- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2008

MOSCOW | The Kremlin is grappling with growing opposition in the military to the most sweeping overhaul of Russia’s armed forces in more than a generation.

Retired generals warned Tuesday that reforms aimed at modernizing the 1.1 million-member armed forces are destroying Russia’s military capability and called for Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov to be fired and prosecuted.

The warnings are the most public criticism of the reforms to date and reflect rising anger among uniformed and civilian military officials.

“This isn’t reform. You can’t call the destruction of the army reform,” said retired Col. Vladimir Kvachkov.

Mr. Serdyukov, a former head of the federal tax agency, was appointed defense minister in February 2007 by President Vladimir Putin in what was seen as a move to bring order to military finances and to combat graft.

He has presided over sometimes painful reorganizations that have drawn increasingly loud grumbling from generals upset with initiatives such as selling off lucrative military land, including prime real estate in downtown Moscow, and moving the navy headquarters.

Last month, he announced the most detailed changes yet, cutting hundreds of generals, disbanding nine of every 10 army units and abolishing a balky Soviet-era structure that focused on divisions and regiments in favor of smaller brigades. The number of junior officers, such as lieutenants, will be increased by 10,000 to 60,000.

At a news conference in Moscow, several top retired generals agreed that reforms were needed but argued that Mr. Serdyukov’s plans were destructive.

Retired Gen. Leonid Ivashov, the former head of the Defense Ministry’s international cooperation department, called Mr. Serdyukov “the furniture dealer” — a reference to his past experience running a St. Petersburg furniture retailer — and said he had no authority to carry out the reforms.

Gen. Ivashov accused Mr. Serdyukov of embezzling Defense Ministry funding and called for a criminal investigation of his actions. In the past, he said, Mr. Serdyukov inflicted on the army “more harm than a NATO agent.”

Col. Kvachkov, a former top military intelligence officer, likened Mr. Serdyukov to Anatoly Chubais — the Yeltsin-era official who is reviled by most Russians for overseeing the massive privatization of Russian industry in the 1990s. Col. Kvachkov was acquitted recently in connection with an assassination attempt on Mr. Chubais.

He also suggested that the Kremlin could face open revolt if the reforms are not changed.

“If the current leadership doesn’t want to defend our motherland, then we ourselves will find a way to defend the motherland,” he said. He refused to elaborate.

The reforms come at a delicate time for the Kremlin. Russian national pride has surged amid a decade-long economic boom. Extensive state-run TV coverage of military maneuvers - such as sending long-range bombers on trans-Atlantic missions or a naval flotilla to the Caribbean for exercises - have given Russians renewed confidence in their armed forces.

Pride also has surged in the wake of the August war in the South Caucasus, where Russian troops humiliated Georgia’s U.S.-trained armed forces.

Military observer Alexander Golts said the biggest danger comes from a demobilized officer corps as the officers face bleak job prospects in the deepening economic crisis. He likened the situation to that after World War I, when a defeated Germany and the weak Weimar government gave rise to the Nazis.

“And 100,000 30- to 40-year-old guys, embittered by the government - this is pretty powerful explosive material. The analogy to the Weimar Republic is obvious,” he wrote in a recent online column.

Alexander Konovalov, head of the think tank Institute for Strategic Assessment, praised Mr. Serdyukov for working to streamline the balky and inefficient armed forces. However, he said the failure to discuss the plans with broader public could backfire.

“It’s too dangerous to play games with the military,” Mr. Konovalov said. “They know how to handle weapons, and they could be tempted to use their skills.”

Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.

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