Courtesy Reuters

Russia's Wounded Military

NOSTALGIA FOR CHECKPOINT CHARLIE

Russia's armed forces, only a few years ago the vaunted Soviet juggernaut, are now in shambles. The failure of Soviet communism and the collapse of the Soviet state have left the Russian high command with immense problems. Strategically, the forces that Russia inherited from the Soviet Union were poorly configured and deployed for the new security landscape. Internally, the economic disintegration of the Soviet Union has radically reduced military spending, leaving the armed forces impoverished with little prospect of near-term relief. Continued deterioration within the ranks has added further humiliation to the bitter memory of the U.S.S.R.'s loss of empire, raising hard questions about whether the resultant disaffection might lead to a military backlash that could end Russia's struggle toward democracy and market reform. Even before the escalation of its misadventure in Chechnya, signs of privation were rampant enough to warrant a characterization of Russia's army as a crumbling giant. This impression has since become widespread among Western observers who, over the past two months, have watched with dismay the ineptitude of Russia's brutal attempt to suppress the Chechen uprising.

The military nonetheless remains a responsible and stabilizing force in Russian society, despite these internal strains and the aggravating factor of Chechnya. It has struggled to stay above politics, with commendable success. It has refused to support power-seekers from within its ranks. In the 1991 and 1993 coup attempts and in Georgia and Latvia during the last two years of Soviet rule, the military bridled at being ordered to use violence against civilians. It is not even remotely enthusiastic about the sordid assignment in Chechnya it was handed by President Boris Yeltsin. Nevertheless, despite repeated past professions of "never again" after such onerous missions, it has been following its orders -- so far.

The United States should show full appreciation and empathy for the Russian military's predicament whenever possible, while making clear what conduct we cannot accept. Despite disarray at all levels, the military remains

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