Disgruntled military poses constant threat

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The Independent Online

Defence Correspondent

The Russian armed forces have traditionally steered clear of politics, but they have been unable to ignore it since the 1991 coup attempt, when their refusal to fire on their own people and join the conspiracy against Mikhail Gorbachev tipped the balance in the president's favour.

But the views of senior officers vary widely, and it would be unwise for any political leader to count on the support of a vast and disparate organisation which is still in crisis.

The Russian military, still 1.5 million strong, is not a united political body, as its response to the Russian parliamentary revolt against Boris Yeltsin in 1993 showed. To form a force of just 1,700 troops to storm the White House and restore President Yeltsin's authority, the Russians drew from five different divisions in the Moscow military district. The commanders had to pick their soldiers carefully.

Of likely presidential candidates, General Alexander Lebed, the charismatic former commander of the 14th Army, would probably gain most support from the armed forces.

General Pavel Grachev, the Defence Minister, on the other hand, had very little respect within the military before the Chechnya debacle, and now has even less. In August 1994, a poll of 615 generals and colonels showed President Yeltsin was trusted by under 30 per cent, and fewer than 20 per cent trusted General Grachev. But half said they trusted generals Lebed and Boris Gromov.

The poll was revealing: 80 per cent of top ranking military officers favoured an authoritarian form of government. Sixty-four per cent dismissed Western-style democracy as unsuitable for Russian conditions.

General Lebed was widely praised when, as the commander of the 14th Army, he publicly criticised the deputy defence minister, General Matvei Burlakov. He said there was no point General Burlakov coming to see the 14th Army because there was "nothing to steal", and that if he did he would have him arrested. His crusade against corruption is General Lebed's strongest card.

General Lebed has no economic policy and probably would not be a strong enough candidate to stand alone. However, if he joined forces with the technocrats, led by a former Security Council member, Yuri Skokov, with the Civic Union or with Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, he could be a significant asset.

Below this level, the Russian armed forces are probably as diverse in their political views as the rest of the country. As well as the chronic undermanning, Russian units have been preoccupied with feeding themselves and keeping warm. Training standards and morale appear at an all-time low.