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Monday, 14 May, 2001, 09:48 GMT 10:48 UK
Analysis: Russia's military timebomb
Sergei Ivanov
Sergei Ivanov was appointed to revive the military
By BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey

The parlous state of Russia's armed forces has never been more obvious, after last year's Kursk submarine disaster and last week's fire at a key satellite command centre.

Officials say the fire was caused by a short circuit, and more generally, by the lack of funds for the modernisation of the country's space facilities.

Vladimir Putin
President Putin has pledged to reform the military following the Kursk disaster
It explains why military reform is one of the main priorities of this and previous Russian governments, all of which have dreamed of making the armed forces leaner and meaner.

After the Kursk disaster President Vladimir Putin said he felt bitter when he heard people say that Russian pride had drowned along with the sailors on board.

He pledged to revive the armed services and the Russian state.

This was the main reason for appointing an outsider - Sergei Ivanov, from the ranks of the former KGB - to head the Defence Ministry.

Funding shortfall

The collapse of the USSR 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.

Some changes have been made:

  • 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.

The mid-90s conflict in Chechnya showed just how far standards of professionalism had 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.

The latest fire underlines the fact that infrastructure has been allowed to decay.

In some ways it is a repetition of another fire caused by an electrical fault - at Moscow's Ostankino television tower last year - where some military communications hardware piggybacking on the civilian tower was also knocked out.

Training deficit

Mr Putin summed up the need for military reform at a Russian Security Council meeting in August last year.

Victory day parade
Russia inherited a bloated and outdate military from the Soviet Union
"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."

The biggest question facing Russia then and now, is how to divide severely limited resources between the strategic nuclear deterrent - which has swallowed the lion's share of funding in recent years - and the rest of the armed forces, particularly those suited to dealing with potential regional conflicts along the country's southern rim, which are seen as a major threat to security.

Low priorities

With such serious problems to resolve, and so many claims on a modest budget, property maintenance is a low priority.

Furthermore, Russia's vision of its destiny as a superpower seemed to prevent it drawing lessons from the Kursk disaster about the need for improvements in safety culture.

While poor training and poor maintenance seemed to analysts in the West the most likely causes of the explosion that sank the submarine, the Russian military blamed a collision with a Western vessel.

Even after the latest disaster, ensuring a constant electricity supply to military bases - even when they cannot afford to pay their bills - is likely to be remain a higher priority than rewiring, or upgrading fuse boxes.

See also:

18 Apr 01 | Europe
28 Aug 99 | Science/Nature
28 Oct 99 | Asia-Pacific
28 Dec 00 | Science/Nature
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