Russia faces an `unbearable' cash crisis for military

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The Independent Online
Boris Yeltsin's new Defence Minister, General Igor Rodionov, yesterday launched a candid assault, warning his own government of an "unbearable" crisis in the cash-starved Russian armed forces and chastising Nato for its plans to expand into Eastern Europe.

Two months after taking office, the general issued a public appeal to Mr Yeltsin to come to the aid of his ministry before "uncontrollable and undesirable processes" set in among the ranks, where servicemen are owed millions of dollars in back pay.

Although the minister did not endorse warnings by his friend, Alexander Lebed, that demoralised, hungry troops may soon mutiny, his remarks prompted an immediate response from the President, who ordered his Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, to convene a special cabinet meeting on military financing. At present, matters were under control, the general said. But unless the picture improved, "Russia may lose its armed forces as an integral and viable state structure".

General Rodionov has little of the swashbuckling flamboyance of Mr Lebed, the head of the Security Council, but yesterday's performance proved that he pulls no punches. If Nato expansion plans went ahead, "the process of arms reduction, development of trust and security in the European continent may slow down or even stop", he told his first big press conference in Moscow. Mr Yeltsin wanted a treaty with Nato, before tackling the question of the expansion of the Atlantic alliance.

The 60-year-old general has shown himself to be a tough-minded and shrewd politician, who is willing to use publicity to pressure his government over the crisis in Russia's armed forces. He was not the first choice to replace the unpopular General Pavel Grachev. The post was twice offered to General Andrei Nikolayev, the commander of the Border Guards, but he turned it down. Crucially, Gen Rodionov had the support of Mr Lebed, with whom he served in action before moving to a desk job as chief of the army general staff's military academy. The two men share broadly nationalist views; they also have a reputation for not being corrupt, in an army where allegations of skulduggery are rife. They also both supported ending the Chechen conflict.

The initial reaction to his appointment was wary, particularly among liberals and Western observers, who suspected him of hardline tendencies. The main evidence against him was his involvement with an outburst of violence in Georgia in 1989, when Soviet troops were unleashed on a pro- independence rally, killing 19 people. To what extent General Rodionov, the local commander, was to blame is still disputed. "Our impression is that he was carrying out the orders of the Politburo, and the record supports that," one Western diplomat said.

His brief in his new job is extraordinarily tough. He is charged with turning an under-funded and demoralised conscript army of 1.5 million into a leaner, all-professional force capable of defending the security interests of a nation that stretches from the Baltics to the Sea of Japan. The target date is 2000, although few analysts believe this is realistic. Yesterday he said he aimed to shrink the army to 1.2 million by the end of next year.