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Yeltsin Calls for Military Reforms

Moscow, June 27 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's President Boris Yeltsin yesterday called for the implementation of wide-ranging reforms in the country's armed forces. But he stopped short of providing details.

Speaking to graduating students from Moscow's military academies, Yeltsin said that the reforms are needed to prepare the armed forces to new political challenges faced by Russia. He specifically mentioned the threat of NATO eastward expansion.

"We are especially concerned about NATO's new expansion, the new division of Europe," Yeltsin said. But he also added that the time when NATO and the Soviet-centered Warsaw Pact had formed two antagonistic camps "is over."

Yeltsin then went on to say that there are still regional threats to Russia's security and that many local conflicts are continuing near the country's borders.

"All this makes it necessary for Russia to have strong armed forces capable of providing fundamental support to the state and the reliable guarantee of the security, integrity and stability of our fatherland," Yeltsin said.

But, while emphasizing the need for reforms in the armed forces, Yeltsin stopped short of criticizing, or even admitting, the poor performance of Russian troops in Chechnya.

Both numerous independent military analysts and general public perceive the 18-month campaign in the separatist province as humiliatingly exposing faults and weaknesses of the Russian armed forces. The Russian troops have repeatedly suffered setbacks in this protracted conflict. It is estimated that thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed in action there and uncounted numbers have been maimed.

Instead, Yeltsin lauded "the moral spirit of Russian troops so severely tested in Chechnya." He said that the federal troops have displayed their "best qualities" there, showing courage and endurance during the fighting in the Muslim republic.

The issue of military reform is not new. Former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev used to promise that major reforms would begin after the second round of the presidential elections. But his promises were notoriously unreliable.

Retired General Aleksandr Lebed has long advocated major cutbacks in the size of the armed forces, combined with the streamlining of their organization. Lebed has gained considerable power since the first round of the elections, having been appointed Secretary of the Security Council and security adviser to the president. But he has so far stopped short of setting the timing for the introduction of any major changes.

Yeltsin himself issued last month a decree abolishing conscription. He also called for the establishment of a professional army by the next century. But critics say that the move might have been prompted by political considerations and seemed targeted to win the votes of young people.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov has argued that Russia cannot afford a professional army.

There are currently about 2.3 million soldiers serving in Russia's Federal Border Service as well as in units administered by the Defense and Interior Ministries.