Russia's Brass from The Past

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The Russian armed forces were rapidly becoming the rusted armed forces: unpaid soldiers, demoralized officers, weapons and equipment on a slow slide to obsolescence. But what a difference a war makes! Even--or especially--one against an enemy that has only recently inflicted humiliating defeat. Russia's current war in Chechnya is producing a remarkable internal shift, with the nation's top military brass now glimpsing an opportunity to regain some of the power they enjoyed in the old Soviet Union.

As Russian artillery pounds Chechnya, particularly the capital Grozny--still in rubble since the disastrous 1994-96 war--and as more than 200,000 Chechens huddle in the snow in camps along the border with Ingushetia, the generals are openly telling Moscow what kind of orders they are to be given--or else.

Vladimir Shamanov, a commander in Chechnya and one of the Russian army's most popular generals, warned earlier this month that if "the politicians" call a halt to the Chechen campaign--something the West is increasingly demanding--"the country will be pushed to the brink of civil war." He says there would be a mass exodus of officers, and promises to be one of the first to tear off his shoulder boards.

A strange set of circumstances has given the military the liberty to make such threats. First, this Chechen war, unlike the last one, has broad public acceptance in Russia, largely because of the terrorist bombings of apartment blocks in Moscow and two other cities that the Russians blame on Chechen guerrillas. This time, the generals are appearing daily on television and on newspaper front pages to boast of their plans for the separatist rebels.

Kick-starting the process that has given the top brass such a new shine was the rapid deployment in June of Russian paratroopers into Kosovo to snatch control of Slatina Airport from under NATO's nose. At the time, Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based defense analyst, said there was much more at stake than Kosovo in this daring move. His prediction then that "It is highly likely that the future of Russia will be decided by the gun, not the ballot box," is sounding less outrageous since the start of the new war in Chechnya.

Apart from some unaccustomed success on the ground, the military also has a new figurehead: President Boris Yeltsin's latest Premier, Vladimir Putin--even though his uniform was that of a colonel (reserve) in the traditionally rival KGB. Yeltsin promoted Putin to ensure his own position after he steps down as President. A small victorious war in the Caucasus would give his man some popularity, both with the people and the top brass. The irony of this is that Putin seems to be getting so close to the military that soon he might no longer need Yeltsin's blessing to become his successor. "Putin is caught between the hammer and the anvil," says Moscow-based military analyst Victor Baranets. "He cannot openly side against Yeltsin, but he has cast his lot with the military and cannot lose their support. His presidential ambitions are contingent on success in Chechnya."

Since taking over as Premier in August, Putin has donned military uniform to visit army field units and air force and navy installations. He has assigned 17% of next year's budget to defense, up 5% on this year. Officers in Chechnya are promised $1,000 a month--their usual pay being more like $50 or $100. He has switched Yeltsin's emphasis on keeping sweet the special forces of the Interior Ministry (MVD), and the generals have read his signal. "Many will follow Putin, including myself," says Shamanov.

The military's mutinous mutterings are fueled by signs that Yeltsin and other politicians are worried about Western reaction to the civilian blood being shed in Chechnya, plus the plight of refugees. The fear of political and economic sanctions led a group of politicians, said to be headed by Yeltsin's chief of staff Alexander Voloshin, to recommend seeking "a way out of this crisis in the framework of talks." Yeltsin's reaction to that proposal was described by Voloshin to Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeyev as "basically positive." Which is why Chief of the General Staff Anatoli Kvashnin called Yeltsin and threatened to resign. It was Kvashnin who launched the lightning Kosovo operation, and he leads the more hawkish of the generals on Chechnya. Which sets him against Sergeyev, who heads a less aggressive faction, believed to favor a strategy of containment. Kvashnin is rumored to have his eye on the Minister's job, a suspicion hardly scotched when on Friday Sergeyev said rumors of disagreement with Kvashnin were "lies, slander and misinformation."

Yeltsin had also interrupted his trout fishing near his dacha at the Black Sea resort of Sochi to summon the commander of the task force in Chechnya, General Victor Kazantsev, also in the Kvashnin camp. He reported to Yeltsin: "Officers are determined to see the war through to the end. If we don't, the people won't understand us."

That last sounds more like a political than a military campaigner. And it leaves Yeltsin in a bind. Says analyst Baranets, "He will either have to sack Putin and the key generals, risking a riot on the part of a frustrated army, or sack those who want talks, risking a bad rift with the West."

While Yeltsin tries to choose, the military last week was steadily expanding its hold over the North Caucasus, moving into Chechnya's second city Gudermes and controlling flights and the flow of refugees. Valeri Yakov, of the Moscow-based daily Novye Izvestia, reported from the Chechnya-Ingushetia border: "The law is silent. The constitution is taking a break."

Late last week there were conflicting signals from Moscow. On Friday Voloshin's deputy Igor Shabdurasulov said the Kremlin was "ready for negotiations." But Putin himself told the top brass at a Defense Ministry meeting that while the Chechens were building "stern rejection" in the West, "we'll pursue our policy inexorably." He was frequently interrupted by applause. Which is further evidence that some Russian generals hanker for the days when--as was said of Prussia under Friedrich II--the Soviet Union was an army with a state rather than a state with an army.

Reported by Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow