Military officers and men voted this spring in large numbers for Vladimir Putin for president. He was enormously attractive: He had responded to Chechen insurrection with massive bombing à la NATO and a furious armored campaign that apparently broke the rebels’ resistance. He promised a better life for servicemen and veterans, more money for weapons and training, and a restoration of Soviet pride, power and discipline.Today the sense of disappointment is deep. The sinking of the Kursk, the interminable war in Chechnya, and the constant bickering in the general staff about the direction of military reform expose not just weakness but confusion and lack of leadership. And lack of money.
The money problems are acute. Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Kudrin said the government will boost its proposed defense budget for 2001 by 12.5 billion rubles ($450 million at current exchange rates). That 6 percent increase will pay for about three or four months of operations in Chechnya. The increase brings the whole defense budget to about $7.8 billion, but arrears to suppliers and personnel already total over $2 billion, leaving less than $6 billion for current expenses. The United States defense budget for 2001 is $291 billion.
The cost of the effort to recover bodies from the Kursk forced the cancellation of Russia’s biggest naval exercise, a Mediterranean visit by the pride of the fleet: the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, the nuclear-powered cruiser Peter the Great, and nine or ten other vessels, which in the original plan included the Kursk itself. The Mediterranean visit, announced last March, was to restore “Russia’s naval presence in the most important parts of the world’s seas” and “support peacekeeping activities, fly Russia’s flag… and improve crew combat skills.” The mission cannot be rescheduled any time soon. The Admiral Kuznetsov is the country’s only carrier, and is scheduled for repairs in 2001.