McNair Paper 34, The Russian Military's Role in Politics, January 1995

Institute for National Strategic Studies

McNair Paper 34, The Russian Military's Role in Politics, January 1995


Despite the Defense Ministry's attempts to stay out of political struggles, military forces became involved in Yeltsin's third (and ultimately successful) attempt at destroying the old legislature. Yeltsin, by his own testimony, decided to dissolve the parliament by early September and instructed Viktor Ilyushin, a top advisor, to draft the relevant decree. (Note 66)Yeltsin used previously planned visits to the army's elite Taman and Kantemir divisions as opportunities to assess the probable military reaction to the decree. Although he told the officers nothing of his plans, "I saw unmistakably that they would support me in them."

Further assurances of military loyalty came on 12 September, when Yeltsin met with his "closest comrades"-Grachev, Internal Minister Yerin, acting Security Minister Golushko, and Foreign Minister Kozyrev-to inform them of his plans. According to Yeltsin, Grachev, convinced "that this Supreme Soviet should have been closed down long ago," had frequently tried to persuade Yeltsin to take a tougher stance. Grachev, along with the other participants in the meeting, supported Yeltsin's proposal to issue the decree on 19 September. On 15 September, Yeltsin briefed a session of the Security Council on his plans. All of the Council members, he recalls, supported his decision.

However, when Yeltsin met on 17 September to work out the final details of the plan, "Everything almost ground to a halt." Grachev, along with Yerin and Golushko, requested that the decree dissolving parliament be postponed. Key leaders of the opposition, Vice President Rutksoy and parliamentary speaker Khasbulatov, had somehow gotten wind of Yeltsin's plans. Yeltsin agreed to a postponement, but only for two days.

Accordingly, on 21 September, Yeltsin issued a decree illegally dissolving the old parliament and calling for new legislative elections. This time, in contrast to March 1993, the Defense Ministry leadership (after several initial reports that the Chief of the General Staff, Kolesnikov, was working with Yeltsin's parliamentary opponents) expressed public support for the President. (Note 67)

However, in the tense standoff that followed, with Vice President Rutskoy and the legislature holed up defiantly in the Russian White House, Defense Minister Grachev made it clear that the army would attempt to remain neutral. This decision reflected a strong consensus within the top Defense Ministry leadership. According to several accounts, the Defense Ministry Collegium convened for an emergency meeting on 22 September to decide whom the military would support in the conflict between the President and the Supreme Soviet. The Collegium resolved unanimously to observe complete neutrality. Grachev-despite his earlier assurances of military backing to Yeltsin-reportedly supported this decision. (Note 68)

The Collegium's reluctance to involve itself in the crisis reflects the views of the officer corps at large. A survey of urban residents conducted on 25 September (after Yeltsin's decree outlawing parliament but before the 3/4 October showdown) found a solid majority (62%) wanted the military to stay out of the conflict. Opposition to military involvement on either side was strongest among the military servicemen in the sample: 80% said the military should stay out of the struggle altogether. (Note 69)

It was only after riots broke out in Moscow on 3 October that Defense Ministry leaders agreed to employ Defense Ministry forces to attack the White House. While the evidence is incomplete and contradictory, it seems clear that virtually the entire high command, including Defense Minister Grachev, resisted Yeltsin's order to storm the White House.

Yeltsin's account of the night of 3-4 October indicates that he came very close to losing power. (Note 70) Events began spiralling out of his control on the afternoon of 3 October, when demonstrators sympathetic to the parliament broke through police cordons surrounding the White House, then stormed the nearby mayor's office. By evening, rioters in commandeered vehicles were storming Ostankino (the government-owned and controlled television station).

Yeltsin, according to his own account, was informed of these events in his Barvikha residence by Mikhail Barsukhov, the chief of the Kremlin guards. Yeltsin called Grachev-the first of many increasingly frantic calls to the Defense Minister-and received assurances that army troops were on the way and would liberate Ostankino, now under siege by anti-Yeltsin forces (Note 71) Meanwhile, Ostankino chief Vyacheslav Bragin was also making calls for assistance to the three "power" ministries, but his desperate pleas for help went unheeded.(Note 72) Yeltsin was becoming desperate:

I was receiving this information from many sources and realized that the country was truly hanging by a thread. . . . I was trying to bring my combat generals out of their state of stress and paralysis. The army, despite all the assurances of the Defense Minister, for some reason was not able to come quickly to Moscow's defense and fight the rebels.(Note 73)

The situation at Ostankino continued to deteriorate, but Grachev (according to Yeltsin) responded to pleas for action by reporting that a Defense Ministry Collegium meeting was underway. Yeltsin ally Gaydar appeared on another television station, appealing to Moscow residents to take to the streets in support of their President. More alarming reports followed:

