. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Mulls Army Issue, Talks to Kohl

President Boris Yeltsin spoke briefly by telephone Tuesday with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, his first conversation with a foreign head of state since undergoing heart surgery Nov. 5.

The president, who had heart bypass surgery one week ago, also took up the sensitive question of military reform in another phone conversation with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

"Mr. Kohl congratulated Boris Yeltsin on his quick recovery [and advised him] not to overtax himself during his convalescence," said Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky. The conversation lasted seven minutes, he said, and Kohl renewed his invitation for Yeltsin to spend part of his convalescence period in Germany.

The president also spoke with Chernomyrdin, focusing on the problem of wage arrears, primarily in the armed forces and the so-called "power ministries," Yastrzhembsky said.

Normally, the two men meet face-to-face Tuesdays, but while the president's recovery is still under way they instead talked by phone. Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, who visited Yeltsin recently in the hospital said he was then too sick to answer the phone.

"He has to make haste slowly," Yastrzhembsky said of Yeltsin, adding that "certain tact and restraint are needed" as he regains his strength.

The spokesman confirmed that the president would address the nation later this week, but qualified an earlier announcement when he said Yeltsin might speak on television or radio.

While the commander-in-chief took a step toward recovering his health Tuesday, his top brass issued warnings of imminent collapse in the armed forces, and repeated their call Tuesday for reducing the number of men the country keeps under arms, now estimated by the Defense Council at 2.5 million.

Defense Minister Igor Rodionov warned that the armed forces "had reached a limit, and any further decline in their battle readiness could lead to unpredictable and catastrophic consequences," Itar-Tass reported.

Chernomyrdin declared the government's readiness to make painful cuts in the armed forces at a meeting with top Defense Ministry officials Tuesday. "The necessity of reforming the armed forces is long overdue. We are prepared to take decisive measures to achieve this, including unpopular ones," he said.

In response to the cash crisis that threatens to stir up unrest in Russia's military, the prime minister vowed Monday that the federal government would pay soldiers their back wages for October by Friday. As of Oct. 1, the federal budget owed soldiers 5.1 trillion rubles ($933 million), he said. To date, wages from July have been paid in full, and those from August have been covered up to 74 percent.

The prime minister's statement reiterated a pledge he made Nov. 1 during a trip to Ryazan, when he said the Defense Ministry would receive "97 or 98, perhaps even 99, percent of the sum allocated in the federal budget."

The Defense Ministry generally speaks of reducing the number of Russia's soldiers to 1.25 million. But as many military leaders have pointed out, the scale of this reduction depends on how many are in uniform at present.

Boris Gromov, a retired general and key State Duma member, told Izvestia last week that according to Defense Ministry data, Russia has 1.6 million people in uniform in nearly 20 different services, from the army to the railroad troops. The Defense Council, however, ups this figure to 2.5 million, and the Economics Ministry says 3.7 million.

General Viktor Samsonov, head of the armed forces general staff, said Nov. 1 the planned reduction to 1.2 million men under present circumstances "would lead to collapse and would spell an end to reforms in the army."

Chronic cash shortages and plummeting morale in the armed forces have made military reform one of the most urgent and fundamental questions facing the Russian government.

Yeltsin jump-started the debate in mid-May when he decreed that Russia change to an all-volunteer army by the year 2000, scrapping the twice-yearly draft that has become increasingly ineffective in filling the ranks with new recruits.

The decree was met with widespread skepticism among military leaders.

Even Yury Baturin, secretary of the Defense Council and the government's point-man on military reform, told Itogi magazine recently that Yeltsin had merely had "a sort of reference point" in mind when he signed the decree.

Baturin called Tuesday for a new military doctrine by the year 2005 to replace a 1993 document that he said had become outdated. The 1993 doctrine, the first since 1917, shifted the focus of Russia's military from countering NATO in Europe to quashing "local wars" in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

"Russia regards no state as an enemy," then-defense minister Pavel Grachev said as he unveiled the new doctrine in November 1993. Russia's armed forces, he said, would be scaled down and reorganized into lighter, more mobile units capable of intervening quickly in hot spots.

Some believe that more pressing problems must be solved before work begins on a new military doctrine, Chernomyrdin said. "But this is not true, because such questions such as the composition, structure and manpower of the armed forces must be determined by the state defense doctrine," Itar-Tass reported him as saying.

Gromov said bluntly that in Russia's current economic state, the transition to a professional army in just four years was "unrealistic."