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    Yeltsin Names New Defense Minister

    By David Hoffman
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Saturday, May 24 1997; Page A25

    President Boris Yeltsin, who dismissed the top two leaders of the Russian military on Thursday for failure to carry out army reforms, today installed Igor Sergeyev, a longtime veteran of the nuclear missile forces, as defense minister.

    The Kremlin said Sergeyev, 59, was charged by Yeltsin with creating "a mobile, well-equipped new type of army and fleet." Sergeyev, who has headed the Strategic Rocket Forces since 1992, was appointed acting defense minister Thursday after the sudden firing of Defense Minister Igor Rodionov, a theorist, who Yeltsin said had been dragging his feet in planning for a leaner military.

    Yeltsin also dismissed the chief of the general staff, Viktor Samsonov, and today replaced him with Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin, 51, head of the North Caucasus military district and a veteran commander of the war in Chechnya. Another candidate for the post, Col. Gen. Viktor Chechevatov, head of the Far East Military District, who had been given the job on an acting basis Thursday, apparently pulled out of the running.

    Yuri Baturin, secretary of the Defense Council, where Yeltsin delivered an angry tirade against Rodionov on Thursday, said the minister had irked Yeltsin by his behavior at the meeting.

    Baturin told a radio interviewer that Yeltsin had asked Rodionov for a 15-minute report at the meeting, but the minister had refused, saying he needed 30 or 40 minutes. According to Baturin, when Yeltsin stood fast, the minister made a remark to the room generally that the meeting would then be of no use. Yeltsin fired him.

    Baturin also said Rodionov had submitted a budget plan for the military that envisioned no change in spending until 2005, while Yeltsin wanted smaller and less costly armed forces. Baturin, who has long been at odds with Rodionov, said the minister had given Yeltsin an estimate of civilians in the military that differed from estimates provided by others in government, and Rodionov's turned out to be inaccurate.

    Rodionov, who was appointed last July at the behest of retired general Alexander Lebed, then Yeltsin's national security adviser, was not in office long enough to accomplish major changes in the military. He campaigned often to obtain more financing for the troops, but military reform plans never got off the ground. Russia's army has been beset by shortages of money, manpower and equipment, and charges of corruption against generals and officers.

    Yeltsin's reasons for choosing Sergeyev were not announced, but outsiders speculated that one reason could be that he has not been tainted by allegations of corruption. Additionally, the Strategic Rocket Forces, which handle Russia's nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, have had a higher priority than regular army units, which are falling apart.

    Another possible reason Yeltsin choose Sergeyev would be to help win ratification in the Russian parliament of the START II arms limitation treaty with the United States. According to members of parliament, Sergeyev is a strong supporter of ratification of the treaty and moving on to the next stage, a START III treaty. He is expected to have credibility in pressing the State Duma, the lower house, for ratification of the agreement, which was signed by Yeltsin and President George Bush in January 1993.

    Moreover, some Russian security specialists say nuclear weapons will play a bigger role in Russia's defense doctrine because of the collapse of the conventional forces. Sergeyev has spent his entire military career with the nuclear rocket forces.

    However, Sergeyev has little experience dealing with the shortages and corruption that plague the regular army.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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