Soviet military may not hold if violent protests erupt, U.S. analysts believe

August 20, 1991|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Soviet military, battered by internal divisions fed by ethnic tensions, desertions and low morale, may be unable to consolidate power for the new Soviet regime consolidate if widespread violent protest breaks out, U.S. military and independent analysts said yesterday.

It cannot be certain that soldiers dispatched to respond to civil unrest across the country will follow orders to fire on civilians, the analysts said.

"The more resistance there is, the more strain it'll put upon the military. If you have bloodshed -- the shooting of civilians -- in Moscow, bloodshed in Kiev, bloodshed in Vladivostok, then boom! civil war. The military will start falling apart," said Dale Herspring, a former U.S. Navy intelligence adviser.

"The military is very split over reforms, among the rank and file, the mid-level officer corps, even among generals and admirals I've talked to," said Mr. Herspring, who visited the Soviet Union last fall. "Don't forget that 67 percent of the military in the Russian Republic voted for [Boris N.] Yeltsin."

John Hines, a Rand Corp. analyst, declared that confrontations arising from a general strike in the Soviet Union would likely reveal that military support for the new regime is "shallow and thin."

At the Pentagon, a senior military official said intelligence analysts could not immediately determine how much of a role the Soviet military played in the ouster of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Because of this, it was difficult to assess the extent of active support for the coup all the way down the chain of command, the official said.

"Nobody really understands how much of the military was really behind this, how deep this thing was and the level of involvement. Right now, it appears it was a pretty closely held deal," said the official.

A U.S. defense official, noting that senior Soviet military leaders had intensified public criticism of Mr. Gorbachev for more than a year, described the officer corps as bitter over upheavals in the defense program.

Only last month, 12 senior military and Interior Ministry leaders signed an impassioned article published in the hard-line newspaper Sovyetskaya Rossiya that appealed to Russians first and then all citizens of the Soviet Union to rise up in defiance of the government, according to Jane's Defense Weekly.

The plea urged people to resist those now in power "who do not love the country and who are dooming us to a miserable existence of vegetation in slavery and subjection to our all-powerful neighbors."

Western news services reported that non-Slavic troops from Central Asia participated in the Moscow takeover. Their unit, the Dzerzhinsky Division, is attached to the Interior Ministry and directed by Gen. Boris Gromov, a hard-liner who gained a reputation as the brutal commander of Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

While these soldiers, who speak Russian poorly, if at all, may be more willing than local military forces to suppress any civil disobedience, the use of violence against civilians could touch off riots across the Soviet Union and require a wider use of the regular army to aid Moscow-controlled interior army troops, several analysts predicted.

The sending of military conscripts to serve in other republics has already fueled much of the nationalist unrest and has figured in an intense debate over the right of Soviet republics to create national armies and control conscripts, they added. There were unofficial reports last year that as many as 15,000 soldiers might have died in the previous four years from accidents or illnesses or in peace-keeping operations in other republics.

"The interior forces are not large enough to control major cities in the Ukraine, so they'd be reinforced by elite troops -- the heavily indoctrinated forces trained for riot control -- and the regular army, which is so heavily dependent on conscripts," said Timothy W. Stanley, a Washington-based specialist in Soviet security policies.

"But if they have to go to the regular army to handle the unrest, they've got real problems," he said. "If the situation gets out of control, the military can't coerce support for the central government."

But Mr. Stanley warned that if widespread violence severely threatened the very existence of the central Soviet system, the military might choose to save itself by restoring order and aiding the new leadership.

A Defense Intelligence Agency official told Congress in May that military morale and prestige had been damaged badly by the use of regular military forces to quell civil unrest.

"The events in Tbilisi, Baku and more recently Vilnius and Riga demonstrate that Moscow's use of force against the civilian population is politically counterproductive, further polarizing Soviet society," said C. Patrick Duecy, the DIA's assistant deputy director of research.

"The future of the armed forces depends largely on how the basic issue of republic participation in the all-union military is resolved."

But clearly, the specter of interethnic strife escalating into a full-scale inter-republican war must be in the minds of the Soviet military command, several analysts agreed.

A recent, unclassified DIA report said ethnic strife and separatist challenges to central authority had threatened the integrity of the Soviet armed forces and contributed to record increases in "no-shows" for the draft.

Over 20 percent of inductees failed to report for the fall call-up, the report said.

By some accounts, conscription in some republics has been virtually suspended and potential Soviet army draftees have joined nationalist militants in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

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