Pay freeze reduces the ranks to drink and suicide

Armed forces morale has hit a desperate low. Christopher Bellamy reports
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If there is anything surprising about Alexander Lebed's statement to a Moscow paper that Russia's armed forces are on the verge of "armed mutiny", it is that a big uprising has not already taken place.

One-and-a-half million men who have not been paid for three months are still serving, 500,000 of them officers. But Mr Lebed, the security supremo and a former general, was probably exaggerating the form such a "mutiny" might take, though not the problems which might cause it.

As in the early stages of the break-up of the Russian army, starting in 1916, to which Mr Lebed alluded, the forces are unlikely to turn on the government, or soldiers on their officers. If the mutiny of whichhappens, most will just pack up and drift away to the part-time businesses on which they now rely to feed their families.

Mr Lebed's interview with Vechernyaya Moskva was for internal consumption, to coincide with a battle between the Defence Committee of the Duma, or parliament, and the Finance Ministry. At the weekend, three Defence Committee members were in London for discussions with the International Institute for Strategic studies but they hastened back to help the Defence Ministry argue for the 300-trillion-rouble budget which has been cut by two- thirds. The army and navy have been worst hit although even the FSK, the former KGB, has not escaped.

There were even cases of missile command posts closing because the Russian MoD had not paid the electricity bill. Most alarmingly, there has been a 20 per cent increase in suicide among military personnel and a 28 per cent rise among officers. And it is the officers who are most likely to mutiny.

A recent cartoon in Nezavisimaya gazeta showed a military posterior bearing a footprint signed by President Boris Yeltsin, a reference to the feeling that, having supported Mr Yeltsin in the summer elections, the military feel that he has booted them in the backside. At the end of last year the forces had not been paid for months. Mr Yeltsin ensured that they received their salaries in time for the election. Since then, they have not been paid.

A recent article in the Russian forces' paper, Red Star, also warned of more drunkenness, and demonstrations similar to those threatened last winter. It may not be an armed revolt, but it could be very damaging.