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from Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, No. 64, 1999.

Vicken Cheterian

The Russian 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  Vladimir
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:
The 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.
One 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.
Yeltsin 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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