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Wednesday, 23 August, 2000, 20:17 GMT 21:17 UK
Reforming Russia's military
Aircraft carrier - Admiral Kuznetsov
Russia now only has one aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov
By BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey

For the outside world the Kursk tragedy highlighted as never before the parlous state of Russia's armed forces.

Training is not conducted in many units, pilots hardly ever fly and sailors hardly ever put to sea

Vladimir Putin
In Russia itself, it comes as just another confirmation of a truth that has long been common knowledge.

In a television address on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin said conclusions about the future of the army and the navy would be drawn, in the light of the disaster.

He said he felt bitter when he heard people say that Russian pride had drowned along with the Kursk, but pledged to revive the armed services and the Russian state.


The tragedy occurred just as Russia was in the throes of a new round of debate on military reform, which has been a perennial source of concern since the demise of the USSR.

Chechnya: the Russian military's lowest point
Chechnya: The Russian military's lowest point
The collapsed superpower left Russia with a bloated, ageing and unaffordable military machine - a product of the international arms race that helped drive the USSR towards financial ruin.

Russian generals and politicians have repeatedly come forward with plans to turn this into a lean, modern, well-armed, professional and mobile force, but little has been achieved in practice.

On the plus side, Russia has accomplished a withdrawal of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

It has also reduced the number of men under arms to 1.2 million, and introduced a system of contracts to supplement the ranks of conscripts with professional soldiers.

On the minus side, the armed forces have remained deeply underfunded, with all the consequences this has for training, maintenance, morale, safety and combat-readiness.

More cuts

The mid-90s conflict in Chechnya showed just how far standards of professionalism have sunk - from the first disastrous entry into Grozny in 1994, which left hundreds dead, to the recapture of the garrisoned city by a few hundred determined Chechen guerrillas the following year.

Flags at half-mast
The Kursk disaster is a human tragedy, and a military humiliation
Mr Putin summed up the need for military reform at a Russian Security Council meeting on 11 August.

"The current structure of the armed forces is hardly optimal," he said.

"How can it be considered optimal if training is not conducted in many units, pilots hardly ever fly and sailors hardly ever put to sea."

He added: "The structure of the armed forces must precisely correspond to the threats Russia faces now and will face in the future."

It has been suggested that the armed forces could be in for more cuts, down to 900,000.

The Kursk disaster may also have jolted some in Moscow to reflect that Russia's military ambitions must be radically scaled down to a level it can realistically afford.

However, precisely what lessons are drawn will depend on what explanation for the tragedy is finally arrived at.

Superpower psychology

While poor training and poor maintenance may seem to analysts in the West among the most likely causes of the accident, the Russian military has preferred to speculate about the possibility of a collision between the Kursk and a Western submarine.

Furthermore, many Russians, particularly those in the military, have not shaken off their vision of Russia's destiny as a superpower.

Mr Putin himself has given them hope, by promising to increase military spending, and to reinvigorate the armed forces.

He flexed Russia's muscles by sending the army back into Chechnya in 1999, with better results than in 1994.

In the last couple of years Russian submarines have begun again to increase their activity in the world's oceans, far from Russia's shores, and a Russian aircraft carrier is due in the Mediterranean this year for the first time since the winter of 1996/97.

There is also talk of refurbishing naval bases in Syria and Vietnam.

Mr Putin's notion of military reform may well be one that continues to project Russian military might as far as possible - but in a more cost-effective and rational way than it currently does.

The BBC's Brian Hanrahan in
"The rusting pontoons that should be raising the Kursk are on their way to the repair shop"
The Kursk submarine accident

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23 Aug 00 | Media reports
22 Aug 00 | Europe
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