THE RUSSIAN MILITARY
Gen. Odom was even more emphatic in
our conversation that while the Russian military is back as a political
force and influence within the political chaos that is Russia these
days, what he wrote in his book is still essentially true.
"The military might be getting a little more money from the Kremlin
these days, but it still has nowhere near the resources it needs
to maintain its present strength [between 1.2 million and 1.4 million
men] as a well-trained, effective fighting force,'' he said. The
generals still resist the kind of systemic reform that would be
necessary to create a solid fighting force because they're content
with the status quo.
In essence, Gen. Odom explained, conscription allows the colonels
and general to use the recruits as serf labor. They not only put
them to work building nice housing and facilities for the officers,
they hire them out to businesses and others who need cheap labor,
pocketing the proceeds. Most recruits are still paid only sporadically
and hardly trained at all, he said. And because of draft dodging,
the number of people in the military is probably noticeably lower
than the official figures.
The Chechen war, Gen. Odom thinks, is more about domestic Russian
politics than anything else. Prime Minister Putin wants a strong
showing for his supporters in next week's elections, and he wants
to become president next year. A winnable war against the hated
Chechens (Gen. Odom is fascinated by the level of hostility toward
Chechnya at all levels of Russian society) is simply good politics.
And since it increases the political influence and prestige of the
military (barring a severe embarrassment) the military is pleased.
"Military strength is relative, of course,'' he reminded me.
In the context of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia or the Baltic countries
the Russian military could probably be a dominating force even now.
It still has plenty of military equipment, and even though most
of it is left over from the Soviet days most of it is serviceable.
And it still has impressive logistical capabilities; it's been able
to move and mobilize men and materiel for the Chechen campaign fairly
impressively. But in its present condition it doesn't present much
of a threat to central Europe.
Let alone to the United States, I would add.
BENIGN NEGLECT TOWARD RUSSIA?
As we continued talking interspersed
with offhand but good-natured remarks from the general about how
naive "you libertarians'' are and how it seems to him that
libertarians are really anarchists who aren't ready to admit it
to themselves we found some agreement on the proper approach
to Russia. In essence, Gen. Odom thinks the United States has paid
too much attention, almost to the point of obsession in the case
of Strobe Talbott, to Russia.
"The important countries in today's world are in Western Europe
and industrialized Asia,'' he said. We should keep our relationships
there strong. But Russia at this stage is a regional power worth
keeping an eye on, but not worth propping up with IMF money, which
probably does more harm than good for ordinary Russians anyway.
("Although, maybe $12 billion a year isn't a bad investment to
keep the country economically weak and politically divided,'' he
said only half jokingly.)
The program to subsidize the decommissioning of Russian nukes, while
well-intentioned, has had perverse effects, he believes. "When
you take the fissile material out of a weapon it makes it much easier
to ship it to some terrorist,'' he says.
I found numerous points of disagreement with Gen. Odom; he thinks
those of us who would just as soon see NATO disappear or be reconstituted
as something different are shortsighted and naive. But he's a well-informed,
thoughtful military man who keeps up on events and views the world
from a realistic sometimes painfully realistic perspective.
And that makes him more interesting than the often naive crusaders
who tend to stumble into imperial adventures out of unfocused and
often woefully ignorant impulses to reform and renew the world whether
it wants to be reformed in our image or not.
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