Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Army Mutiny on Horizon?

Army reform has once again become a popular theme in Moscow. Last week in the Kremlin, President Boris Yeltsin announced at an enlarged session of the Russian government that military reform will be pursued in a "consistent and systematic manner" to give Russia a "combat-ready, professional army."


Yeltsin's call for reform also was followed by one more rebuke aimed at Defense Minister Pavel Grachev for stalling reforms. Last month, when Yeltsin gave his annual presidential address to parliament, he also spoke of military reforms that were held up and of unnamed military chiefs who were responsible.


Rumors are circulating in Moscow that this time Yeltsin is serious and that a new draft plan for military reform is being finalized in the president's administration. But rumors of new bold plans for reform of the armed forces are nothing new. Last spring a group of experts in the president's administration, headed by General Alexander Vladimirov, also prepared a far-reaching military reform plan. A special high-level conference, under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, which should have confirmed the reforms, was planned for the end of April. But this conference never took place.


In mid-May, Vladimirov was sacked from government service. His reform plan was also promptly rejected as "inappropriate." For almost a year, until Yeltsin's last address to parliament, the words "military reform" disappeared from Russian officialdom's vocabulary.


Last year, when rumors of impending military reform were as widespread as today, and Yeltsin was vigorously rebuking military chiefs for stalling, General Vladimir Semyonov -- the commander of Russia's ground forces -- said publicly, "when judging whether military reforms have collapsed or not, one should not concentrate entirely on the opinion of one person." It is likely that he had Yeltsin in mind.


Later I asked Semyonov: "The president has announced new plans for accelerating military reform. Are you preparing to execute them?" Semyonov simply laughed and said: "What plans? What reforms? What are you talking about? We have our own plans. We military people know ourselves what we want."


The plans put forward by Vladimirov were doomed from the beginning. When, last April, Vladimirov sent his draft to the Defense Ministry and the General Staff of the Armed Forces, the military chiefs rejected them out of hand, and this ended all military reform in 1995. Since then the situation has become even more precarious. Nowadays Russian civilian politicians are simply incapable of imposing military reform on the Russian military if influential army chiefs find such reforms "inappropriate."


In 1992, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the civil authorities could then have forced the military to carry out any reforms that seemed appropriate. The Russian generals were ready to execute orders that they did not approve. Now things are different. The military is not afraid of the president or of civilian authorities in general. Moreover, the majority of generals and officers do not trust politicians and seriously consider the government guilty of high treason.


Officers in active service in Russia's ground forces openly say to journalists that the Russian government is executing a plot to destroy the Russian army by withholding pay and cutting troops. "The ground forces are already smaller in size than the Interior Ministry forces and still being cut further," they say. Officers also talk openly of a possible mutiny in the military.


Yeltsin can dismiss Grachev or any other general. Last year he dismissed the most popular and charismatic of Russian generals, Alexander Lebed. And the army did not rise against him, even the 14th Army in Transdnestr, which Lebed was then commanding.


However, Yeltsin can no longer impose military reform that the army will not like. Dismissing a few or even a dozen generals and replacing an entire disgruntled army with a new "combat-ready and professional" one are tasks of a distinctly different magnitude.


To begin meaningful military reform in Russia, Yeltsin or anyone who succeeds him, regardless of his political background, will need the approval of all influential generals, and not only the chiefs of the army and General Staff, but also Lebed, Igor Radionov, the chief of the Academy of the General Staff, and even Valentin Varennikov. This means that no drastic cuts in manpower or defense expenditures are feasible for the time being.





Pavel Felgenhauer is defense and national security affairs editor for Segodnya.