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East: U.S. Report Says Some Militaries Struggling

Washington, 25 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A report by the U.S. State Department says the armed forces in Russia, Ukraine, and Slovakia are struggling as a result of political and economic difficulties, while the Czech military is maintaining steady and measured growth.

The report, which examines 32 countries, is part of the State Department's annual review of world military expenditures. The Czech Republic, Ukraine, Russia, and Slovakia are representatives of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union whose military expenditures were studied and analyzed for 1998.

In regards to Russia, the report presented a dismal picture of the current state of combat readiness of the Russian military.

According to the report, the budget for the Russian military in 1998 was or 50.6 billion new rubles (or $7 billion). However, actual military expenditures from January to September 1998 were only two-thirds of what had been budgeted, says the report. The causes behind the low rate of expenditures, says the report, were numerous budget corrections and sequestering throughout the year, caused primarily by revenue shortfalls. The ruble's threefold devaluation and the high inflation rate further reduced the military's purchasing power. The report says all of this contributed to a 60 billion-ruble debt for the Ministry of Defense.

For the first three quarters of 1998, Russia's actual military expenditures were 1.8 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP) or about 15.1 percent of the overall Russian budget.

The report says the authorized peacetime strength of the Russian armed forces, as of January 1, 1999, is about 1.2 million people. Those numbers are likely to decline, says the report, due to the Ministry of Defense's orders to continue downsizing, chronic conscription shortfalls, and cadre resignations.

The report adds that the Russian armed forces' standard of living remains "at the low end of the country's socioeconomic scale." The Russian government remained three to four months delinquent in paying wages throughout 1998. This decline in the standard of living for military personnel has contributed to an increase in crime, particularly theft, as well as suicides among service members, and widespread evasion of military service.

In fact, economic problems have caused Russian combat training to become "virtually non-financed," says the report, with the military receiving a mere six percent of the resources it needed for training in 1998. According to the report, only 35 percent of planned regimental-level and 73 percent of battalion-level tactical exercises of the ground forces were conducted in 1998. Sea duty for Russian fleet submarines was reduced by 25 percent and 33 percent for surface vessels. The Russian air force conducted only 15 to 40 percent of their standard training.

The report determines: "This is contributing to rapid decay of combat readiness....the average Russian soldier is only marginally combat capable."

The report goes on to say that as a result of the military's financial difficulties, plans to modernize Russia's military, including the acquisition and procurement of new equipment, and plans to transition from a conscript to an all-contract military force has been deferred "well into the next decade."

Bruce Blair, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told RFE/RL that all of these factors are signs the Russian military is slowly and dangerously deteriorating.

"It is clear that the Russian military is now almost totally alienated. Alienated from the State, which is not supporting it by even providing minimal benefits, and alienated from society, which is not bestowing any respect or honor on it, and is withholding its sons from recruitment."

In regards to Ukraine, the report says that country spent about 1,500 million hryvnya (equal to about $600 million) or approximately six percent of its national budget on defense in 1998. This is down 0.12 percent from 1997.

The reports says the manpower strength of the Ukrainian armed forces in 1998 was estimated at about 350,000, a five percent reduction from 1997. Because of the nation's serious economic difficulties, the report says that in recent years, the funds disbursed to the Ministry of Defense fell well short of the actual budget figures. In order to survive, some military units adopted various strategies to keep operating.

The report explains: "For example, construction units may sell their services, units that control natural resources (such as rock quarries) may sell them off, and naval vessels may seek sponsors among cities or businesses that would provide uniforms, food supplements, and so forth."

Military spending in Ukraine shares the "two-sided character of the Ukrainian economy as a whole," states the report. There is an official side, which is reflected in statistics, and a "shadow side" which is not, it says. While the report recognizes that the "shadow side" is largely a survival mechanism for many units, it warns that such creative funding "opens up possibilities for corruption and abuse."

In Slovakia, the report says the nation spent 14,628 million crowns (or more than $406 million) on its defense budget in 1998 -- about eight percent of the federal budget. In real terms, defense spending decreased in 1998, because while military expenditures rose five percent, inflation increased even faster at seven percent. In fact, the report states that because of financial concerns, the Slovak parliament has annually reduced the military budget in real terms since 1995.

The report says that under the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, Slovakia has a ceiling of 46,667 military personnel. The Slovak parliament has authorized the army to have 45,483 peacetime personnel, but due to budgetary difficulties, the current number of service members in Slovakia's armed forces is just over 39,000.

The report says that Slovakia's budget "barely meets minimum requirements to maintain subsistence." It adds that the budget also does not allow for military upgrades or modernization. However, the report says that Slovakia's plans to reduce its size to 35,000 by the year 2000 will help considerably.

The report notes that the U.S. and other countries continue to urge Slovakia to spend more on its defense budget to improve its chances of joining the NATO alliance. It also adds that the Slovak military continues to play an important and stabilizing role in the nation, citing recent opinion polls that show the army is the country's most trusted institution with 74 percent of the public's support.

The Czech Republic clearly fares the best of the four nations reviewed in the report. Czech military spending for 1998 was 30,200 million Czech crowns (or $1.1 billion) -- nearly seven percent of the budget. Military spending increased by 0.1 percent of the nation's GDP, a sign the report says is the "Czech Republic's commitment to its imminent NATO membership."

The report says the U.S. and other NATO allies continue to urge the Czech Republic to increase defense spending, and notes that the current Czech government has emphasized its commitment to increase military spending to at least 2 percent of its GDP by the year 2000.

The Czech armed forces personnel strength held steady at roughly 55,000 members, says the report. The report noted that the military is apolitical and has established rules that bar officers from elected office and membership in political parties.