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  •   Russian Military Decay Detailed

    By Walter Pincus
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, February 21, 1999; Page A24

    An unusually detailed State Department report concludes that the Russian military's combat readiness is in "rapid decay" and says an internal assessment by the Russian Defense Ministry finds "the average Russian soldier is only marginally combat capable."

    Although the Russian military's decline in recent years has been extensively chronicled, the State Department report, handed to Congress Friday, was described by a congressional arms expert as the most comprehensive recent unclassified summary of the Russian collapse he has seen, reflecting data in secret intelligence reports.

    Because of severe economic problems within the Russian government, the study said, military expenditures in the first nine months of 1998 were only two-thirds of what was budgeted. As a result, training exercises in the Russian army, navy and air force have been sharply curtailed and "combat training has become virtually non-financed," according to the report. Sea duty for Russian submarines has been reduced by 25 percent and that for surface ships by 33 percent, it added, while the Russian air force in 1998 did only 15 to 40 percent of normal flying to train.

    Ruble devaluation has further reduced the military's spending power and left the Defense Ministry with debt of about 60 billion rubles, or roughly $9 billion. Of that amount, some $2.5 billion is in back pay to active duty and retired servicemen.

    "The Russian military situation is worse than ever," the expert said.

    The State Department report went to Capitol Hill at the same time that two high-level U.S. delegations headed to Moscow for negotiations aimed at reducing the nuclear arms threats of both countries. One group, headed by Pentagon officials, is continuing talks on a joint Russian-U.S. early warning system to prevent accidental launch of strategic weapons. The other, headed by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, will discuss what may be done pending Russian ratification of the START II arms reduction treaty and U.S. plans to explore a minimal missile defense system.

    The rapid decline in Russian strategic delivery systems is part of the discussions in both groups, sources said.

    One sign of how the financial problems affect reducing the size of the armed forces is the ministry's failure to pay severance, housing costs, pensions and relocation expenses to those who retire. An attempt to give retirees a government promissory note, called a housing certificate, to help pay civilian rents was halted in August 1998 after only 13,000 of the promised 42,000 certificates were issued.

    The roughly $300 million worth of certificates -- which were supposed to cover 80 percent of an ex-soldier's rent -- now have what the report called "dubious" value since the ruble devaluation.

    "It's amazing the military has not exploded," a White House defense expert said. He noted, as does the State Department analysis, that several attempts in the past two years to organize the military into opposition movements "have fizzled . . . and have had negligible impact on Russia's political order."

    Largely because of the financial crisis, military reform programs have been postponed. The most important plan, to change from a conscript to an all-contract armed force, has been delayed "until well into the next decade," the report said.

    Meanwhile, the decline in military living standards has put the military "at the low end of the country's economic scale." In 1998, the government was three to four months behind in paying salaries. The low living standard contributed to "increase in crime, particularly theft, and corruption in the armed forces, as well as to suicides among service members and widespread evasion of military service."

    The State Department study pointed out that procurement of equipment also is being delayed and "defense orders will meet only the most urgent requirements." In that category, however, the Russian strategic rocket forces, which tend land-based nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, are "foremost" on the list.

    Of the 10,000 Russian soldiers deployed abroad in United Nations peacekeeping roles, only those in Bosnia are funded in the Russian military defense budget. Moscow's battalion in Croatia is subsidized by the United Nations, and other units in former Soviet states, such as Georgia, Moldova and Armenia, get their salaries from Russia but get subsidies from the host governments.

    In the future, according to Moscow, all peacekeeping missions would be assigned first to airborne forces and then to special ground units in order to keep them, like the strategic rocket forces, in better fighting condition than the rest of the services.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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