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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tension, Troops and Tanks

When political tensions in Russia are high, the army becomes important. Since 1991, tanks have twice rolled on the streets of Moscow to determine history: In August 1991, the guns stayed silent, and Boris Yeltsin retained his post as president of Russia. In October 1993, 125-mm tank shells gutted the White House -- then Russia's parliament building -- again to the benefit of President Yeltsin, who is only several weeks short of miraculously surviving a full five-year term in office.

Yeltsin seems to have a way with tanks. They somehow always come in handy -- as a platform to launch a defiant speech, as in 1991, or some shrapnel shells, as in 1993, at the wretched communists. The coming summer presidential election in Russia may also end up with armored formations roaming the streets of Moscow and making history. And that explains the high attention the Russian Army, its generals, their actions and pronouncements have been getting lately.

The Russian Army today is miserable. The war in Chechnya clearly showed that the present Russian Army, which Defense Minister Pavel Grachev claims to have been successfully reforming since 1992, is virtually unworthy of battle. The troops in Chechnya are having trouble opposing small, lightly armed rebel forces on the battlefield.

The Russian solders are almost starving. The official cost of the regular army's daily food ration is 9,220 rubles ($1.85); 12,537 rubles in the air force; 9,696 rubles in the navy; and 14,269 on submarines. Since the food supply trade in present-day Russia operates on a free market basis, the Defense Ministry pays the same price as any other customer. Of course, the Russian Army still produces some food of its own at army farms, but the price of the final product tends to be even higher than on the open market. And, obviously, the solders seldom see their full ration's worth in the pot: The army attendants also need to get their cut.

It is surprising that given such rations, only a few soldiers have died from starvation during the past two years. All reported cases of soldiers' deaths, however, occurred in the Far East, where the prices for provisions are the highest in Russia -- the "invisible hand" of market economy in action.

According to the official exchange rate, defense spending in Russia increased this year from $12.8 billion in 1995 to $15.1 billion. But with inflation still high and the dollar-to-ruble exchange rate in late April and early May this year actually lower than at the same time last year, the purchasing power of the 1996 defense budget is, according to experts, 14 percent lower than in 1995. According to Vitaly Shlykov, a retired chief of a special general staff defense economics directorate, last year the Russian defense budget had the relative purchasing power of $21.1 billion in 1995 U.S. dollars. And he predicts that this year the Defense Ministry will be able to spend in real terms only the equivalent of $18.2 billion in 1995 U.S. dollars as the ruble becomes less undervalued.

At the same time, the Russian Army has increased from 1.5 million to 1.7 million men at arms -- plus 600,000 civilian Defense Ministry employees -- owing to the extension of the length of military service from 1 1/2 to 2 years. With such a big army and small budget, it is no wonder that the Russian Army can hardly feed and clothe its solders and pay its officers. And there is no money left to perform maneuvers or prepare for real battle. This is most likely the best explanation of the dismal performance of the Russian army in Chechnya.

But if the untrained and often hungry Russian Army in Chechnya is so ill-disciplined and unpredictable, its reaction to any possible political upheaval in Moscow or in Russia proper during the coming presidential election may be equally erratic. It is not surprising that the generals are criticizing more and more the very idea of elections. Knowing the real situation in the armed forces, many generals are genuinely afraid of totally losing control of their own troops in an emergency.

At the same time, the Russian military is not afraid of the president or of civilian authorities in general. There is little possibility left of their budget being cut still further. High-ranking military personnel also know that, even if they are drummed out of the service under a cloud of scandal, they will get by, just as the 1991 coup plotters have. It seems the armed forces are in a position to finally slip from all civilian control.

Pavel Felgenhauer is defense and national security affairs editor for Segodnya.