from Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, No. 64, 1999.|
Military in the Second Chechen War: Revenge of the Army or a Putsch in the Making?
When the Russian
Army started its recent invasion of Chechnya, a number of observers compared it with the first Chechnya
war, when Russian tanks invaded this Caucasian republic on December 11, 1994. In both wars, the Russian
authorities used Chechen terrorist acts and incursions in neighbouring republics as pretext for their
decision. Another similarity was that the invasion of Chechnya took place weeks before Duma elections,
and some months before centrally important presidential elections, and are justly seen an attempt by
ailing and scandal ridden Yeltsin to distract public attention. Yet, the differences are more striking,
and observers have already mentioned the dramatic change in Russian public opinion from opposing to supporting
war efforts, as well as in the media, from broadcasting critical views during the first Chechnya war
to the current docile reproduction of the Russian official viewpoint.
But most commentators have
missed one key difference between 1994 and the present war, and that is the position of the Russian military.
In fact, in 1994 the Russian army and its genshtab (General Staff) was one of the most serious opponents
of the war, and during the initial weeks it stayed out of both operation planning and refrained from
leading the initial assault. The war was prepared and commanded by the FSK (Federal Counterintelligence
Service) and the Interior Ministry, with the genshtab taking the leadership of military operations only
in February 1995, after the disastrous New Years' attack on Grozny which had led to the death of some
2000 Russian soldiers.
The opposition to the war was at every level of the army: from simple soldiers
who simply refused to fight, to Generals Boris Gromov and Valery Mironov, Deputy Defence Ministers, who
considered that the army was unprepared for the operation and was going to be held responsible for the
failure. First Deputy Commander of the Army, General Eduard Vorobyev, even refused to lead the operations
because of poor planning. This time, we see that the Russian Generals are not only for this war in Chechnya,
but they are pushing for a total war to take control of the whole rebellious republic. Major General
Shamanov, the commander of the Western federal forces in the North Caucasus, commenting
on possible negotiations with Chechen representatives, said: If the government
tries to stop the
army, there will be a powerful exodus of officers of various ranks. The officer corps may not survive
another slap in the face. (.) For myself, I would say that I would tear off my shoulder boards and go
and do something in civilian life. I would no longer serve in such an army.
Shamonov repeated a belief
widely held among the military that the first Chechnya war was lost because the army was betrayed by
politicians. Anatoly Chubais, one of the country's most pro-Western politicians, said recently:
Russian army is reviving in Chechnya, faith in the army is growing and a politician who does not think
so cannot be regarded a Russian politician. In this case there is only one definition - a traitor.
is left with the impression that it is the army that is dictating the political goals of the war, a strange
situation in a country where the military is supposed to be under civilian control. This impression is
confirmed by the incident in which the Russian military force, on their peace-keeping mission in Bosnia,
crossed to Kosovo to take strategic positions around the Pristina airport without even the knowledge
of the political leadership in Moscow.
Why this change? Is the second Chechnya war the army's "revenge
for our past defeat" as Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of Yabloko Party, put it, or does it reflect a more
profound transformation within the army and, in general, in Russian society?
The war in Chechnya
will not only leave its mark on the whole of the Caucasus region, but possibly could have consequences
larger than that. Next year, a presidential elections awaits Russia, and it is important to consider
the role the Russian army might play in this process of change of power. The Russian Army has been in
a state of collapse and disintegration since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The once mighty Red Army
had to fit in the boots of the diminished Russian armed forces, shrunk from the 2.7 million soldiers
Russia inherited from the USSR to a mere 1.2 million in 1994. Moreover, Russian politicians stopped funding
the armed forces, paying for little more than running costs. According to an article by Stanislav Menshikov
in Voprosy Ekonomiki, (July 1999), from 1991-1997 output of military products decreased by 88 per cent,
while military spending was cut by 85 per cent.
This was not just a reflection of the dire situation
of Russian state finances, but reflected the mentality of the reform-minded politicians under the Prime
Minister Yegor Gaidar, who considered that, at the end of the Cold War and East-West confrontation, there
was no need to have large and expensive armed forces. The under-funded army had not only failed to carry
out the necessary reforms to transform itself in line with the new conditions, but had reached a point
of near collapse, clearly shown in its defeat in the first Chechnya war. The armed forces were so weakened
that both the military and the political elite increasingly considered nuclear force as the only deterrence
against possible outside threats.
However, the Russian leadership has come to realise that it was
its military weakness that led to its political marginalisation. NATO expansion in Eastern Central Europe
was a hard blow to Kremlin policy, while at each major international event, it has seen itself without
any voice, as was the case in the Middle East and, more recently, in Yugoslavia. Moreover, while Russia
has lost control over Chechnya, Western powers, especially the USA, are pushing for the construction
of pipelines that would carry Caspian oil to the West by skirting Russia and going through its traditional
regional rival, Turkey. This made the Russian Defence Minister, Igor Sergeyev, declare recently that
the West is not interested in Russia stabilising the situation in the North Caucasus.
