War in Chechnya: The Impact On Civil-Military Relations In Russia
Major Aleksandr Belkin (Ret.)
"Chechnya is the deepest disappointment of my presidency."
-- Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Federation
At our last meeting here in Monterey in November 1994, some of the Russian participants, myself included, expressed their concern that in the case of Moscow's direct military intervention in Chechnya, Russia might face a challenge of terrorism - brutal armed violence could backfire into its cities. At the same time other voices aired serious doubts of any long-lasting and well-organized resistance in Chechnya, as well as skepticism about the potentiality of organized Chechen terrorist activities inside Russia.
I am glad to admit that I have underestimated the restraint and sensibility of the people of Chechnya (qualities having nothing to do with Dudayev's regime), though the hostage crisis in Budyonnovsk not only exposed the potential of terrorism, on the one hand, but also made it clear that terrorism was not the Chechens' primary intention, on the other. Certain analysts characterized Prime Minister Chernomyrdin's approach to resolving the Budyonnovsk crisis as a disastrous one. They predicted that the bargain with the terrorists over human lives established a dangerous precedent which would trigger a series of nation-wide bloody terrorist acts, not limited just to Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus. Fortunately, time has not proved the accuracy of their warnings. But the Budyonnovsk tragedy was a turning point of the war in Chechnya. The name of Budyonnovsk, a small North Caucasian town in the Stavropol district, has become a polysemantic political symbol: an indication of the incompetence and incapability of Yeltsin's administration, evidence of the Russian armed forces' weakness and their inability to win a local conflict, a symptom of a split within the government, a manifestation of the Russian parliament's impotence.
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These observations on Russia's first war in the Caucasus were published more than a century ago in a book by Major General Rostislav A. Fadeev, one of the best Russian military historians of the last century. Unlike Russia of the early nineteenth century, modern Russian society is seriously concerned about the situation in Chechnya, where an undeclared local-war-scale constabulary operation was launched by the "power structures" - the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior Affairs, and the Federal Security Service - by the secret decrees of the president.
The Chechen war has effected the climax of the crisis of civil-military relations in post-Soviet Russia. This crisis is rooted in the last years of the former Soviet Union, and ripened during President Yeltsin's term of office.
The paramount causes of this crisis include:
· The elimination of the former totalitarian Soviet system of subjective civilian control of the military through the Communist Party and state security (KGB) structures and the institution of political instructors;
· The failure to establish efficient executive control and legislative oversight over the military;
· The formal concentration of the oversight authority by the president (though it turns out that Yeltsin applied his famous formula of the powers of the subjects of the Russian Federation - "Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow" - to the military leadership as well, although in this case swallowing means not endangering presidential positions);
· The underdevelopment of civil society, which would hold liberal and democratic social values, in Russia;
· The loose social control of the ruling regime in general;
· The persisting non-democratic, authoritarian traditions and Byzantine methods of the post-Soviet political culture.
The rise and evolution of the Chechen republic closely correlates with the unsettled civil-military relations in Russia. It is extremely significant that traditionally warlike mountainous people of Chechnya and Ingushetiya, who never admit any supreme authority, elected former Air Force and Army generals (Dzhokhar Dudaev and Ruslan Aushev respectively) as their national leaders. On the other hand it was very meaningful that, while campaigning to be the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin favored another uniformed military - a Hero of the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Rutskoi - to run with him for the vice-presidency in 1991. Politicians were actively seeking the military's support, while the military were actively entering the policy-making process on every level in the Soviet Union, in Russia, in Chechnya, and so forth.
It is characteristic that representatives of both civilian authorities and military leadership of Russia were involved already in the very first attempts at settlement in Chechnya. Likewise, when their brief, unskilled attempts to peacefully solve the problem through political dialogue with the new Chechen leadership (though not quite legitimate, but the only really potent one) failed, both civilian and military administration demonstrated a rare concord and hastily resorted to armed violence to regain control over Chechnya.
