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No quick remedy for Russia’s ailing military

February 23, 1997

MOSCOW (AP) _ Disheveled young soldiers beg for cigarettes and small change on the streets of Moscow. Thousands of officers and their families live in shabby barracks. The defense minister says the nuclear arsenal is so worn out it is becoming unreliable.

Dire warnings about the armed forces have reached a fever pitch as Russians fret about the consequences of NATO’s plan to expand eastward by adding former Soviet bloc nations as members.

There is a widespread consensus about the fundamental problems _ low morale, aging equipment, a lack of money. But while the tone of the discussions is increasingly urgent, there is no clear blueprint for re-organizing the armed forces and its 1.7 million servicemen.

``The army is being destroyed in a catastrophic, snowball fashion,″ said retired Gen. Lev Rokhlin, the head of parliament’s defense committee. ``There is only enough money to feed the servicemen and pay their salaries, so that the military does not explode.″

The Foreign and Defense Policy Council, a private, centrist group of influential politicians, businessmen and journalists, describes the state of the armed forces as a ``complete catastrophe.″

Russia’s military has long been obedient to its civilian masters and there is no hint of mutiny at present. But analysts worry about what could happen if conditions do not improve.

Rokhlin said the danger is approaching if urgent steps are not taken to ease the military’s plight.

``If this happened to the army of a well-to-do country, there would have been a military coup long ago,″ he said.

Some of the grim predictions are seen as an attempt to win larger spending at a time when Russia sees new security threats such as an expanding NATO. It also is a political question, often capitalized upon by the hard-line and nationalist foes of President Boris Yeltsin’s government.

But the problems are real.

Spending on the armed forces has decreased by nearly half since the 1991 Soviet collapse, according to Western estimates. Top defense officials say Russia cannot afford new weapons and proper combat training for its troops and is slowly losing the ability to control its nuclear arsenal.

Widespread corruption among the top brass, the use of soldiers as cheap labor and brutal hazing of young conscripts also contribute to the military’s malaise.

But the biggest blow was the humiliating adventure in the Chechnya republic in southern Russia, where Russian troops were outfought time and again by outnumbered, lightly armed rebel guerrillas.

The withdrawal from the former East Germany and other former Soviet bloc countries has left thousands of soldiers poorly fed and living in hastily built barracks. Some 130,000 career officers and their families have no permanent housing, says Rokhlin, the defense committee chairman.

``The (monthly) salary of a nuclear submarine commander is just over one million rubles ($180). And this man has control over weapons that could destroy half the world,″ Rokhlin said.

Russia’s 1997 budget left defense spending at the equivalent of $18 billion. That compares to more than $250 billion by the United States, although a dollar goes further in Russia.

Defense Minister Igor Rodionov said Russia’s defense allocations covers only about 60 percent of the military’s needs, and the shortfall has stalled any attempts at military reform.

``There are no means in the country, yet reform needs to be implemented immediately,″ said Viktor Samoilov, former director of the huge Rosvooruzheniye state arms-exporting company. ``Seven years have passed and nothing has been done″ since talk of army reform began after the Soviet Union dissolved.

Military reform plans appeared to gain steam during Yeltsin’s re-election campaign last year, when he pledged to end unpopular conscription and make the army a modernized, volunteer force by 2000.

Yeltsin has ordered Rodionov to swiftly cut 200,000 soldiers, but the defense minister says that even with reductions, Russia is unlikely to have an all-volunteer army in the foreseeable future.

Reform remains a complicated task for a country with a long history of military secrecy and no tradition of public debate about details such as spending, equipment and troop levels.

``Nobody knows the real state of affairs in the military, while official data is distorted,″ said Vitaly Tretyakov, editor of the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta and a member of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council.

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