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YELTSIN IS FACING MUTTERINGS AND MAYBE MUTINY IN MILITARY

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IS RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin facing a military mutiny at the highest levels?

Sources in Moscow say Gen. Nikolai Polyakov, commander of the Kantimirovskaya Division - one of two elite units charged with protecting the Russian seat of government - has resigned to protest Yeltsin's invasion of Chechnya.Last week, another general commanding one of three Russian army columns advancing on the Chechen capital of Grozny announced he would go no further because he did not want to kill any more civilians. Gen. Ivan Babichev said he would not obey orders that were "unconstitutional."

And this week, yet a third general in charge of relief operations for Chechen refugees has criticized the intervention, saying the Russian army has no business being "the aggressor, a policeman on our own territory."

The comment was all the more startling because it was made by a member of Yeltsin's own government. Besides being a veteran of the Afghanistan War, Lt. Gen. Valery Vostrokin is deputy minister for Emergency Situations, currently coordinating relief efforts for up to 100,000 Chechens who have sought shelter in neighboring Ingushetia.

Generals defying their commander-in-chief - let alone all the disgruntled colonels and lesser ranks being quoted in the Russian press lately - certainly sounds like a mutiny. But Defense Minister Pavel Grachev's response has been incredibly mild.

No one has been fired, no one has been court-martialed. All we've seen so far is an announcement that some "demoralized" units fighting in Chechnya will be replaced by more obedient troops from the Ural, Volga and Siberian military districts - i.e., as far away as possible from the mutinous Moscow garrisons.

That may be because Grachev himself is in deep trouble. One Russian friend well plugged into the military establishment compares the defense minister's standing with Russian troops to that of President Clinton in the eyes of many American soldiers.

"Remember when Jesse Helms warned Clinton not to go to Fort Bragg without bodyguards?" said my friend. "Well, Grachev is in the same predicament. His reputation in the army is very, very low. He relies on a narrow circle of friends to keep his job, one of them being Yeltsin, but he does not have the respect of his generals. No one should be surprised by open disobedience."

Part of the disenchantment with Grachev is pure envy. A former airborne commander, he received the defense minister's job as a reward for not joining Communist hard-liners in their failed coup of 1991 - and was promoted above many of his seniors.

But there is also widespread resentment of the way Grachev has allowed the armed forces to be used by Yeltsin for his own political ends. And the Yeltsin who clambered on a tank to convince Russian soldiers not to fire on fellow Russians in 1991 is not the same Yeltsin as the one who ordered Russian tanks to fire on Russia's parliament in 1993.

The bloody denouement of last year's parliamentary rebellion - 150 dead and hundreds wounded - left a bad taste in the mouths of many generals. They really don't like to fire on fellow Russians.

Chechnya is somewhat different in that it is peopled by Muslims, widely regarded as a criminal class by European Russians. Yeltsin's government has taken advantage of this to portray all Chechens as counterfeiters, drug runners and arms dealers - much as the Bush administration vilified Manuel Noriega to justify our invasion of Panama.

But whatever their distaste for Chechen criminals, Russia's military men have even greater distaste for Muslim guerrillas. The last thing they want is another Afghanistan in the Caucasus Mountains.