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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

President Dumps Chief of Air Force




President Boris Yeltsin turned his attention to vexing problems in the military Tuesday, ousting Russia's embattled air force chief but voicing confidence in the job done by reformers of the bloated army.


"I think that we have been able to overcome resistance to military reforms, first of all in the military itself, but also among politicians ... who now agree that reform in the army is essential," Yeltsin told a session of the Defense Council, a body charged with shaping an effective force out of Russia's cash-strapped army.


The Kremlin press department said Yeltsin had dismissed General Pyotr Deinekin, head of the Russian air force since October 1992. He was replaced by Colonel General Anatoly Kornukov, 55, previously the commander of Moscow's air defense troops.


A career military man who knows how to pilot nine types of jets, Deinekin came under intense pressure to step down last month after an air force cargo jet crashed on takeoff in Irkutsk, killing about 80 people.


Unlike many generals who complain about low funding, Deinekin has consistently toed the Kremlin line, particularly during Russia's ill-fated 21-month war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. He offered to resign after turning 60 last month, at the same time asking Yeltsin to extend his military service for another five years, as allowed by Russian law.


But fierce Kremlin critics may have forced Yeltsin's hand. Charging Deinekin with single-handedly running the air force into the ground, State Duma defense committee chairman Lev Rokhlin demanded that parliament begin impeachment proceedings against Yeltsin for not firing Deinekin after the Irkutsk crash.


Rokhlin, who commands wide respect in Russia's armed forces, has been quick to criticize the Kremlin's military policy but he may soon lose his defense committee chairman seat for breaking ranks with the pro-Kremlin faction Our Home Is Russia.


Kornukov, Deinekin's replacement, will head both the Russian air force and the air defense forces, which last summer were consolidated into one as part of the military reform effort.


The new air defense chief promised to make the fight against corruption his main concern. "I am convinced that certain people in the air force will have to say thank you and goodbye because I don't live on the moon, I have served a long time and know a quite a bit about people," Kornukov told RTR television.


Yeltsin also announced Tuesday that the size of the army had been reduced by 200,000 in 1997, although that figure is difficult to verify. The Defense Ministry's own size estimates vary from between 1.5 million and 1.8 million men. The Kremlin wants that figure pared down to 1.2 million by the end of 1998.


Yeltsin's claim that the army brass no longer resists his budget slashing is notable considering that he had to fire Defense Minister Igor Rodionov last year for frequently voicing discontent with reforms.


Some have accused Yeltsin, who spent about seven months of his second term away from the Kremlin with heart problems, with not issuing enough guidance in the military reform effort.


During Yeltsin's recent five-week Kremlin absence, the Kremlin repeatedly issued statements that the president intended to make army reform a top priority upon his return to work.


Yeltsin last summer reshuffled his army reform team, naming new Defense Council Secretary Andrei Kokoshin as a chief military inspector assigned to make a complete inventory of army supplies.


He complimented Kokoshin on his work Tuesday. "For the first time in 80 years we actually know what the military has," Yeltsin said. "Military reform is proceeding, and we must increase its pace."


With not enough funds to even house and feed some troops, the military has seen graft and corruption become rampant. Unnamed Defense Ministry officials cited by Itar-Tass earlier this month complained that the military received just 55.6 percent of the money earmarked for defense in the 1997 budget.


Taking a line similar to his ousted predecessor, Defense Minster Igor Sergeyev this month sent Yeltsin a letter saying that even if the military receives all 81.7 billion rubles ($13.6 billion) allotted for 1998, the army will still go hungry and meaningful reform will be impossible to undertake, according to Russian press reports.