Apparently undaunted, however, Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin traveled to Vladivostok yesterday, where he told reporters that the government should allocate more money for the navy. In remarks televised by Russian television, the prime minister said that the “navy needs one kind of help: a normal material base, normal financing and upkeep.” He called for the navy to be more active–to send more ships out to sea–and announced that he would see to it that the government makes this possible. “Russia is a sea power,” he said, “therefore we hold its navy near and dear.”
Stepashin’s remarks yesterday came as the Russian Pacific Fleet celebrated Navy Day. The prime minister observed to reporters that he had grown up in the Far East and that his father had been a naval officer. Stepashin’s appearance marked the first time that a Russian prime minister had inspected the fleet’s Navy Day parade (AP, Itar-Tass, Russian Public TV, July 25).
Over the last decade or so, political and military leaders in Moscow have proclaimed their intention to transform the former Soviet Union’s oversized and troubled armed forces into a smaller but more efficient force, one which would be both better trained and better equipped with the latest military technology. That plan has failed utterly on both counts, however, and many within the military establishment itself have blamed the failure on the government’s unwillingness or inability to properly finance the armed forces. The Pacific Fleet has been among the Russian military formations most adversely affected by recent developments. A report published this month concluded that the once-mighty fleet–second in size only to the Northern Fleet–currently possesses only six seaworthy vessels of the first rank. In three to four years, the report added, it is possible that the fleet will not be able to field a single ship capable of carrying strategic weapons (Novye izvestia, July 15).
Whether or not he himself is set to run for president (see story below), Stepashin’s calls for a stronger military reflect a type of rhetoric likely to be heard with increasing frequency this Russian election year. The danger, of course, is that political leaders like Stepashin may be raising expectations which they cannot reasonably meet. In addition, they may be strengthening the hand of military and political hardliners who–particularly in the wake of recent Balkans events–would like to turn the clock back to an era of higher military budgets and confrontation with the West.
Stepashin’s weekend travels came on the eve of a high-profile visit to the United States. The Russian prime minister flew yesterday from Vladivostok to Seattle, where he was expected to meet with local business leaders. Stepashin is scheduled to hold talks in Washington tomorrow with U.S. President Bill Clinton and to meet with Vice President Al Gore under the auspices of a Russian-U.S. trade and economic cooperation commission. In an interview given to “Newsweek” prior to his departure from Russia, Stepashin described Russian-U.S. relations as “stable,” despite deep disagreements over policy in the Balkans. But he said that Moscow’s relations with NATO remain at an “impasse” and repeated the Kremlin’s objections to NATO enlargement (Reuters, AP, July 24-25).
STEPASHIN SENDS MIXED SIGNALS ON PRESIDENTIAL AMBITIONS.