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Russian Defense Legislation and Russian Democracy

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | August 1995

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Since the Russian Federation is the product of the coups of August 1991 and September-October 1993, control over the military is crucial for its survival. Many analysts have looked at issues of civilian control over the military in Russia primarily from the military's side. For them the main question then becomes the loyalty of the armed forces to the government. This monograph takes a different tack and examines the question from the vantage point of state policy towards the military. Although that policy is evolving over time, recent draft laws on defense and peacemaking indicate the Yeltsin Administration's intention to formalize a particular type of relationship with the various types of armed forces in Russia: army, navy, air forces, Ministry of Interior (MVD) forces (whose function is internal policing and pacification of territories inside the Russian Federation), Border Troops (whose function is to guard the old Soviet borders against military operations, e.g., from Afghanistan into Tadzhikistan), etc.

Therefore this essay analyzes in detail the provisions of these draft laws that seek to regulate and formalize the manner in which the state undertakes different kinds of peace operations and the general structure and hierarchy of the country's defense system. These laws also should provide for the pattern of the separation and distribution of powers between the executive and legislative branches with regard to military issues. The conclusions emerging from the body of these draft laws are disquieting.

Essentially, these laws reserve much, if not all discretion to the President and his personal office and remove both the President and the Ministry of Defense from effective, democratic, parliamentary accountability, scrutiny, and control. The Draft Law on Peacemaking allows Yeltsin to start peace operations at home or abroad without consulting either house of Parliament and to obtain funding and authorization for deployment of troops without Parliament, yet does not require him to obtain the approval of the UN for such actions outside Russia.

At home the war in Chechnya that began without any notification of Parliament (even in violation of Russia's own Federation Law and the existing Law on Defense) similarly betrays an indifference to the rule of law and control over military operations that is very disturbing. Especially in view of the possibility for "mission creep" to affect so-called peace operations that then become protracted campaigns, it is all too likely that Russia could blunder into a long-term war without any parliamentary examination of or control over those events.

The Draft Law on Defense shares the same problems by exempting Yeltsin from active parliamentary scrutiny over defense policy. For instance, there are loopholes in this law that suggest Yeltsin can commit forces to preventive war and even to a launch on warning posture without first consulting with Parliament. Similarly there are references to mobilization and to conscription that evoke the spirit of the old Soviet military economy and military manpower system which held the Soviet Union's economy and manpower in a permanently mobilized readiness for war.

Likewise, this law contemplates a reorganization of the defense establishment that goes a long way towards further politicization of the armed forces under Yeltsin. There are implications in this law and in recently announced reform plans that the Ministry of Defense can or will be led by a civilian and that its functions will be confined to raising, training, and supplying troops. Operational control will then devolve on the General Staff, whose Chief will be directly accountable to Yeltsin and undoubtedly chosen for his loyalty. But this reorganization, if it occurs, will not strengthen parliamentary control over the military, which will be effective only under Yeltsin's control.

As a result, these laws contribute to the broader trend in Russian politics of 1993-95 that effectively places the President and his agents above the law and beyond legal or parliamentary accountability. The draft laws considered here are part of a broader trend towards what scholars call presidentialism, a system denoting a President who is virtually unencumbered by the division of and separation of powers and by a system of checks and balances. Accordingly, Russian legislation has empowered Yeltsin to centralize numerous programs and policies in his own office, not that of the regular government. These decrees allow him to combine executive and legislative power and control all governmental activity, e.g., all state spending, withoutreferring to the Parliament. Recent laws also empower the intelligence services to reunite foreign and domestic intelligence and plant informers in government offices, just as the KGB did.

In short, these draft laws on defense and peacemaking are part of the broader stream of decrees, laws, and legislation that are pushing Russia away from democratic forms of governance and towards a politicized and unaccountable relationship between the President and the armed forces. The main trend in these laws is to establish the politicization and division of the various armed forces so that they cannot constitute a threat to Yeltsin and are personally under his direction. But the politicization of the armed forces and their subordination to an authoritarian leadership is generally a harbinger of antidemocratic, unstable, and even aggressive regimes. Therefore a close study of these laws can only lead one to conclude that in civil-military affairs Russia appears to be regressing from democracy to earlier forms of governance. If so, we face a most uncertain future with regard to Russia's internal constitution and external policies.


The Russian Federation is a child of armed coups: the failed Soviet coup of August 1991 and the successful anti-parliamentary coup of September-October 1993 by President Boris Yeltsin. Issues of civilian control over the armed forces naturally acquire a special urgency in such circumstances, particularly as the Russian state remains a very insecure and only partly democratic structure. For the most part the many analyses of civil-military issues in Russia have focused on the question of the military's loyalty to the Yeltsin government, not governmental policy towards the military.1 Whether or not they were optimistic about the future course of those relations, these analyses largely sidestepped the issue of the military policy of the civilian authorities, i.e., Yeltsin's military policies since 1991.