To further understand the inevitability of the armed involvement in Chechnya, it is essential to comprehend why President Yeltsin declined any possibility of a personal meeting with Dudayev as a last hope to peacefully end the crisis. Certain individual features of Yeltsin's character made it psychologically difficult, if not impossible (though not excusable), to meet his political twin from Chechnya. Like Yeltsin himself, Dudayev strove for political power. And just Yeltsin was prepared to facilitate the disintegration of the Soviet Union in order to win power from Gorbachev, Dudayev was ready to sacrifice the unity of the Russian Federation for his own independent rule in Chechnya - that was one reason why Yeltsin did not, or could not, act decisively in the fall of 1991 to stop Dudayev's secessionism. Yeltsin in Moscow readily accepted forcible solutions to political disputes between different branches of state authority, just as Dudayev did in Grozny, . It was characteristic that Dudayev suggested, in a private letter to Yeltsin in April 1993, that the best solution for Yeltsin's conflict with the parliament was to disband the Supreme Soviet and hold simultaneous elections to a new legislature and a referendum on a new constitution! When in September 1993 Yeltsin "followed" that advice, Dudayev stated in the Chechen press that "Yeltsin's resolution directed the development of events in Russia into a logical channel" which should lead to complete democracy.
If the decision-makers in the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense had been better overseen by other social institutions, and if they had been better educated in the history of Russian policy and military history in the Caucasus, they might not have made all those ridiculous mistakes which led to the national crisis over Chechnya.
Firstly, they lost and misused time to prevent the development of Chechen secessionism in 1991. They have shown their political impotence and military inability by declaring a state of emergency in Chechnya and even airlifting paratroopers there, but failing to decisively engage them. More than that, they practically armed the forces of the quasi-independent Chechnya by leaving huge arsenals to Dudayev, and for more than three years they let him train and prepare those forces for future combat.
Secondly, they ignored experience of Russia's annexation of the Caucasus, neglected historical, cultural and religious peculiarities characteristic to Chechens (as well as to other Moslem Mountaineers): their traditional belligerency, hostility to any supreme authority, defiance of death in combat, tight bonds of blood relationship, strong tradition of vendetta, and so forth.
They neglected the experience of Russian Generals Aleksey Ermolov, Alexander Baryatinskii, Nikolay Evdokimov and others who acted not only skillfully, decisively, and cruelly, but who could treat their enemies respectfully. Alexander II met with captured Imam Shamil in St. Petersburg and treated him generously, providing him with a pension and a private mansion in the city of Kaluga. Later Shamil was even permitted to leave for Mecca.
Two colonels from the Russian General Staff visited the State Military Historic Archive in Lefortovo at the end of November 1994 (!) with an official request from the Ministry of Defense to learn more about the historical context of the armed conflict in the North Caucasus. The archive officials were very enthusiastic that their assistance and expertise might help to sooner resolve the conflict in Chechnya and prevent future armed violence there. But the military limited their knowledge to mere general information which they could have found in any pre-Soviet encyclopedia.
Regarding the combat experience of the Imperial Russian army in the Caucasus, Robert Baumann, an American researcher of the Caucasian war, observed, "From an institutional perspective, no systematic effort was made to preserve and disseminate the lessons of the Caucasian theater, which had little relevance to European warfare..."
If that assertion correctly applies to activities of such an outstanding personality as the nineteenth century Russian war minister (1861-1881) General Dmitriy Milyutin, it unfortunately corresponds even more accurately with the deeds of "the best Russian Minister of Defense of the last decade," as President Yeltsin characterized General Grachev. The cost of neglecting the Russian Caucasian army's experience in the last century turned out too high for the modern Russian troops engaged in Chechnya.
