Putin under fire over cuts in armed forces
VLADIMIR Putin is facing an unprecedented military challenge to his authority as discontent grows over poor conditions and planned personnel cuts in the Russian armed forces.
A growing number of disgruntled servicemen, including senior officers, are making contact with Russian opposition groups for the first time since Mr Putin came to power in 2000.
The prospect of losing the unwavering support of the 1.2million-strong armed forces is causing alarm in the Kremlin at a time when the Russian prime minister is already looking vulnerable.
Simmering public anger over the government's handling of the stalling economy has triggered the first protests demanding Mr Putin's resignation.
Military disquiet could become significant in a behind-the-scenes power struggle at the Kremlin, where there is a widening rift between Mr Putin and his one-time protege, President Dmitry Medvedev.
Resentment within the armed forces is brewing after the government unveiled plans to sack 200,000 officers, including more than 200 generals and 15,000 colonels.
Worryingly for Mr Putin, the officer ranks have powerful supporters in a Kremlin faction dominated by ex-military and intelligence officials.
For nine years, Mr Putin enjoyed the full backing of the Russian military, having poured money into the armed forces.
The former KGB officer, who appears to be attempting to shift the blame for the military reforms on to his defence minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, has almost quadrupled the defence budget to €25bn this year.
He has also unveiled plans for an additional €148bn spending on the military over the next decade. But Mr Putin faces the prospect of 200,000 embittered ex-officers on the street, who could form a powerful kernel of opposition against him.
Opposition parties say that a number of senior military figures have approached them with tacit messages of support.
The feeling of discontent is even deeper in the non-commissioned ranks, who complain of appalling conditions in their barracks. (©Daily Telegraph, London)