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Friday, September 19, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 6/19/2005

Russia's faltering military a threat to peace

"For a people who are free, and who mean to remain so, a well-organized and armed militia is their best security," Thomas Jefferson said in a message to Congress.

Almost 200 years later, both freedom and a functional military remain a remote prospect for Russia, which celebrated the 15th anniversary of its declaration of independence a week ago. It became painfully clear to millions of Russians last week when they learned that 50 Russian military personnel die weekly from suicide, hazing, mishandling their weapons, and equipment failures.

This figure does not include those who die in military campaigns. But it does include members of Russia's elite nuclear missile units and thus presents a threat to U.S. security.

Widely publicized by the media in Moscow, the disclosure was perfectly timed to add insult to injury.

Many Russians are particularly touchy about this subject around what's known as Russia Day because they associate it with the end of their country's dominant role in the world brought about by the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Since the end of the Yeltsin era more than five years ago, they have been hearing about Russian President Vladimir Putin's plans to reform Russia's bulky, understaffed, poorly equipped, underpaid, and generally demoralized armed forces consisting primarily of drafted youths with a military that is smaller but more professional.

But these plans failed to materialize, and the Russians were brutally reminded of it last week.

The Russians owe their disappointment to the Kremlin's self-serving system of priorities. Here it is: First fill up your own pockets; then buy impunity by bribing and intimidating the lawmakers, the media, and the judiciary; and only then spend what little is left on the military to keep it from revolting.

This is exactly why there has been no money for the military reform despite budget surpluses owed almost exclusively to high fuel prices. (Russia is the world's second largest exporter of oil, and the largest exporter of natural gas.)

The public would have been "spared" the disclosure of the disturbing statistics had it not been for an unprecedented attack on Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov, who fell victim to Kremlin infighting.

Two powerful groups, one controlled by the natural gas industry and the other by oil exporters, are trying to undermine Mr. Ivanov, who is widely viewed as a presidential successor handpicked by President Putin.

The president values the fellow ex-spy for personal loyalty and political nonaffiliation. In fact, Mr. Putin is apparently so bent on having Mr. Ivanov as his successor that he refrains from criticizing him even for glaring failures while blasting other secretaries for their blunders. The most recent examples include frequent crashes of military aircraft.

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Ivanov becomes such a political liability that he is dropped by President Putin. What's clear is that the Kremlin's priorities are not going to change.

As long as they don't, the Russian military will remain a national embarrassment and an international threat.



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