FOR decades the Soviet Army was cast in the form fixed by the forces which defeated the Nazi invader - seemingly endless ranks of infantry backed by the firepower of tanks and artillery. These men moved slowly but surely under the stiff command of a top-heavy hierarchy.
That great 4 million-man Red Army is now in disarray, divided by the collapse of the Soviet Union, weakened by an economic crisis which makes it impossible to pay for piles of arms and the men to use them. Morale in the ranks is very low, with tens of thousands of officers quitting in search of better living conditions.
Now a new would-be saviour has appeared at the Soviet - now Russian - Army's greatest crisis of confidence. Gen. Pavel Grachev, a young paratroop commander and newly appointed defense minister of Russia, promises to save what was once the world's largest fighting force by radically changing it.
"The establishment and strengthening of the Russian Army is one of the nation's most urgent tasks now," General Grachev told reporters on May 22. "Russia should have an armed force commensurate with its status as a great power." He wants his troops to rely on precision, high-technology weapons, and the military to spend more money on research and less on buying huge quantities of arms. The bloated military bureacracy - the deskmen of the General Staff in Moscow and the ponderous structure of military dis tricts and armies, each with their own command - will be sharply cut back.
In Grachev's vision, the Russian Army will be able to move quickly to defend the long borders of this vast nation. At the core will be "rapid deployment forces" composed of paratroopers, motorized infantry units, and marines able to move by air or helicopter. "Ground troops, deployed along the defense perimeter, will be drastically reduced," backed by reserve forces, Grachev explained in a June 1 interview in the government daily Rossiskiye Vesti.
One Western military attache here compares the Grachev concept to the transformation of the American military after the Vietnam War. In both cases, the military reforms derive from a failure to defeat a more lightly armed but more elusive guerrilla army and from the political and economic consequences of a population no longer willing or able to finance a huge, conscript army.
"One of the major tasks which the Russian Army will face is the prevention of local conflicts and wars," Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, like Grachev a decorated veteran of the Afghan War, wrote in long article on reform published May 22 in the military daily Red Star.
At a four-day conference of military leaders and defense industry chiefs held last week, Grachev said documents have already been drawn up for presentation to Russian President Boris Yeltsin's security council on the reorganization of the ministry and general staff. Grachev is preparing to trim general staff personnel by half, he said.
The Navy and Air Force are to remain largely untouched until 1995, with the huge Army taking on the bulk of the restructuring. The system of military bureaucracy, which divides the armed forces into six geographic commands with regional military district commands under them, is to be eventually eliminated. Instead the Army will be formed into more compact units of corps, consisting of three divisions, very similar to the United States Army's organization.
Grachev emphasizes the need to halt the ruin of the defense industry but also to shift it toward producing better quality weapons, not unlike the so-called "smart weapons" that were key to US victory in the Gulf war. He told an international conference in Moscow on June 1 that the military plans to slash defense orders and to switch to competitive bidding in selecting new weapons. The military, he said, "will be guided by real economic conditions in the republic while forming the Russian armed forces and
equipping them with modern weaponry."
Most defense analysts here favorably greet these ideas as long overdue reforms which have been resisted by Soviet Army General Staff. But some critics say the more important issue is doctrine, defining the purpose of a Russian army.
"The key question is whether they are ready to accept the necessity to move step by step toward real military cooperation with Western Europe, the US, NATO, Japan and Korea," says Sergei Blagovolin, president of the Institute of National Security and Strategic Studies. "Up till now there is no real answer."
Grachev has emphasized a purely defensive strategy for protecting borders. "Russia will regard the dispatch of foreign troops to neighboring states and the build-up of troops and naval forces at its borders as a direct military threat to the republic," he told the conference, according to the official Itar-Tass news agency.
That seems to signal a shift away from regarding the West as the main potential foe, but Grachev so far has avoided saying anything directly on this point. His defense plan says nothing, for example, about the status of nuclear forces, which are largely deployed against the US and its allies. At the May 22 news conference, Grachev clearly stated Russia's intention to remain a nuclear power after the rest of the former Soviet republics relinquish their weapons.
Grachev reiterated the former Soviet pledge never to be the first to use nuclear weapons. He said Russian nuclear weapons "would be used only to ensure sufficient defense if there is a threat from the outside, a threat that cannot be met by political means and by conventional forces." Whether there is an "enemy" or not, Grachev and his backers leave little doubt that the see a renewed Russian Army as key to the restoration of Russia's role as a great power. "Everybody should keep in mind the following," Vice President Rutskoi wrote, "while restoring the Russian Army, we are restoring Great Russia." Part 1 appeared Thursday, June 4.