Can't live on past glories Russian army: Once-vaunted military organization borders on chaos as funds run out.

February 23, 1997

IN VICTORY AND DEFEAT, the armed forces have occupied a special place in the hearts of ordinary Russians. Even after the Bolsheviks systematically destroyed bourgeois institutions, the armed forces represented a link to the pre-revolutionary past -- from the military innovations of Peter the Great to the heroism of Alexander Nevsky, A. V. Suvorov and M. I. Kutuzov.

Six years after the collapse of communism, however, the once-vaunted Russian armed forces are on the ropes. Many officers have not been paid for months and have to survive by taking menial moonlighting jobs. Draftees are ill-fed and dissatisfied. Units are short of ammunition, materiel and spare parts.

"Within the next three years, the army, if it is not reformed, will disappear as such, or it will break up into armed groups that make ends meet through selling arms or robberies, or there could be a military coup, which could grow into dictatorship or civil war," according to the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, a Moscow research group.

The warning came shortly after Russia's Defense Minister Igor N. Rodionov had described the condition of the armed forces as "horrifying." Unless the situation is corrected, Mr. Rodionov said, Moscow's vast nuclear arsenal could become "uncontrollable."

This is not the first time such warnings have been issued about the potential destabilization of post-Soviet armed forces. The key reason the world has not taken them seriously is that under communism, the Red Army faithfully executed policies set by the ruling Politburo. Even when Stalin lodged trumped-up charges against the army's leadership in the 1930s, the armed forces never showed signs of disloyalty.

Things are different now. A strong central control apparatus is gone. The neglected armed forces' fighting capacity may be impaired, but it still has guns and a mighty arsenal of nuclear weapons. Unless the current shameful conditions are rectified, they may yet propel young officers to action.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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