While that subject merits an extensive analysis in its own right, Russia's aggressiveness in Chechnya and throughout the CIS suggests that Yeltsin's military policy is an evolving one, so it might best be analyzed by examining the draft laws on defense and peacemaking that Yeltsin is currently proposing. After all, the purpose of such legislation is to formalize a civil-military relationship under his authority. By focusing on these laws we can see the other side of the equation, i.e., the civilian government's views on control of the armed forces, and assess what the trends for the future are.


On the basis of these laws it cannot be said that Russia is moving forward. Indeed, Russia is regressing in civil-military affairs and democracy. The failure to establish reliable civilian and institutional legal controls over the armed forces is obvious from the laws considered here. What emerges clearly is a version of civilian control over the military that closely follows SamuelHuntington's concept or model of subjective control over the military.54 That concept denotes a system of personalized control resting in one man or group of men with weak structures of accountability. Such control mechanisms are very troubling for the future of a democratic and stable Russia.55

The military is already politicized and deliberately invited to extend its political authority into policymaking areas beyond its "constitutional" mandate. These draft laws only ratify and extend those tendencies that can erode both military professionalism and competence on the one hand, and democratic governance on the other. And the Minister of Defense's chief criterion of appointment is loyalty to the President. The military and the executive are, to an alarming degree, not accountable to legislative institutions but to the President, whoever he is. Furthermore, rival organizations to the military are being strengthened, notably the MVD forces, the elite guard forces around Moscow, and the FSK, and all four of these institutions are being readied for possible military intervention at home. In addition, though the new reform plan supposedly calls for reduction of the armed forces and their professionalization, the extension of conscripts' term of service suggests an inability to make the transition to professional, all-volunteer, and depoliticized armed forces. All these attributes fit very well with Huntington's model of subjective control over the military. Moreover, all these attributes are conducive to and reflect the breakdown of systematic control or direction of defense policy and the breakdown of truly effective control as both Grachev and Yeltsin are increasingly compromised by corruption, Chechnya, and massive military dissension. In fact current efforts to institutionalize "subjective control a la Russe" where the government and the MOD cannot make these policies stick invites other contenders to step in and use these laws to achieve a true concentration of undemocratic power at the top. As Lepingwell argues, any progress made in 1992-93 towards effective, democratic, civilian control has eroded due to the vagaries of defense policy since then.56 If current trends continue, the outlook will not be a happy one.

Another dilemma is the insistence on doctrine as law and the need for super-centralizing agencies. These two demands, taken together, represent above all an attempt to introduce an element of impersonal control into the subjective system and to simultaneously reinforce it by an omnicompetent organization. The call for binding doctrine appeals to military men who are irked by civilian control and find solace in the confines of a supposedly "professional" doctrine. But a stress on doctrine and on its custodians in the super-agency fosters a bureaucratization and sterility of military thinking that can only weaken effective, civilian, democratic control of the military.57

A further challenge is the absence of clearly demarcated political parameters for military action. Absent such restrictions on partisan political activity by the armed forces, the way becomes open for the military to attempt to enter politics, e.g., by having officers as Duma members, or even usurping foreign policymaking as is the case today in Russia. Foreign Minister Kozyrev has consistently claimed he is in a battle with the MOD and intelligence agencies over control of policy and decrees from above are not going to stop that struggle, since it is inevitable given the absence of institutional and legal restraints.58 In no democracy would a Defense Minister get away with the following quote by Grachev regarding relations with South Korea.

I am willing to exchange opinion and cooperate with all Asian countries and their military leaders on all issues falling under the jurisdiction of our business . . . . even in those instances in which politicians and diplomats were at a loss to solve problems between two countries, soldiers were capable of finding common ground within the framework of military cooperation between the two.59

It is dismaying, to say the least, that these trends in civilian-military relations mirror broader trends in the body politic. Let us remember that in his annual written report to the Duma in February 1995, Yeltsin stated that state institutions lack sufficient authority to ensure that Moscow does not have to use force to preserve that authority.60 He further contended that the main obstacle to the military reforms needed to overcome the failures revealed in Chechnya is "the lack of an integral mechanism for making decisions in the sphere of ensuring military security."61 Furthermore, Chechnya reflects the stagnant and obsolete system for planning both the political and military dimensions of large-scale operations and policy coordination.62

