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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lebed Suggests Seizing Army Unit

Alexander Lebed, governor of the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk, highlighted a growing wave of discontent at unpaid wages in the military Friday, suggesting that his region should take control of a nuclear missile unit stationed on its territory away from the government.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, the quick-tongued former general said officers of a rocket formation in the town of Uzhur had not received their salaries in five months and their wives were "storming the headquarters."

"It is a serious unit and the officers are serious," Lebed wrote. "And I am seriously thinking of establishing territorial jurisdiction over it."

He added that his government would at least be able to feed the troops. "What else can be done?" he wrote. "In 26 years of army service, I came to understand that very well."

Lebed's mock-serious letter was an obvious stunt timed to coincide with U.S. Vice President Al Gore's visit to Moscow, but it also underlined the real unrest caused by the growing backlog of unpaid wages in the army, including Russia's crucial strategic missile forces.

The daily newspaper Izvestia reported from Krasnoyarsk that about 60 officers' wives in Uzhur protested Thursday against wage delays and the provision of canned food past its expiry date. They blocked military vehicles, delaying soldiers on their way to start a shift of duty.

Izvestia cited Greenpeace as saying 520 nuclear warheads are kept at the Uzhur base. Russia's military doctrine views the elite strategic missile troops as the core of the country's defense. Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, former commander of these troops, has repeatedly offered assurances that Russia's nuclear arsenal is combat ready and in good hands.

Kiriyenko declined to comment on Lebed's suggestion at a news conference Friday. Gore also played down the significance of the letter.

"He's probably just trying to draw attention to the fact that a lot of the officer corps ... would like to see their back pay," Gore told Fox Television.

The commander of strategic missile troops, General Vladimir Yakovlev, was quoted by Itar-Tass on Friday as saying that his units deployed in Eastern Siberia, including the Krasnoyarsk territory, have everything they need to carry out their duties. But he confirmed the late salary payments, for which, he said, the military bears no responsibility.

He said it would be "impossible" to fragment or transfer command of missile units to anybody outside the existing structure, which is subordinate to Russia's president as supreme commander.

Earlier this week, Viktor Ilyukhin, a Communist State Duma deputy who succeeded the late General Lev Rokhlin as leader of the Movement in Support of the Army, called on officers not to leave their arms and to prepare to defend their rights.

The Military Prosecutor's Office responded by reminding troops in a statement that disobedience or a refusal to carry out an order amounts to a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

Another incident in the Nizhny Novgorod region this week also showed the discontent in the army. In a protest at wage arrears stretching back three months, Major Igor Belyaev drove a gunless tank from a hangar in the isolated garrison of Mulino to the center of the nearby town of Novosmolino on Wednesday evening. He returned the vehicle that night after his commanding officers came to talk to him.

Colonel Igor Petrishchev, spokesman for the Moscow military district, which includes much of Central Russia, said in an interview Friday that conditions in isolated garrisons are particularly harsh because officers go unpaid and their wives cannot find jobs.

Though he said the incident in Mulino was "negative," Petrishchev added that other officers in the Moscow military district understood what lay behind it. He said no officers in the district, including himself, had received their salary since April.

Additional payments, which are compensation for food rations and housing allowances, have not been paid for as long as eight months.

"We have to endure," Petrishchev said.

He also said he "understands" the protest of rocket officers' wives in Krasnoyarsk region, but Lebed's statement was very much "in the spirit" of the bold retired general.

"It is a very dangerous thing," Petrishchev said. "Under no circumstances should the military be divided by the regions. It can only report to the supreme commander -- the president."