Iraqi Defeat Jolts Russian Military ; Defense and Policy Experts Said Last Week That Modernizing the Army Is a Top Priority

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In the US's easy defeat of Saddam Hussein's army, Russia sees a lesson for its own conventional forces.

The Iraqi Army - which was cloned from the Red Army in the final decades of the Soviet Union - mounted only a feeble defense before falling apart.

"The key conclusion we must draw from the latest Gulf war is that the obsolete structure of the Russian armed forces has to be urgently changed," says Vladimir Dvorkin, head of the Russian Defense Ministry's official think tank on strategic nuclear policy. "The gap between our capabilities and those of the Americans has been revealed, and it is vast. We are very lucky that Russia has no major enemies at the moment, but the future is impossible to predict, and we must be ready."

The swift victory by mobile, high-tech American forces over heavily armored Iraqi troops dug in to defend large cities like Baghdad has jolted many Russian military planners. "The Iraqi Army was a replica of the Russian Army, and its defeat was not predicted by our generals," says Vitaly Shlykov, a former deputy defense minister of Russia.

Like its Soviet prototype, Iraq's Army was huge but made up mainly of young, poorly trained conscripts. Its battle tactics called for broad frontal warfare, with massed armor and artillery, and a highly centralized command structure. But those forces were trounced in a few days by relatively small numbers of US and British forces, who punched holes in the Iraqi front using precision weapons and seized the country's power centers more rapidly than traditional military thinkers could have imagined. "The military paradigm has changed, and luckily we didn't have to learn that lesson firsthand," says Yevgeny Pashentsev, author of a book on Russian military reform. "The Americans have rewritten the textbook, and every country had better take note."

Last week, the independent Council on Foreign and Defense Policy - a group of top Russian military experts and former policymakers, including Mr. Shlykov - met to assess the implications of the US triumph in Iraq for Russia. Their conclusion: The Kremlin must drop all post-Soviet pretense that Russia remains a superpower, and make rebuilding and redesigning the nation's military forces a top priority. "We cannot afford to postpone this any longer," Boris Nemtsov, head of the liberal Union of Right Forces, told the meeting.

Twelve years after the USSR's collapse, the most unreformed branch of Russian society remains its armed forces. Though its numbers have been halved to about 1.2 million personnel, and its annual budget has dropped to a mere $10 billion, the structure, weaponry, and doctrines of today's Russian military remain those of its Soviet predecessor. Each Russian defense minister since 1991 has pledged sweeping reform, yet more than half of the Army's combat forces remain ill-trained conscripts required to serve for two years for just 100 rubles ($3) a month. Aside from the strategic nuclear forces, no branch of the Russian military has acquired significant quantities of modern weaponry in more than a decade.

According to a Defense Ministry survey in early 2003, cited in the daily Izvestia, more than a third of Russian officers and their families live below the poverty line, and fewer than half of the officers want to remain in the service. …