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WSJ: Chaos in the barracks

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  • mariuslab2002
    Chaos in the Barracks By MICHAEL ORR WALL STREET JOURNAL Updated October 4, 2002 The Russian city of Volgograd is better known outside Russia as Stalingrad,
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 5, 2002
      Chaos in the Barracks
      By MICHAEL ORR
      WALL STREET JOURNAL
      Updated October 4, 2002

      The Russian city of Volgograd is better known outside Russia as
      Stalingrad, where 60 years ago the Soviet Army turned the course of
      the war in Europe. The battle showed Russian soldiers and commanders
      at their best. A recent incident at Volgograd equally reveals the
      poor state of the Russian Army today.

      The outline of events is reasonably clear, though some details are
      disputed. An artillery battalion of 20th Guards Motor Rifle Division
      was on a gunnery camp in the Prudboy training area. On the evening of
      Saturday, Sept. 7 some conscripts celebrated their approaching
      demobilization by taking a scout car out of the vehicle park and
      cruising around the area.

      When no one owned up to the incident on parade the next morning, five
      likely suspects were taken into the battalion headquarters tent and
      beaten with spade handles by the battalion's officers, led by Major
      Shiryayev, the chief of staff. Breaking off for dinner, the officers
      told the rest of the unit that they would get the same treatment
      until the culprits were named. Knowing from previous experience that
      this was no empty threat, 54 NCOs and privates formed a column and
      marched almost 20 miles down the main road to their divisional
      headquarters in Volgograd.

      They arrived on Monday evening but instead of reporting directly to
      the military authorities, they went to the offices of the "Maternal
      Right" committee, one of the network of soldiers' mothers committees
      which are among the most influential civil-rights organizations in
      modern Russia. In the middle of the night, the conscripts were taken
      away to barracks. But it was too late to hush up the incident.
      The "Maternal Right" committee had contacted their lawyers and the
      local newspapers and the next day the story was national news.

      The Volgograd incident reveals the extent to which relations between
      soldiers and officers in Russia's military today has broken down. As
      a result the military has lost its ability to function effectively.
      It is claimed that there are about 5,000 noncombat deaths in the
      Russian armed forces each year. Some of these soldiers are bullied to
      death in barracks or kill themselves to escape the abuse, but most
      die in accidents. Some generals say that up to 80% of combat
      casualties in Chechnya are also caused by carelessness and poor
      training. But whether abuse or carelessness is too blame, this
      appalling casualty list reflects the collapse of the bonds of
      discipline, leadership and comradeship that normally hold an army
      together.

      Reform of the Russian armed forces tends to be discussed in terms of
      large organizational projects, such as altering the command structure
      or changing from conscription to voluntary military service. Too
      often the human issues that will actually determine whether these
      programs succeed or fail are forgotten. The "Soldiers' March to
      Volgograd" is a warning that real reform has been delayed for too
      long and may now be impossible.

      The sad truth is that the Russian armed forces no longer have a
      working professional ethos. Most officers do not care about their
      soldiers' welfare, soldiers feel neither loyalty nor respect for such
      leaders and so discipline becomes a matter of fists and spade
      handles. Nearly 90% of Russian youth evades military service for one
      reason or another. The 12% who do serve are not the best educated or
      behaved; alcohol, drugs and social problems are commonplace. Officers
      long ago gave up trying to control behavior in barracks and there is
      no professional NCO cadre to mediate between soldier and officer.
      Often when Russian soldiers go AWOL they take a weapon with them,
      leading to another suicide or a shooting spree in the local town.

      It would not be fair simply to blame the junior and middle-ranking
      officers for this state of affairs. They are also victims of the
      system. It is significant that this "strike" happened in the 20th
      Guards Motor Rifle Division, which was part of the esteemed 8th
      Guards Army during the Cold War. As an elite formation, it was
      equipped with the latest weapons and fully manned with the best
      recruits. In the last decade, it has returned to improvised quarters
      and a high proportion of its officers still have no real home for
      their families. Their pay barely puts them above the poverty line but
      they have fought in both Chechen wars. It is not surprising that most
      of the best officers leave the army, either for one of the better-
      paid security forces or for the competitive opportunities of the new
      economy.

      These problems have received a good deal of press coverage in Russia,
      but talk of reform has not led to action. Former President Boris
      Yeltsin vowed to professionalize the armed forces, but left them
      unchanged. President Vladimir Putin has made similar noises but is
      facing resistance. Last autumn he ordered an end to conscription but
      was persuaded to accept the General Staff's recommendation of a long
      transition period. Like all their plans for reform, it falls into
      three parts -- a preparatory stage lasting a year or so, an
      experimental phase lasting three to five years and then final
      implementation, by which time the generals hope the political
      directive will have been changed.

      Some senior officers profit from the current system, by taking bribes
      from contractors and siphoning off resources. But in many ways, it is
      those who are not corrupt who are the greater problem.

      The present military hierarchy graduated from military academies in
      the Soviet era. They received excellent technical training, but they
      were not educated to think about their profession's place in society
      or the wider world. The phrase "resource constraints" had no place in
      the academy glossary. Russian generals understand how to operate a
      super-power's armed forces but that sort of defense budget can only
      be justified by a threat on the same scale. To see the U.S. and NATO
      as partners would be to acknowledge that the current force structure
      is excessive and unnecessary.

      Over the next year President Putin faces a critical political choice.
      The generals and the leaders of the other security ministries who
      helped him win the presidency are inflating the costs of introducing
      a professional army in order to delay reform. Moreover they can
      neither win the war in Chechnya nor withdraw without sacrificing
      their remaining prestige. But two-thirds of civilian voters want a
      professional army and support for the Chechen War is decreasing.

      If Mr. Putin decides to break away from his former colleagues in the
      security apparatus to ensure popular support, he will need to
      engineer wide-scale personnel changes. After the Vietnam War America
      had military leaders such as Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell who
      sought to rebuild the American army and its relationship with
      society. Mr. Putin has to rely on officers like Major Shiryayev in
      Volgograd. As long as they are running Russia's armed forces, the
      situation can only grow worse.

      Mr. Orr is a senior lecturer at the Conflict Studies Research Centre
      of the Defense Academy of the U.K. The opinions expressed in the
      article are his own.
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