Oct 27, 1998 | 06:00 GMT

5 mins read

Russian Domestic Policy Affected by Doubts of Military Loyalty

As unrest continues to grow in the North Caucasus, Russia announced last week that it will not increase its troop presence in the region. Instead, Moscow will rely on local security forces to maintain order in the troubled territory. This announcement follows a report that Russian officials are pulling out of Dagestan, a republic of the Russian Federation bordering on Chechnya, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. After having lost in a war with separatist forces in Chechnya, it appears that Moscow is on the verge of surrendering neighboring Dagestan as well. It is our conclusion that the decision to let Dagestan go is a result of uncertainty in regards to the Russian Army. The uncertainty is less a question of readiness than it is of whether, given discontent over Moscow's failure to adequately fund or even feed Russian troops, Russian Army soldiers will obey Moscow's orders.

Russian Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin announced on Friday October 23 that Russia would not send more troops to the North Caucasus to quell the developing unrest. Stepashin told the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, "We have sufficient forces in the region." He insisted that order will be maintained through cooperation with local security forces. To illustrate this cooperation, Stepashin pointed to recent violence in Dagestan in which two policemen were killed. "Our Dagestani colleagues showed good professional skills: the whole gang was done away with. I stress - it was done by local police and federal forces were a support." However, Stepashin's reference to "Dagestani colleagues" as something independent of the Russian Federation's security apparatus, on top of an earlier report that Russia's security forces are evacuating Dagestan, suggests that Moscow may be ready to let the republic go.

Komsomolskaya Pravda reported on October 21 that "Russian power structures are evacuating everything of value from the republic." The paper noted that weapons and military hardware were being removed from stockpiles in the Dagestan. The Federal Security Service was also reportedly dismantling its intelligence and security apparatus. In addition, hundreds of Russian families were reportedly fleeing the area. This exodus, and the attempt to conceal it, is a sign that Russia may have decided not to fight for Dagestan as it did for Chechnya, an impression made stronger by Komsomolskaya Pravda's reference to Moscow pursuing a "non-Chechen" strategy for Dagestan.

That Moscow may have decided to let Dagestan collapse has staggering ramifications. First and foremost is the issue of sovereignty. Not only would the abandonment of Dagestan be a tremendous blow to Russian pride, inevitably drawing a severe backlash from nationalists, but it would be a potent signal to other regions of the Russian Federation with aspirations of independence. Additionally, with Dagestan possibly going the way of Chechnya, Russia will lose more than half of its Caspian Sea frontage. This will limit Russia's input in the ongoing discussions of the division of the Caspian's resources. Additionally, the loss of Dagestan would mean that Moscow would lose control of Dagestan's oil fields and oil pipeline, and would weigh against Russia's preferred proposed routes for the new pipeline for Central Asian oil. Yet, even given these important strategic considerations, it is our belief that this is more of a tactical than a strategic decision.

In September General Alexander Lebed, governor of Siberia's Krasnoyarsk region and former security chief to President Boris Yeltsin, warned of brewing insurrection within the ranks of the Russian Army. We believe that this is the main consideration for pursuing a "non-Chechen" solution in the Caucasus region. Russian Army troops are owed several months of back pay, which they may never see. Numerous reports have surfaced recently citing instances of soldiers selling military equipment in order to money to live on. Last month Russian military sources reported that the Army has already consumed 80 percent of its food reserves, intended to be used in time of war. In the words of General Lebed, "A hungry soldier is an angry soldier."

It is apparent that, at least for the moment, Moscow feels that its control over the military is tenuous at best. Sending troops to fight in what could be another Chechen debacle, a decidedly unpopular campaign, would run the risk of furthering the growing disgruntlement in the Russian Army. Even if Moscow is not outright afraid of a military revolt, it is at the very least concerned with the possibility of a crisis of command. Rather than risk arousing renegade elements within the military, Moscow has decided to avoid the issue for the time being.

The unrest in the Russian military is clearly a short-term problem. Russia will solve its economic problems, albeit in a Russian way. And anticipating its domestic recovery, Moscow has already begun a concerted effort to re-establish its Cold War influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Once Moscow's GOSPLAN veterans finally abandon pretenses of liberalization in hopes of pretenses of Western aid, and set about feeding Russian troops the old fashioned way, Russia's return to the North Caucasus will be swift. In the meantime, no Western company will seriously invest in long-term relations with an "independent Dagestan." Dagestan cannot guarantee stability in the region, making any long-term investment risky to the point of being ludicrous. Hence, Russian withdrawal from Dagestan, while humiliating, is a tactical decision. Russia will recover the region in time — though what regime launches that recovery remains uncertain.

The real significance of this decision is that Moscow apparently has some serious doubts about the Army's loyalty. If the Army has become such a wild-card that it can not be deployed, then Moscow's first priority must be to fund it, by any means necessary, lest through action or inaction the Army becomes an agent of regime change. The Russian Army, despite its reported impending starvation, will survive the winter. The question is, will the Primakov government?

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