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Russia: Military Reform Unlikely Without Yeltsin

By Simon Sardzhyan

Moscow, 10 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A senior Russian legislator and defense affairs specialist says that the Russian armed forces are likely to block any substantial restructuring or shrinking of the military until the ailing President Boris Yeltsin returns to power or is replaced.

Mikhail Surkov, deputy chairman of the State Duma defense committee and a former lieutenant general, told our correspondent in Moscow this week in an interview that nothing concrete will be done until political decisions are made.

"There is no one to make such decisions," he said.

Surkov said the president, who is awaiting open heart surgery, presently lacks political will and ability to push for a necessary reduction in Russia's armed forces. He said that rivalries among Yeltsin Chief of Staff Anatoly Chubais, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and their common rival, Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed, inhibit meaningful economies.

With Lebed opposed and Yeltsin too withdrawn to force change, Surkov said, the Defense Council set up by Yeltsin last July will remain unable to exert full control. At its first sitting, the council called for a 20 percent cut in armed forces personnel, especially in high-ranking officers. The council also vowed to ensure stable financing of the country's cash-hungry military.

At the same time, Chernomyrdin, who chaired the meeting, said that the military should start downsizing themselves to try to defend Russia within Russia's economic means.

The Russian daily newspaper "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" reported that the Defense Council settled on cutting the army to 10 to 12 multipurpose ground divisions. The newspaper said that the council wants most of Russia's aging naval fleet preserved. It also wants air force cuts. It quoted Council Secretary Yuri Baturin as saying these and other council recommendations might be invoked by presidential decrees.

Surkov said, however, that the military is unlikely to bow to such decrees, if issued, as long as the president remains weak and unable to control the situation. He predicted that "real reforms" won't start before late next year, after Yeltsin has time to recuperate.

An analyst in Moscow for the U.S.-based RAND Corporation, Benjamin Lambeth, seemed to concur.

"I will not be convinced until I see physical signs (of armed forces reductions). It is all promises" so far, he said.

Lambeth, author of recent publications on the Russian Air Force and on Lebed, told RFE/RL that commanders of separate arms of the services are often reluctant to cut even hopelessly undermanned units which constitute their "bureaucratic equities."