(Though even the fact that the armed forces' units presented as a part of the elite Mobile Forces suffered a crushing defeat in Grozny did not discourage Minister Grachev, who demonstrated steadfast confidence that his dreams will come true. Grachev asserted that the total strength of the Mobile Forces would be 200,000 men. While inspecting troops in the Far Eastern Military district in September 1995, he declared that the local component of the mobile forces would be based on one of the assault battalions of the naval infantry division, Pacific Fleet, and that the formation of the Far Eastern arm of the mobile forces would be accomplished by the year 2000. )
Thirdly, the decision-makers in the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense failed to convince the Russian public of the geopolitical importance of the Caucasus in general and Chechnya in particular for Russian national security interests and of the necessity to preserve Chechnya as an integral part of Russia. They never tried to initiate wide public discussion of ways and methods to peacefully solve the problem to mutual satisfaction. Instead they launched a series of secret coercive moves and finally secretly decided on a full-scale invasion.
General R. Fadeev, a prominent Russian nineteenth century military theorist, explained the security interests of the Russian empire in the Caucasus in the following terms:
"[Russian] domination at the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, or at least the neutrality of these seas, is a vital issue for the entire southern half of Russia, from [the river] Oka to Crimea, where the major strength of the empire, both human and material, is more and more concentrated. But Russia can guard its southern basins only from the Caucasian isthmus The sequence of water basins delving into the Asian mainland from the Dardanelles to the Aral Sea with its navigable tributary Amu River, cutting through entire central Asia almost up to the Indian border - is an extremely attractive trade route [for Europe], leading its way through roadless ridges and the highlands of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Of course it could be hard and probably unnecessary to apply a hundred year old imperial geopolitical rationale to the modern situation in Russia in general, and in Chechnya in particular. Though one notion is topical even today: "if the same [Europe-Asia-Europe] trade had been trafficked through a Caucasus which was independent of Russia, that could have created an endless chain of losses and threats for Russia." The problem of the Caspian oil deposits (with a supposed output of 200-400 million tons per year) and especially of the possible pipe-line route (with the forecasted near- and long-term dividends of correspondingly 1 and 5 to 10 billion dollars a year) is just one example of geostrategic importance of the North Caucasus and Chechnya.
Such an explanation of the Caucasian focus of the Russian government's security concerns could sound even more persuasive if coupled, for example, with a foreign policy statement of one of the major candidates for the next president of the United States, Republican Senator Robert Dole, who declared that:
"[T]he security of the world's oil and gas supplies remain a vital interest of the United States and its major allies. But its borders now move north, to include the Caucasus, Siberia, and Kazakhstan. Our forward military presence and diplomacy need adjusting."
But the Kremlin did not put forward this argument to convince the Russian public of the urgent necessity to stop the criminal evolution of the secessionist republic. Almost no other arguments were used except the condemnation of the criminal nature of Dudayev's regime. The primary reason for officialdom to avoid open public discussion was an apprehension that society might demand a peaceful solution and break the rules of the power game of the Kremlin and "power ministries."
The fourth blunder is closely related to the previous one. Russian political-military leadership did not use all the peaceful means to resolve the problem. Instead its civilian part, represented by "intellectuals" (presidential assistants, analysts, and members of the whimsical - innocuous and unavailing - presidential council), unskillfully exercised the policy of "carrot and stick." They failed to propose to Dudayev a "carrot" big enough, so that he could not reject it (like they did in the case of Tatarstan).
As to possible "carrots," the imperial Russian past provides instructive examples. One was prompted by the Chechen émigré-writer Abdourahman Avtorkhanov. In his memoirs Avtorkhanov quoted the proclamation to the peoples of Chechnya, signed on behalf of emperor Alexander II by a viceroy of the Caucasus General Field Marshal Prince Alexander Baryatinskii in 1859:
"On behalf of His Majesty the Emperor, I proclaim:
"If the modern 'autonomous' Checheno-Ingush Republic had such a constitution," summarized Avtorkhanov, "I would consider it as a super-happy state."
