger may be just as great as would be the one caused by an honest evaluation of the Soviet past.