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What does the future hold for the Russian military?

Much of the former Soviet army remains armed and desperate, without a role in the post-Cold War climate.

The Russian General Staff has taken a sudden interest in human rights, complaining of the "apartheid-like" treatment accorded the Russian-speaking civilians and soliders in the newly independent Baltic states - Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. More than a year after the Baltic states proclaimed their independence, they find themselves still occupied and under threat by the Russian military. Since they were annexed a half-century ago, several million Russians have come to live in the Baltics and some 130,000 Russian soldiers still are billeted there. A draft statement of Russia's military doctrine warns that the "violation of civil rights . . . of persons identifying themselves ethnically and culturally with Russia in the former Soviet republics may become a serious source of conflict." In case of disturbances in the Baltics, Russian generals have issued orders to shoot to kill.

This interest of the Russian military in "the nationality problem" is a terrifying echo of the Serbian Army's claim that it had the "obligation" to protect the "rights" of Serbian minorities in Bosnia and Croatia, or anywhere else in what was then Yugoslavia. Everywhere in the former Soviet Union - from Lithuania to Siberia, and Estonia to Kyrgizia - Russians are a sizable minority. The Russian military's new doctrine is but a prescription for a reassertion of Russian imperialism and an excuse for claiming resources. The Yeltsin government can wheedle, cajole, and promise, but unless the concept of free markets and democracy yields something tangible for the forlorn pensioners and workers of the former Soviet Union, his support could evaporate in a puff of failed expectations. An army's commitment to firm leadership then would become as welcome as a desert rain. Isvestia reported on July 27, 1992, the troubling statistic that two-thirds of all Muscovites polled are "nostalgic" for the old U.S.S.R.

As in Yugoslavia, ethnic animus and militarism threaten the ruin of the feeble Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The Russian parliament has threatened Estonia for violating the rights of ethnic Russians. The feud between Ukraine and the Russian Republic, however, holds perhaps the most potential for explosive repercussions since both sides are so well armed. Ukrainians - with the third largest army in Europe - resent the "imperialist" attitude of Russians, while most Russians refuse to see Ukraine, or its capital, Kiev, as "abroad." Some Russian generals are worried that Ukrainian forces have retained some short-ranged nuclear weapons. One special irritant - the nuclear-armed, 300-ship Black Sea fleet - has been palliated by "dividing" the fleet between Ukraine and Russia until 1995, a solution with all the vices of Solomon's suggestion to contending claimants of a new-born child.

Nobody knows what will happen to this great chunk of the former Soviet navy two years hence. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that the Russian General Staff easily will relinquish some of the best part of its blue-water fleet. In addition, the Crimea is in dispute between Russia and Ukraine. As a result, Ukrainian officials have broached NATO for territorial guarantees, while Russian officials have made it clear that an alliance of former republics with NATO would have the most dire consequences.

An ethnic witches' brew

The former Soviet empire doesn't make ethnic sense. There are 120 nationalities in the CIS, and an endless number of ethnic groups live in pocket-sized cantons. Sixty million people in the territories of the former Soviet Union reside outside of their own "allotted" national space. In most regions, there are not even recognized borders. The strife inherent in this ethnic witches' brew largely had been suppressed during 70 years of communism. Now, regions within regions are claiming sovereignty. Even cities are declaring their independence within regions, if there happens to be a particular financial interest (say, an oil field or diamond mine) nearby.

Researchers at the Russian Institute of Georgraphy recently looked at potential conflicts resulting from the Swiss cheeselike dispersion of ethnic nationalities in the former Soviet empire and found more than 180 actual and potential flashpoints. If the "rights" of Russians are abridged (as surely they will be somewhere across the 11 time zones that comprised the former Soviet Union), the defense of Russians and their "rights" could give the Red Army the mission, money, and authority it now craves, but lacks.

All the elements holding the former Soviet Union together have disappeared - save the army. The Communist Party is outlawed and disgraced. The KGB no longer is in the business of instilling fear, and, instead, has moved toward steadfast commercialism - becoming the new stockholders, managers, and wholesalers.

Much of the former Soviet army, however, remains intact - armed and desperate. At least 3,000,000 strong, employing 11,000,000 people, and impacting some 40,000,000 lives directly, the Red Army once was called the 16th Republic - the third largest in the so-called Commonwealth of Independent States, after Russia and the Ukraine.