While this "party of peace" continued its feeble attempts, the "party of war" represented by strong supporters of the forceful solution - "power ministers," members of the Security Council, assisted by "uniformed civilians" (like deputy ministers for nationalities' affairs and regional politics Generals Alexander Kotenkov and Kim Tsagolov, et. al.) and civilian "hawks" (like Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Shakhrai, former minister and now presidential adviser for nationalities' affairs and regional politics Nikolay Yegorov) ­p;­p; secretly supported and armed Dudayev's local opponents and refused to deal with Dudayev himself. More than that, every time it seemed that Grozny might agree to Moscow's terms, the "power ministries" have repeatedly taken measures to undermine any possibility of a negotiated settlement.
The fifth misdeed of Yeltsin's political-military establishment displays its "blood relationship" with the last Soviet administration of Gorbachev. Almost in the same way as the Soviets did after Afghanistan, Tbilisi, Vilnius, etc., the "democratic" Russian government shifted the blame for its own political faults to the armed forces.
At first, the Chechen opposition and deceived Russian mercenaries, backed up and instigated by Deputy Premier Sergei Shakhrai and by Chief of the Federal Counterintelligence Service Sergei Stepashin, carried out a series of abortive armed attempts to overthrow Dudayev. But when the mercenaries were captured as prisoners of war and the news was disclosed to the Russian public, the "power ministers" managed to persuade the president, who was not at all adverse to the idea of armed "elimination" of the problem called "Dzhokhar Dudayev," to intervene militarily in full scale.
Though it is obvious that the idea of involving the armed forces in the Chechen crisis resolution was long cherished by the "power structures," it very soon turned out that in fact neither Grachev's military nor Yerin's interior forces were ready for such a "police" operation. Grachev, Yerin, and Stepashin let their soldiers die in hundreds in an unprepared combat without clear objectives.
After Shamil Basayev's victory, the military discovered that all the results of their self-sacrificing fierce fighting were once again lost by politicians. Thus, many military officers became convinced of political and social malfeasance - sending the army to Chechnya (like before to Afghanistan) but withdrawing support when things went wrong, leaving the military to "hold the bag."
Besides, the unpopular, bloody and dirty Chechen war, combined with the April 1993 cancellation of practically all legal exemptions from military conscription, which affected primarily youths from middle-class families, led to a new, high wave of anti-military sentiments in Russian society.
Finally, the Chechen adventure of the decision-makers from the Kremlin, Staraya Square, Arbat Square, Lubyanka Square, and Oktyabrskaya Square have exposed to the whole world, not just Russia's friends, that the Russian leadership and armed forces cannot resolve militarily even a limited conflict.
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A systemic crisis of civil-military relations is unfolding in Russia at three levels: in the upper echelons of state power, in the military, and in society.
At the national government level the Chechen war activated several conflicts. The most important one is a latent struggle for the right to control the military and law-enforcement policies between the president himself (counseled and directed by his security entourage) and other branches of power - the prime minister, Security Council, and parliament.
The president unilaterally deprived parliament of most of the legislative provisions for civilian oversight of the military after October 4, 1993 - first by his constitution, and then by his decree on December 21, 1993. That is why the State Duma's attempts to put the course of the military operation in Chechnya under legislative control failed.
Highly significant was a clash between the Duma's Defense Committee Chairman Sergey Yushenkov and the Duma's former human rights representative Sergey Kovalyov (both representing Russia's Choice), opposing the war in Chechnya on the one side, and Minister of Defense Pavel Grachev on the other side. The details of their confrontation were accurately described in mass media. That collision had meaningful results: while the Duma democratic deputies won a moral victory, they did not succeed in stopping the war. At the same time Grachev not only resisted their criticism and continued a catastrophic military operation, but also survived its disastrous results.
It was once again the tragedy in Budyonnovsk that helped the parliament and intellectuals in the president's office to decisively call to account the "power ministers." However, soon after the "party of peace" started to celebrate the resignations of the "heroes" of the Chechen war they discovered that their main target, Defense Minister Grachev, had skipped out intact.
