Is the Soviet army, the spoiled darling of the communist regime, ready to rise up and seize power? Many Russians think so and Mikhail Gorbachev even took the remarkable step of denying rumors that it would.
Unquestionably, morale is at an all-time low. Generals are openly grumbling about cuts in the defense budget, the surrender of Eastern Europe and, most of all, the reforms in economic and political life carried out in the name of perestroika.When the Red Army was created in 1918, Lenin, worried about the counter-revolutionary potential of a professional officer corps, made certain that it was penetrated from top to bottom by the Communist Party. As it evolved, party control was exercised by two institutions.
The Main Political Administration was placed in charge of political indoctrination to ensure that the military faithfully followed party directives. Party cells were introduced into all units of regimental size and higher. Three-quarters of the officers are party members and subject to party discipline; among the generals, membership approaches 100 percent.
The Red Army, however, is not monolithic. While the generals are overwhelmingly conservative, the officers of middle and lower rank sympathize with the democratic parties.
Gorbachev's effort to deprive the Communist Party of monopoly over politics has met with furious resistance from the upper echelons of the officer corps.
Finally, the generals are dismayed by the decline in the prestige of the military.
To counter trends that diminish their power, prestige and influence, the generals are loudly warning that the country faces the threat of external aggression.
This new practice of openly challenging civilian authority has alarmed many people and fed the rumors of coups. In mid-September word spread in Moscow that several army divisions and a regiment of paratroopers had been deployed around the city to overthrow the government under the pretext of protecting it from a democratic insurrection.
Could a military coup succeed?
The yearning for law and order, for a strong hand, is prevalent in the population, and the conservatives could exploit it to introduce a Pinochet-style military dictatorship. But the difficulties are formidable.
The disparity in political attitudes between the generals and their subordinates suggests that, should they decide to strike, the generals could run into open defiance from field officers.
Army and KGB field commanders have stated publicly that they would disobey orders to fire on civilians. There is also no assurance that non-Russian officers, especially the Ukrainians, would do as told.
Finally, it is questionable whether the army, even in alliance with conservative party elements, could impose its will and solve the problems of a country as large and unstable as the Soviet Union.
Nevertheless, the danger exists and it is troublesome not only for Soviet citizens but also for the United States, whose defense and foreign policies assume a benign and cooperative Soviet Union.