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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rodionov's Enormous Task

Last week President Boris Yeltsin finally chose a defense minister. The new Russian security tsar, Alexander Lebed, and many other influential officials were pressing Yeltsin to appoint former chief of the General Staff Academy, General Igor Rodionov, and in the end the president agreed.

Rodionov and Lebed have been close political allies for some time. Rodionov was frustrated by the lack of military reform and the degradation of the armed forces under former defense minister Pavel Grachev. Last fall he openly joined the political fray with Lebed. Rodionov actively supported the ill-fated 1995 State Duma election campaign of the Congress of Russian Communities.

The Congress lost the election and Rodionov, who was on the list of candidates, did not make it to parliament. Instead, he got into trouble. Rodionov told me that Grachev had asked him to resign his commission, "since he had actively involved himself in politics." Rodionov said he refused to resign voluntarily and Grachev did not press any further. Rodionov will be 60 this December, and under Russian military regulations, generals over 60 must resign from active service.

Apparently, Grachev believed that his position under Yeltsin was secure. So he decided not to make a martyr out of an old and highly respected general. Rodionov in turn also decided not to take any chances: He again withdrew from politics and did not play any active part in Lebed's presidential campaign.

I spoke with Rodionov the day before the first round of presidential elections in June. While he reiterated his criticism of Grachev and other Russian military chiefs, he told me that he did not want to become Russian defense minister under Yeltsin "even if someone begs me to take the job." He also said he disliked Yeltsin and disapproved of his policies, adding that Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov was even worse. This is an attitude typical of many professional Russian military men.

There was, however, no change in Rodionov's high opinion of Lebed. Rodionov dismissed the view that Lebed's failure to graduate from the General Staff Academy, Russia's top military school, put a stigma on his military qualifications: "That's not important. Look at how many blockheads managed to complete my academy, and Lebed already has a good handle on things." Still, Rodionov was obviously not expecting Lebed to rise so miraculously to political power in the Kremlin. There was zero chance of Lebed's winning the election, and no one believed in mid-June that a lasting political alliance between him and Yeltsin would suddenly emerge.

A month later many things seemed different in Moscow. Rodionov accepted the Defense Ministry, and being a sound military professional, he is now attempting to deal with the "worst-case scenario" situation he has found himself in.

Last week, the then-acting defense minister and chief of general staff, General Mikhail Kolesnikov, told me: "I would not want to be in the boots of the new defense minister. We are broke. The Russian Defense Ministry owes its employees and contractors more than 20 trillion rubles [$4 billion] and is constantly getting more and more in the red. I have not received any wages since May, and neither has virtually anyone else in the forces. I do not know where the money will come from."

There is constant talk of open disobedience in army units, of "going on strike." It happens even with the most elite troops, like the Russian airborne brigade in Bosnia. The brigade was sent to join IFOR last January, and the troops got a meager $10 each in advance payment, with the officers getting $100. And up until this April, they did not get any other pay. A three-star airborne general told me recently that the Russian IFOR brigade under NATO command was "on the verge of mutiny" last spring.

Finding money to keep the military in barracks and evicting Grachev's Defense Ministry appointees, however, is only a small part of the problems Rodionov is facing. The other main problem may be Yeltsin, who as president is the supreme commander in chief, but apparently still does not understand anything about defense-related issues. Since 1992 Yeltsin has been constantly talking of "military reform" and at the same time fully endorsing Grachev's incompetent performance. Now the president is again banging on the table and demanding "deep military reform," while not providing adequate funding or political leadership. Perhaps the military will be forced to go on strike seriously.

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