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Russian Failures No Cause for Celebration

Column by Anders Hove
Executive Editor

As an American who grew up in fear of Soviet military power, I was inclined to chuckle at the recent Russian setbacks in Chechnya. Of course the carnage is awful. And the suffering Russian soldiers have undergone for the sake of territory they will never hold is unjustifiable politically. In spite of the tragedy, however, shouldn't Americans take solace from the sad state of affairs in the Russian military? The answer is no, and for several reasons.

The most obvious reason to lament the Russian failure in Chechnya relates to the success of Russian democracy. It is in our interests, and in most Russians' interest, to bolster democracy. The Chechen fighting exacerbates political divisions at the same time that it tears at the legitimacy of existing national institutions. The result simply cannot be good for Russia's as-yet ill-formed democratic organizations.

Another problem with a weak Russian conventional force is that it gives Russians and their leaders a sense of greater insecurity. Just when the West is looking for a self-confident ally to bolster its policies in the Middle East and Balkans, Russia is learning that it is impotent to even handle its own internal security problems. The zealous nationalist ideas of Vladimir Zhirinovsky may seem outdated to most, but the idea that Russia should have a say in the so-called "near abroad" and border regions in the Middle East. Obviously they can have little influence, however, if their military is this bad. Some will undoubtedly recommend more aggressive policies and more military expansion to remedy the situation. Again, the result for American diplomacy simply can not be good.

The other problems displayed by the Russian defeats in Chechnya relate to declining discipline and order within the Russian command structure. Recent news reports have blamed many of the problems and military setbacks on lack of supply. Starving soldiers have deserted to find forage, while others have simply sold their guns. However, these are not sufficient explanations for the recent finding that "Russian troops are fit only for guarding supply dumps."

The Russian army is not the first to be ill-fed in the field. Not even the first to be ill-led. The American Army suffered worse privations during the American Revolution, but fought on because of the legitimacy of their cause and because the chain of command remained fundamentally intact throughout the war. Not so with the Russian military this last week. The command structure is rotten; there is a dearth of authority and direction from the top, in part because of the continued waffling of PresidentBoris Yeltsin. The extraordinary powers given to security chief Alexander I. Lebed are further proof that the Russian military is rent with dissent and discord.

Even the stunning denunciation of Interior Minister Anatoly S. Kulikov by Lebed has historical precedents. It harkens back to the feud between General Charles Lee and George Washington about resolving the siege of Boston, or the dispute between Lords Cardigan and Lucan in the Crimean War. Again, however, in those cases the essential rudiments of discipline remained, while here the disputes have sapped what little strength was left in the Russian command.

Indeed, more accurate historical precedents might be found in French Algeria, the French Revolution, or in various third world countries where internal military disputes have led disgruntled commanders to overthrow fragile democratic institutions.

But it gets worse. In the short run, there is little solution to conventional weakness. What about the heavy artillery - the nuclear weapons Russia possesses in such large numbers? The Soviet Union used to have little rational reason for pursuing tactical nuclear strategies because of its overwhelming conventional superiority. Now, however, the technical might of others and the startling weakness of Russia's own once-proud conventional force makes tactical nuclear warfighting seem more plausible.

Russian leaders of today may eschew tactical weapons for the sake of preserving economic ties with the West, but we simply have no assurance that future Russian leaders won't see tactical nuclear weapons as an easy way to regain influence where internal strife might have otherwise diminished it.

Finally, as long as discipline and morale remain at this low state, there is every reason to believe that covert sales of nuclear materials and technologies will increase.

It's a hard life: You can't even indulge in a chuckle when your old enemies are down. The collapse of the Russian military is unfortunately not the occasion for gloating.