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Boston Globe, May 9, 2003

Russia reexamining its military

By David Filipov

MOSCOW -- The rapid disintegration of Saddam Hussein's Soviet-style army has offered some sobering lessons for the future of Russia's military, itself a crumbling ruin of the mighty force that once defended the USSR.

Today, as millions of Russians celebrate Victory Day, their attention will be focused squarely on the past: The Red Army's defeat of Nazi Germany 58 years ago. The most popular Russian holiday, it commemorates the Soviets' finest hour. It's also a chance for Russia's military leaders to show their readiness to defend the country.

But a growing number of military observers here say the generals are living in the past. They say that Russia's army is disintegrating by the day, bogged down in a costly conflict in Chechnya, manned by dispirited draftees, armed with Cold War-era weapons, and led by commanders whose concept of Russia's national security is no less outdated.

President Vladimir V. Putin has ordered the transformation of his 1.1-million-man military into a smaller, better-equipped, professional army to meet 21st century threats.

But the generals have resisted rapid change, and the Russian Army today is merely a stripped down, impoverished version of what it has been for decades -- a massive, unwieldy conscript force built for 20th century battles on the plains of Europe, with too many generals and not enough battle-ready troops.

Advocates of a Russian volunteer army say the swift defeat by US-led forces of Hussein's military -- described by a senior American official in Moscow recently as a "miniature version of the Russian Army" -- drew attention to the weakness of Moscow's own forces.

"The Iraqi war has proven once again that a volunteer contract force equipped with state-of-the art weapons and using modern tactics can fulfill any task," said Russian lawmaker Alexei Arbatov, a retired lieutenant colonel.

Some Russian observers see in Iraq's defeat echoes of their own army: inadequately trained troops, poor coordination among units, a rigid and technologically outdated command control system, badly maintained equipment, and low morale.

"Go on the street and ask who is ready to defend [Russia] and you will immediately see unpleasant parallels [with Iraq]," retired general and Russian lawmaker Andrei Nikolayev said last month. "The outcome of a war depends on army's morale."

But Nikolayev, like other Russian generals, insists that defending this huge nation requires a large reserve force, "which can only be raised by conscription."

Some Russian generals had predicted that the US assault on Baghdad would be as difficult and costly as the Russian Army's two campaigns in Chechnya, which have claimed at least 5,000 soldiers' lives.

Instead, they saw Iraqi soldiers, demoralized, hungry, and unwilling to fight a fast-moving and vastly technologically superior foe, deserting their posts en masse. That image is mirrored every week in Russia, where dispirited draftees flee their units by the dozen, escaping not an invading army but brutal hazing and miserable conditions.

In an event that cast a shadow over Victory Day celebrations, Private Erdem Tsyrenov deserted his post at a weapons dump in Siberia yesterday with his AK-47 rifle. He was later found dead in an apparent suicide, military officials said.

Tsyrenov's story is not an isolated case. Soldiers' advocacy groups suggest over 300 recruits committed suicide and possibly several thousand died last year from beatings and institutional hazing of new recruits by older servicemen. Alexander Savenkov, Russia's chief military prosecutor, said Tuesday that more than 300 officers were convicted and 2,000 soldiers faced charges in 2002 for beating subordinates.

Many draft-age men pay bribes of up to $5,000 to avoid conscription. Many others who can't pay their way out of service desert their posts.

On Wednesday in Moscow, a 20-year-old draftee seized a truck and led dozens of police cars on a high-speed chase through Moscow before officers stopped him by firing rounds into the tires. The soldier, Sergei Zaletayev, said abuse by his commanding officer forced him to flee his unit south of Moscow. On Sunday in the southern Russian region of North Ossetia, which borders Chechnya, 14 soldiers left their unit to report rampant hazing.

Since 1991, the Russian Army's annual budget has dropped to $10 billion from $155 billion. Only Russia's strategic nuclear forces have updated their weaponry in the last decade. The lack of funding has grounded aircraft, left much of the Navy to rust in port, and forced poorly trained draftees to man combat units, despite the promises of Russian defense ministers since 1991 to bring change.

"No one wants to serve in our army," said Boris Nemtsov, leader of a reformist political party that proposed a switch to a professional army within three years. "We cannot afford to postpone this any longer."

But on April 24 Putin's Cabinet chose instead to back the vision of the current defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, of an incremental switchover to a volunteer service.

The plan would replace draftees in 209 combat units with 170,000 professional soldiers by 2008. Only later would military leaders consider reducing the term of compulsory military service from two years to 12 months. The plan would cost $4.34 billion, most of which would be spent on repairing military barracks and paying salaries.

Nemtsov said the government has made it clear it could not provide the funding demanded by the generals, who threaten to derail their plan. He and other critics warn against allowing the generals to conduct their own reforms, citing rampant financial abuses. The military prosecutor's office said 500 officers had been charged with corruption last year.

Other critics say the military's idea of reform misses the point.

"Our military leaders cannot even imagine that two divisions can take Baghdad practically without losses," commented Alexander Golts, military analyst for the weekly magazine Zhurnal.

The American military's easy victory in Iraq has caused the military brass and political elite to do some soul-searching. But the generals are caught up in Cold War-style analysis of the US capabilities rather than applying the lessons of Iraq to their own military, said Celeste Wallander, a specialist on the Russian military at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Russians will not be able to see the need for reform until they "give up the US [and NATO] as a primary military threat," Wallander said.


See also:

Situation Around Iraq

The Russian Army

Boston Globe, May 9, 2003

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