Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 24

The Russian Armed Forces May Not Be So Poor After All

by Stanislav Lunev

The Russian press carries frequent reports of hunger and sometimesdeadly famine among soldiers, officers and their families, especiallyin military bases located far away from the ancient walls of theKremlin. What has happened to the Russian soldier, so well-knownto the whole world for so long? From Peter the Great to Gorbachev’sperestroika, the unpretentious and modest Russian soldierstruck fear into the hearts of his enemies, and in wartime, hewas completely satisfied if he had his daily pot of kasha, a glassof vodka, and a piece of garlic. Today he appears to be malnourished.The reason for this may have more to do with corruption than withRussia’s economic problems.

The Armed Forces’ Empty Coffers

The Russian press has declared an "emergency" overfood supplies for enlisted personnel of the Army, Air Force, Navy,Strategic Rocket and Military Space Forces. As Literaturnayagazeta reported on October 4, 1995, "the food supplysituation is extremely bad. In the near future, the whole Russianmilitary will be starving, as happened to the Navy personnel atRussian Island" (At this island, several soldiers died fromdystrophy as the result of famine.) In its attempt to analyzethe situation, the Moscow paper stated that the 1995 militarybudget provided 1.7 trillion rubles for food when in fact 5 trillionrubles are needed to feed the Russian military.

In other words, the Moscow paper said, instead of having breakfast,lunch and dinner, the Russian soldier has only enough food forlunch.

The situation is especially grave in the Trans-Baikal and Far-EastMilitary Districts, where food prices are two to three times higherthan in Moscow. But the same bad situation exists in the Crimea–traditionally,a major food-producing region.

The Moscow papers underscore not only food shortages but thegeneral lack of funds for the Russian military. Due to the shortageof money, military barracks from the Baltic Sea to the Pacificfound themselves disconnected from power, gas, and coal supplies.The situation in the Northern and Far-East regions is much worse.On the verge of what is expected to be a severe winter in Russia,the commander of the Far East Military District recently cabledhis superiors in Moscow with an ultimatum: either find food, gasand coal supplies for remote military bases, or evacuate the personnelstationed there.

It is a well-known fact that more than 180,000 commissioned officers’families do not have apartments to live in. An officers monthlysalary is not enough to feed his family: a Major makes only 500,000rubles, or about $110 a month. Moreover, salaries are never paidon time. Salaries are delayed by several months at the remotemilitary bases, and by one and a half months at units based inMoscow, including general staff personnel.

According to the chief of the Defense Ministry’s Main Directoratefor the Military Budget, Colonel General Vasily Vorobiev, (1)the new budget recently sent to the Duma by the Russian governmentincludes 78.9 trillion rubles for national defense, 77.1 trillionrubles of which would be designated for the Ministry of’ Defenseitself (or about $17 billion). Although this is more than the1995 budget of about 50 trillion rubles, in real terms, afterinflation of over 300 percent already this year, the proposedbudget would actually decrease military spending in 1996.

General Vorobiev claimed that the proposed military budget hasto be at least 50 percent higher than the budget sent by the governmentto the parliament. Otherwise, General Vorobiev emphasized, itcould be much harder to maintain readiness in the Russian militarythan it is today.

In other words, the Russian government is requesting parliamentto approve a new military budget which, if all press reports areto be believed, will not be enough to meet even the minimumliving expenses for the Russian military.

The General Paradox

Although it appears the Russian government can’t feed the armythat it has, it is, all the same, attempting to enlargethe military through the draft and by extending the time for regularmilitary service from a year and a half to two years.

What is really going on in the Russian military, which, on onehand, suffers from a shortage of food supplies and logisticalsupport, yet on the other hand, conducts full-scale military operationsin Chechnya and Tajikistan, and maintains a large-scale militarypresence in almost all the former Soviet republics, threateningthe sovereignty and national security of the newly-independentstates?

The recent course of events in Russia demonstrates that not everythingis going badly for the Russian military. After a short hiatus,the Russian military has resumed massive active field training,such as the exercise in Kaliningrad last August when Russian air,land and sea forces conducted a large combined-arms exercise veryclose to the Baltic States. The Strategic Rocket and Ground Forcescontinue to conduct Command Post Exercises, which are essentially"war games" without troops, to practice controllingstrategic nuclear forces "under various conditions"and launches of strategic nuclear missiles. (2)

If there is money for military exercises, why aren’t there enoughfunds to feed the troops and keep the power from being cut off? Could it be that the situation is not so grave as the press reportsindicate?

