Russia on the razor's edge

By Diane Alden
web posted January 10, 2000

Trying to predict Russia's future is a fool's game. But it doesn't take Henry Kissinger to figure out that in Kosovo, President Bill Clinton hurried the political demise of his friend and ally Boris Yeltsin. Kosovo was the last straw for the Russian military and the KGB. Consequently, tough minded and less Western oriented Vladimir Putin was propelled into power.

The resignation of Boris Yeltsin and his subsequent pardon by successor Vladimir Putin is only the beginning of a series of moves and counter-moves by the Russian power elite to maintain control. Faced with the terrible task of preventing a further slide into economic and geopolitical chaos, Putin has signaled to the oligarchy that if they give up office and a certain amount of their ill gotten economic and political gains, they might walk away with some of it intact. By doing so he may protect himself from the power brokers; while showing the Russian people he will not tolerate corruption and further destruction of the average citizen's meager hold on survival.

Putin's predicament consists of avoiding the sharp cutting edge of the political razor. But, this may prove to be too difficult even for his considerable talents of perseverance and manipulation. Nevertheless, Putin now has the incumbent's edge over his competitors in the Russian elections. Additionally, moving the elections from June to March helps. These actions by the power elite indicate a fear in the Russian inner circle that Putin's leading rivals for the presidency will have time to marshal their forces, thus taking control away from the present alignment of power groups. Obviously the Russian powers that be are attempting to take advantage of Putin's widespread popularity because of his tough stance in the war against Chechnya.

For the first time in a long time, the Russian people have a sense that a certain amount of national pride has been restored. President Ronald Reagan knew how important national pride was to the morale of a nation. Vladimir Putin has taken a page from Reagan's book and adapted it to the sinking morale of the Russian people. Putin and his faction realize that in 1980 Russia was economically poor but strategically rich and powerful. Since 1989, it has become poor and powerless. In recent years it has been marginalized by the West and treated like a poor step relation. The war in Kosovo and Western actions toward Russia merely brought that message home. Being the strategist he is, Putin knows that restoring national pride to the average Russian covers a multitude of economic and cultural sins.

Nevertheless, his position is precarious. Many analysts see him as a transitional figure merely initiating the chore of reuniting the former Soviet Empire. However, his very ties to Russia's inner power circle may cause his eventual downfall.

According to former US Army Colonel Kenneth Allard's intelligence resource center "Putin has painted the outlines of rectification within the system. He has declared himself to be Kerensky, the revolutionary who didn't want to go too far. Kerensky failed and Lenin came from nowhere, the revolutionary who had no limits. The situation in Russia is, in our view, on the knife's edge. Putin is trying to contain the situation as well as possible. We are not optimistic.

However, Putin now holds out the carrot. If he shows that he can also wield a stick, he may just save what little is left of the post-Communist reforms. If not, Russia will enter a revolutionary situation."

Even for the best analysts, the attempt to figure out which Russian strong man will eventually survive the chaos will prove nearly impossible. The variables in the Russian equation are so infinite that small changes may lead to major consequences. For instance, in the past there had been widespread speculation that Yeltsin would not step down for the Presidency. Now some Russian analysts insist that he experienced a silent coup brought about by his unpopularity and failing health and that Putin was put in place to do damage control for the power elite. Putin after all is a member of what is known as the St. Petersburg "family" and an intimate of the hated reformer and economic guru Anatoly Chubais.

As a member of the KGB he knows where all the bodies are buried. He also knows how deeply the Yeltsin family and associated powerbrokers are involved in numerous money laundering scandals and how widespread the theft of billions of dollars from Russia's economic future.

So far Putin has maintained his popularity by playing the Chechen war card. However, his ties with the West, which include association with the inept policies of the Clinton administration and the "Harvard" coterie of Jeffrey Sachs and Larry Summers, may eventually eat away at that the high regard in which he is held by the Russian people. At some point in the next few years the blame game could bring him down.

With the war in Chechnya, Putin and his pals have concocted their own "wag the dog" scenario. By arousing the nationalist tendencies of the Russian people they are attempting to reestablish Russian hegemony in the former Soviet Union and retain control. But these insiders, with Putin at the helm, may find themselves with limited options. The choices available to them may be few, simple and bloody.

They may elect to establish brutal and repressive measures, or continue to straddle a micro thin line between the various power elite and the Russian people. If they undertake brutal measures these may not simply include a bloody mop up of the Russian "mafia" and the rich Riviera oligarchy. It may also destroy entire classes of people deemed dangerous and expendable. This has been the historical pattern for Russia for the last thousand years.

