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Russia's Military Questions

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 18, 1997 – Starving troops, field-grade officers committing suicide, soldiers' pay three to four months late -- these are the news reports coming out of Russia.

The Russian army is a far cry from the Soviet forces the United States prepared to combat during the Cold War.

It is hard to get a handle on the extent of the problems in the Russian military, U.S. officials said. Those who study Russia even disagree on how many people are in the military. Estimates of its size range from 1.2 million to 1.8 million. Estimates of how much of Russia's gross national product the military consumes range from about 7 percent to over 8 percent.

"Whatever it is, it's too much," said James H. Brusstar, a specialist in Russian security policy at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. "The military is more than the government can afford, and the military is arguing for more funds."

The U.S. military is not "worried" about the state of the Russian military, but it is a "matter of concern," defense officials said. "There's a breaking point beyond which you can't push people," said a U.S. defense official. "[The state of the Russian military] is something Russian officials bring up each time they meet with senior American officials. They want to make sure we understand what's facing them."

The problems are not limited to the ministry of defense. The Russian government has 17 to 23 ministries that have military or paramilitary organizations. They are experiencing some of the same problems as the army. "It is important to realize the disintegration of the Russian military is not in our best national interests," said a defense official. "There needs to be stability in Russia for democratic institutions to take root and grow."

The heart of the problems is Russian army leaders want to keep intact the force structure they inherited from the Soviet Union, analysts said. "There isn't enough money to do that," Brusstar said.

The large force structure causes many problems. Many units are undermanned, with skeleton crews manning companies, battalions and regiments. The military must spend money on personnel, which leaves less for training. Steaming hours for the navy and flying hours for aviators have been reduced so much as to be irrelevant, officials said.

"Instead of trying to reduce the force structure, which would improve manning levels and training hours, the military has played hardball, insisting it remain the same and then underfunding it," Brusstar said.

"Most civilian specialists believe the Russians must cut their force structure until about 2005," he continued. "They need to reduce it to about 1.2 million, then take the money [they save] and put it into training, personnel and research and development. If Russia's economy gets better by 2005, then they can bring the numbers back up."

U.S. officials also said Russia must make force structure changes. Factions in the Russian ministry of defense clearly favor bringing the Russian army down to 12 to 15 trained and ready divisions, said U.S. officials. The Russians also want a second tier of units that can be brought up to readiness, if needed.

American analysts say there will be resistance to downsizing. The Russian airborne, for example, has already objected to any downsizing attempt.

The military has seen widespread corruption, analysts said. Part of it is caused by the way funds are allocated. The military is given lump sum amounts by general category: personnel, operations, supplies and so on. Commanders easily siphon off funds. In one case in Chechnya in December 1995, no money passed down to feed the troops for the entire month.

"There were cases of malnutrition," Brusstar said. "The legislature says it is military mismanagement, and the military says it's because the legislature didn't give them enough money."

Corruption reaches high in the ministry of defense, officials said. News reports in the West said past Minister of Defense Gen. Pavel Grachev's nickname was "Pasha Mercedes" for his lifestyle and favorite vehicles. The commander of Russian ground forces was fired for excessive payments to a helicopter plant where his wife worked.

Western analysts believe the current minister, Igor Rodionov, is untouched by corruption. He has surrounded himself with people with similar reputations. This is a ray of hope for Russia, U.S. officials said, and in fact, Rodionov has proposed reforms to the military.

Corruption has gone so far in the military that officers who want to take care of their troops must play the game to get the funds they need, Brusstar said.

The military performed poorly in Chechnya and in Afghanistan before that. But they have not really learned the lessons, said U.S. officials.

"Many of the units that performed poorly were not Russian army units," said a defense official. "Therefore, they don't feel the need to reform. Many in the Russian army even think such 'internal conflicts' as Chechnya are not a part of their mission. It's a mission for internal forces. So there's a lot of finger pointing about Chechnya particularly, but nobody really covered themselves in glory there."

The official said the mistakes ranged from poor command and communications to human rights violations to tactical problems.

Brusstar said if any reform is accomplished in the Russian military, it must come from the top. "[Russian President Boris] Yeltsin has never established his authority over the military," he said. "He's allowed [senior military officials] to go on with their mismanagement and stumble on the way they are going." Brusstar theorized Yeltsin may be afraid of coming down hard on the military.

U.S. officials discount the theory and think the military sincerely wants to stay out of domestic affairs. They blame Yeltsin's inaction on his ill health. "He's not fully engaged with dealing with these issues," said an official.

With all of the problems the Russian military has, it can still perform superbly. "The Russian brigade in Bosnia has done quite well," a U.S. official said. "It was handpicked from elite units and worked well with the U.S. forces. It's a credit to their leadership and the U.S. leaders in Bosnia."

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