The Russian Army's Ominous
What did Yeltsin know, and when did he know it?
By Bill Powell / Newsweek /
Russia's historic, painful and accelerating decline may have reached a troubling milestone last week. When a column of Moscow's troops rolled into Yugoslavia on Friday, nearly everyone was surprised. Hours earlier, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott had been assured that Russian peacekeepers would not go in before NATO's. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov called the deployment a "mistake" and said it would be reversed (though by late Saturday night, it hadn't been). Amid all the confusion and concern, one question stood out ominously: what did President Boris Yeltsin know, and when did he know it? Throughout the communist era and under Yeltsin, too, Russia's military has earned a reputation for professionalism and discipline. It has always obeyed civilian commands. But last weekend it was unclear whether Yeltsin knew about or approved of the sudden sprint to Pristina of 13 Russian armored personnel carriers and about 200 troops. Had the military acted alone? Who, and at what level, had given the order to go in? Sources in Moscow's Ministry of Defense insisted that the "presidential administration" had given the go-ahead. But if that was true, why didn't the Kremlin itself simply say so? Yeltsin, after meeting Saturday morning with Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and Foreign Minister Ivanov, issued a vague statement: it said that the president had given an order for troops "to actively participate in the implementation of the international... security presence" in Kosovo. But did that mean he'd approved of the troops going in early? Deputy chief of staff Sergei Prikhodko muddled things further, saying that "presidential directives regarding [Russia's troop presence in Kosovo] are available," but that "responsibility for their scrupulous implementation" was up to the military. That seemed to open the possibility that someone in the military chain of command simply went for it. Certainly no institution in Russia has been more humiliated by the post-Soviet collapse than the once proud armed forces. Their soldiers aren't paid, their officers are committing suicide at an alarming rate, their equipment is old and falling apart. The possibility that discipline may finally be fraying is an alarming oneRussia still has thousands of nuclear weaponsbut not completely surprising. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Western policy toward Moscow has been based on the assumption that a vibrant, even powerful Russia would emerge from the wreckage of the communist era. Even last week Talbott insisted on calling Russia a "Great Power"something that today is simply not true. The bizarre troop deployment in Kosovo last week could indeed turn out to be an inconsequential "mistake," as both Ivanov and President Clinton portrayed it. But it was difficult to dismiss the idea that it might be more than that; a sneak preview, perhaps, of what a rogue Russia could be like: an impoverished nation, deeply angry and increasingly unwilling to play by anyone else's rules. A glimpse, perhaps, of the future?
With Yana Dlugy in Moscow
Newsweek, June 21, 1999