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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

General: Go Slow on Military Reform

A top general said Russia's armed forces must be overhauled because of poor health, bad education and declining male population, but not too hastily.

General Valery Astanin, in charge of manpower in the world's fourth-largest military, said in a interview with foreign media that the armed forces would hand President Vladimir Putin a detailed plan by July 1 on a switch to a volunteer army.

But he dismissed a rival proposal by liberal politician Boris Nemtsov that would cut the armed forces to 400,000 over five years from the present 1.2 million members.

"What good is an army of 400,000 for a country such as our Russia?" fumed Astanin, springing from his desk and sweeping a hand as big as a shovel over a map of the biggest country on the planet.

With the military dependent on conscription, Russia remains a force to be reckoned with. But an aging nuclear arsenal and struggles to quell Chechen rebels point to a much weaker force than during the Soviet heyday.

Military reform has been a buzzword in Russia for a decade, and Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) in the State Duma, said Putin has promised to consider including a start date for the move to a fully volunteer force in a major policy speech due in around a month.

The Cabinet is due to discuss the issue on March 15.

Defense analysts said the inclusion of Nemtsov and other leading liberals at key meetings on the military's future suggest the Kremlin chief is frustrated with the slow pace of reform and is ready to listen to voices other than his generals.

"Nemtsov is a politician, that's all," Astanin said, his voice a reflection of his powerful build. "They [the SPS] are people who have never done anything useful in their lives. They just talk," he said.

The general's frustration is fueled by a sense that the military is being blamed for problems that affect the whole country: lack of cash, disintegrating infrastructure and falling educational standards.

A halving of the number of boys born each year in Russia from 1987-95 leaves no long-term future for a mass army. It currently drafts some 400,000 young men a year, a figure Astanin said is only 12 percent of those aged between 18 and 27 eligible for conscription.

The rest win exemption as students or due to ill health. Tens of thousands prefer to risk arrest by evading the draft and many pay bribes to avoid service.

And those who do make it into uniform are of little help. More than half are too unfit to be of operational use, Astanin said. Another 40 percent have never worked or studied.

"That means that we can't send them to be trained as specialists because they won't be able to cope with the program. So that is the state of the 12 percent we get."

Those stark figures have convinced the military of the need for a volunteer army, well-equipped, well-trained, staffed by men for whom the armed services are a profession offering decent living standards and the chance to learn new skills.

But the million-strong force envisaged by the General Staff contrasts sharply with the 400,000 army of volunteers contained in the plan pushed by Nemtsov.

Nemtsov's plan calls for a five-year transition, starting next January, and would create a 160,000-strong reserve entirely drawn from conscripts serving just six months.