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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Liberals Are No Match

After surviving a multiple-bypass heart operation, President Boris Yeltsin is facing an array of grave political and economic problems that could ruin his second term in office. Military reform might be the worst of them. Unpaid pensioners or disgruntled Kuzbass miners cannot dislodge the president from the Kremlin. But a rebel armed force led by dissident generals can.

A scheduled meeting of the Defense Council, Russia's supreme defense-planning body, was canceled this week. Had it convened, it would have been the first time that the council was presided over by Yeltsin in person. And Kremlin insiders had predicted a head-on collision on future defense policies.

Defense Council Secretary Yury Baturin and his aides have developed a plan to reform Russia's ailing armed forces. They have run up against firm opposition from the Defense Ministry, which has its own ideas.

The main difference between Baturin's men and the Defense Ministry concerns spending. Defense Council officials say they are planning a military reform based on present levels of defense spending, "since there is no extra money available in any case." The Defense Ministry is demanding a sharp increase in defense spending -- a 30 percent increase this year in the current defense budget and even more in the coming years. Kremlin officials predict that if the military gets its way, Russia may be spending up to 15 percent of its GNP on defense by the turn of the century.

The Baturin plan envisages a 30 percent cut in personnel in the Defense Ministry and Russia's other armed force agencies such as the Interior Ministry, the Border Troops and the Federal Security Service. The military establishment of the Russian "power" ministries is prepared to carry out "reform," if extra money is provided, but it is not ready to downsize under any circumstances.

Defense Council officials say they have been unable to complete a comprehensive military reform plan with a precise price tag, because the Defense Ministry and other power ministries have been openly sabotaging the council's efforts by withholding information.

Kremlin sources say Defense Minister Igor Rodionov has gone back on his previous public pledges to cut down Russia's oversized and ineffective war machine. Now the official line of the Defense Ministry is: "Military reform can only go ahead if adequate financing and defense procurement is provided." In other words, without extra money, there won't be reform. Kremlin officials say that if the Defense Ministry gets the money it is asking for, there will be no need to reform at all. Russia could then simply resume the Soviet-style defense buildup and arms race, which was stopped in 1991.

A resumption of a Cold War arms race would be supported not only by the defense establishment, but also by defense industry and nationalists in the Duma. And the upcoming NATO expansion will help recreate a credible military threat.

On Christmas Day, Rodionov remarked that "the activity of the North Atlantic alliance, which has made a radical decision to expand eastward, is a potential source of danger, which could grow into a military threat." He added that the "activities of some Asian states such as Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Japan, China and others are potential sources of military danger to CIS members." These were no slips of the tongue. The Defense Ministry is apparently seeking excuses to ask for money to build a Soviet-style continental perimeter defense against everyone.

The Defense Council meeting, which should have taken place Wednesday, was postponed at the last moment because Yeltsin was said to have a "cold." But this does not make the clash on defense policy any less certain to occur later.

Kremlin insiders say Baturin is tacitly supported by Yeltsin's other liberal aides, foremost among them the chief of the president's administration, Anatoly Chubais, and Finance Minister Alexander Livshits. These liberals, however, are no match for the defense establishment.

Russian generals are resisting defense cutbacks as vigorously as any other general in any other country would in their place. The main difference is that in Russia there is still no effective civilian control of the military and no counterbalance. A high-ranking Kremlin official told me that only Yeltsin can stop Rodionov and other generals from destroying any prospect of meaningful military reform. "He is our last chance, but we do not know what he thinks, or what he will do."

Pavel Felgenhauer is Segodnya's defense and national security affairs editor.