Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Russia's Army: A Loose Cannon In Power Transfer

On a tense day this March, according to Communist deputies in Russia's parliament, an angry President Boris Yeltsin was on the brink of calling in troops to close down the parliament. It had just renounced the treaty that dissolved the Soviet Union in 1991, challenging his constitutional legitimacy.

This account is widely accepted now in Moscow political circles. The story runs that Mr. Yeltsin backed down in part because Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov warned him that he could not ensure the troops' loyalty.

About these ads

Now this episode is fodder for higher-stakes speculation as Russia prepares for its first democratic leadership succession. No Russian leader has ever faced the prospect Yeltsin faces now - of handing over power, if he loses, to an opposition after a legal election. And many Russians remain concerned that the military could play a critical role after the first round of voting June 16.

Twice already in Russia's transition to democracy, the military has been a decisive factor at key moments - during the 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, and again in the 1993 standoff between Yeltsin and the old Soviet parliament.

Western diplomats and Russian experts who follow Kremlin politics closely do not consider it likely that military force will be used to sort out the transfer of power during and after this election. But they are actively calculating the possibilities - one Western diplomat puts the likelihood at 5 to 10 percent - and reviewing possible scenarios.

Many Russians simply cannot imagine Yeltsin leaving power voluntarily. If he should lose at the polls, they say, he will find another way to remain.

Alexander Belkin, a retired major who is now an independent defense analyst, figures that Yeltsin will win reelection without the aid or threat of armed force. But if Yeltsin should be headed for an election loss, he says, "the possibility of armed military intervention is very high," adding that Yeltsin would use force as a last resort before surrendering the Kremlin.

The campaign rhetoric is laying down plenty of groundwork for such a move. Yeltsin aides are touting the possibility that armed groups of Communists could try to overthrow a Yeltsin victory at the polls. They also talk about Communist plans to disrupt the polls with teams of observers at polling stations. The threat of either action by the Communists could be used to justify declaring the elections illegitimate or a threat to national stability.

No one here foresees the armed forces acting wholly on their own initiative. But some are asking how far the military would follow Kremlin orders.

About these ads

"As long as what Yeltsin does is within the scope of his legitimate powers, then he will have the troops," says a Western diplomat. "Once he tries to do something that is extra-constitutional and tries to use the armed forces, it falls through." The diplomat says that was the lesson of the March episode over disbanding the Duma, or lower house of parliament. The Interior troops could not be counted on to follow orders of dubious legitimacy: "Military people don't want anything that destabilizes the government," the diplomat says.

But this diplomat is referring mainly to senior officers. The rank-and-file soldiers vote heavily for nationalists, and discontent runs high, particularly over the brutal war in Chechnya and unpaid wages.

The two most predictable scenarios in which armed forces could enter the election picture are these:

Yeltsin wins, but the Communist opposition points to widespread fraud that raises doubt about the election's legitimacy. Communist militants then create civil disturbances or even terrorist actions to challenge the outcome. Interior forces deploy to crack down on these militants.

In this case, most observers are convinced that the troops would follow orders. Even if Yeltsin's victory looked suspicious to the Russian public, "Yeltsin can count on the Interior Ministry" to enforce civil order, says Alexei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the Duma's Defense Committee.

The other scenario could occur if Yeltsin is losing or has lost and decides to derail or void the election. Here, his situation with the military is much dicier.

One of the most symbolic moments in Yeltsin's own career, as well as in this country's history, was when he stood on a tank in Red Square in 1991 and faced down armed forces called forth by Communist coup leaders. Then, the military was not willing to follow through in sustaining the coup against widespread public resistance.

When Yeltsin dissolved the rebellious Supreme Soviet in 1993 in a battle for power, the military sided with him and fired on the Supreme Soviet building - but only after several days of hesitation.

These incidents show how deeply reluctant the Russian military is to get involved in politics, says another Western diplomat, who works with the Russian military.

But Yeltsin also has loyalists among the ranks of senior officers. One critical military figure in a scenario of armed conflict in Moscow is the military commander of the Moscow district, Col. Gen. Leonty Kuznetsov. He said publicly in early May that the elections should be postponed because a Yeltsin loss would destabilize the country. The defense minister, Pavel Grachev, claims to have saturated the ranks of senior officers with his own loyalists. General Grachev's main asset, in turn, is his loyalty to Yeltsin.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.