MOSCOW — THERE was a distinct smell of a sacrificial lamb being grilled in the military chamber of Russia's Supreme Court this week, as Maj. Gen. Nikolai Seliverstov went on trial for embezzlement and abuse of authority.
General Seliverstov was deputy commander of the 16th Soviet Air Force, stationed in eastern Germany, from 1989 to 1992. But according to the charge sheet at his court martial that began Tuesday, he turned his air base into an amusement park.
One day, for example, he is said to have pocketed $18,880 by renting out a MIG-29 and staging races up and down a runway between local German speed fiends and the latest generation Soviet jet fighter.
Such antics illustrate the pitiful state into which the Russian armed forces have fallen.
``No Army in the world has been in such a dire state ... as our Russian Army,'' warned Defense Minister Gen. Pavel Grachev last week.
The armed forces ``could begin losing their combat ability, which may lead to a real disintegration of the Army.
``Honest officers ... work as night watchmen or freight handlers,'' General Grachev told the State Duma (lower house of parliament) in an impassioned speech last Friday.
``Their dishonest colleagues commit various abuses,'' added Grachev.
Seliverstov's various freelance capitalist ventures netted him a total of $54,000 or so, according to military prosecutor Col. Alexander Pikhulia.
But these sorts of sums are small potatoes when set beside the fortunes that more senior officers in the Western Army Group are said to have made on the side, as their men withdrew from Germany.
``I am a scapegoat,'' Seliverstov complained to reporters during a break in the trial ``because of heightened public attention to the Western Army Group.''
Bomb halts inquiry
Attention has especially focused on the Western Army Group since Dmitri Kholodov, a young Moscow journalist who was investigating corruption among its senior officers, was killed by a suitcase bomb last month, just before he was due to testify to a Duma committee.
A secret report written in 1992 by the government's top anticorruption official, leaked last month to Kholodov's paper, Moskovsky Komsomolets, found that the Western Army Group had sold off $51.2 million worth of goods, but that only $13.5 million had found their way into the Army's coffers.
Further credence was lent to rumors of massive smuggling, illegal arms sales, and general corruption when President Boris Yeltsin earlier this month fired Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Matvei Burlakov - who had been commander in chief of the Western Army Group until its withdrawal from Germany in September - ``to preserve the honor of the Russian armed forces.''
General Burlakov's departure was seen as an indirect blow to Defense Minister Grachev, who had promoted and fiercely defended his deputy. Rumors that he was soon to be fired as well have raced through Moscow for weeks.
The defense minister is not in a strong position: Within the Army he is widely - and publicly - scorned for his inability to defend the military against the sweeping cuts that parliament has ordered for each of the past three years.
Outside the military, conservatives despise him because he sided with President Yeltsin in October 1993, ordering his troops to crush a rebellion by parliamentary leaders by bombarding the Duma building, or White House.
But ``democrats'' find Grachev unpopular also, as they believe he is tainted by corruption. The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets has accused the defense minister of taking a Mercedes Benz as a bribe, and the paper's editor has charged him with complicity in Kholodov's murder.
Cornered but kicking
So when Grachev appeared before the Duma last Friday to deliver a report on the armed forces, most observers expected him to come under heavy fire from all sides.
But he turned the tables on his critics with a blunt and dramatic account of the depths to which his men have descended, and an appeal for more money if the Russian Army is not to collapse.
Only 40 percent of servicemen are equipped with modern weaponry, he said, ``and by the year 2000, if this tendency is not reversed, the figure will drop to 10 percent.''
Combat training has been cut back, pilots cannot fly enough hours to stay operational, and warships are standing idle, Grachev reported.
``One can only suggest that everybody lay down his arms and go home,'' he exclaimed.
Moscow allotted the military only half of what it asked for in the 1994 budget, and the armed forces have actually received only half of that sum so far this year. Spending in 1995 has been capped at current levels, as the government seeks to curb its budget deficit, but Grachev said his forces needed three times as much ``as a minimum required sum.''
For the time being, the defense minister said, the armed forces are capable of doing the job they have been assigned. ``In the current situation the Army is combat ready, manageable, and prepared ... to ensure the country's security,'' he said.
But he warned of a breakdown in discipline if soldiers are kept on what he called ``pauper rations of semistarvation.''
``We will be able to hold out for another six months, another year, by banking on the military's patriotism,'' he predicted. ``But what then?''