US Military Not Rattled By Russia's Instability

Much-weakened armed forces not perceived as major security risk

THE United States Department of Defense is not in an uproar over Russian President Boris Yeltsin's political problems. Consider this evidence: The Army chief of staff, Gen. Gordon Sullivan, is currently thousands of miles from his Pentagon office, visiting Japan.

"If the Pentagon was sitting on edge about this situation, he'd be here in the building," points out one well-placed military official.

US security officials are far from callous about Mr. Yeltsin's fate. A new Russian leader less- friendly to the West could cause the US strategic problems, and would perhaps slow the decline in US defense spending.

But the days when the Pentagon published an annual volume ominously titled "Soviet Military Power" appear to be gone.

"The Russian military is in enormous disarray," said Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, at a breakfast with reporters on March 24.

The Russian crisis has sparked some musing about the wisdom of defense cuts on Capitol Hill. Republicans, in particular, have seized on Yeltsin's troubles as evidence that the world is still a dangerous, unpredictable place, and that President Clinton is proceeding too fast with defense cuts.

But many lawmakers and analysts say that a defiantly nationalistic Russia would be a different kind of security problem for the US than the old Soviet Union was. Representative Hamilton said that at this point he doesn't see much real pressure to slow defense reductions. Rep. Thomas Andrews (D) of Maine, an Armed Services Committee member, states it more forcefully: "We cannot go back. Ever."

Under communism, the Soviet armed forces had more than 5 million men under arms. Today Russia's military is estimated at around 2.8 million by Western analysts. Much old Soviet weaponry was appropriated by former republics as they became nations. Armenia, for instance, has absorbed the structure of the Soviet 7th Army, along with some 8,000 former Soviet troops.

Battle-readiness of these forces is abysmal. The Russian Navy hardly leaves port because it lacks fuel; Air Force training is similarly restricted. At least half the Army's strength depends on conscripts, but by one Western estimate only about 30 percent of draftees show up for induction.

There are still hundreds of thousands of Russian troops in Germany - but they're there because they have no housing back home. The Soviet military presence is gone from Czechoslovakia and virtually gone from Poland. In the extremely unlikely event that Russia wanted to roll its troops toward the Rhine, it would first have to fight its way across the now-free territory of old Soviet satellites.

"I seriously doubt they'd be able to do that," says a military official.

Russia still has control of thousands of nuclear weapons capable of reaching the US. This is the currency that still buys Moscow superpower status, and if Yeltsin goes the US might have to spend more money on strategic forces than it otherwise plans, in an echo of the nuclear-arms race of the 1970s and '80s.

A new Russian leader might, for instance, scuttle parliamentary ratification of the START 2 arms-control treaty that was signed by Yeltsin and George Bush in the waning days of the Bush presidency. Debate on START 2 was to begin in Moscow last week, but it has been put off.

A more nationalistic Russia might also cause the US strategic problems in global trouble spots. There are significant factions in Russia that feel longtime ally Iraq should not have been abandoned in the Gulf war. Pro-Serbian sentiment is strong in the Russian Parliament.

"As a military planner, you have to look at the worst case, and the worst case is they would throw themselves behind one of our other possible adversaries, such as Iraq," says Ron Hatchett, director of the Mosher Institute for International Policy Studies at Texas A&M University.

US forces might have to be accordingly larger to take that chance into account. Still, the Russian economy hinders the military. "Even if they got the lion's share of their budget, it doesn't mean they could compete effectively with the West in an arms race," Mr. Hatchett says.

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