It is well-known that the Russian military has traditionallysupplemented government food rations with food grown on military-operatedfarms. In fact, these farms provide 30 to 40 percent of the dailyfood rations for soldiers and officers. Thus even though the government’sallotment is insufficient to feed the army, the military has themeans to feed itself. Therefore, no evidence exists to supportthe claims of a possible famine next year, even if the new draftsincrease personnel by the expected 200,000 men.

And what about the 1.7 trillion rubles provided by the governmentfor food supplies this year? Only 900 billion of this money hasever reached its destination and everyone claims to have no knowledgeof the missing money. The Russian press suspects that the disappearanceof these funds and the increasing number of new mansions and luxurycars owned by military commanders is not coincidental.

Perhaps some of this money has helped to defray the expensesof increasing the number of army generals, whose loyalty to thegovernment is sometimes commensurate with their rate of pay. TheRussian army had 1,700 generals as of April 1995 (3), which ismore generals per thousand soldiers than most militaries have.This number has even increased since the spring, as the Russianpresident has promoted many more senior officers to the ranksof general and admiral, despite the fact that many of them werestaff officers in Moscow who have no experience with the armyor navy’s basic combat duties.

Thus it may be the Defense Ministry, and not the government,who is to blame for not paying officers and soldiers, as FederationCouncil deputy Ludmila Grigorieva has charged. (4)

The VPK – No Starvation There

And it is very difficult to find evidence of real money shortagesin the Russian VPK either, despite the politicians’ frequent claimsto the contrary. While there has been a reduction in the productionof traditional conventional arms, design and production of moresophisticated weapons systems continues, including state-of-the-artconventional weapons, nuclear weapons, and other weapons of massdestruction. It is true that scientific research and developmentof strategic weapons is proceeding more slowly than in Sovietdays, but it proceeds. In fact, Russian specialists recently testeda new, high-precision short-range missile. (The test, part ofa program to develop a single missile system for the ground forces,was successful.) (5)

Moreover, the recently-created Military Space Command is stilllaunching military satellites and other military objects, whosenumber recently reached 3,001. (6) These space systems provideintelligence and reconnaissance data to the Russian Military Command,which shares the information not only with Russia’s current friendsand allies, but with hard-currency paying customers as well.

Interestingly, in this time of deep economic crisis, Russiais keeping to its production schedule for new submarines. (7)As a result the Russian military will enter the next century withthe largest and most powerful nuclear submarine fleet in the world: In 2000, this fleet will be improved in quality and will number80 nuclear and 40 conventional submarines.

One fact often cited as a sign of the dilapidated condition ofthe VPK is that arms sales abroad have slacked off in recent years.Before its collapse in 1991, the Soviet Union exported arms worthan average of $14 billion a year. Last year, Russia earned around$1.7 billion from arms sales, despite the fact that it inheritedover half of the USSR’s arms-production facilities. Russia intendsto increase its sales to at least $2.5 – 2.6 billion this year.(8)And Moscow has every reason to expect that the arms markets willcontinue to be favorable for Russia. ( The Russian VPK has nearlyrestored its predecessor’s position in arms sales in the marketsin the Middle East and Asia, in Africa and Latin America.) Negotiationsbetween Russia and Brazil are under way for purchases of Russianhelicopters and other weapons systems. (9)

Moreover, the Russian government has rejected centralized controlover arms sales so that in the future an increasing number ofRussian companies will be able to export arms directly, bypassingthe Rosvooruzhenie state arms monopoly. (10)

Of course the situation in the VPK is far more complex than thisand cannot be fully addressed in the space of this article. Butthe salient feature of the VPK is that it continues to receivenew funds. It is restoring itself, and it is optimistic aboutfuture growth.

So, everything is really not so bad for the Russian military,but problems with payments and food supplies do exist becausea lot of money has disappeared, under suspicious circumstances.

The Politics of Starvation

The official military reform policies established the size ofthe Russian military at 1 percent of the total population, whichis now 148 million people. According to the Russian defense minister,(11) there are now 1,700,000 people in the Russian military, butin almost all military units, there is a shortage of personnel.

But according to independent sources, (12) at this time, thereare about five million people in military uniform in Russia, stillserving in military-type units of about 20 different Ministriesand other government agencies.

