So Pavel Grachev died today, age 64. It may be frowned on to speak ill of the dead, but I would be hard pressed to say anything positive about Grachev — “Pasha Mercedes” — the over-promoted and under-achieving defense minister of Russia 1992-96 and the man who, I would suggest, deserves perhaps the greatest share of the blame for the military’s slide into corruption, indiscipline, ineffectiveness and conceptual bankruptcy. This is, after all, a legacy with which Russia is still struggling. That’s not to say that without Grachev there would not still be problems (there would, especially as a result of the Soviet legacy), but his time in office undoubtedly worsened them. He was a fine, courageous tactical paratroop commander by most accounts, deservedly made a Hero of the Soviet Union for his exploits in Afghanistan. But his elevation to minister when Yeltsin was looking for a pliable yes-man to keep the military in check was a terrible move, for everyone concerned.
The politicization of the military. Grachev was tough in battle, but pretty weak in an office. He failed to maintain the necessary balance between following the chain of command and standing up for law, his institution, and common sense. He held back from pushing unpopular (if correct) policies, not would he contest official (if stupid) Kremlin lines. In the 1991 August Coup, he said he would refuse to order his paratroopers to attack Yeltsin’s White House if ordered to do so by the hardliners, but also rejected calls to topple the coup plotters; in effect, he hedged his bets, like so many at the time. However, in 1993 he sided with Yeltsin against the parliament and — unconstitutionally — ordered forces into Moscow to shell the latter into submission. This was an ambitious man willing to do whatever it took to please his boss. It’s noteworthy that Grachev’s much more independent and intelligent successor, Igor Rodionov, was dismissed after only one year in post for arguing against the civilian leadership, that reform would be far more expensive than they realized. Events subsequently proved him right.
The first Chechen War. No one likes to hear bad news, but sometimes it’s the defense minister’s job to tell a civilian president hard truths. Just as Ustinov failed to convey warnings about the risks in invading Afghanistan in 1979, so too did Grachev not just fail to give Yeltsin a reality check in 1994 but even pushed his boss into war with his notorious promise that a single paratroop regiment could sort out Moscow’s difficulties there in two hours. The result was the First Chechen War, a terrible, brutal and mishandled conflict that Moscow ultimately lost, but — given the radicalization of a proportion of the guerrilla movement and the devastation on the country and the social fabric, further creating crime, warlordism and instability — so too really did the Chechens.
The corruption of the military. Grachev was nicknamed “Pasha Mercedes” for his (persistently, and by informed people) alleged embezzlement of luxury cars in the process of the withdrawal of Russian forces from Germany and the liquidation of assets there. (And Dmitri Kholodov was investigating this when he was murdered; Grachev always rejected any connection, but later did have to admit having spoken out to his inner circle that Kholodov was the defense ministry’s “Number One enemy.”) Whatever the truth of those claims, he certainly presided over an ever-greedier campaign of embezzlement, asset-stripping and criminal abuses by the military brass. To manage to make the military an even more endemically corrupt institution than under the Soviets is no mean feat, but one which Grachev can claim.
The decay in the authority of the high command. The corollary of the previous points was the increasing gap between the high command and the regional commands and the command structure as a whole and the bulk of the military — including the officer corps. Grachev’s failure to secure necessary budgets for the military forced units and soldiers alike to seek self-sufficiency, sometimes through the black market, sometimes moonlighting, sometimes through crime or soliciting patronage from local business and authorities. The result was a fragmentation of the unified command. That not enough resources were available may not be his fault, given the crisis besetting the state budget. However, his refusal to countenance serious troop reductions and his failure to prosecute cases of blatant corruption and indiscipline are his to which to answer. The high command still has not recovered its full legitimacy and respect.
According to AFP, the usually first-rate Alexander Golts told Ekho Moskvy that Grachev was one of Russia’s “best defense ministers” who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and “He would have ended up being a very well respected man had he lived under different circumstances.” Well, maybe: had he not actually have had to do anything, had he not been faced with touch choices, had he been following the orders of a wise, cautious and strong-willed president. But the bottom line is that Grachev was a man promoted well beyond his abilities at a time when it would have taken an outstanding man to make a positive difference; however, he did more than just not do well, I would suggest that he was actually the worst defense minister post-Soviet Russia has had.