Red Army Blues

Defense is an acutely sensitive subject in today's Russia. The glory days of the Red Army are memories. The average Russian soldier is underpaid - or not paid at all. In many areas, he has to endure housing that's barely better than a canvas tent. Many units get by only by planting their own crops, or by hiring themselves out to bring in the local potato harvest. That's better than the actual starvation some units have faced.

Officers, meanwhile, frantically hang on to what perquisites are left. Talk of reform and downsizing sends shivers through the overstocked ranks of generals, who see no other means of livelihood. Yet Russia doesn't need a 1.4 million-man Army - an estimated figure that doesn't include many thousands of other uniformed personnel on the frontiers or in special security forces.

President Boris Yeltsin's long-range dream is a leaner, all-volunteer Russian Army, as distinct from today's sprawling conscripted force. That shift, however, would spectacularly bust the budget. Retiring much of the officer corps, for example, is a much costlier prospect than simply keeping them on for now. At present, Russia strains to afford just under $20 billion a year on defense. The United States, with fewer people in uniform, spends about $260 billion.

On top of all this, Russia's Army was just humiliated by Chechen militiamen who didn't seem in the least cowed by superior Russian numbers and firepower.

So how do Moscow's just reshuffled political leaders go about paring back and restructuring a tattered military? For one thing, they're likely to sustain the rhetorical attack on NATO expansion. NATO may pose no real military threat to Russia, but the idea of the old enemy moving onto territory so recently under Moscow's sway is galling. It offends nationalist sensibilities, at least in the halls of power. Some close observers of Russia report that average Russians couldn't care less about NATO's growth plans. They just want a regular, growing paycheck.

The negotiations warming up between Moscow and NATO, with various proposals for giving Russia a place and a voice in Europe's security matters, are needed - but not risk free. Russia has to feel it's a partner in the process. But compromise should not go so far as to leave Moscow believing NATO negotiators are splitting the remains of empire, leaving the Baltic states and Ukraine exposed to future Russian pressure.

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