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
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.