Mixed signals on army shake-up

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Kremlin yesterday played down reports that the General Staff would be placed under the direct control of Boris Yeltsin. But such a shake-up offers President Yeltsin the only way of sidelining the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, and his clique , who are widely blamed for the bungled Chechnyan campaign, short of firing them and admitting his own mistakes.

A Kremlin spokesman yesterday said the significant change was just one idea discussed at a meeting between President Yeltsin and top parliamentarians.

The head of the Russian Army, Colonel-General Vladimir Semyonov, yesterday supported the move, which may also put the general staff's Main Operations Directorate in control of the whole campaign.

It is unclear whether any change would be permanent or only last until a conclusion of the Caucasian impasse.

General Semyonov said that the general staff's status should be "significantly higher than it is at present" and the chief of the general staff should be a member of the Security Council. He said the general staff - responsible for all the armed services' war planning - should coordinate the activities of all ministries with armed troops, including the Interior Ministry and Security Ministry, with those of the Defence Ministry.

"It's [the general staff's] main task is mobilisation and readying the country for a possible war," said General Semyonov. The trouble has been that the "possible war" turned out to be internal - not traditionally a responsibility of the armed forces. Hesaid the Chief of the General Staff, Colonel-General Mikhail Kolesnikov, should be directly subordinated to the Commander in Chief, Mr Yeltsin, and that the direction of the armed forces should be the general staff's "prerogative".

General Kolesnikov (55) is a former tank officer and spent much of his recent career in the southern "theatre of war", including the Caucasus. So did his first deputy, Lieutenant-General Vladimir Zhurvenko.

The general staff has been sidelined throughout the Chechnya campaign, and has remained silent, apart from a comment by General Kolesnikov, that the Chechens were badly off for armoured vehicles.

The general staff and all its agencies has been reduced from its peak of about 30,000 people at the end of the Cold War to around 10,000. The general staff is by tradition a non-political body, with officers from all five services -missile forces, army, navy, air and air defence -and should be able to give the President better and perhaps more balanced advice than General Grachev.

The position of the general staff in relation to the commander in chief has always been an important indicator of the balance of power in the Russian military and government. For much of the 19th century it reported directly to the Tsar - just as its modern heir is expected to report to the President.