While Grachev's conflict with Russia's Choice was an open one, his behind the scenes struggle against Prime Minister Chernomyrdin's control revealed itself only occasionally. Obviously, Chernomyrdin had nothing to do with the real decision-making on the start of the police operation in Chechnya. The first time that Chernomyrdin managed to get the power structures under temporary control was the Budyonnovsk crisis. He did what the "party of peace" in the Presidential Administration could not accomplish: he stopped the war and renewed negotiations.
Today we are facing the second time that Viktor Chernomyrdin's authority over the power agencies is openly challenged by the defense minister. On Friday night, November 3, major Russian television companies broadcast news of the partial transfer of the president's responsibilities to the prime minister as a result of Yeltsin's decision while recuperating from heart trouble at the government hospital in Kuntsevo. But that very day at the meeting of the heads of the CIS governments, Grachev announced to the media that he is subordinated "directly to the president of Russia." According to Grachev, he deals with Chernomyrdin only in "military-economic matters."
It was very telling that Boris Yeltsin's escape from public view on the pretext of nasal surgery on the eve of intervention in Chechnya coincided with an unexpected, unexplainable disappearance of the president's national security adviser Yury Baturin. When questioned about his strange behavior, Baturin rebutted charges against him of keeping silent on the war in Chechnya, saying "[S]ince early 1994, when I became the assistant [to the president] on national security, I have been dealing with the classified data which was seldom inter-related with open information. I believe that it is inappropriate to hold public discussion of the particulars now. Later - yes, certainly." It is no secret for defense and security analysts in Moscow that Baturin's relations with Defense Minister Grachev are strained, so most observers commented on the serious victory of the pro-military lobby in the Presidential entourage over Yeltsin's civilian assistants in the question of the Chechen crisis resolution.
On the level of the military itself, the crisis of civil-military relations was manifested in the desperate desire of the military to establish their own lobby in the parliament in an attempt to affect the national government. Today 123 uniformed Grachev loyalists are running for public office. However, not all the military candidates are Grachev's supporters. Some of them opposed the policies of the minister of defense and resigned in protest. Now they figure prominently on the lists of several major electoral blocs (Aleksandr Lebed of the Congress of Russian Communities, Eduard Vorobyov of the Russia's Choice, etc.). Others in uniform are either Grachev's open opponents (like Boris Gromov of the "My Fatherland" bloc) or his moderate critics (like one of the most prominent Russian commanders of the Chechen war, General Lev Rokhlin of Chernomyrdin's Our Home Is Russia, who has declined to be awarded the Hero of Russia military decoration on the grounds that a military officer cannot be decorated for taking part in a civil conflict, or Yevgeny Podkolzin, Commander in Chief of the airborne troops, of the "For the Motherland" bloc).
It would be a mistake to see this as a military coup by stealth. The army is a deeply divided organization, as the war in Chechnya has proved. The generals confirm this by running for political office with parties representing different parts of political spectrum. The Duma is not a good launching pad for seizing power other than by democratic electoral means. General Lebed put it best with his customary brevity when he said: "Fear the generals who are not running for the Duma."
As Thomas de Waal, a columnist of the Moscow Times newspaper, accurately observed:
"Sergey Yushenkov, the excellent reformist chairman of the [Duma] Defense Committee, is unlikely to hang on to his job after December. Who replaces him will be very important. If it is Lebed, the results could be interesting. If it is ...[General Valentin] Varennikov [one of the leaders of the unsuccessful hard-line coup in August 1991], Western strategists should start taking a few Cold War treatises from their shelves."
The evolution of the relationship between the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian mass media mirrors the crisis of civil-military relations at the societal level in general.
