Acting Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, speaking yesterday before a gathering of retired senior officers, painted a dismal picture of the Russian army’s capabilities. Only the country’s Strategic Rocket Forces and its paratroopers, he said, are currently able to perform their military tasks effectively. Sergeev also said that 53 percent of the armed forces’ aircraft, as well as 40 percent of their anti-aircraft systems, helicopters, armored equipment and artillery equipment are in need of overhauling. Although regional and ethnic conflicts, especially to Russia’s south, now constitute the main threat to Russia’s security, Sergeev continued, the army has failed to integrate into its training activities experience it gained in Afghanistan and Chechnya. The Defense Ministry, he said, spent 90 percent of its budget last year simply on feeding and maintaining its troops. (Russian Television, Russian agencies, April 8)
Sergeev’s words tell a familiar story. Yet the tone of his remarks yesterday — and thus far in his stewardship of the Defense Ministry — are worth noting. Sergeev’s predecessor, former Defense Minister Igor Rodionov, also spoke often of the army’s woes. But Rodionov sometimes portrayed those problems in alarmist terms that both angered Kremlin leaders and exacerbated tensions in the army itself. Rodionov, who has now joined Yeltsin’s hard-line political opposition, tried especially to politicize the debate over Russia’s defense budgets. He argued that military reform was impossible without increased allocations, and implied that the military’s dire financial situation risked turning the army against the government.
Sergeev, in contrast, has avoided such rhetoric. He has also publicly embraced the military reform program now advocated by the Kremlin, despite the fact that implementation of that program, which mandates significant cuts and restructuring, has generated considerable opposition among military personnel. (Komsomolskaya pravda, March 3) This is undoubtedly the main reason why Russian President Boris Yeltsin had made clear his desire to keep Sergeev in the defense minister post.
There is no guarantee, however, that the Russian defense chief will remain so accommodating. According to a Russian daily, Sergeev was upset recently when Yeltsin vetoed a law on the status of servicemen. The law had been strongly backed by the Defense Ministry and amended extensively by lawmakers to meet the president’s objections. It would have provided, among other things, for increases in allowances for servicemen. Such increases for 1998 and 1999 are now apparently ruled out. The decision could undermine Sergeev’s authority in the armed forces. It is also likely, the newspaper points out, to provide an issue on which Yeltsin’s opposition can agitate among military personnel against the president. (Russky telegraf, April 4)
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