Yeltsin sacks defence chief over reforms

Boris Yeltsin has taken on his own military by sacking two top defence officials, including the popular Minister of Defence, Igor Rodionov, for failing to make any headway in reforming Russia's vast, tottering armed forces.

The dismissals came as the president delivered a ferocious, and evidently choreographed, televised bawling-out to the two in front of top officials at a meeting of the Defence Council. He was, he complained, "indignant" over the lack of reform and the state of his armed forces: "The soldier is losing weight while the general is getting fatter."

Mr Rodionov, a career general turned civilian minister, was fired after only 10 months in one of the toughest jobs in the country, after the presidency itself.

Perhaps significantly, his acting replacement was named as General Igor Sergeyev, the head of the elite strategic rocket forces - part of the armed forces that may become the nucleus of Russia's overhauled military in the future. The other sacking was the chief of the general staff, the number two in the army, General Viktor Samsonov.

Mr Yeltsin's accusations were certainly founded on fact, although they may be seen as unfair by many in the military. Mr Rodionov achieved almost no reforms, and what did happen - the axing, for instance, of an intermediate level of command in the air force and cuts to the elite paratrooper forces - was piecemeal and even illogical.

If anything, the chaos in the Russian armed forces, still reeling from their humiliation in Chechnya, worsened. Reports poured in of increased suicides among officers, soldiers being treated for malnutrition, mass draft-dodging, moonlighting, theft, and embezzlement and bribery among the senior ranks.

Chief among the reasons for the minister's lack of progress was shortage of money. Cutting armies is costly; equipment has to be replaced, and laid-off soldiers are entitled to pensions and 20 months' redundancy pay. Yet this year, the Russian Defence Ministry was facing a budget of 83 trillion roubles (pounds 8.8bn), no greater than last year's.

When Mr Rodionov was appointed last August, on the urging of Alexander Lebed, then Mr Yeltsin's protege and security supremo, there was a sharp intake of breath in the West. He was widely blamed for the loss of 19 lives when Soviet troops suppressed a pro-independence protest in Georgia in 1989. But his hardliner reputation quickly dissolved. Last night, Western sources portrayed him as an honest official, a soldier's soldier who was being scapegoated by Mr Yeltsin.

They pointed out that the defence minister was, in effect, working without a script. Before last year's presidential election, a vote-seeking Mr Yeltsin announced plans to turn his conscript army into an all-professional force by the end of the century - a target that is regarded as unrealistic. But his government has yet to compile a blueprint outlining its overall military strategy.

Moreover, the Russian Security Council has only just completed work on a national security concept. "It was asking the impossible of Rodionov to produce cuts on the ground, when he had no concept, no blueprint, to work with ... Mr Yeltsin is making him pay the penalty for failing to carry out reforms that can only be achieved by the president himself," said one Western analyst.

In part, Mr Rodionov was the author of his own downfall. His outspoken attacks on Kremlin policy, and his clashes with the president's top defence adviser, Yuri Baturin, angered Mr Yeltsin. In February, the minister warned that Russia could lose control of its vast nuclear arsenal, such was the financial crisis.

"The whole horror of the thing is that as Russia's defence minister I am a spectator of the process of destruction in the army, and cannot do anything about it," he told reporters. Fed up with frequent public complaints, Mr Yeltsin eventually ordered him to "stop whining".

Mr Rodionov's sacking appears to mark another step in the rapid ascendancy of Mr Yeltsin's two young reformers, Boris Nemtsov and Anatoly Chubais, who have been pressing hard for military reforms. Yesterday the two deputy prime ministers were appointed to the Security Council, one of the key forums for defence policy-making.

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