Friday, October 2, 2015

Storming the Russian White House, October 4, 1993 (ISCA 1992-1994)

ADST recently published Wayne Merry's account of the storming of the Russian White House on October 4, 1993.  Here is an account of my view of the crisis from Washington, or at least, from the Russia Desk and the Operations Center, which I hope will be useful to readers.

On September 21, 1993, the deteriorating political situation in Moscow turned into a full-blown constitutional crisis when President Yeltsin issued Decree No. 1400, suspending the Congress of People's Deputies and ordering elections for a new Parliament for December 11-12.  The same day, Parliament declared Yeltsin was no longer President, and that Vice President Rutskoi, holed up in the Russian White House with rebellious hardline parliamentarians, was.  Strobe Talbott, who was running S/NIS at the time, tasked us to do a memo reviewing the situation and, if possible, to predict what might happen next.  One of my Junior Officers, Mark Pekala, drafted the memo, which, as usual, was a very professionally done job, but because he had to clear it with everyone else in the building, it was too cautious, and avoided the obvious question of whether the situation was going to deteriorate into violence.  I toughened up the memo and sent it up to Strobe without clearing it around again, predicting that the situation would turn violent within a few days.  This caused a lot of heartburn among those who found out that their cautious views were not taken, but as September wore on, we began to look like prophets as the situation steadily worsened.

On October 2, anti-Yeltsin demonstrations turned violent, and on the evening of October 3, the Ostankino TV complex was attacked by anti-Yeltsin forces.  That evening, we set up a crisis management cell in the Operations Center, which I headed, in order to keep the Department leadership informed on the latest events, and to get ready to evacuate our Embassy personnel if the situation warranted it (we eventually decided that the best thing to do in the circumstances would be to hunker down, as the situation on the streets was too chaotic to allow a successful evacuation).  At about 10pm, I called Strobe at home to update him on the situation.  After the Ostankino battle, Special Forces, apparently under Yeltsin's control, were reportedly moving to seal off the Russian White House, and speculation was rife that October 4 would either see the end of the parliamentary revolt or the end of Yeltsin.  Strobe asked me straight out, "Jim, do you think Yeltsin is going to attack the White House?"  I said it was impossible to say, but that if Yeltsin was going to attack, it would probably be at local dawn, which was 11:38pm Washington time.  Strobe took the hint, and decided to come in right then.  He and his deputies had just gotten set up in the Operations Center when we heard that, true to my somewhat timid prediction, pro-Yeltsin forces had attacked the Russian White House at dawn.  We all sat transfixed watching the CNN broadcast of the siege, including the tanks on the Kutuzovskiy Most blasting away at the upper floors of the White House.

We maintained contact with the Embassy throughout the night -- the decision to hunker down had turned out to be the right one.  For the next few days, there was considerable disorder on the streets, and Embassy personnel on the compound stayed in the Gymnasium on the NEC, which was below ground and afforded the most protection.  One marine was seriously wounded by a sniper, but that was the extent of our casualties.  A particularly dangerous moment came when a sniper was identified in the bell tower of the church on Bolshoy Devyatinskiy Pereulok, which faced the South Gate of the NEC.  Eventually, the sniper was neutralized. 

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