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Armed forces are in sorry state, Russian premier says

MOSCOW -- Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, in one of the blackest assessments of Russia's armed forces yet, said on Thursday the army and defense sector were in a "catastrophic" state.

He told a Cabinet meeting the armed forces would need more funding in next year's budget and extra cash to help cover the costs of participating in a Kosovo peacekeeping force."The armed forces are in a catastrophic state. The military industrial complex and the army are barely able to survive," the prime minister said. "We should take this factor into account when planning next year's budget."

Stepashin's comments were a clear pitch at the State Duma lower house of parliament, where many opposition deputies openly lament the shrinking of the vast Soviet-era military machine into a demoralized, underfunded force of some 1.2 million men.

Stepashin, a former interior minister whose father served in the Soviet navy, needs Duma support for a package of laws that would unlock fresh loans from the International Monetary Fund to help Russia's battered economy. He has threatened to call a vote of confidence if the Duma rejects the laws.

The prime minister's remarks also came as U.S. and Russian military officials were discussing Russia's participation in a peacekeeping force for Kosovo.

Russia, which is prepared to send around 2,500 men, wants the peacekeeping operation in the Yugoslav province to be firmly under a U.N. rather than NATO umbrella for political reasons but also because this would mean U.N. funding.

But either way Moscow would still need to stump up millions of dollars itself, and it is apparent to all -- inside and outside the military -- that the funds are simply not there.