Sailing into the sunset

Sailing into the sunset

Douglas Stanglin

The proud Soviet military machine that turned back Hitler at Stalingrad and challenged the West for 45 years has disintegrated. Food supplies have not reached some remote radar stations and other outlying posts since mid-November. On some Russian bases, barracks have been turned into communal apartments in which 15 families huddle behind makeshift plywood walls and share one kitchen and one bathroom. British Defense Minister Tom King estimates that as many as 400,000 conscripts may be living in tents this winter. Soviet ground troops have not held a major exercise since 1989; the Navy is effectively confined to port, short of fuel, food and spare parts. “There has been a degradation of the former Soviet Union’s military capability,” says Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. “It’s not going to be reversed in the short term.”

Although disgruntled former Soviet troops are unlikely to turn their weapons against either the West or Russia’s former satellites, the collapse of the former Soviet armed forces poses grave dangers to Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his reform government, to the leaders of other republics and to the fragile Commonwealth of Independent States. Dispirited troops could rally to the cause of authoritarian Russian nationalism, as their disillusioned forebears during World War I rallied to Bolshevism, or the former Soviet empire could collapse into anarchy and warlordism. “The alarm felt by officers over their future has reached its limits,” Gen. Konstantin Kobets, a top adviser to Russian President Yeltsin, warned last week. “If things are allowed to go further, uncontrollable processes could begin, especially in Army units deployed in regions of crisis.”

Men without a country. The old Soviet military has been left shellshocked by the dismantlement of an empire that once stretched from Vladivostok to Havana. In less than five years, it has adopted a defensive doctrine, shed 500,000 troops, withdrawn from most of Eastern Europe, cut the heart out of its tactical nuclear force and looked on helplessly as the Soviet Union disintegrated. Attempts to create a unified defense structure face a critical test at a meeting in Minsk this week, but they are threatened by a squabble between Russia and Ukraine that could destroy the two-month-old Commonwealth of Independent States. “It is an Army without a country and a country without an Army,” says a Western military expert in Moscow.

The dislocation of men, missions and materiel is exacerbated by a battered economic system that cannot absorb, retrain or even feed its armed forces. Virtually the entire Soviet arsenal is for sale, from greatcoats and blankets to MiG-29 fighters and SA-10 antiaircraft missiles. The military has offered a submarine-launched ballistic missile for boosting payloads into space and proposed mooring an aging nuclear-powered icebreaker off the Pacific coast to supply electric power to Siberia. The Pacific Fleet is using 5,000-ton buoy tenders to carry logs to Japan for hard currency, and the Severodvinsk shipyard is offering to sell a submarine as a tourist vessel.

“They have no resources at the moment,” says a senior Pentagon official. “No fuel, no food, no capital, no nothing.” To raise funds, the military-which used to provide free labor to cities and state farms-now charges for building roads and harvesting crops. Some local commanders bargain with political leaders, swapping manpower for food. The Baltic Fleet, hoping to raise money for 30,000 housing units, has offered to sell 80 vessels, including some modern ships, for scrap. “It’s total confusion,” says Henry Dodds, chief Soviet expert of Jane’s Information Group.

Warlords? The Soviet military is moving to protect its nuclear weapons amid the chaos, but the greatest danger now may be the rise of private armies. “What’s happening now can easily degenerate into armed gangs roving the countryside taking what they want,” says Charles Dick, head of the Soviet Studies Research Center at Sandhurst, site of Britain’s Royal Military Academy.

In the self-styled Chechen republic, Air Force Gen. Dzhakhar Dudayev has used his own “national guard” to seize-and hold-power in defiance of Moscow. In Western Georgia, the 31st Army Corps recently sold large amounts of weapons to both sides in the Georgian civil war, and in the disputed Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Azerbaijan, the Soviet Fourth Army rented out tanks and ammunition overnight to Armenian fighters so they could bombard Azeri villages. The only stipulation: Bring the tanks back in time for morning inspection.

The mission of most officers and men is figuring out how to survive. Uprooted from Eastern Europe and displaced by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of angry, embittered soldiers are pouring back into the heartland of Russia with no place to live and few prospects for the future. “We don’t feel in control of events, we feel more like victims,” says Maj. Igor Pogodin, a 32-year-old submarine officer who has been living with his wife and young daughter in a cramped two-room dormitory for three years, awaiting a new assignment that probably will never come.

A December 1991 study by the Soviet Studies Research Center at Sandhurst noted that the typical workday for a platoon commander is 13 to 14 hours, that children of some officers sleep in ammunition boxes for lack of housing and that a bus driver now earns more than a major or lieutenant colonel. At a diplomatic reception in Moscow, one Soviet general complained recently that he earned the equivalent of $12 a month and had to borrow the civilian suit he was wearing. “You can imagine the impact on a career-service family of reaching midpoint in your career and suddenly sharing one inadequate kitchen and bathroom with a dozen other families,” says one Western military expert in Moscow.

The collapse of morale inevitably raises the danger of a military coup. “It’s a revolutionary situation without the revolution,” says Charles Dick of Sandhurst. “As in 1917, generals are finding themselves not being obeyed. When that happens, anything can happen … the result is that generals are starting to view orders politically.”

Fed up, 5,000 officers met in Moscow last month to demand an immediate improvement in social services and a halt to the disintegration of the armed forces. While some were mollified by Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s promise of a pay raise and a bonus, in a poll 71 percent of the officers said they favor a return to the union and 79 percent said they are ready “to take the future of the armed forces in their own hands.” One frustrated officer warned: “If the state doesn’t take care of the Army, the Army is going to take care of the state.”

Tug of war. But the state is busy trying to create a defense structure among the feisty, newly independent republics. Russia, which does not have its own army, wants a commonwealth defense force under a unified command, while Ukraine insists on forming its own independent army. Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk says more than 350,000 troops already have taken an oath of loyalty to Ukraine.

Both sides are bidding for the loyalty of the Black Sea Fleet, stationed in the Crimea, with officers and men caught in the middle. “It has become impossible to carry out daily services because of constant clashes between personnel, open hatred and bursts of outrage,” says one Black Sea commander. To some sailors, financial security is the key issue, and many expect a better deal from Ukraine. “It is a question of apartments and families, not politics,” says 42year-old Volodya, a captain and instructor at a naval academy in Sebastopol who did not want his surname used.

When the issue is joined in Minsk this week, top-ranking officers have told Western contacts, Russian President Yeltsin will present Kravchuk with a take-it-or-leave-it proposal for a unified command. If, as expected, Kravchuk rejects the offer, Yeltsin will almost certainly announce the creation of a Russian Army and take over the old Soviet Defense Ministry. That would signal the end of the fledgling commonwealth.

With the Soviet military up for grabs, Sergei Rogov, chief of the military-political department of Moscow’s USA-Canada Institute, sees three options: First, each republic could claim the forces on its territory. Or Russia could declare itself the military successor to the Soviet Union, inheriting the men and equipment, the superpower legacy and the bills. Third, the republics could form a NATO-style allied command.

A new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate concludes that the former Soviet military forces are likely to break up into separate republic armies. But neither separate armies nor an alliance would do much to assuage officers facing both homelessness and unemployment. Rogov suggests the West could help its former enemies by training pilots and tank drivers to become accountants and farmers. “If we are left to stew in our own juices,” he says, “things could happen.”

COPYRIGHT 1992 All rights reserved.

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