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Downsizing of Russian Military Virtually Complete, says Putin - 2003-11-07

Russian President Vladimir Putin says the down-sizing of Russia's bloated and underfinanced armed forces has largely been completed. But, critics say Russia's military reform program produced no real change.

Addressing a recent military reform conference in Moscow, President Putin declared that the transformation of Russia's armed forces from a bloated giant to a lean fighting force has been accomplished, and no further reductions are needed.

"That's enough," were the words President Putin used to describe the troop scale-back. He says that, while the process was lengthy and painful, he believes Russia can now claim to have a well-balanced force, equal to the task of ensuring Russia's future defense needs.

President Putin says the remainder of Russia's military reform efforts lie in transforming the recruitment system from conscription to one of volunteer, contract service. He also sets a future target of better equipping and training Russia's fighting men.

President Putin has called on the Russian armed forces to rise to what he calls a "qualitatively new level" in everything from combat training to military planning.

A song released in October and played heavily on Russian radio appears aimed at improving even the forces' own image among their countrymen. The song, entitled Borderline, tells a heroic tale of a young soldier sent to the border to fight for mother Russia.

The soldier says he left for the border a boy, but will return a "true man." "We are soldiers now, be happy boys, we are soldiers now," he sings.

Since its release in October, the song has risen to the top of the nation's music charts.

But, President Putin's reform has not been received as well by military experts, and for all the official claims of progress, some analysts remain deeply skeptical.

Alexander Goltz of Russia's weekly magazine, Ezhenedelny Journal, says the changes do little to break Russia's military doctrine from the Soviet past.

It's clear that [the] military thinks about military reform only in terms of reduction of armed forces," he said. "They don't touch any key issue of military reform, such as civil control, reform of military education, reform of officers' service, changing of formation of armed forces and many other very important issues. They simply say that reform means reduction. As a result, Russia still has the Soviet-type military machine, reduced few times [in size], and not effective anymore."

Military advisor for the Russian Federation, Nikolay Mikhailov, agrees. Mr. Mikhailov spoke recently to a round-table discussion in Moscow on military reform.

He says officials may have refined the Russian army, but they have done nothing to reform the military power structure which is top-heavy with generals. He says Russia also seems far more interested in selling military technology abroad than in modernizing its own armed forces.

President Putin has said the military reform process is necessary to adjust it to Russia's closer cooperation with NATO.

Moscow has established closer ties with the military alliance over the past two years, agreeing to cooperate in counter-terrorism, non-proliferation and peacekeeping operations.

Despite the warmer relations with NATO, the Russian Defense Ministry recently issued a document warning that Russia must adopt what it calls "an offensive doctrine" to counter the alliance's influence. The Defense Ministry often expresses more hard-line views than the Kremlin, but its hostility toward NATO surprised observers and politicians alike. Among those who expressed concern about the Defense Ministry's document is Andrei Kokoshin, who sits on the Russian Duma's Defense and Security Commission.

He spoke at the round-table discussion and says that, in some ways, it appears as if Russia is reverting to a defense doctrine that existed during the Cold War, when, he adds, nuclear weapons were considered a real tool for struggle.

Analyst Goltz says he views the Defense Ministry's new military doctrine as nothing more than political ploy.

"For me, my reading of all these contradictions are that Russian generals badly need some big enemy, some big adversary, in order to keep these Soviet-type armed forces," he said.

Mr. Putin did not comment on the Defense Ministry document directly, but he said Russia reserves the right to develop its own defense potential, especially if the principle of preventive use of force continues to develop in international practice.

President Putin says, to develop Russia's defense potential is to guarantee the nation's sovereignty and security.

Meanwhile, Russia's lower house of parliament, or State Duma, recently began debating legislation making military training mandatory in all elementary schools.

Russian schools abandoned military training after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and, since then, the subject has only been taught on a voluntary basis, and with parents' permission.

President Putin supports the legislation to restore public confidence in the military, but critics view it as yet another step back to the Soviet past.