Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 142

Defense Secretary William Cohen has been quoted in a Russian newspaper as saying that the United States is prepared to help Russia reform its beleaguered armed forces. In remarks published by Nezavisimaya gazeta, Cohen said that the United States is aware of the importance of Russian military reform and that it is prepared to help “in those areas … where the Russian military authorities consider American aid to be the most reasonable.” Cohen also said that the United States has a stake in the success of Russia’s military reforms because they could help pave the way to a more stable world. Cohen acknowledged that Russia’s military reform efforts have been hurt by a shortage of funding, but made clear that the help he was proffering did not include American financial aid. (Reuter, July 22)

Talk of radical military reform began in the late Soviet period. But political opposition and the sheer chaos that engulfed the armed forces following the loss of Moscow’s eastern empire and the dissolution of the Soviet Union stymied reform efforts. In his 1996 presidential campaign, President Boris Yeltsin made military reform a key issue and pledged, among other things, to end the military draft and transform Russia’s conscript army into a fully volunteer force by the year 2000. That deadline is unlikely to be met. But, beginning with the appointment of current Defense Minister Igor Sergeev last May, Russia’s defense establishment has, at last, lurched uncertainly toward reforms aimed at streamlining the armed forces and lowering defense costs through personnel cuts and restructuring.

The military reform effort has, however, generated considerable criticism from Yeltsin’s political opposition. It could emerge as an important issue in the country’s upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Yeltsin’s opponents have sought, in particular, to capitalize on dismal conditions and plummeting morale in the armed forces. They have also sometimes portrayed Yeltsin’s defense policies as both a sellout to the West and a disaster for Russia’s national security.

The desperate condition of Russia’s armed forces has been highlighted yet again in recent days by reports that the Defense Ministry is inducting mentally ill or diseased conscripts. The Moscow Military District’s chief military prosecutor revealed earlier this week that one soldier with a history of mental illness had sprayed then Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s residence with gunfire before himself being shot and killed. The same prosecutor said that some 600 conscript soldiers in his district were found to be undernourished. In 1997-1998 another 160 in the district were said to have been tested and found to be HIV-positive. (Itar-Tass, July 20; AP, July 21)