Q: Is it correct that Russia spends about 20 percent of its budget on the military? This seems very high, what with the number of social problems in your country. Also, I would enjoy hearing your comments on President Putin’s planned cutbacks in the number of military personnel.
– William Kerr, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
A: This year, we are spending $5 billion on defense. That’s about 18 percent of our budget. The United States spends $267.7 billion on the military; that’s 53 times more than we do. According to my calculation, the United States spends only 7 percent of its budget on the military. I agree, we do have no end of social problems, but what we spend on defense is very little indeed for a huge country like ours.
As for cutbacks, although Russians don’t always agree with President Putin, this time I think we do. By the year 2005, Putin wants to cut the number of people in the military by 600,000 – some 470,000 servicemen and 130,000 civilians. That’s only by 20 percent. Although our armed forces will be 20 percent smaller, he wants them to be better trained, better equipped and better able to do their job. In other words, to be a highly professional fist of steel. The two Chechen wars have shown that there is much room for improvement in our Army. That’s putting it mildly. Just a month ago, Putin addressed a huge audience of generals and said there are countless generals not commanding any branch of the forces but heading endless bureaucratic offices in Moscow. Draw your own conclusions.
Q: I implore you to send us teams of observers in the year 2004 to help ensure a fair and legal election and vote count in the United States.
– Stephen Eschner, Ohio, U.S.
A: Your elections are your business. We can observe, yes, but it is not our business to ensure that they are carried out properly. During your presidential election we did send an observer, the head of our Central Electoral Commission, a very knowing man. He went to observe and maybe to gain some useful pointers, but not to ensure the correctness of your elections. That’s none of our business. Since you brought up the subject, Stephen, to many countries your Electoral College seems not nearly as democratic as a direct vote. I find it difficult to explain to my friends that, in a country with a population of about 270 million, 537 votes may decide who is to be president. Nevertheless, it’s for the United States to decide what kind of electoral system to have. To each his own, as they say.
Q: Are there endangered birds in your country? Also, what is the future of the Russian space program?
– Dennis Roberts, Columbus, Georgia, U.S.
A: Yes, there are over 70 birds in our Red Data Book. Among them are the stork, the bearded vulture, and the beautiful flamingo found in the delta of the Volga. There are also four subspecies of eagles, three subspecies of pelicans and many of various ducks, geese, woodpeckers, six subspecies of cranes, the ibis, some swans and many others too.
Regarding our space program, at the end of February we are going to sink the space station MIR in the South Pacific, it having served us for 15 years. We are part of the International Space Station project, so we’ll be concentrating on that. At present, two of our cosmonauts and one astronaut are up there. We, naturally, will be launching satellites for various purposes. Incidentally, one of our rockets, which recently failed to launch a U.S. satellite, has been serving us faithfully for many years, and 93 percent of its launchings have been successful. A very high percentage by any standards.
Q: Russia stopped Genghis Khan from reaching Western Europe and routed Napoleon and Hitler, stopping them from advancing eastward. Historically, is Russia called upon to put down these movements east and west?
– Fernando Molina, Uppsala, Sweden.
A: Russia is a Eurasian country situated in both Europe and Asia. That’s why it has had to deal with aggression from both sides. Russia has always been able to withstand no end of difficulties, no end of shortcomings. To fight, as guerillas, both Napoleon and then the Nazis. It has always been able to muster its forces and, despite the odds, to overcome the enemy. Believe me, it wasn’t the Russian winter that hurt the Nazis and Napoleon. The battles on the Eastern Front have no equal. In the battle of Kursk during WW II, thousands of tanks on both sides took part. The Nazis were on the outskirts of Moscow and were then pushed back to Berlin. We have defeated the Tartar Mongols in the Battle of Kulikovo, the Swedes at Poltava, and Napoleon at Borodino. I feel Russia can fight for nine rounds and knock the enemy out in the 10th. History has proved this. The nation is tough and can take it.
(Joe Adamov is host of the Voice of Russia radio station’s "Moscow Mailbag" program, from which these letters were taken. E-mail Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org)