Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 40

In remarks made on the eve of Russia’s February 23 military holiday (see the Monitor, February 24), Defense Minister Igor Sergeev suggested that, despite many difficulties, the military leadership had in recent years begun rebuilding Russia’s armed forces. Sergeev told a Kremlin gathering that “we have managed to increase the combat effectiveness of troops, create conditions for maintaining their deterrence potential, and lay the foundation for creating an army of the 21st century” (Itar-Tass, February 22). Russian President Boris Yeltsin appeared to endorse his defense minister’s claims by conferring a new military award on him.

Sergeev’s February 22 remarks follow reports disseminated recently by the High Command that last year’s autumn military campaign–which concluded in January of this year–had been a successful one. The Russian General Staff’s organizational and mobilizational directorate, which oversees military manpower issues, said earlier this month that the armed forces had fully met their targets for the fall draft. Some 158,000 conscripts had been drafted, the General Staff said, and 110,000 of them had been sent to the army and navy (the remainder go to the country’s various security forces).

Although military specialists continued to bemoan health and education problems with regard to last fall’s cohort, they nevertheless suggested that the latest draft had provided the armed forces with the best quality conscripts in some years. They also suggested that the number of those avoiding conscription, which was said to have totaled some 40,000 in the spring of last year, had fallen slightly (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, February 16).

There are obvious political reasons for the Russian government to claim success in its efforts to halt the long deterioration of the country’s armed forces. In his 1996 presidential election campaign, President Boris Yeltsin pledged to make radical military reform a top priority of his administration in the years to come. During the election campaign itself, moreover, Yeltsin dumped his longtime defense minister, General Pavel Grachev, and brought retired General Aleksandr Lebed into the Kremlin, ostensibly–at least in part–so that he could deal with military reform issues.

Lebed’s own tenure was a short one, however, and within a year his handpicked choice for defense minister, General Igor Rodionov, had been dismissed from his post as well. Rodionov’s ouster, in particular, was related to sharp differences with the Kremlin over military reform. With the appointment of then Strategic Rocket Forces commander Igor Sergeev to the defense minister post in May of 1997, the Kremlin began a new military reform push which has been much criticized by Yeltsin’s political opposition, which now includes both Lebed and Rodionov. Military reform and the abject state of Russia’s armed forces have been a political issue, and are likely to become even more of one with the approach of Russia’s parliamentary and presidential elections.