Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 112

Russia’s Defense Ministry is reported to be protesting the government’s plans to trim defense spending in the state budget for the year 2001. According to reports published on June 1, the projected federal budget for 2001 currently envisions cutting funding for Russia’s Defense and Interior Ministries, as well as the country’s security agencies, from 29.2 percent of total budget allocations–the figure for this year–to 26.8 percent of expenditures in 2001. The Defense Ministry is reported to be claiming that any reductions in defense spending will undermine well-publicized efforts to reform the armed forces and to strengthen Russia’s national defense.

In an effort to allay such concerns, Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksandr Kudrin said, also on June 1, that the defense-spending portion of the budget in fact faces no such reductions. Kudrin said that the Russian government has set itself the task of ensuring that defense expenditures–including those being devoted to the war in Chechnya–are not reduced in 2001. He suggested that the projected cuts mentioned in news reports would actually come not from the budget of the Defense Ministry, but from spending previously allocated to the Interior Ministry and Russia’s security agencies. One report quoted Kudrin as saying that expenditures for law enforcement activities and security are now rather high, and that they should therefore be reduced (Russian agencies, June 1).

Kudrin reemphasized these same points in an interview published yesterday by Krasnaya zvezda–the Defense Ministry’s main newspaper. Kudrin said in that interview that national defense will actually receive an increase of some 30 billion rubles in 2001 over the figure for this year. At the same time, he also confirmed anew that overall spending for the “power-wielding block”–a Russian term for the army, police and security agencies–would indeed be cut from 29.2 percent of total spending to 26.8 percent (Itar-Tass, June 7).

It is difficult to know what to make of these plans. Russian President Vladimir Putin had emphasized again and again his intention to root out corruption and to restore law and order in Russia. It is difficult to see how he will accomplish this if he intends, in fact, to cut spending for the Interior Ministry. It is similarly difficult to imagine that budget cuts for Russia’s various security agencies are in the offing. Putin is himself a career KGB officer and appears thus far in his short time as Russian leader to have emphasized his intention to increase the authority–and scope of activities–of the country’s security establishment. Given that the security agencies also stand as one of Putin’s key sources of political authority, it is difficult to imagine they he will back any significant cuts in their funding.

The Russian armed forces, meanwhile, which usually back the president, seem unlikely to react enthusiastically even to Kudrin’s reassurances. Putin rose to power on promises of rebuilding Russia’s military greatness, and the military leadership’s wholehearted support for him was presumably based at least in part on the expectation that he would reverse Boris Yeltsin’s policies and begin directing significantly more funding toward the armed forces. But that may not be the case. Even Putin’s promise earlier this year of a 50 percent increase in the Russian defense procurement budget–while clearly welcomed at the Defense Ministry–did not in real terms amount to much of an improvement over the miserly budgets which had been a feature of the Yeltsin presidency. Kudrin’s remarks this month now suggest that, while the Defense Ministry may emerge from the current budget debates in better shape than the police and security agencies, there is not going to be the sort of defense spending windfall that many in the military leadership had probably hoped for. Their reaction to this apparently emerging reality remains to be seen.

If comments by a top Defense Ministry official published yesterday are any indication, the military leadership is unlikely to stand by quietly as the current budget debate proceeds. Colonel General Anatoly Sitnov, head of the Defense Ministry’s armaments department, complained in yesterday’s article that the draft budget for 2001 stipulates cutting defense spending to 2.62 percent of Russian GDP. Sitnov stated baldly that the “Defense Ministry will not be able to achieve its objectives with the funding level stipulated by the [2001] budget.” He also emphasized the fact that the political leadership has not yet disowned an earlier commitment by former President Boris Yeltsin to raise defense spending to at least 3.5 percent of Russian GDP (Vremya MN, June 7).

In fact, Yeltsin never fulfilled that pledge. What is interesting–but should not be surprising–is that, at this early stage at least, the battle over defense spending for 2001 appears to be shaping up in a fashion similar to that which occurred annually under Yeltsin. The point is that, for all Putin’s rhetoric about the need to restore Russia’s military greatness, he is likely to run up against many of the same economic constraints that confronted Yeltsin in his efforts to keep the military happy. Putin’s spending dilemmas may be mitigated somewhat by the Russian economy’s recent improved performance, but he still is clearly not going to be able to fully satisfy the wish lists of the Russian Defense Ministry or the armed forces’ various service chiefs. Indeed, to a degree greater than was the case in conducting Russia’s bloody war in Chechnya, Putin’s political skills are likely to be tested in the battle over spending priorities among the Russian armed forces’ various service branches, and between the army, the police and the security agencies.