Daily Archives: April 20, 2011

Russia’s Fading Army Fights Losing Battle to Reform Itself

A very good article by the Wall Street Journal’s Richard Boudreaux . . . though missing a few of the most up-to-date pieces of the story, his report captures important aspects of the Russian contract service experiment that even so-called specialists overlook.

“VOLGOGRAD, Russia—Sergei Fetisov, a 23-year-old welder, signed on for one of the most ambitious projects in Vladimir Putin’s Russia: rebuilding the remains of the once-mighty Soviet Red Army.”

“A cornerstone of that effort was the creation of special combat-ready units staffed entirely by professional soldiers, not conscripts.  Mr. Fetisov volunteered to be one of them.  He enlisted for a renewable three-year stint, enticed by higher pay and the chance to learn new skills.”

“One of his first tasks, he recalls, was toiling past midnight shoveling snow and ice from a football-field-size parade ground.  The work that followed was menial, humiliating and of little practical use, he says.  Combat training consisted of two firing exercises a year, he says, and a chunk of his paycheck was routinely withheld by corrupt officers.”

“‘When I realized that being a professional soldier was just the same as serving as a conscript, I wanted to tear up my contract and get out of there,’ he says.  He quit when his commitment ended in July, he says, ‘but we had guys who simply ran away.’”

“With volunteers like Mr. Fetisov leaving in droves, the Defense Ministry has abandoned the initiative altogether.  The program’s failure shows the limits of Mr. Putin’s grand plan to transform the army from a cumbersome machine designed for European land war into a lithe force capable of fighting regional wars and terrorism.”

“Russia’s struggle to rebuild its armed forces comes as the world’s military balance is in flux.”

“Two decades after the Cold War ended, China is engaged in a military buildup that has many of its neighbors, including Russia, scrambling to bolster their defenses.  The U.S., still the world’s dominant military power, is trying to rein in defense spending—while simultaneously keeping a wary eye on China, projecting power in the volatile Middle East and dealing with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s persistent concerns about Moscow.”

“Currently, Russia is at odds with NATO’s air assault in Libya. Moscow has stayed out of the military conflict, despite its stakes in weapons deals and oil-exploration ventures with Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.  But Mr. Putin said last month that the bombing in Libya is part of a ‘steady trend’ of U.S. military intervention around the world and ‘a timely indicator that our efforts to strengthen [Russia's] defense are justified.’”

“In February, Russia outlined a $650 billion plan to acquire new warplanes, ships, missiles and other arms over the next decade, the Kremlin’s biggest spending spree since the Cold War.”

“Mr. Fetisov’s account of poor morale in the army’s ranks, however, raises questions about Russia’s long-term ability to assert power abroad.”

“The Defense Ministry declined to comment on Mr. Fetisov’s complaints, but has acknowledged that widespread discontent among volunteers undermined its enlistment campaign.  Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has said that the program had been poorly managed and would cost too much to fix.”

“‘We cannot afford to create a fully professional army,’ he said in October.  ‘If we save funds elsewhere, we will certainly go back to this idea, but well prepared.’”

“The setback has the Kremlin in a bind.  Counting on volunteers to make up nearly half of all soldiers, Mr. Putin had bowed to public sentiment and shortened the draft from two years to one.  Now, the dearth of volunteers and a drop in Russia’s draft-age population have prompted the Defense Ministry to cancel some deferments and step up conscription of men 18 and older, risking discontent over a twice-yearly ritual that began anew on April 1 and is widely evaded.”

“Russia relies mainly on its nuclear arsenal to project power and protect its territory.  Tensions with the West have eased, but Mr. Putin sought a revival of conventional forces, which had been weakened by budget cuts, to put muscle behind his push for influence in former Soviet republics that are now independent.”

“The army’s decline became evident in the mid-1990s with its battering by separatist rebels in Chechnya.  The land, air and naval forces Mr. Putin inherited when he became president in 2000 were a pale shadow of the Red Army, five million strong at the time of the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991.  They stand at one-fifth that size today.”