There are ample
signs that Russia is trying to rearm itself, in spite of a general of lack of funds. According to news
agency reports, military factories in Tula received complete wage arrears earlier this year, something
not seen for years and demand increased by 400 per cent compared with last year. It is also claimed
that military spending will be increased by 57 percent to 146 billion roubles ($5.7 billion) in 2000.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vowed to rebuild Russia's military might because of growing instability
at home and abroad and the increasing use of force in world affairs:
If we let our defence potential
weaken, our independence as a sovereign state will be compromised. The government has undertaken to rebuild
and strengthen the military might of the state to respond to new geopolitical realities, both external
and internal threats.
More recently, the Russian Navy tested two missiles, a reaction to US proposals
to amend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) treaty. By creating a missile-defence shield, the US
could neutralise the threat of Russian nuclear weapons, the last trump card in Moscow's hand. Another
important shift during this period is the total collapse of the "reforms". The "shock-therapy" of Gaidar,
implemented in Yeltsin's first term, led to a catastrophic weakening of the Russian state, without
any positive results. There was also no real progress during Yeltsin's second term and the political
elite around "the family" have nothing positive to offer Russia. Objectively, there is a need for an
authoritarian regime that could fight against criminality and corruption within the administration and
which could preserve the unity of the country by strengthening central authority.
The weakness of
the army and its internal division has often left the wrong impression that it is an apolitical body.
"At several crucial junctures in Russia's recent history, it was the army that determined what the direction
was to be," writes Russian military analyst, Pavel Baev. It was the guns of army generals, led by Marshal
Zhukov, that decided the outcome of the succession struggle after Stalin's death, when the detested head
of NKVD, Lavrentin Beria, was the clear designate to take power. More recently, it was the immobilism
of the army that led to the failure of the anti-Gorbachev putsch in 1991, while the confrontation between
Yeltsin and the Russian parliament in October 1993 was decided by the intervention of army tanks.
succeeded in neutralising the political force of the military by dividing the armed forces. In a time
of necessary reforms and scarce resources, the Russian president worked on creating alternative armed
forces outside the army hierarchy, by strengthening the Interior Ministry Troops and the Presidential
Security Services as well as the Border Guard Troops. Is a weakened political class could still keep
the army outside of the Kremlin walls?
Following the crash of the rouble in August 1996, Yeltsin
appointed Yevgeni Primakov, the former head of Russian intelligence services, to the post of prime minister.
Primakov tried to curb the influence of the oligarchs, fight corruption, and strengthen state institutions,
before being sacked by the suspicious president. Before the appearance of Putin on the Moscow political
scene, the alliance of Primakov-Luzhkov, with their Fatherland-All Russia party (OVR), backed by Most
Bank money (largely believed to be closely associated with the former KGB), was the most popular political
formation and Primakov the probable future president. Oddly enough, the two prime ministers who succeeded
him, Sergei Stepashin and Vladimir Putin, were also ex-KGB generals.
If an authoritarian alternative
is being prepared and the Chechnya war is a reflection of a power struggle for the Kremlin, then Russia
could face serious dangers. The Russian army is chronically weak and it could repeat the catastrophic
performances of both the Afghan war and the first Chechnya war.
Not only are the Russian armed
forces divided, but there are also clear signs of its territorialisation: that is, the establishment
of closer links with local interest groups in return of services or food. There is a large number of
private armies that have developed in recent years, from the small "mafia" groups to the splendid 20,000-strong
force of Gazprom. The further weakening of the political authorities, or another defeat in Chechnya,
could threaten the survival of the Russian state itself.
The Russian military command has learned
from its previous mistakes in Chechnya and from the US war against "terrorism" in Afghanistan and Sudan
as well as from the more recent NATO war against Yugoslavia. But a simple comparison shows how incorrect
this assumption is. Unlike NATO, the Russian army did send in ground troops from the early days of the
war and has already suffered several hundred casualties. Moreover, the Russian army, by declaring a total
war against all Chechen forces - in fact all Chechen people, with the exception of the Moscow based Diaspora
- has left little margin for a political way out. Even if it succeeds in taking all Chechen towns and
villages, Russia has no capacity to rebuild Chechnya, which would eventually trigger a new rebellion.
In the short term, this "little victorious war" has helped to reshape the image of the Russian military.
But can the army afford another long low intensity war? How long will the army stay in the Caucasian
mountains, fighting off Chechen guerrilla attacks? If the last two hundred years are anything to go
by, the Chechens will organise daring counter-attacks. Is the second Chechnya war a rehearsal for an
authoritarian regime in all of Russia, or yet another chain in the disintegration of the Russian state?
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