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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Bailout Averts Nightmare




Last week President Boris Yeltsin and his regime appeared close to collapse. Internal strife was ripping apart the Kremlin. Igor Shabdurasulov, Yeltsin's recently appointed deputy chief of staff, stated publicly that Yeltsin was too tired, "both physically and psychologically, to continue to run the country efficiently." The political stage in Moscow seemed ready for a reenactment of the events that led to the fall of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.


Gorbachev was head of state and supreme commander of the 4-million-strong Red Army, and there was no feasible constitutional way to remove him from power. But in Russia, constitutions do not mean much. The military and civilian officials who make up the nomenklatura that rules Russia bow to the power of brute force and nothing else. If the nomenklatura believes the leader in the Kremlin is losing control, it simply stops obeying orders.


In December 1991 Yeltsin bypassed Gorbachev and clinched an agreement with Defense Minister Yevgeny Shaposhnikov before he signed the agreement to end the Soviet Union. Gorbachev made a last-ditch attempt, however, to cling to power. Several days after the signing of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha agreement, which led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev addressed a meeting of leading generals and begged them to save the Union. But the high brass did not listen to what their commander-in-chief was saying. Later one of the those generals told me: "If Gorby had given us exact orders in August 1991, we would have delivered Yeltsin to him in chains. In December 1991 we told Gorby to get lost."


Instead of following the constitution, the Russian military in 1991 welcomed Yeltsin, who promised them more money, increased retirement benefits and so on. Of course, all Yeltsin's pledges turned out to be false. But unlike Gorbachev, Yeltsin had already won several public elections. He knew that promising pies in the sky is OK. The public likes campaign promises even if the goods are never delivered.


Last week Yeltsin was doing it again. During a meeting with his top military commanders in the Kremlin, Yeltsin said the government would find more money, that "there would be no economizing on defense" no matter what it costs and so on. Yeltsin also promoted to higher rank several eminent generals: the Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin, who runs the police and internal troops, Anatoly Krapivin, the chief of the Federal Border Guards, and Anatoly Kuznetsov, the chief of the presidential security service.Yeltsin vividly showed his military chiefs who is in charge of handing out stars and ribbons. He pressed home a simple message: Be loyal and you will be decorated, while unfaithfulness will get you in trouble. "We are strong enough to curb all plans for seizing power and other extremist plans," Yeltsin said. "Extremists will fail because our power and law enforcement agencies are very well-coordinated."


This statement startled foreign diplomats and military officials. If the Russian government says it is strong enough to resist any attempt to overthrow it, a military coup may indeed be imminent. Politically isolated, Yeltsin may be forced to resign just as Gorbachev was in 1991.


Social and political protests are on the rise in Russia. In the army and security forces the rank and file are also disgruntled. Military wage arrears are mounting again. Even if reports of coming mutinies are exaggerated, Yeltsin can hardly trust his military and security forces to keep the growing hostile crowds of protesters at bay. The vast majority of officers and generals hate Yeltsin and the pro-Western regime that destroyed their great army. The Russian military will not defend Yeltsin or the constitution if worst comes to worst.


However, at the last moment the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Japanese government came up with a $17.1 billion bailout. Apparently Yeltsin's public pronouncement about a possible coup finally pressed the West to pay up and prevent a nightmare scenario of an unstable anti-Western regime taking over Russia's vast nuclear arsenal.


But does this bailout also cover the Russian military? Who will make good on Yeltsin's promises "not to economize on military spending"? Russia has an armed force as large as the United States' and a vast military infrastructure that survives on a defense budget less than that of Italy. All attempts to cut the Russian military down to size have been ineffective up to now. With such a force on its hands, no government can ever hope to balance its account books.


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