Soviet soldiers' rewards once were an honorable mission and, for officers, special privileges. However, the mission went the way of the Soviet regime, and the privileges have vanished as well. Entire battalions have started to seek their own fortunes. Just as disturbing, Red Army units have refused orders from Moscow to come back. The General Staff silently - and not so silently - has supported renegade units that want to stay where they are. As Defense Minister Pavel Grachev made it clear in August, 1992, the army is not at all interested in leaving Poland, notwithstanding the Polish-Russian Treaty designed to promise just such a withdrawal. One wonders, too, if many more Red Army troops willingly will vacate Germany if economic conditions continue to worsen in the CIS.

If Russian troops do come home, there is nothing for them to do. There are no jobs or housing. Nearly 300,000 Russian military families - mostly returnees from Eastern Europe - are homeless. Officers are sleeping with their own families - and six or seven others - in boxcars and sheds. Ordinary NCOs and conscript troops languish in field tents. Obviously, if more withdrawals from Poland, the Baltics, and Germany take place as scheduled, there will be a critical mass of aimless soldiers. Europe hasn't seen anything like it since the Thirty Years War - soldiers wandering the countryside, unable to buy food, unable to keep warm, and willing to sell their weapons and services for a song.

Not surprisingly, a mere 17% of the Red Army's officers support Pres. Boris Yeltsin's reforms. As the ex-chairman of the Soviet General Staff termed it, the army sees itself in "a ridiculous position ... left to its own devices." Russian military pilots complain they are paid less than half the wage of bus drivers, and submarine captains note that they get less than the head of the toilet cleaning cooperative. Dissatisfaction in the armed forces, and at the top of the Yeltsin government, is hardly a secret. In early February, 1992, Gen. Konstantin Kobets, Yeltsin's closest military advisor, wrote ominously that "The alarm felt by officers over their future has reached its limits."

Once again, rumors of a coup are proliferating. Another warning, sounded in August, 1992, by Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev, seems only too reminiscent of a similar alert of Edward Shevernadze six months before the August, 1991, military putsch against the government of Mikhail Gorbachev. Fueled by a rising alliance of unsavory Russian xenophobes, anti-Semites, and unemployed party apparatski, coup plotters in the military could find supporters. Their numbers might be buttressed by returning Russians, expelled from the new republics or fleeing discrimination decreed in the newly sovereign entities flowering over the face of the former empire.

From time to time during the Cold War, military takeovers in Latin America were seen by various US. administrations as useful in checking a slide toward economic chaos. Russia is even more implicated in the prosperity of Europe than, say, Chile or Brazil have been in sustaining the economic well-being of the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Despite Russian penury and Europe's long divisions, much of the continent has come to be critically intertwined with the former Soviet Union. Thirty percent of Germany's natural gas and 20% of its oil come from the former U.S.S.R. Almost all of Eastern Europe is dependent on Russian fuels, and a great deal of its external trade is still involved with the CIS. If the fledgling Eastern European democracies are to make the transformation to capitalism, the former Soviet Union can not lapse into a Yugoslavian-style anarchy. To John Hardt, the Library of Congress' authority on the economies of the East, the auguries are ominous. He warns that default on $33,000,000,000 owed to German banks, the specter of new Berlin Walls, and soup kitchens speckling Europe's eastern frontier are portents of another Great Depression unless swift remedy is found to salvage and revivify something from the wreckage of the Soviet economy.

One wonders, therefore, if a coup might be welcome to some in the U.S. and elsewhere. After all, chaos in the CIS seems inevitable unless action and help come from the West. That would be expensive and might not even work to shore up Yeltsin's faltering democratic experiment. Moreover, the Russian military is a known entity to many in the West. It could restore order, take control of nuclear weapons, and help make sure the huge debt racked up by the Soviet Union at least gets serviced, if not paid down. A successful coup would find a government ready and willing to prevent a great flood of refugees from appearing at Germany's doorstep. Who knows what combination of proto-fascists and communists might reappear after Yeltsin's haphazard fall? A successful coup could help stem the tide of gangsterism and drug smuggling that is ebbing westward, and might even avert a Western depression.
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Author:Nathan, James A.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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