An Impending Russian Coup? Nyet.

The military is in danger of erosion, not rebellion

The Russian defense minister warns of "uncontrollable developments" among his men, while the Central Intelligence Agency raises the nightmarish possibility that strategic nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of renegade generals.

It is autumn in Moscow, and as usual talk of rebellion is in the air. While a Russian military revolt is not unthinkable, it is unlikely, and Western policymakers and the American public should stop and consider for a moment before reaching any conclusions about the stability of the Russian Army or the Russian state.

While in Moscow during the run-up to the Russian presidential elections, I asked a friend - a Russian colonel - about the possibility of a military coup. He chuckled sadly, spread his hands, and asked me: "Against whom? For what?" Against Boris Yeltsin, I said. For Alexander Lebed, for more money, for warm shelter, perhaps. The colonel shook his head. Like every Russian military officer I have spoken with, he was emphatic that replacing one president with another would not change anything. (And as for Lebed, the most common comment among military men was "good general, bad politician.") The real problem, he said, was not the president, but the people. The men of the Russian Army had become pariahs in their own country.

This public attitude cannot be changed by a coup or rebellion, and most Russian military men know it. Indeed, many officers believe that a direct military intervention in politics would generate so much social hatred that the ensuing civil war would be the end, rather than the salvation, of the armed forces. The Russian Army is still bitter about being scapegoated for Leonid Brezhnev's war in Afghanistan, Mikhail Gorbachev's cowardly and violent policies in Lithuania and Georgia, and Mr. Yeltsin's use of troops against the parliament. After the violence in Moscow in 1993, one officer wrote in the Russian military newspaper Red Star that "we just want to go about our business normally ... we just want to serve."

Against whom? For what?

This was not always the case. In the first two years following the breakup of the USSR, a coup would have had the plausible aim of deposing the leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States and restoring the Soviet Union. Many former Soviet officers refused to take new oaths of loyalty, and there were scattered mutinies across the territory of the former USSR - some of which were quite serious and involved servicemen across all ranks. The head of the elite paratroopers recalled that "my guys had tears in their eyes" when they had to relinquish their Soviet insignia, and even Yeltsin's top military adviser, the late Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov, admitted to being stricken with "grief" at the end of the USSR.

But the restoration of the Soviet Union is now beyond reach, as all but the most doctrinaire or nostalgic officers now realize. And so the question remains: Against whom? For what?

The likeliest possibility is that military units will simply dissolve and military personnel will desert and use their weapons either to commit crimes that will feed their hungry families, or as barter with criminal elements more than happy to pay for almost anything that shoots or explodes. Field commanders will continue the current scandalous practice of making deals with local authorities for energy and food, thus over time turning the Russian Army into a ragtag collection of local praetorians serving the regional bosses who are keeping them stocked with potatoes and gasoline. This is erosion, not rebellion. And while it is a tragedy, it is not an imminent danger to the West.

The threat of 'loose nukes'

But what of the nuclear weapons? Again, the question has to be posed of just who the CIA or anyone else thinks is going to be the target of a renegade nuclear strike. It is unthinkable that a Russian officer would slaughter millions of his own people, but would he slaughter millions of Americans? It is hard to imagine an officer so insane or so desperate that he would bring certain nuclear retaliation on his own country in order to protest poor living conditions.

Using nuclear arms is one thing; selling them is quite another. The West should be more concerned about the trafficking of nuclear (and other) arms. Taking over a missile base will not feed an officer's family; selling nuclear material to terrorist agents will. The answer to the question of "against whom, for what" is: against international order, and for money.

The West can't do much for the Russian Army in the short term. It took the Soviets 70 years to wreck a giant economy, and it will heal slowly. When it does, the military will recover as well. In the meantime, the West's intelligence services should spend less time worrying about the least likely nightmare scenario and more time on the practical and achievable aim of interdicting increasingly lethal weapons that will appear in increasing numbers as the officers and men of the Russian Army choose to feed their children, rather than wait for help from Moscow.

*Thomas M. Nichols is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and adjunct professor of national security affairs at the United States Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

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