Russia and the Eleven Dwarfs

Aug. 1, 1992

A remnant of the Communist Party met in Moscow June 13 and expelled former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for “the ruination of the party and the state.” Hardly anyone noticed. Virtually no one cared.

A vast amount of history has happened since the three-day coup a year ago this month. The plotters botched the job, but they set the Soviet Union toppling. Mr. Gorbachev, the party, and the Soviet Union itself were gone by Christmas. A Union of Sovereign States was proclaimed in September. It lasted 97 days, then gave way to the Commonwealth of Independent States. By spring, the former Soviet republics had loosened ties with the Commonwealth and formed their own armed forces.

There was never any doubt that the dominant power among them would be Russia, which had the most people, industry, and military assets. It also demonstrates the clearest sense of identity and direction.

Ukraine, potentially a major nation, is still defined in the shadow of Russia. The Ukrainians have never liked the Russians, and the feeling has deepened with disputes about the Crimea and the Black Sea fleet. Some Ukrainians are reluctant to give up their nuclear weapons without guaranteed protection by the United States.

The other republics are pretty much in a condition of primordial soup. Their evolution is unpredictable. Georgia (which just put down a coup staged by the faction ousted in the previous coup in January) held back from joining Russia and the ten other republics in the Commonwealth but wants some sort of collective security arrangement. The president of Moldova was not completely exaggerating in June when he declared that “we are at war with Russia.” There is no telling how the Islamic republics of central Asia might eventually align.

It seems a reasonable bet that Russia will be around for a while, but President Boris Yeltsin’s personal future is less certain. Former US President Richard Nixon rates Mr.Yeltsin “the most pro-Western Russian leader in history,” but he has big problems at home. The worst is an economic disaster that he may not be able to fix.

Mr. Yeltsin’s reform program is opposed by a parliament of former Communist Party elites who want to keep state subsidies and prop up the old industrial infrastructure. Mr. Yeltsin’s authority as president is likewise carried forward from the Soviet era. He is operating largely on emergency powers granted by the balky parliament.

He must also deal with the army, the only other power group in a position to bring him down quickly. Before pushing Mr. Gorbachev out, he checked with the military leaders and agreed to a number of concessions they wanted. He continues to give the armed forces a remarkable degree of slack.

The other republics have conceded somewhat nervously, a nuclear weapons monopoly to Russia. President Bush and Mr. Yeltsin agreed June 17 to eliminate about two-thirds of the strategic nuclear warheads on both sides.

The Russians have not become pacifists. The Commonwealth joint military command, headed by Marshal Yevgeni Shaposhnikov, becomes increasingly irrelevant by the week as control shifts to the Russian defense ministry under Gen. Col. Pavel Grachev, who demonstrates real ability for the consolidation of power.

General Grachev disclosed in May that force reductions have been delayed and that Russian military strength will not be down to 2.1 million before the end of 1995. (The US projects a force of 1.6 million in 1995.) General Grachev does not expect to complete his reductions until the turn of the century. Leaders from Mr. Yeltsin on down have said consistently that they intend to field a Russian military force of top caliber. Modernization has been curtailed but not stopped. Upgrades to the MiG-29, for example, are extensive enough that the new version will be designated the MiG-33.

“While restoring the Russian Army, we are restoring Great Russia,” declares Vice President Alexander Rutskoy, whose fiery nationalism reflects a popular sentiment. The trouble in Moldova, for example, stemmed from aggressive support for Russian minorities in other republics.

The prevailing assumption is that except for nuclear weapons–whose numbers are falling fast–there is no military threat left in what used to be the Soviet Union.

Russia and its neighbors may not be dangerous at present, but it is rash to write them off as harmless. By far, the largest military force between the Atlantic and the Urals today belongs to Russia. The second largest is Ukraine’s. These states may not know exactly what lies ahead but they show no inclination to accept it lying down.