However, the new twist in the Russian pretzel will be the fact that the Russian people have been introduced to the promise of economic good times. Most likely they will not be satisfied until some economic improvement becomes a reality. At the moment the Russian people are drifting with the political tides but that may change if things don't improve.

The Problem of the Russian Military

While Putin was a successful bureaucrat in the Russian security apparatus he is currently faced with a military that is in fundamental melt down. Adding to the Russian instability is the fact that the non-military security apparatus is filling in the vacuum created by the downfall of the regular military. Numerically larger than the regular military it is absorbing funds which in should have gone towards upkeep of the military. Like Hitler's Waffen SS, the security forces are hated but feared by the regular military.

Recent attempts to reform the military have been doomed to failure. Funds are scarce and problems so numerous and profound that no one seems to know which problem to address first. With tax collections to pay for military salaries and new equipment in a state of chaos, and with the infrastructure falling apart, the Russian military is becoming little more than a badly treated and organized national militia.

The western news media makes much of the success of the Russian army in Chechnya. However, they fail to look beyond the obvious.

In a recent article in the Army publication Parameters, Dr. Walter Parchamenko, an expert on the Russian military maintains that: " The poor state of Russia's conventional forces necessarily means a greater reliance on strategic nuclear forces and, consequently, a much lower nuclear threshold for Russia."

Russian Defense Minister Sergeyev outlined the new reality in late October 1998. While speaking at the National Defense Academy in Beijing, he stressed that the role of nuclear deterrence has grown, given the virtual collapse of Russia's conventional forces. The declaratory policy enunciated explicitly: "In case of direct threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state owing to an external aggression against Russia, [it would be] possible and legitimate to use all available means, up to and including nuclear weapons, to counter this threat." Put simply, this means that nuclear deterrence has now become the backbone of Russia's defenses and that nuclear weapons might be used to counter any threat to Russia's sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is a very serious development."

According to Dr. Sergey Rogov, director of Moscow's US-Canada Institute and a consultant to the Duma, nearly 70 percent of Russia's officer corps receive their pay on an irregular basis. Poor wages, about $100 per month, buy much less as prices rise sharply. Additionally, less than 20 percent of those drafted have entered the military. Forty percent of new conscripts can not perform basic military training and 25 percent require medical attention for chronic conditions. Dr. Parchomenko believes these facts merely reflect what is happening to the physical condition of the rest of the Russian population.

Military advisors to Yeltsin have called conditions in the Russian military "inhuman." The suicide rates among officers and enlisted is in the hundreds. Meanwhile senior officers have taken to brutalizing enlisted men in hazing incidents that have killed or maimed more than 1400 men. During the Chechen war over a hundred young men were brutally beaten and some died.

The actions of Russian senior officers towards younger recruits indicate a growing frustration in the military. Those who serve are convinced that the Russian government doesn't care what happens to them and frustrations are taken out on the hapless younger soldiers.

The Cutting Edge

Vladimir Putin may be playing the nationalist war card but he is playing with a deeply flawed deck. While he attempts to gather former Russian satellites into some kind of orderly confederation, he will be fighting a rear guard action in the Caucasus, the Baltic States, Georgia and the Ukraine for years.

If he survives the military and political juggling act the next few years, it will be due to the fact that he has brought some semblance of order and pride back to Russia and the Russian military. However, he will also have to placate the West while rebuilding Russia and attempting to keep the economy from sinking further into disaster. If he fails we may have to deal with someone even less inclined to peaceful relations with the West may rise to power. Someone who might be more inclined to use the nuclear card because there are no other options.

American policies under the Clinton administration have made a chaotic and horrific situation worse. In its total lack of understanding of the nature of the thousand-year-old Russian culture and society, the Clinton administration and the West could not even begin to implement sensible policies towards the former Soviet Union. Russia could not become a democratic free market country because there was no basis for it. Boris Yeltsin lost out partially because he assumed the Western and democratic form without its substance. Vladimir Putin was put in charge of picking up the pieces.

Now the West is going to be faced with an unknown, unpredictable and perhaps dangerous Russia. The "new" Russia is well on its way to being anti-American and much more aggressive in its behavior.

Perhaps it is best for Americans to wish Putin well. His successor might resemble Stalin more than Kerensky, or any other benign historical Russian figure.

Diane Alden is a research analyst and writer and news analyst, The American Partisan columnist, Newsmax contributor and commentator for Georgia Radio, Inc. Reach her at

Current Issue

Archive Main | 2000

E-mail ESR



1996-2020, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.