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Russia: Military Experiencing Recurrent Financial Crises

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, 18 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's armed forces are in disarray. Demoralized, depleted and money-strapped, they are a shadow of the mighty military machine that helped crush the Nazi onslaught more than 50 years ago, secured Soviet control over much of Central Europe and made the USSR a superpower.

A downturn was perhaps inevitable, given the break-up of the Soviet Union, the retreat from Central Europe, and humiliating defeats in Afghanistan and Chechnya. But it has been worsened by the collapse of the Russian economy and the apparent inability or unwillingness of the political and institutional leadership to introduce meaningful reforms within the military itself.

In recent years, the military has experienced recurrent financial crises and a steep budgetary decline. The situation has deteriorated further since Russia's economic crisis worsened in August.

According to a report published in a recent (November) issue of the "Strategic Comments", a publication of the British International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), the Russian army is facing severe food shortages.

The government has failed to provide funds to pay for food, the report says, and the usual suppliers have refused to ship even the basic food products without advance payment. This has forced large numbers of soldiers --"even from elite formations around Moscow"-- to work on former collective farms for food.

The report further says that by the end of August, the government debt for unpaid military wages rose to 16,000 million rubles from about 12,000 million rubles in April. In recent weeks the government started to pay the back wages, but this is being done largely by printing more money. The inevitable inflation is certain to erode the value of these payments.

The recent economic downturn has also affected attempts at reform. Before the onset of the country's latest financial crisis, it appeared that the military leadership had finally embarked on an effective change, following years of almost total inertia.

According to a document signed by President Boris Yeltsin in August, the changes envisaged the maintenance of only 10 battle-ready ground divisions -- the USSR had about 200. They also stipulated a new division of functions and responsibilities between different forces as well as a streamlining of command structures. The economic collapse made the implementation of those changes doubtful, as there is clearly no money for them.

The IISS report says problems are also compounded by apparently widespread corruption within the ranks, particularly at higher echelons. The report says that large numbers of officers, including top commanders, have been "rewarded by the regime with (other) official jobs and have engaged in corruption and the theft of military property to cushion themselves against economic hardship."

The report goes on to say that one particularly important trend is "the growing de facto alliance between local military commanders and regional political bosses."

The long-term political implications of this development are not clear, but they are certain to complicate any move toward streamlining, modernizing and reforming the military as a whole. Indeed, it seems most likely that the situation of the national armed forces will continue to decay. On the other hand, this regionalization of the armed forces --even if rooted in frequently corrupt practices-- may also serve to make more difficult the preparation of any possible centralized military coup d'etat or the emergence of a military-based dictatorship.

(First of two features on problems facing the Russian military.)