(At 2:30 AM) the fighting was continuing at Ostankino, right in the television station. The police, who had been told not to become involved in clashes, had withdrawn after the first one, leaving the city to be torn to pieces by armed bandits. Meanwhile,the army, numbering two and a half million people, could not produce even a thousand soldiers; not even one regiment could be found to come to Moscow and defend the city. To put it mildly, the picture was dismal. (Note 74)

Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin had to go in person to Defense Ministry headquarters in an attempt to generate support for the White House assault, but (according to Yeltsin) met strong resistance:

Overall I must say that the generals' expressions were grim and guilty. They obviously understood the awkwardness of the situation: the lawful government hung by a thread but the army couldn't defend it-some soldiers were picking potatoes and others didn't feel like fighting. A discussion began about the taking of the White House. Everyone realized that the headquarters of the incitement of war must be isolated. Chernomyrdin asked, "Are there any suggestions?" In answer there was only a heavy, morose silence. (Note 75)

Even after military leaders acceded to a plan for storming the White House (proposed by one of the presidential guards officers), Grachev-apparently uncertain as to whether Yeltsin would prevail in the struggle-intervened to ask Yeltsin for specific orders to use tanks, an intervention that earned him a sharp rebuke by Chernomyrdin. (Note76)

There are several possible explanations for Grachev's reluctance to commit troops.m(Note77) One explanation is that Grachev (and other members of the high command) were not sure Yeltsin would emerge victorious. This is the main justification for Gaydar's late night appeal on the night of 3/4 October for pro-Yeltsin demonstrators to take to the streets: the appeal was designed to demonstrate that Yeltsin had popular support in order to convince the military to take his side. (Note 78)

Moreover, it seems clear from Yeltsin's accounts (as well as other corroborating versions of the night's events) that Grachev was to some degree a captive of the other members of the Defense Ministry Collegium, some of whom harbored sympathy for Rutskoy and the conservative parliament. Although Grachev insisted that all Russian generals backed Yeltsin, his own version of events during the crisis raises serious questions about the allegiance of at least five top generals: Air Forces commander Petr Deynekin, Deputy Defense Minister Mironov, Chief of the General Staff Kolesnikov, Deputy Defense Minister Gromov, and Ground Forces Commander Semenov. Several sources have accused these generals of maintaining contact with anti-Yeltsin forces in the White House or working to undermine Yeltsin's position during the crisis. Grachev acknowledged contacts between his top generals and the White House, but claimed that such contact had been authorized by him and were designed to defuse the crisis. (Note 79)

The reluctance of the high command to employ Defense Ministry forces in the crisis also reflected very real uncertainty regarding the reliability of the forces themselves. (Note 80) As in the August 1991 coup, there were numerous reports of military units defecting to the side of the embattled parliament. (Note 81) As in August 1991, however, most of these reports were fallacious; instances of direct defection to those resisting the coup were limited. Even Grachev (who tried to minimize military defections) conceded that most of the military servicemen who were working as deputies in the outlawed Supreme Soviet joined the anti-Yeltsin resistance and refused to comply with orders to return to their units. Grachev also noted that about two dozen individual officers joined the White House defenders. (Note 82)

In addition, again according to Grachev, there were two group defections. In once instance, the colonel in command of an air defense and missile regiment near Podolsk succeeded in persuading eighteen of his subordinates to come with him to defend the White House. They were arrested on their way. The second incident occurred in Noginsk, where a deputy company commander organized 18 conscripts and set out for Moscow in a truck. This group was detained 31 kilometers from the city. (Note 83)

If actual defections to the side of the outlawed legislature were few, however, resistance to the order to deploy to Moscow appears to have been widespread. Presidential advisor and retired general Dmitriy Volkogonov, who checked out claims by Rutskoy and Khasbulatov that the troops were rallying to their side, reports that "in the overwelming majority of cases it was White House bluff, but the danger was serious enough."(Note 84) Moreover, there are reports that commanders of some of the elements of the Taman and Kantemirov divisions (the units that were ordered into Moscow on the evening of 3/4 October) did so only under protest. There are also indications that some highlevel commanders almost succeeded in pressuring Yeltsin to agree to a compromise with the outlawed legislature that would have allowed them to avoid bringing the troops into Moscow. (Note 85)

In any event, none of these symptoms of military reluctance succeeded in thwarting the planned assault on the Russian White House. The attack was decisive, taking 150 Russian lives according to official reports and many more according to Yeltsin's critics. Rutskoy, Khasbulatov, and other leaders of the forces resisting Yeltsin's dissolution of parliament were arrested; Yeltsin declared several weeks of emergency rule in Moscow, imposed press censorship, and banned key opposition parties. The fall 1993 crisis was over; and Yeltsin, with the reluctant support of the Armed Forces, had won.

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