The introduction and support of freedom of speech was an indisputable credit of perestroika and Gorbachev's greatest achievement, the importance and long-term effect of which had never been exceeded by any of Boris Yeltsin's undertakings. It was due to glasnost that an active public discussion of the problems of defense policies, military reforms, and civil-military relations started. That debate involved not only party and military officials, but a great number of civilian defense analysts as well. For the first time in Soviet history, such a public dialogue was becoming free of ideological dogmas and attracting the lively interest of a broad audience. At the same time, during the Gorbachev era for the first time in the Soviet history, the military complained about being insulted and criticized, both as a social institution and as individuals, by society and particularly the free mass media.
During Yeltsin's term of office the new Russian military leadership tried to learn how to deal with the free mass media. However, several events of the last two years ruined Minister Grachev's and his ministry's relations with the mass media.
Firstly, journalists criticized the military for their role in the fighting between the President and the Supreme Soviet in October 1993. Then, the mass media accused Grachev's military of voting for Zhirinovskii in the December 1993 State Duma elections. Next came the scandalous campaign of sharp criticism in the media against Grachev himself and his closest aids at the Ministry of Defense in connection with the assassination of a Moscow newspaper correspondent who investigated the "generals' case" of large-scale corruption in the armed forces. In response, Grachev attacked media treatment of the issue of corruption within the military as a "political provocation" aimed at undermining the armed forces and the authority of the Russian state. He even compared that criticism of the top military to the past persecution of Jews by Stalin: "Once we had the doctors' plot, now it's the generals' plot." He added, "Beat the generals, save Russia," an obvious paraphrase of the old Russian anti-Semitic slogan "Beat the Yids, save Russia."
Public criticism of the Chechen campaign arose before the first civilian and military casualties came. The media criticized the political-military leadership for its chosen option of conflict resolution. The main reason for sharp criticism was not just the character of that option - a full-scale armed intervention in Chechnya ­p;­p; but the ways and methods of making the final decision. It was done in the worst Soviet-style tradition of total secrecy and mass deception. Pavel Grachev, together with his colleagues from the other power ministries, Stepashin and Yerin, deliberately lied about the Russian military officers' involvement in Chechnya on the side of anti-Dudayev opposition. Even later, when those mercenaries were captured by Dudayev's forces and their semi-interviews or semi-interrogations were televised by the Chechens, Grachev refused to recognize their affiliation with his ministry.
Further events proved that total secrecy was chosen as the main method of handling the Chechen crisis. Grachev (definitely on Yeltsin's authorization) kept in the dark not only Russia's lawmakers, the public and the mass media, but his ministerial staff as well. As former Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Boris Gromov disclosed, "[T]he operation [in Chechnya] was prepared in great secrecy and I did not know anything about it." Gromov characterized such secretiveness as the general trend within the Russian defense establishment.
"Over the past two and a half years [of the existence of the Russian Ministry of Defense, May 1992 - January 1995] the work of the Collegium [of the Ministry of Defense] has become a formality," said Gromov. "The crucial decisions affecting the future of the nation are increasingly being made by a limited number of officials. In fact, the Collegium was barred from the discussion of problems connected with the START II treaty, the Partnership for Peace program, and other documents of great importance to the Defense Ministry. The decision on using the armed forces in Chechnya was also made secretly and was not discussed by the board."
Thus, Pavel Grachev's Chechen campaign totally ruined the Ministry of Defense's relations with the democratic mass media. But the top military officers stood up staunchly to defend their minister. For instance, Commander of the Moscow military district Colonel General Leontiy Kuznetsov was quoted as saying that he "would shoot ...those rascals who are slandering our minister of defense."
So, today the Russian Ministry of Defense has a mostly confrontational relationship with the mass media. The Ministry of Defense-controlled newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda and several military journals accused journalists of an anti-military and anti-army stance, of corruption, and of pro-Dudaev sympathies.
In reality, Russian journalists again feel the public interest and concern regarding the problems of the Russian military and of their democratic reforms. In the nearest future we may face a revived debate of these questions reminiscent of the high point of the democratic wave of the Gorbachev era. It may be even more interesting and important not only for Russia, because in the following several months Russia will hold two electoral campaigns, which will significantly change anyway the situation within the Russian military and society.