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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin's Star Falling in the East

A year ago, at the end 2001, Russia and its president were extremely popular in the West. Vladimir Putin unequivocally supported the United States after 9/11: Moscow promptly joined the anti-terror coalition and provided bases, weapons and in some instances direct military support to the forces of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Without the support of Russia and its traditional allies in Central Asia, the Taliban regime would not have collapsed as swiftly as it did.

Putin was considered cool in the West -- intelligent, reserved, well dressed, with full command of German and also some understanding of English. Putin was seen as the long-awaited true reformer of Russia, a Western-style leader, an intelligent patriot, not a drunk as many other Russians. In short, a person who could swiftly turn Russia around.

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A year later, Putin is still called a loyal friend by the leaders of Britain, the United States and other Western nations. Putin is still very popular with the Russian masses. But many in the local and foreign elite are beginning to see him as more of a problem -- not a solution to Russia's woes.

The Russian military is visibly disintegrating, with constant mass defections of solders caused by intolerable conditions, while a program of military reform that Putin officially proclaimed to be a national priority is failing to improve the situation. At the same time within the upper ranks there is growing discontent and disappointment with Putin's defense and foreign policies.

After the conflict over Kosovo in 1999, the Russian military temporarily froze all relations with NATO. At the same time military and diplomatic chiefs ecstatically reinstated a Soviet-style defense doctrine (signed by Putin in 2000) that reinstated the West as Russia's main potential enemy.

After 9/11, Russian generals were alarmed by Putin's sudden westward turn. To silence the opposition, the Kremlin appeased the military. At meetings with generals, Putin and his Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov explained time and again that the closeness with the West was not a full-time policy shift. Russia's participation in the anti-terror coalition was portrayed as a clever temporary tactical move that would benefit Russia, give it access to Western markets of capital and technology, while American solders and bombers would be deployed to destroy the Taliban army of religious extremists. The Kremlin insisted that after 9/11 the West would better understand Russian policies in Chechnya and help cut financial support for the rebels.

The Kremlin can be persuasive when it wants to be, and anyway the careers of top generals depend on the benevolence of the president and the chiefs of his administration. The Russian military accepted the presence of U.S. bases on former Soviet territory, accepted an eastward expansion of NATO to include the three Baltic republics and accepted without much fuss Washington's unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty and plans to begin building an ABM shield, a system that may one day nullify the Russian strategic nuclear deterrent that is the backbone of all Russian defense plans.

The Russian military was forced to accept all of this, but they did not like what they were forced to swallow. There is today no open protest movement in the ranks of our top brass, but one can overhear a lot of very angry grumbling, especially since Putin has given almost nothing to the military in return for their loyalty.

Russian officers did get a pay hike that sounded grand if measured in percentages, but with the pay hike many benefits were withdrawn, such as special rates for utilities and housing.

A lieutenant will now receive just over $100 a month, a colonel about $160 -- hardly an incentive for an able, ambitious young man to choose a military career. But the government cannot pay more to its outsized, unreformed military. In the coming year some 70 percent of the defense budget will be spent on salaries, military pensions and feeding the men, leaving even less money than this year for the procurement and development of new weapons.

Most generals angrily reject the argument that there's no money to keep the grand Soviet-style military machine in good shape. The generals argue that Russia is a rich country with lots of oil, gas, metals and other natural resources. But all these national riches were unjustly privatized by a group of unscrupulous oligarchs (most of them Jews).

Many in the military expected that Putin would, as he hinted in the beginning of his presidential term, destroy the oligarchs, confiscate their wealth and hand it over to the military. The generals expected a two- to four-fold increase in defense spending, but Putin failed to deliver. The oligarchy continues to rule and prosper, while the military counts pennies.

There are intelligent generals (some of them occupy high decision-making positions in the Defense Ministry) who are prepared to face a real world in which the Russian military has a modest role and to build a reformed armed force on a realistic budget. But such military "realists" are a slim minority.

Putin mostly tends to tell people what they want to hear: While meeting Western leaders he talks of partnership and liberal reforms, and in Beijing he repeats anti-Western "multipolar world" slogans. What Putin says and what he does are often wide apart.

This tactic has made Putin everybody's darling for the time being, but the cloak of professional deceptiveness is visibly beginning to wear thin, internationally and internally. While foreign leaders will most likely continue to give Putin the benefit of the doubt, the Kremlin should not take the loyalty of its military for granted anymore. Only speedy and effective reforms can turn the Russian military around, and such reforms are becoming a prerequisite of Putin's political survival. Who knows? Maybe necessity will actually make things begin to happen.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst and Moscow Times columnist.