Military reform was being debated well before President Yeltsin announced his recent decrees
By Stanislav Lunev
On July 16, Russian media announced that President Boris Yeltsin had signed a series of decrees on military reform. If fully implemented, the measures will both downsize Russia’s military forces and significantly alter their command and administrative structure. Though unexpected, Yeltsin’s decrees did not emerge from a vacuum. Military reform questions have been hotly debated since well before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Until now, however, the Kremlin’s seeming paralysis allowed the issue to languish while the deterioration of the armed forces continued unabated.
The weeks that preceded Yeltsin’s decrees saw heightened discussion in the press and among Russian politicians of the state of affairs in the Russian armed forces, and possible scenarios were suggested for their future development. This increased attention was connected to the deteriorating situation in the Russian armed forces. According to former defense minister Igor Rodionov, who has already paid with his job for his unsanctioned frankness, the situation in the armed forces is now on the verge of escaping from the control of the central authorities’ control. The Russian Ministry of Defense’s newspaper Krasnaya zvezda, which has never been an opposition paper, reports that the state now owes each serviceman an average of between 15 and 20 million rubles. This spring, 110,000 Russian army officers and generals were without housing, while over 145,000 officers and generals had been discharged from the army without having received housing. In 1995 alone, more than 50,000 regular officers, unable to stand the chronic shortages of money, sought discharge from the army, 80 percent of them before their enlistment had expired. (1)
Next year, the newspaper went on, when most officers’ contracts will expire, 40 percent of all the regular army officers on contract intend to put in for a discharge. The number of suicides in the army is growing. Senior Lieutenant Sergei Babichev, who killed himself in May, left a suicide note in which he expressed the hope that his death would help his family get everything they were owed by the state.
More than 80 percent of servicemen, the paper reported, are skeptical of the federal government’s promises to provide social guarantees to the army. Material supply to the troops has gotten so bad that, in some garrisons, soldiers and officers are given rusks instead of the bread ration to which they are entitled. The state is able to issue only every third soldier with a proper uniform. If in 1996, the law on material supply to the army was only 15 percent financed, in the first quarter of this year, it was financed at only five percent.
In an article entitled "One Also Has to Learn to Survive," Krasnaya zvezda told of the Transbaikal Military District, where the district’s command has focused its attention not so much on training the troops as on working the farms which cover 80 percent of the land belonging to units in that district. In this way, it can ensure that servicemen have enough food. (2)
It therefore came as little surprise when, in June, Duma Defense Committee Chair Lev Rokhlin issued his controversial appeal "To Russia’s Supreme Commander and Servicemen." The retired general called on Russian servicemen to "come together and hold officers’ assemblies in every military unit" to "work out legal demands and send them to the president, the government, the Federal Assembly, and the Supreme and Constitutional Courts." (3)
General Rokhlin went on to express doubt and disagreement with existing plans for reforming the Russian armed forces. In particular, he accused President Yeltsin of "personal responsibility for unleashing the war in Chechnya" and asserted that a number of people in the head of state’s entourage were unprofessional and in the pay of western intelligence agencies.
If one disregards the political aspects of the general’s statements (in which he is, in large part, simply repeating charges previously leveled by the leaders of the Russian Communist Party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party), one cannot deny that there is some common sense in Rokhlin’s critique of Russian military reform. According to the Russian media report, citing Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s speech in Sevastopol on June 12, the plans to reform the Russian armed forces by 2005 include a radical organizational and staff restructuring. As described by Sergeev, these plans envision the transformation of the armed forces from their present five-branch structure to one having only three services. One of these services — the strategic forces — would include today’s Strategic Missile Forces, the Military Space Forces, Long-Range Aviation, and assume at least operational control over strategic submarines. Deterrence forces would constitute a second service, and be constructed on the basis of the present Air Defense Forces, most missile defense units, and some Air Force and Navy units. Today’s Ground Forces, along with the balance of the air and naval forces, would make up the "Rapid Reaction Forces," "Mobile Forces" or "General Purpose Forces." (4)
In the wake of Yeltsin’s July 16 decrees, Sergeev said that the armed forces will in fact be transformed even more radically — into a two-service system consisting of strategic deterrence forces and general forces. The Ground Forces are to serve as the basis for the general forces, but the Ground Forces’ command will abolished and operational strategic command will pass to a reduced number of military districts. What is planned is, in other words, not so much a reform as a complete break with the traditional organization of the Russian armed forces and their restructuring along operational and strategic functional lines. (5) This has already been done in the armies of advanced states, but without radical changes to their traditional structure.
What conditions would justify so radical a break in the structure of the armed forces in the present Russian Federation, which lacks the funds to meet the state’s obligations to the population? The army itself has no burning desire to be transformed in an unknown direction. In particular, as the Russian press notes, the military reform plan prepared by the General Staff of the Russian armed forces proposes cutting the army from by approximately 500,000 from of its present nominal strength of 1.7 million. "It goes without saying that the officers who will have to change into civilian clothes without even getting the housing, monetary and other compensation to which they were entitled by law and conscience, will be distressed to hear this. The state has no money to meet its obligations to those in the regular army who are being discharged into the reserves. And, if the same level of financing is maintained, there will not be enough money to support servicemen properly, even with staff cuts." (6)
Opponents of Russia’s military reform plans would argue that, because of existing financial constraints, all that can be done in the Russian armed forces today is to carry out purely cosmetic "makeovers." This was recently done with the introduction of the institution of military police into the Russian armed forces. In the opinion of the head of the General Staff’s security directorate, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Kudakov, the need to create such units is explained by "the drastic exacerbation of the criminal situation in the country and its increased influence on order among the troops," when criminal groups strive to establish contacts with servicemen, and the number of serious and group crimes among servicemen is growing. (7)
The Kremlin’s recent and very solemn assurance that the state will pay all its debts to the army in July-August of this year is based on the next "dollar injection" of 2 billion dollars from the third Russian Eurobond issue, and may actually be kept. By September, however, the money from that injection will start to dry up and a fresh cycle of wage arrears is likely to begin. This time, the situation may prove even more serious.
Financial infusions from so-called "foreign sources," which the Russian president so carelessly suggested recently will hardly help here. (8) One can only guess what can be expected from an army whose career soldiers are half-starved and half-dressed but in possession of advanced weaponry, including weapons of mass destruction.
1. Krasnaya zvezda, No. 127, 1997
2. Krasnaya zvezda, June 5, 1997
3. Russian news agencies, June 24, 1997
4. Monitor, June 13, 1997
5. Itar-Tass, July 19, 1997
6. Delovoi mir, No. 22, 1997
7. Itar-Tass, June 19, 1997
Translated by Mark Eckert