As a fierce gun battle raged at Moscow's central television center during the attempted hard-line coup early on Oct. 4, Boris Yeltsin was at Russian military headquarters, pleading for the generals to save his presidency. Yeltsin's government teetered on the brink for several hours while the army brass debated whether they had the legal right to fire on Russian citizens and whether they should even take sides in the political crisis. Finally, the military decided to send in elite units on certain conditions: They would attack only the Russian White House, the well-armed seat of the insurgent Parliament. They would not fire upon unarmed protesters.
Some Yeltsin aides, including his economic reform architect Yegor T. Gaidar, were miffed at the military's wavering. But most analysts say the White House operation has given the security establishment a huge bargaining chip in its future dealings with Yeltsin. Even before the coup, he seemed to be paying much closer attention to military wishes. Yeltsin, for example, backpedaled on a comment that he would not mind if Poland joined NATO, a heretical thought just a few years ago. He also ruffled Western feathers by saying that Russia needs a larger force than agreed upon previously to protect its strife-torn borders in the Caucasus. Meanwhile, observers report that Russian military commanders there and in embattled Tajikistan and Azerbaijan are acting with unexpected boldness and autonomy.
WILD CARD. The military's new clout comes as the armed forces are in the midst of a long-delayed post-cold war rebuilding. Envisioned is a leaner, more professional, and technically capable force of about 1.5 million troops, down from 2.5 million today. And it is unlikely that the huge Soviet military-industrial complex will be revived. But to keep them on his team, Yeltsin likely will have to sign off on some of the generals' pet projects, such as producing the kinds of high-tech weaponry that helped the U.S. in the gulf war.
Yeltsin also will feel heat from the top brass to improve the miserable conditions that conscripts have endured in the past couple of years. Bad food, pay, and lodging have sent draft evasion soaring to as high as 75% of those eligible. In fact, some analysts say that Defense Minister Pavel Grachev had a hard time mustering an adequate force to storm the White House. Just three days after that mission succeeded, Yeltsin ended student draft deferments, and more goodies appear to be on the way. "The army is now expecting better salaries and better accommodations," says Jesim Fistein, deputy Russian director at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Inc. in Munich.
A more assertive military seems likely to concentrate on beefing up Russia's regional role rather than indulging in the far-flung adventures of the cold war era. The likely vehicle will be the Commonwealth of Independent States, which suddenly is looking a lot more viable than a few months ago. Economic problems and civil war have brought recalcitrant Ukraine and Georgia to heel. In coming months, a spiffed-up Russian army could be settling the many bloody conflicts in the former Soviet Union--on Moscow's terms.
For the U.S. and other Western countries, the truth is that a stronger Russian military is better than a demoralized, disorganized force, especially when control of Russia's still-vast nuclear arsenal could be at stake. Analysts don't expect a newly energized military to start reneging on arms-control treaties or threatening Europe. But Washington may have to brace itself for tougher moves on Russia's southern periphery.