Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 20

In yet another indignity for Russia’s once-proud armed forces, energy companies in the country’s Far Eastern and Siberian regions have begun over the past week to switch off energy supplies to a number of military installations. The cutoffs, which are being attributed to the army’s failure to pay its energy bills for the year 2001, mark a new escalation in a long-evolving battle between the Russian Defense Ministry and the country’s energy suppliers. More important, they reflect the budgetary problems that continue to afflict the armed forces. These problems have persisted despite recent defense spending increases–albeit modest ones–and vows from President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin that financing for the military will be put on a sounder footing.

It is at the same time not clear whether the Defense Ministry is entirely the aggrieved party in this instance. Reports out of Russia have not specified exactly who is responsible for the Defense Ministry’s failure to clear its debts with the energy suppliers: the government, for allocating insufficient funding to the armed forces; the Finance Ministry, for failing to transfer allocated funds to the energy suppliers; or the Defense Ministry itself, for squandering monies that should have been used to pay for energy supplies. Also unclear is whether the military leadership has managed to reach agreements with the energy suppliers involved to ensure a steady flow of electricity to military facilities in the Far East. Some reports have said that such agreements were negotiated over the weekend, but continuing cutoffs of energy supplies and reports indicating that the situation remains serious at bases throughout the region suggests that the payments issue remains largely unresolved. Indeed, some reports have accused the military command of exaggerating the impact of the power cutoffs and of seeking less to reach agreement with energy suppliers than to wage a public relations campaign aimed at pressuring the suppliers to halt the cutoffs.

News agency reports over the weekend said that the Chitaenergo power company had cut off or limited energy supplies late last week to a host of defense facilities in central Siberia, including eight army garrisons, two Air Force bases and an air defense unit. Officers at those bases were reportedly negotiating with the company to get power restored. Several military facilities in and around the Pacific port of Vladivostok were similarly effected as a result of decisions by energy companies in that area, and power was reportedly not restored until the Defense Ministry promised to pay a bill of US$6.7 million. Reports on January 27, meanwhile, said that power companies had begun to reduce electricity supplies to military facilities on the Kamchatka Peninsula, including a troop command headquarters for the region.

But the power cutoff that has attracted the most media attention is one that took place on January 26 involving a space tracking facility also located on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. The facility monitors satellites and is reportedly a part of the system used by Russia to control the International Space Station (ISS). In complaining of the cutoff, military officials charged that the local Kamchatenergo company had endangered not only the ISS, but also other “spacecraft costing hundreds of millions of rubles.” They also accused Kamchatenergo officials of violating the terms of a presidential decree which prohibits the use of electricity stoppages to penalize defense installations.

The response of energy officials, however, suggested that military representatives may have been misleading the public about what actually occurred at the space tracking station. Key systems at the tracking facility were never put at risk, the energy officials claim, insisting that the power cutoff had involved only military dormitories and supply buildings–and not the facility’s control room or its important technical equipment. Perhaps more tellingly, they also said that the power cut had been agreed upon beforehand with the military leadership, and that the shutoff had for that reason been tailored so as not to interfere with the facility’s core functions (DPA, January 28; Itar-Tass, January 27-28; RTR, January 26, 28; AP, Ekho Moskvy radio, ORT, January 26; Gazeta, January 25).

It seems unlikely that the power cutoffs of the past week will prove to be a major event for Russia’s armed forces. Yet they are an embarrassment for both the military and political leaderships, and would appear to represent another instance in which President Vladimir Putin has failed to rectify in full the mismanagement of the army which occurred regularly under his predecessor, former President Boris Yeltsin. The past week’s events come, moreover, amid reports of growing dissatisfaction among military personnel with Putin over the president’s failure to back higher defense spending levels for the army and related fears that a Kremlin-backed defense compensation reform–now being implemented–will actually lead to a lowering of pay levels and a worsening of living conditions for Russia’s men in uniform (see the Monitor, January 7). Resentment in the military has reportedly also been stoked by the president’s backing of a broader military restructuring plan that will lead to large reductions in army staffing, and, within the military leadership at least, by his recent embrace of a full partnership with the West. It seems unlikely that all of these factors will lead to a backlash of some sort against Putin by military hardliners, but they could increase subsurface tensions within the army and add a volatile new element to Russia’s currently stable political environment.