A Tsar Is Born

Sunday, July 30, 2000

The first months of Vladimir Putin’s government have not been encouraging for democratic reform in Russia. Consider, for instance, that an alarming number of the new Russian president’s appointees are former or current intelligence officers from the old KGB or its current successor, the FSB. Appointment of intelligence officers to key government positions is one of many signs of a Russian drift toward authoritarianism. Already, the FSB has been ordered to monitor the allegiance of officers in the armed forces—in effect, becoming a police force within the military. Army training for all schoolboys, beginning at age 15, was instituted on December 31, 1999, the day Putin became acting president.

One thing is for certain: If the Russian people want law and order, they are bound to get it, for the next four years and perhaps longer. In early January, Putin approved a law providing security agencies with access to all e-mail in Russia as well as other electronic traffic carried on the Internet. "This means Russia has become a police state," said Elena Bonner, widow of the late nuclear physicist and Soviet-era dissident Andrei Sakharov. It is worth noting that Putin himself has never condemned the role played by the secret police in the former Soviet Union.

Putin has staunchly defended Russia’s brutal military campaign in Chechnya. In January he declared, "The people want order to be introduced in Russia. And we are acting in the North Caucasus. I can firmly say we are doing this on the instruction of the Russian people." The death toll and the destruction have been enormous. The capital city of Grozny has been leveled and its 400,000 inhabitants dispersed. Some 300,000 refugees have fled abroad, at least 10,000 Chechens have been killed, and yet the fighting continues. Is this what the Russian people really want?

Russian television recently showed footage of Russian forces bombing a Chechen village with missiles banned by the Geneva convention—in effect demonstrating that Putin, who ordered their use, is a war criminal.

Earlier this year, the progovernment Russian Public Television showed the bombing of a large Chechen village by TOS-1 rockets filled with flammable liquid and Tochka-U missiles that cover a wide area of land with cluster shrapnel. The 1980 Geneva convention, signed and ratified by Russia, specifies that the use of such weapons constitutes a war crime. This makes Putin, who ordered their use, in effect, a war criminal. (Yeltsin did not authorize the use of such weapons during the 1994–96 war in Chechnya.)

Of particular concern for the United States is Russia’s new national security declaration, which Putin signed in January (he had begun working on the document as Yeltsin’s national security adviser). The document reverses Russia’s "no-first-use" pledge regarding nuclear weapons. It also calls for stationing Russian troops in "strategically important" regions of the world. Such "limited military contingents"—the same designation given to the 100,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan during 1979–89—would be located at overseas military bases, thus guaranteeing reaction to crisis situations in their initial stages.

Last November, then prime minister Putin promised to provide additional funds to deploy Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov—along with one destroyer, a frigate, a tanker, and nuclear-powered submarines—in the Mediterranean by November 2000. The Tartus base in Syria will be reactivated. Improvements at the Cam Ranh Bay naval installation for Russia’s Fifteenth Operational Squadron are also planned, based on a 1979 agreement with Vietnam that expires in 2004.

In January, Putin informed his cabinet that funding for new weapons systems would be increased by 150 percent. He also revealed that the military-industrial complex had produced 30 percent more high-technology arms during the past year than in 1998, all of world-class quality. Russia is also changing its military priorities. In recent years, some 80 percent of defense funds have gone to modernizing strategic missile forces. This will drop to 30 percent, with the rest to be spent for state-of-the-art conventional weapons systems.

Russia’s intentions should not be confused with its capabilities. Still, the West and the United States have been placed on notice that Russia under its new president will become a rival in due course—not a partner.