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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Army Size Inflated for Budget, Experts Say

Russian military leaders have substantially exaggerated the size of their armed forces to gain higher budget appropriations and protect their swollen officer ranks, Western and Russian military analysts said Friday. The army, navy and air force together have at least 500,000 men fewer than the most commonly quoted official figure of 2.2 million, according to the analysts, with the shortfall arising from dwindling numbers of fresh recruits, many of whom evade the draft. "The Defense Ministry is very reticent to admit how few people it really has," said Stephen Foye, a military expert at the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Institute in Munich. "It also has budgetary implications. If they can say 1.9 million they can somehow justify a higher military budget than if it is admitted that they have only 1.4 million." Amid this fog of uncertainty, the size of the paper army has taken center stage in the battle over the future of the Russian military. Prompted a few days earlier by President Boris Yeltsin, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev this week said he would cut the military from 2.2 million to 1.9 million soldiers by October. Yeltsin then countered by reviving a lapsed goal first stated two years ago that Russia needs only 1.5 million soldiers. Officials at four Western embassies and Russian military analysts estimated the Russian armed forces at between 1.4 and 1.8 million, which would already appear to be within the proposed limits of Yeltsin and Grachev. However, officers make up an unusually high ratio of the present complement. Their numbers would still have to be cut if a proper balance of conscripts within the 1.5 million limit was to be reached. Military officials have publicly quoted a wide variety of numbers in recent months, but typically they cite their authorized rather than actual force size. However, the chief of staff of the armed forces, Colonel General Mikhail Kolesnikov, acknowledged in Friday's Izvestia that actual military strength is "significantly less" than the authorized 2.2 million level. Yeltsin added to the confusion last week by saying Russia has 3 million soldiers, which apparently includes border guards, Interior Ministry troops, and other specialized forces. The frequently changing numbers illustrates an active debate inside the armed forces as to what size of army the country needs. "I do see certain signs of internal struggle between different branches in the armed forces," said one embassy defense analyst. "There is quite a fight between the airborne troops and the main battle formations such as the tank divisions." Grachev and the airborne troops prefer a leaner, meaner force, whereas forces such as tank commanders prefer a massive land army, which was the former Soviet Union's military tradition. Yet Grachev may be losing the battle, some observers say. "The mobile forces' idea is mostly Grachev's idea; there are strong indicators that Grachev is on his way out,' said Pavel Felgenhauer, the military observer for Segonya newspaper. Many say tension is especially evident between Grachev, 46, an airborne division veteran of Afghanistan, and Chief of Staff Kolesnikov, 54, a career tank commander. Kolesnikov "is just a fairly powerful figure, period, and is respected among conservatives and throughout the military as a whole, whereas Grachev has always been viewed as something of a boob," said Foye. In his Izvestia interview Friday, Kolesnikov acknowledged some distance with his superior, Grachev. "Frankly speaking, I cannot say I am a personal friend of the minister," Kolesnikov said. "But we have normal working relations." There have also been signs of strain between Grachev and the president, after the army hesitated before taking to the streets to put down the parliament-led uprising last October. The struggle for a larger paper army is important for the military because it sets the terms of debate for budget allocations and other decisions critical to the military. "One of the things they are most upset about is the number of deferments that are granted in terms of the draft," Foye said. "If they can get it fixed in law that they should have an army of 1.9 million, say, it then gives them some justification to argue for a tightening of the draft laws." A larger paper army also justifies larger officer ranks, which may in fact save the military money. According to existing law, the military must pay discharged officers 20 months' salary, a heavy burden when they have hundreds of thousands of redundant officers. "It's a paradox, but it is more profitable for us to keep officers in the reserves than fire them," Kolesnikov said.