WSJ: Chaos in the barracks
- 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
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
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.