By Simon Saradzhyan and Don Hill
Moscow, 8 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's new Defense Council met for the first time last Friday to talk about reforming Russia's broken and beggared military. But the most outspoken advocate of military reform, former General Aleksandr Lebed, skipped the meeting.
Lebed's spokesman Alexander Barkhatov gave the Russian press the official version that Lebed, secretary of the National Security Council, couldn't attend because he was working on Chechen peace and on preparations for his visit this week to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels.
But Vladimir Titov, a close associate, told RFE/RL in Moscow that real reason of Lebed's absence was that he disapproves of the Defense Council.
The council was set by President Boris Yeltsin last July as a rival power center to Lebed's Security Council. Lebed reportedly is especially displeased that his predecessor as Security Council secretary, Yuri Baturin, became Defense Council secretary.
By all accounts, particularly reports from Interfax news agency, the meeting was regarded at the highest levels of the Russian government as important. President Yeltsin himself participated by telephone from a Moscow hospital, where he is preparing for heart surgery. Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin chaired the meeting.
Others present there included Defense Minister Igor Rodionov, Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, and Yeltsin Chief of Staff Anatoly Chubais.
News reports say that the state is in arrears the equivalent of $4.6 billion in payments for the military. This includes funds for August and September wages for the troops. There are widespread reports of high officers taking after hours odd jobs as taxi drivers and appliance repairmen to feed their families.
Lebed, whose pronouncements are not always understated, has warned publicly that further neglect of the military could lead to insurrection. Defense Minister Rodionov denies that danger, but he agrees that the financial situation constitutes "the worst crisis in the army's existence." He says that soldiers may feel forced to sell their weapons out of sheer hardship.
Interfax reported that Defense Council Secretary Yuri Baturin told a news conference after the meeting that plans of the Western alliance, NATO, to expand eastwards created one of Russia's two biggest security problems. The other, he said, is the instability in neighboring Afghanistan, where the Taliban militia has taken over most of the country, including the capital, Kabul, and seeks to establish a strict Islamist government.
The Defense Council discussed various solutions to the military's problems. But there are no reports of any agreed plan of action. The military already claims about 40 percent of the national budget, news reports say.
Yeltsin has called for a professional army by the year 2000. During his recent election campaign, he promised to end the country's unpopular military draft.
Interfax quoted Baturin as saying this is unrealistic, given the country's cash problems.
"We must review the tasks of the Russian armed forces in the light of what is actually feasible economically," he said, according to Interfax.
The earliest date for a professional army would be the year 2005, he said.
Military representatives at the meeting, Interfax said, called for better funding. But other government leaders responded that the defense establishment already is too large, with too many generals and too much bureaucracy.
There is general agreement that Russia's 1.5-million-strong military must be reduced. One proposal is to replace many active duty
forces with a large standing reserve. But, Baturin said, even a reduction in force and establishing and training reserve forces have substantial costs for which funds must be found.
At the press conference, Baturin seemed to send Lebed a conciliatory message. He said that his council wishes to cooperate closely with Lebed's Security Council.
Lebed arrived in Brussels Sunday for the discussions at NATO headquarters.