Accessibility links

Will Lebed Be Able To Change Russia's Military?

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, June 19 (RFE/RL) - With retired General Aleksandr Lebed's appointment as secretary of Russia's Security Council there emerged again a prospect for reforms of the country's armed forces. Or so it seems.

Russia'a armed forces are in disarray. Demoralized, depleted and money-strapped, the Russian armed forces are but a shadow of the once omnipotent military machine that for decades secured Soviet control over much of Central Europe and made the Soviet Union a super-power.

Once viewed with awe and fear, the Russian armed forces have recently suffered a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan. They have been forced to give up their outposts in Germany and Central Europe. And they are now being harassed by separatist rebels in Chechnya and ensnared in an internal conflict between the government and Islamic groups in Tajikistan.

This downturn was perhaps inevitable, given the break-up of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Russian economy. But it has also been caused by the deficiencies within the military itself. These include widespread corruption within the ranks, lack of discipline and gross inadequacies in logistical planning.

These problems were already apparent during the Afghan war. They have also plagued Russian military operations in Chechnya. Troops have been sent into battle there without proper training and preparation. This resulted in a large number of casualties. Soldiers have been allowed to massacre civilians. Although the troops have used firepower indiscriminately, this has brought little success in dealing with the guerrilla tactics of Chechen fighters.

Russian armed forces today number about 1.5 million. And this number continues to drop, largely because of massive evasion of military duty. During the last two years, spending on military has been halved (from about 40,000 million dollars two years ago to less than 20,000 million dollars last year). This year, further reductions are being imposed. There have been recurrent reports about occasional cases of starvation in various military units.

All this points to the need for reform. This has been discussed for some time now. But changes have been slow in coming. A shortage of funds has reportedly hampered any reform effort. But there has also been no sign of the political and institutional will to make changes.

The ouster of Pavel Grachev as defense minister and Lebed's entry into the highest ranks of the security establishment creates a promise of change.

Grachev was commonly identified with corruption and stagnation in the military. Lebed has publicly advocated major changes.

In particular, Lebed has called for drastic reductions in the military forces to improve their effectiveness. It is necessary to "sacrifice quantity for quality," he told RFE/RL two months ago. He said that the greatest cuts should be made in the army, in which entire corps should be reorganized, make more mobile and trained for rapid action.

Lebed's plan contrasts sharply with the still prevailing traditional military view which relies on heavy firepower and numbers rather than on technology and mobility. And it is far from certain that this view will change easily or quickly.

Much will depend on what power Lebed will be able to muster within the government. His current positions as secretary of the Security Council and Assistant to the President for security matters do not necessarily provide him with control over military allocations or even appointments to top positions within armed forces. And control over money and appointments is indispensable for effective implementation of changes.

Could this general who once commanded a mere division -- the 14th army -- in a remote Trans-Dnestr area outmaneuver experienced bureaucrats and wily politicians in Moscow? Could he force his views on long-entrenched military and security operatives with strong ties to vested financial and institutional interests? Isn't he likely to run afoul of all-powerful officials jealously guarding their positions and privileges?

And can this undeniably ambitious general-cum-politician find a lasting support from equally ambitious and politically shrewd President Boris Yeltsin.

Russia's reformist battlefield is littered with unrealized or unfinished programs, plans and proposals. Will Lebed's plans also share the same fate? Or will he succeed?

If he does, Russia's military doctrine, its military posture, and its foreign policy will never be the same.