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Briefing Paper : Shrinking Russian Defenses

February 25, 1992|MICHAEL PARKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The News:

Russia's generals are watching with growing alarm as their troops retreat from defenses that were probably the world's most formidable--only to take up positions that they fear will leave their country vulnerable.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 3, 1992 Home Edition World Report Page 5 Column 1 World Report Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
European map--In a map accompanying an article on Russian defenses in last week's World Report, Lithuania and Latvia were inadvertently switched.

No More Buffers:

With communism's collapse in East Europe and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, Soviet forces lost their bases in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary--a forward defense that would have meant that the first stages of any land war would have been fought well beyond the Soviet Union with the help of strong allies.

With the Soviet Union's own disintegration, Russia is now losing buffers on its western, southern and Asian borders as whole layers of newly independent countries break away, stripping it of the protection of vassal states the czars had subdued even before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

The Flash Points:

And with tensions rising within the new Commonwealth of Independent States, Russia sees the clear prospect of wars among its neighbors, along its borders and even on its own territory.

"Quite oddly, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia is facing unprecedented dangers," Sergei Karaganov, a leading political-military analyst here, commented. "Having emerged from the Cold War, we now face the prospect of hot war and even several hot wars. All our efforts in diplomacy and defense should be concentrated on avoiding those wars."

Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet republics that joined the Commonwealth, are virtually at war already, with deadly skirmishes each day along their border and around Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan. After four years of fighting, the success of a proposed cease-fire in the region is far from certain.

Other flash points also abound--the mountainous region of Chechen-Ingushetia in southern Russia, the Russian-dominated area along the Dniestr River in eastern Moldova and the previously autonomous ethnic areas in Georgia, a former Soviet republic that has not yet joined the Commonwealth.

"What were nasty little domestic disputes are now international with the independence of all the former Soviet republics," Karaganov said. "Is Russia to play the policeman? We don't want to."

Mustering the Troops:

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin has pushed hard to hold as much of the former Soviet armed forces together as possible under a unified command. With a Russian in charge of the forces, this would postpone the changes Russia would have to make in its defenses.

But three of the former Soviet republics--Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova--have refused his appeal and plan to form their own armies. Ukraine already has more than 400,000 troops under arms, more than most other countries in Europe, and officials in Kiev are again talking about retaining tactical nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory.

Although seven other members of the fledgling Commonwealth sided with Yeltsin, Air Marshal Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov, the force commander, later acknowledged that each of the newly independent states would eventually want its own army.

Shaposhnikov urged a calm and rational breakup to maintain regional stability and expressed hope that the unified command would evolve into a defense alliance like NATO that would ensure the security of Russia and other members.

Military commanders believe they have a ready solution to these problems--restore the Soviet Union.

In an opinion survey of 5,000 officers at a recent assembly, 71% said a single state should be re-established within the borders of the former Soviet Union. But virtually none thought this could be done peacefully, and 57% foresaw armed conflicts between Russia and other states in the Commonwealth.

Toward a New Doctrine:

Gen. Konstantin Kobets, Russia's defense secretary, accepts that the breakup of the Soviet Union is final and argues that his country must now develop a military doctrine, or strategy, based on this.

"The geopolitical situation of Commonwealth members differs for each has its own neighbors and external threats," Kobets wrote in the influential Moscow newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta this month. "We must openly and directly state that Russia has its own state interests, and it will protect them with the use or threat of arms. Proceeding from this premise, we should draft a military doctrine and create an army for Russia."

Kobets envisions the new Russian armed forces in a defensive posture. Gone from his sketch of a new military doctrine is a great power's usual desire to project its influence to other regions, and gone is the desire for superpower "parity" with the United States.

Kobets and other military leaders are suggesting Russia's total armed forces should be slashed to less than one-third of the 3.7 million troops maintained by the former Soviet Union.

The Naked Generals:

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