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Russia: Rival Replaces Fired Air Force Commander

Moscow, 22 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- President Boris Yeltsin has fired the Commander of the Air Force, Pyotr Deinekin, replacing him with a General from a rival branch of the armed forces. The action (Jan. 20) comes despite an earlier request by Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev to extend the term of Deinekin's active service.

General Deinekin, whom Marshal Sergeyev wanted to spearhead the merger of the Air Force (VVS) and Air Defense Troops (PVO), was replaced by Colonel-General Anatoly Kornukov, the commander of the Moscow Military District's Air Defense Troops.

Kornukov is a career Air Defense Troops officer. Born in 1942 in Ukraine, Kornukov rose quickly through the ranks.

Air Defense Troops has traditionally competed with the Air Force, and Kornukov's unexpected appointment amounts, analysts say, to a final victory for Air Defense Troops. This branch, formerly seen as the underdog in the decade-long dogfight for influence, is now expected to dominate in the merged agency. A top PVO officer (anonymous) tells RFE/RL, "Now they know exactly who is subordinate to whom."

Contacted by RFE/RL, Air Force officers at the headquarters in southern Moscow said they were too shocked to comment on Kondukov's appointment, but said Deinekin's sacking has come as no surprise to them. Indeed, there was hardly a defense ministry insider who did not foresee Deinekin's dismissal after the fatal crash of an Air Force cargo plane in the Siberian city of Irkutsk last month. The plane slammed into an apartment complex, killing at least 68 people in the plane and on the ground.

Some accounts noted Deinekin's age - he turned 60 last month. Russian law defines 60 as the age limit for active service for top officers in the armed forces. But, the president, who is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, is empowered to extend the length of service for such commanders for an additional five years.

Such an extension was requested by Defense Minister Sergeyev for Deinekin December 11, but was rejected by Yeltsin immediately after the Irkutsk crash.

Unless granted an extension, Marshal Sergeyev himself will have to retire from active service when he turns 60 in April. But, the law would allow him to remain Defense Minister.

Sergeyev faces a scarcely-funded effort to downsize his troops to 1.2-million by the year 2000, as well as to abolish conscription, creating a compact, but efficient and professional army. According to the reform plan the next few years will see rapid, mobile land units set up in Russia's west, east and south to protect the country from possible external threats.

Sergeyev has already disbanded the command structure of ground forces and merged Strategic Missile Forces, Military Space Forces and Missile and Space Defense into a single Strategic Missile Force. He also managed finally to inventory his ministry's property, which is fundamental to reducing unnecessary expenditures, and fighting widespread corruption in the military.

Yeltsin has said he will boost military wages this year, but it remains unclear how he will fund either this increase, or the costly discharge of thousands of officers, each of whom is entitled to a free apartment and a hefty retirement package equaling 20 monthly salaries.

Even federal financiers, who constantly lament the Russian military's 'appetite,' acknowledge that funding of the defense ministry is inadequate. Yeltsin's financial aide Alexander Livshits has said he estimates the state's total debt to the military at around one-billion dollars.

Alexander Shokhin, head of the State Duma's pro-government faction (Our Home is Russia), announced yesterday that the Duma plans to boost funding of military reforms significantly in this year's draft budget, when it undergoes its third reading (scheduled Feb. 4). Shokhin also said more money would be allocated Russia's strategic nuclear forces, which he said are the only fully combat-ready branch of Russia's troubled armed forces - and, most vital for ensuring the country's national security.