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New Note of Optimism Sounds in Russia's Dispirited Military

Reform: Officers say they just want a sensible army that's paid on time. The men now at the top give them hope.

September 29, 1996|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — The marines of the Russian Far East are among the most pampered members of the Russian military. Their pay comes only two months late. They usually get fed. And many of their officers get free housing, even if the accommodations are one room to a family in a spartan barracks.

Not for them the miserable fate of fellow conscripts in nearby Nakhodka. In July, firms in Nakhodka appealed to Russia's new security chief, Alexander I. Lebed, to send food to the local border guards. At least 100 were seriously underweight, the appeal said. They were subsisting on half-rations.

"We've been paid for June. I suppose we're lucky. Some people are only getting their money from four months ago. But still, I have two kids--one's 5, and one's a month old--and it's hard to get by," marine junior officer Ivan L. Gromyshev said recently, loitering in a barracks containing iron bunk beds, memorials to dead sailors and little else.

Even the elite marines are sick to death of the cuts and confusion in the post-Soviet military. The Defense Ministry has clung to a nostalgic dream of past glories, when the vast Soviet army was paid and equipped to conquer a host of ideological enemies. Refusing to accept reality, the ministry has balked at reshaping the armed forces to protect a smaller country with limited military needs.

Post-Soviet conscription has been kept up to former levels, although widespread draft-dodging means most units are understaffed. But soldiers and sailors are for the most part penned in their barracks with no enemies to fight and, in any case, little equipment to fight with. The only result of stretching dwindling resources thinner has been to reduce the 1.5-million-strong armed forces to beggary.

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Conventional wisdom has it that the armed forces, angry about their new poverty, are dangerously close to countenancing coups and military dictatorships to restore their prestige and power.

But officers in the Pacific Fleet say they do not want the Soviet past back. They just want a sensible modern army, scaled down from its Soviet size but properly trained to perform new, more limited functions. They want an end to the financial embarrassment that has become their daily lot. They say they are ready and willing to embrace reform if it allows them to perform their patriotic duty properly.

"The situation now is far from simple," said Capt. Viktor I. Ryzhkov. "We haven't broken down completely, but we have realized it's time to start creating new structures."

A new note of hope can be heard in conversations around the shabby barracks of Vladivostok. The nation's unpopular defense minister, Pavel S. Grachev, was fired in June. Lebed has installed Col. Gen. Igor N. Rodionov in his place, with plans for "profound" reform.

With Grachev gone, many in the military feel that a better future might be on the way. Rodionov was appointed only weeks after Lebed, his ally and patron, became security chief. Both men are heroes to members of the military, who believe for the first time since 1991 that they are being commanded by men with their best interests at heart.

Rodionov, who ran Russia's top military academy for five years before his appointment as defense minister, is particularly dear to the hearts of marines because his son was the popular commander of a Pacific Fleet battalion.

"The fleet thinks of him as a saint, so it's great for us that his father is in charge now. I've met the father, and he was very pleasant--accessible, upright, honest," said Col. Sergei N. Aleshin.

"I wish him [Lebed] huge success. I really want to see very soon the fruits of his work, especially military reform," Adm. Vladimir I. Kuroyedov, the commander of the Pacific Fleet, said enthusiastically.

Kuroyedov's vision of the new friendships opening up for Vladivostok with its Pacific neighbors--Japan, South Korea, China, the United States--has made him a keen advocate of reform.

"We are becoming a purely defensive force. Our doctrine is defensive, and for the military that's a completely new departure. . . . We have no probable enemies anymore, and we need a different kind of force."

No clear picture of the shape of military reform ever emerged during five years under Grachev, whose friendship with President Boris N. Yeltsin kept him in his job although his inefficiency and legendary corruption made him almost comically unpopular among soldiers and civilians.

Grachev's reforms consisted only of grudging cuts in equipment and, to a lesser extent, manpower, Kuroyedov said. By about the year 2000, Kuroyedov said, he expects a second stage of reform--reequipping depleted forces with modern weaponry--to be well underway.

What reform will actually be carried out is still being debated. Yeltsin's promise during his reelection campaign earlier this year to abolish conscription by 2000, creating an entirely professional army, was a vote-catcher. But it was so ambitious that Rodionov and Lebed have expressed strong reservations about whether it is possible.

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