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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Army Too Divided to Rebel




As the Russian political and economic crisis deepens, more and more Westerners and Russians are pondering the attitudes of the country's military and how they may respond if the democratic, free-market, post-communist Russia finally reaches meltdown.


The military, including all the "other forces" -- the Interior Ministry, the border guards and the Federal Security Service, or FSB -- were disgraced by the Chechen debacle. They have been underpaid and underfed for years. The Russian military were on the receiving end of all hardships created by market reforms since President Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Soviet Union in 1991. Now the idea of a currency board is being floated by the Kremlin, which implies more budget cutting and will surely make the plight of Russia's military even more miserable. So why are tanks not already rolling on the streets of Moscow to topple the remnants of the bankrupt pro-Western Yeltsin regime?


Recent polls say that only one Russian in 10 still backs market reforms and 40 percent want a sharp change of economic policy. In the army and security forces these anti-liberal sentiments are, most likely, even more widespread.


Yeltsin did not serve in the army and was never really popular in the barracks. Unlike the former Indonesian President Suharto, who was ousted after a similar economic and financial debacle, Yeltsin cannot rely on any personal loyalties in the ranks of Russia's professional military.


Of course, in October 1993, the army did go into battle in Moscow to destroy the legally elected Supreme Soviet and keep Yeltsin in the Kremlin. But in 1993 Yeltsin won a referendum in which a majority of voters endorsed not only him personally, but also the economic policies of his government, headed by Viktor Chernomyrdin. Support for Yeltsin and liberal market reform in Moscow was overwhelming and was one of the factors that influenced the decision of the Russian generals to support Yeltsin and the resolution of soldiers to obey orders and shoot. Now there is no such support left whatsoever.


However, there is a bright side to this. Today's total political disloyalty of the army and security forces means that a civil war is highly unlikely in Russia. Two sides are needed for a civil war, requiring that the armed and security forces should split. But who then will fight for liberal economic reform and the International Monetary Fund? I, personally, do not know any such men in the ranks of the Russian professional military. They would all rather march under red banners again.


Still, the Russian military remains passive, first of all because it is a deeply divided organization. The armed forces and the Interior Ministry divisions are filled with conscripts. Happily, Western calls to reform the Russian military and make it an all-volunteer force were not obeyed in Moscow. Conscripts constitute not only the ranks of privates in Russia's army, but also 90 percent of the sergeants and up to 50 percent of lieutenants, who as fresh civilian university graduates are enlisted for two years as dvukhgodichniki.


These conscript officers and men are not interested in the future social role of the military in Russia, or military equipment procurement plans. Conscripts are ready to endure bad housing and pay arrears if in the end they will get out of the military on time and without trouble. They do not want any coups, since this could only worsen conditions and prolong their service, as the army needs more manpower to impose martial law.


The professional military are a minority in Russia's standing army, and are closely watched by the military counterintelligence service of the FSB. "Young officers" coups are virtually impossible in Russia today, since the FSB would have to be part of any conspiracy. A successful coup could only happen if all Russia's armed and security forces worked in cohesion, if the cause of such a revolution is deemed noble by a vast majority of officers and is supported by a considerable section of Russia's civilian population.


If Russia's political leaders finally find a power-sharing formula that will bring communists and nationalists into a coalition government and roll back market reform, the army and "other forces" will remain neutral and stay in their barracks. Only if the politicians fail to negotiate a compromise solution and the present crisis goes from bad to worse, will the military be pulled into the fray. Generals that managed to devastate, but not pacify, Grozny may then become overall political arbiters and rulers in Moscow.


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