MOSCOW -- Decisively defeating Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Soviet armed forces, Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin yesterday won top commanders over to his vision of a post-Soviet commonwealth, sources said.
At the same time Mr. Yeltsin said yesterday that two more republics, Armenia and Kirgizia, had decided to join the Commonwealth of Independent States, increasing the chance that the alliance formed over the weekend by Slavic leaders will attract most of the Soviet republics.
The leader of Kazakhstan, the most important republic that has not yet signed up with the alliance, said his republic "seriously intends to join the new commonwealth" after some articles are added to the agreement, according to Gennady E. Burbulis, the Russian Federation's secretary of state.
The different receptions awarded Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Gorbachev at the gathering of 500 commanders of divisions, army corps, military districts and headquarters officers was a crucial setback in Mr. Gorbachev's bid to preserve both his job and the Soviet Union. They both would perish under Mr. Yeltsin's "Commonwealth of Independent States," the Slavic alliance formed over the weekend by Russia, Byelarus and Ukraine to supersede the crumbling Soviet Union.
Mr. Gorbachev, who made an emotional plea Tuesday to senior officers for maintaining some vestiges of the unitary Soviet state, met with a debacle, according to the military sources.
"The army is on the side of the people, and the people have elected President Yeltsin," Mr. Burbulis said triumphantly after Mr. Yeltsin addressed the Soviet military brass yesterday.
Officers who attended both closed sessions at Defense Ministry headquarters said that Mr. Gorbachev, now fighting for his political life, seemed worn out and dispirited. He was even given a public dressing-down for allegedly trying to shatter unity in the ranks.
Unlike Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Gorbachev has not appeared publicly since the commonwealth declaration Sunday.
"Gorbachev didn't say anything important -- he was just moving hislips, as we say," one Defense Ministry staff officer said of the private meeting with military commanders. "He came on with his usual wind, looking miserable in the process. He didn't demand anything, because he knows he is now just a figurehead."
Mr. Gorbachev presented himself unexpectedly to the military commanders on Tuesday, said Maj. Gen. Alexander V. Tsalko, deputy chairman of the Russian government's committee on military reform.
"At the prime of his power, Gorbachev didn't have much time for the military," the Defense Ministry officer said. "But today, when his armchair becomes shaky under him, here he comes."
Russian President Yeltsin's appearance was quite different, and was his reception. He arrived at Arbat Square in his Zil limousine at 11 a.m. to meet the commanders. He then crisply repeated his pledge to raise all military salaries by 90 percent as of Jan. 1, participants said.
He reassured jumpy admirals and generals that the commonwealth he plans would preserve a "unified military-strategic space," which they say is absolutely necessary, Russia and other republics are to be reliably defended in an age of Stealth aircraft and ICBMs.
"Boris Nikolaevich showed that he understands that, if there is one currency space, one economic space, there has to be one defense space," said one Defense Ministry officer.
The plan for a commonwealth offers a "constructive way out of the current dead-end situation . . . toward the creation of a defense alliance of the independence states, a treaty on collective security, and unified central command and control," said Lt. Gen. Valery Manilov, the Defense Ministry's chief spokesman.
Mr. Yeltsin apparently did not say how "unified central command" could be reconciled with the plans of republics like Ukraine to field their own armed forces. That issue was also left unclear in the commonwealth documents signed by Russia, Ukraine and Byelarus last Sunday.
In the current turmoil of Soviet politics, economic collapse and ethnic unrest, there has been great uncertainty about the intentions of the military, whose 3.7 million members belong to a central, if perhaps unreliable, pillar of Soviet government.
In August, former Defense Minister Dmitri T. Yazov was a member ofthe committee that unsuccessfully tried to overthrow Mr. Gorbachev. Lately, there has been a surge of rumors that top-ranking officers might again be plotting something -- jTC speculation fueled by Mr. Gorbachev's sudden sacking of the chief of staff, Gen. Victor Lobov, last Saturday.
As uncertainty prevailed in Moscow, so did an appearance of confusion in Washington about how to react.
President Bush declined to take sides, but U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Strauss said Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and his ministers "are the people with whom we will deal," the Associated Press reported from Washington.
"We are watching it very closely," Mr. Bush said of the rapidly changing situation. The president, who has developed a close working relationship with Mr. Gorbachev, said the United States would support reformers "wherever they are" in the Soviet Union.