Some Russian Generals underscore that a country as huge as Russianeeds a five to six million man army. Why? This is very difficultto understand at a time when there is no real external militarythreat to Russian national security. These intentions could, inprinciple, be explained in terms of domestic politics, but howloyal could young draftees–who try so hard (and often, successfully)to avoid the conscription law–be to the Kremlin?

Information about famine in the army and the shortage of militarysupplies provides a good excuse for politicians’ speculation anddemonstrations of concern over this "extremely bad situation."Because a simple count shows that just one of the divisions inthe Russian army could provide about 10,000 votes in the nextelection for the party whose leaders promise improvement in themilitary’s living conditions.

In the 1993 elections, voters from the Russian Armed Forces wereimpressed by the leader of Liberal Democratic Party of Russia(LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky. In this year’s elections the LDPRcannot expect the same massive support, especially from soldiers,who, according to a new draft law, must serve in the militaryfor six months longer than they expected. This law was approvedin the Russian parliament with strong support from the LDPR.(For more on the military’s role in the parliamentary elections,see Aleksandr Zhilin’s article: "Yeltsin’s Worst Nightmare:The Russian military Enters Politics" in this issue of Prism.)

Moreover, politicians, who are demonstrative in their concernfor the military, understand that families of military personnelaccount for about seven million votes; workers, engineers andscientists of the VPK account for another seven to nine million votes; military pensioners, veterans of World War II and otherwars, and of the Armed Forces and their family members, couldprovide about 20-21 million votes. (13) In addition, "concerns"about the military conditions receive a favorable response fromRussian Cossacks’ forces, or about two million votes.

Beyond the votes directly connected to the Armed Forces are thoseavailable from related security structures, including the Ministryof Internal Affairs and special forces of this Ministry, the FederalSecurity Service, Foreign Intelligence Service, Main ProtectionDirectorate, Main Directorate of Security for Government Communications,Federal Border Guards Service and so on. The personnel in theseagencies and their family members can potentially provide 10-15million votes.

It is necessary to note that after the last parliamentary elections,the Russian Military Command began to understand the importanceof the military electorate, and set out to exert influence infuture elections. For example, recently the author of the slogan"the army is out of politics," Russian defense ministerPavel Grachev, conducted a meeting of the Ministry Collegium,in which the decision was made to organize a campaign for seatsin the new parliament on behalf of pro-government political parties.(14)

According to the Russian General Staff’s Directives # 4/703 and# 4/472, the Moscow paper reported, military commanders have toinform the Defense Ministry "every Thursday" about themood and the opinions of military personnel. Moreover, on September15, the Defense Minister sent half a dozen high-ranking Generalsloyal to him to Russian TV specifically to influence public andmilitary opinion to take part in future elections in the favorof pro-government parties.

So, at the present time, the situation with hunger in the militaryappears to be more political than real. A pattern has developedover the past five years: news about famine in the military appearedon a regular basis prior to political events in the Russian Federation,connected, for example, with the budget’s approval in parliamentor with election campaigns. But after these events are over, nobodyremembers promises made during the election campaign, and theRussian military resolves the food problem on its own, the sameway as it always did in Soviet days–through military farms andassistance from local authorities.

The permanent solution to this problem is clear: a deep reductionin military personnel. But from all indications, it looks likethe Russian government intends to keep its huge army machine forthe near future and, perhaps, into the next century. As one Moscownewspaper (15) underscored on October 5, 1995, "our army’sstructure and strength has remained unchanged from 1945 and arestill oriented towards readiness to launch a full-scale worldwar. It is no longer necessary for Russia to keep such a massivearmy, and economically, Russia cannot afford it. In case of large-scalemilitary actions, every country has its own mobilization plan".

This a great idea for every country, but not for the currentRussia, whose government is looking more and more like its predecessordid during the last few years of its existence.


1. Krasnaya zvezda, October 4, 1995.

2. Interfax, October 4, 1995.

3. Argumenty i fakty # 22.

4. Krasnaya zvezda on August 29.

5. Interfax, October 25, 1995.

6. Krasnaya zvezda, October 4, 1995.

7. Novoye vremya # 36, 1995.

8. Monitor # 113

9. Interfax, October 10, 1995.

10. Monitor # 110.

11. Rossiiskie vesti # 189, 1995.

12. Rossiiskie vesti, October 5, 1995

13. Novoye vremya # 31, 1995

14. Pravda Rossii, October 5, 1995.

15. Rossiiskie vesti # 189.

Stanislav Lunev is a former Colonel in Soviet Military Intelligence[GRU].