Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 2

On December 26, in an effort to end a disastrous year for Russia’s armed forces on a positive note, President Boris Yeltsin praised the performance of his beleaguered defense chief and proclaimed that the country’s military reform effort had made important progress in 1998. Yeltsin’s remarks came as Defense Minister Igor Sergeev himself announced that Russia was at last deploying its first regiment armed with the country’s new Topol-M ICBMs–long touted as Russia’s strategic missile of the 21st century. Sergeev also claimed that he had won assurances from Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov that the military budget for 1999 would amount to nearly 3.6 percent of Russian GDP, a level of spending which, if fulfilled, would represent a major victory for the country’s cash-starved armed forces. The assurances from Primakov led Sergeev to make the claim–unprecedented for a Russian defense minister in recent years–that planned budgetary allocations would be sufficient to meet the army’s reform needs for 1999.

Yeltsin’s remarks on military reform, made during a Kremlin meeting on December 26, appeared to be an effort both to mollify Sergeev and to offer his defense chief a show of support. Yeltsin allowed that the country’s military reform effort continued to encounter problems, but joined Sergeev in blaming those difficulties on a shortfall in financing. Yeltsin also said that plans to reduce the armed forces by some 400,000 soldiers–to 1.2 million–had been carried out successfully, and he praised a recent consolidation effort which brought the armed forces from five to four service branches (Reuters, Itar-Tass, December 26).

Yeltsin’s remarks were noteworthy because of rumors that Sergeev might be dismissed for his increasing criticism of the government’s meager defense budget. Sergeev has also reportedly been under attack within the military high command itself for his efforts to push through yet another organizational consolidation–one that would concentrate all of Russia’s strategic forces under one command. That effort has reportedly been endorsed by Yeltsin but has encountered fierce resistance from service commanders and also from the Russian General Staff, which currently enjoys command responsibilities in that area (Washington Post, December 27; see the Monitor, December 9).

Sergeev, meanwhile, traveled to Tatishchevo in the Saratov region on December 27 to inaugurate the first Russian regiment of Topol-M single-warhead ICBMs. Two missiles had been deployed on a trial basis at Tatishchevo in December 1997 (see the Monitor, November 2), and the regiment at that site will reportedly field ten of the Topol-Ms. There was some question, however, whether all ten of the missiles were put “on duty” initially on December 27. Yuri Maslyukov, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister, said that Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops are to receive another ten Topol-Ms in 1999. Moscow hopes to increase, significantly, its rate of deployment of Topol-Ms over the next decade. It seems unlikely, though, that the country will have the financial wherewithal to meet such an ambitious deployment schedule (Reuters, December 29; Itar-Tass, December 30).

The highly publicized inauguration of the Topol-M regiment, which included some bellicose remarks from Sergeev about Moscow’s enduring military muscle, appeared to be aimed at two audiences.

First, at the West. Coming in the wake of conflicts between Russia and the West over threatened NATO strikes on Yugoslavia and then–especially–dual air strikes by the United States and Britain on Iraq, the inauguration event was presumably intended to show the West that Russia remains a military power to be reckoned with.

Second, at Russian lawmakers who have thus far refused to ratify the START II strategic arms treaty. The many conditions attached to ratification by lawmakers have included the demand that the government move to beef up Russia’s own strategic forces and to present a plan for their robust development over the next several decades. Whether the events in Tatishchevo will satisfy that demand, however, remains very much an open question.