All these defects are supposed to be cured, at least in part by passage of these laws. However, as we have seen, they do nothing to overcome the crisis of Russian statehood; rather they both reflect and further intensify that crisis. It is too late to restore the purpose of Lobov's 1991 reform plan because that plan intended to preserve an effective, democratic, and nonpartisan military force for a potential union arising out of the Soviet Union and a force that also met the needs of the emerging independent states arising from the USSR's ashes. Today only part of that design might be realizable. But subordinating the General Staff directly to an authoritarian President and dividing its functions with the MOD, as Lobov intended in 1991, mocks the larger strategic implications of his reform and stands that plan on its head. Essentially, presidential authority, unaccountable to institutions and ruling like the late Tsars did, is the objective enshrined here. And it is far indeed from what General Lobov and other military reformers meant in 1991 when they talked of restoring civilian control and legitimate command authority to the erstwhile Soviet armed forces.

Equally dismaying is that these laws show either a sweeping ignorance of?or disregard for?the principles of the separation of powers and of legislative control and accountability. If these principles are trampled with blithe disregard, as appears to be the case, then democracy has no future in Russia. Rather than celebrate the politicization of the Soviet and now Russian armed forces, we need to understand that the threat to democracy may not be from a would-be Bonaparte in the provinces but from the leader in the center who may use those politicized forces, or attempt to use them to cement his position and to quell opposition. Given the uncertainties that now plague Russian politics, even the smallest possibility of such an event alarms us for we cannot begin to predict how such an episode will ultimately turn out.

The tendency to revert to antidemocratic forms of rule must alarm anyone who has to deal with Russia. It is a recipe for protracted instability and destructive adventurism at home and abroad, and Chechnya is only the first, but probably not the last, of the fruits of such adventurism. In Chechnya, as in Moscow in 1993 and in previous Russian revolutions, we see violence gradually consuming more victims of another failed revolution. If the current revolution's architects do not recover their sense of purpose and balance, they may well be included among those victims. Failure to institutionalize democratic control of the military is not only an incentive for antidemocratic politics, it is an incentive for war. And Eurasia cannot stand much more violence.


1. For some examples of this literature, Stephen M. Meyer, "How the Threat (and the Coup) Collapsed: The Politicization of the Soviet Military," International Security, Vol. 16, Winter, 1991-1992, pp. 5-38; Brian D. Taylor, "Russian Civil-Military Relations After the October Uprising," Survival, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 3-29; Eugene B. Rumer, The Ideological Crisis in the Russian Military, Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, CA, 1994; Michael C. Desch, "Why the Soviet Military Supported Gorbachev But Why the Russian Military Might Only Support Yeltsin for a Price," Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. XVI, No. 4, December 1993, pp. 455-489; Thomas M. Nichols, "An Electoral Mutiny?" Zhirinovsky and the Russian Armed Forces," Armed Forces and Society, Vol. XXI, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 327-347; Brian A. Davenport," "Civil-Military Relations in the Post-Soviet State: "Loose Coupling" Uncoupled?," Armed Forces and Society, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 175-194; Robert V. Barylski, "The Russian Military and the Political Coups of August 1991 and September-October 1993," Paper Presented to the Annual Convention of the American Political Science Association, New York, NY, August 31-September 4, 1994; Tanya Charlick, "Post-Imperial Stories of Soviet and Russian Military Officers," Paper Presented to the Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, Chicago, Il, February 22-25, 1995; and for virtually the only look at governmental policy see the two essays by John W.R. Lepingwell, "New States and Old Soldiers: Civil-Military Relations in the Former Soviet Union," and "The Loyalty of the Russian Military," in John W. Blaney, ed., The Successor States to the USSR, Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1995, pp. 57-76, and 77-93 respectively. It should also be noted that Yeltsin evidently has little faith in military loyalty since they let him down in October 1993 and were very reluctant to defend him and the state against a violent uprising on October 3, 1993. See Boris Yeltsin, The Struggle for Russia, Catherine A. Fitzparick, trans., New York, NY: Times Books, Random House,

1994, pp. 11-14, 258-277.

54. Ibid.

55. Lepingwell, "Loyalty of the Russian Military," pp. 89- 91.

56. Eliot Cohen, "Making Do With Less: Or Coping With Upton's Ghost," Paper Presented to the U.S. Army War College Annual Strategy Conference: "Strategy During the Lean Years: Learning From the Past and Present," April 27-28, 1995, pp. 10- 13.

57. Michael Dobbs, "Kozyrev Portrays Stance As Benign To Ensure U.S. Support," Washington Post, April 30, 1995, p. A28.

58. Suzanne Crow, The Making of Foreign Policy in Russia Under Yeltsin, Munich and Washington, D.C.: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Inc., 1993, pp. 49-50.

60. FBIS-SOV, 95-034-S, pp. 10-13.