The Colonel and the Coup

Lev Semeiko is a retired Colonel in the Soviet Army who now works in Moscow as a strategic analyst at the Institute of U.S.A. and Canada. After participating in the convention of the International Peace Bureau, he addressed an audience at the University of Toronto and answered questions. We join him first in Red Square, where he went upon hearing of the coup.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 1991-11-01 12:00:00

I saw tanks in unusual places around the Kremlin. Always during normal parades, they go in one direction, but now they had surrounded it. And they were marked "Shame on CPSU!" Some people were giving food to the tankists. I saw a demonstration coming nearer, and I joined them. We went along Kalinin Prospect to the White House. (You know, there are two White Houses. And now we have almost the same name: U.S. and USS-Union of Sovereign States. Some people call us USSR-Union of Sovereign Separate Republics.)

As I walked along I heard the voice of one old man, "You old fool! Where are you going with those hoodlum youths?" You see, many old people agreed with the coup. I didn't talk to him but went to the White House and then to my institute. And on the next day I went back to the White House and climbed over the barricades, which were not serious. They were just symbols of barricades, except for one tall one. As I was talking to a man there, a woman came up. "Whose barricades are these?" she asked.

"Ours," he said. She went away, then came back.

"Whose ours?" she asked.

"Yeltsin's," he replied.

"Oh, Yeltsin's! Okay!"

I wish I had taken my camera. For example, there was a beautiful girl sitting on a tank with a huge tricolor Russian flag and an umbrella. It was raining.

Many armored personnel carriers were standing there that had gone over to Yeltsin's side. Suddenly they began to leave, with the Russian flags on their antennae. The people cried "Hooray, hooray, hooray!" I wondered why. They were ordered to leave by Yeltsin's men, and the command had decided to reserve them.

Near that place three men died the next night. A column of armored cars was moving along the street, having been ordered to leave Moscow. And the military asked the militiamen to lead the way with a megaphone, saying, "Step aside, step aside!" But the militia didn't come, and the people at the barricades were nervous. When they saw the armored cars they concluded that these cars were designated to encircle the White House. Not understanding the mission, one man threw an overcoat on the armored car, and the soldier shot. Another two people rushed to take the body, and the car began to manoeuvre and pushed them to the wall and they were killed. It should have been possible to avoid that.

What to think about the results of this coup? I will say, it had some positive aspects. It cleared the way for democratic forces. Now we have no resistance because those such men who had power have been removed. Second, now we have unity between the two leaders, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. If they are not friends, they are now at least people who cooperate.

It is necessary to decide what to do immediately. I like the program of the Baltic republics-3, 3, 3 program. What to do, stage by stage, in three days, three weeks, three years. We need such a program. It is necessary to combine the problems because we have thousands of problems-economic, social, military, cultural. It is necessary to set priorities-where to begin.

We have four stages of development in this situation-terror, euphoria, depression, and adaptation. The terror was the situation of three days. Then euphoria: "Hooray, hooray! Victory!" Now is the stage of depression, as we see what a difficult autumn and spring we will have. And the stage of adjustment will come.

Q: What changes do you expect in the army as a result of the changes following the coup?

SEMEIKO: I hope that there'll be two major changes. The first is great unilateral cuts without even negotiating. It seems to me that the leadership will consider this unilaterally. We don't need such big forces now after the failure of the coup. The problems of security will be changed because of the independence of republics inside the Soviet Union, because of different means of ensuring security, etc. So, the idea is, the Soviet Union will pose no military threat to the West, as it poses no threat politically.

Second, our security interests will be turned inward, to keep peace in the country. It will be far more important to us than the outward direction. It means that we will have stronger interior troops than regular troops, which would have just designs to defend the country from outside. You understand the demographic and economic problems; we have no possibility to have a large army. The army will be divided into two parts-internal and external. The internal may be equal to the external. To us it is important to keep peace inside the country.

Q: A year or so ago they began to have soldiers accompany the police when patrolling city streets. Is this still going on and do you expect that it will continue?

SEMEIKO: Yes. And the strengthening of the interior forces may be implemented very soon. That's just my assessment, not an official one. The Ministry of Defence will be radically changed. It will be civil. The task of the ministry will be to define military policy, procurement problems, budgetary problems, etc. The minister may be a civilian man. As to tactical problems of the army, the General Staff will be occupied with such assignments-training troops, fighting, etc. Now the Minister of Defence, Shaposhnikov, is a military man, and he has different problems. The commission on military reform has been organized and is staffed by representatives of republics. This is very important because, in the past, mainly Russians defined the military policy. Now it will be with the consent of all the republics.

Q: Do you think it will be a unified military force?

SEMEIKO: I think so, but it all depends on the situation in the Soviet Union. If the domestic situation is bad, the process of the dissolution of the Soviet Union will proceed. Then the army will be split and I don't know the results. I heard before my departure that the Ukraine demanded that all the troops situated on their territory should belong to their army-including the Black Sea fleet. So it's very dangerous. I heard that such acts took place in Kiev.

Q: I assume that it is dangerous to have separate armies for the republics because clashes might occur between them. One republic might fight against another. The only argument in favor of having republics with separate armies comes from some members of Mothers of Soldiers, who are concerned about the number of soldiers killed by ethnic fights. If there were separate armies for different nationalities, those fights would be reduced. Do you agree?

SEMEIKO: There were some statements by Shaposhnikov and other military commanders that in the future the army will not take part in such clashes. The internal troops, that's another matter, but the army will not take part. Then if republics organize national guards, maybe 10,000 maximum, it will be up to the republican governments to prevent clashes without using union troops. I think that republican clashes should be settled by the republics. Why should Moscow interfere?

Interview by Metta Spencer.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1991

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1991, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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