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Russia in danger as army nears collapse

Russia's defence minister, General Igor Rodionov, warned yesterday that the armed forces were in such chaos that the stability of the Russian state itself might soon come under threat.

"If extreme measures are not taken to reform the army in the near future, the consequences for the state could be catastrophic," he told generals called to assess the results of combat training in 1996.

General Rodionov, appointed by President Boris Yeltsin last July, described this year as the worst for the army since Russia launched its market-based economic reforms in 1992. "The armed forces have reached a point beyond which any further reduction in their combat readiness may lead to unpredictable, tragic consequences," he said.

His remarks were among the most stark assessments of the condition of the armed forces that any top-ranking general has made since Mr Yeltsin won re-election in July. Alexander Lebed, the President's recently sacked security supremo, warned during his brief spell in office that the armed forces might mutiny, but General Rodionov made clear that the real danger lay not in a rebellion but in the army's disintegration.

This view is shared by Western intelligence services and defence analysts. In a recently leaked report, the CIA said the crisis in the armed forces was so acute that control had weakened over Russia's nuclear weapons arsenal.

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies said last month that an even greater threat was theft of conventional weapons. Soldiers who have not received wages for months have been sellingweapons on the black market, often to Russian criminal gangs.

Mr Yeltsin underlined his concern about the issue byphoning the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, from the hospital where he is recovering from a quintuple heart bypass. A Kremlin spokesman said that the President had specifically asked whether the government had taken action to ensure servicemen were being paid. The army's unpaid wages bill is estimated to be at least 5,000 billion roubles (pounds 560m), and has turned into such a serious problem that soldiers serving in Chechnya have not been paid for up to three months.

Last year, the army's food administration reportedly only had funds to pay for soldiers' breakfasts. The wages problem is part of a national payments crisis in which millions of workers have gone unpaid for months, partly because of a collapse in government revenues caused by tax-dodging state and private companies. The total in unpaid wages is 43 trillion roubles (pounds 4.9bn).

The head of Russia's advisory Defence Council, Yuri Baturin, provided bizarre confirmation of the army's problems last month when he said that no one actually knows how big the army is. He estimated there were 2.5 million servicemen, but said this figure included "ghost troops" that did not appear in the official military budget - a practice dating from Communist times.

Mr Yeltsin promised last May that he would abolish conscription by 2000 and transform the army into a smaller, all-professional force. Yet the cost of introducing such a reform is so high that Russian military analysts do not expect it to take effect until well into the next century.

General Rodionov favours the switch to an all-professional force, but has made clear that he thinks Mr Yeltsin's timetable is unrealistic.