“Under the enlistment program, launched in 2004, officers were to train volunteers as career specialists and make the new combat-ready units fully operational by 2010.  The shift to professional soldiers was supposed to better enable the army to operate the high-tech weaponry Russia plans to acquire.”

“The U.S. abolished the draft in 1973, attracting volunteers through advertising, pay increases, educational benefits and re-enlistment bonuses.  By the time of the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the move was widely viewed as a success.”

“Russia’s campaign to attract volunteers, by contrast, was not as well funded or advertised.  By 2008, the army said it had signed up 99,000 volunteers for the new units, about 40,000 short of the goal.”

“Then the number began a sharp decline as most of them chose not to re-enlist or went AWOL.  That trend was evident during Russia’s clumsy but ultimately successful invasion that year of neighboring Georgia.  Conscripts were sent to fight and die there, despite Mr. Putin’s promise that only professionals would serve in hot spots.”

“Despite the shortage of volunteers, Mr. Serdyukov, the defense minister, announced at the end of 2009 that Russia’s ground forces had been reorganized into 85 brigades of ‘permanent combat readiness,’ doing away with bulkier divisions and making the army more mobile.  Only later did officials acknowledge that the brigades were made up mostly of one-year conscripts, men with few combat skills.”

“The enlistment drive’s failure puts constraints on Russia’s reach.  When ethnic rioting in June threatened to tear Kyrgyzstan apart, its president appealed for Russian peacekeepers, the kind of force Moscow once deployed routinely as a political tool.  This time the Kremlin demurred—in part, defense analysts say, because the army couldn’t spare a full brigade of professional soldiers.”

“Democratic reformers have lobbied for years to end the draft, arguing that a smaller, professionalized force could better defend the nation’s interests.  Opinion polls show majority support for the idea, and Mr. Putin endorsed it early in his presidency.”

“But tradition-bound generals favored keeping a large conscript army. Mr. Putin opted in 2003 for a compromise:  The Defense Ministry would continue to draft, but also would start recruiting for the combat units.  The government budgeted $3.3 billion for higher pay and better housing for volunteers.”

“By the time Mr. Fetisov received a draft notice four years later, the plan was faltering.  Recruiting stations, unaccustomed to any task other than rounding up draft-age men, were given no blueprint for luring volunteers.”

“The army was a tough sell, too.  Salaries for contract soldiers averaged $270 per month at the end of 2007, about half the average salary for civilians.  Housing construction at bases fell behind schedule.  Residential buildings paid for by the military were turned over without running water, plumbing or electrical wiring, government auditors reported.”

“Mr. Fetisov, who has dyed-blond hair and a passion for video games, had no interest in leaving his $370-a-month welding job.  He lived with his mother and two brothers in Volgograd, a ‘hero city’ once named Stalingrad and famed for resisting the Nazis in World War II, but he wasn’t attracted to military life.”

“Once he was drafted, however, an army contract seemed to offer advantages.  Draftees at the time served 18 months, earning next to nothing.  But they had the option to go professional six months after induction.  Mr. Fetisov, who says he was offered $400 a month, thought a contract would raise his status in the army and enable him to master new skills.”

“He reported to the 99th Artillery Regiment’s base near Nizhny Novgorod in November 2007.”

“His disillusionment began with midnight snow-shoveling duty.  ‘We worked in cleaning, construction, regular things, not serving as soldiers,’ he says.  ‘We didn’t do anything that would help us in a combat situation.’”

“Mr. Fetisov and others who served in recent years say the army’s search for contract servicemen centered exclusively on draftees already under its control.”

“The 99th Artillery, for example, had 600 volunteers on three-year contracts, including Mr. Fetisov, and 300 draftees.  Officers were under instruction to recruit as many new volunteers as possible.”

“Mr. Fetisov says they resorted to an unusual recruiting technique:  Nearly every night at 11 that first winter, conscripts were mustered on the parade ground and made to stand in formation for hours, facing superiors who sometimes were drunk.”

“‘Finally an officer would say, ‘Those willing to sign contracts, you’re dismissed.  The rest of you, stay at attention,’‘ Mr. Fetisov recalls.  ‘A personnel officer would tell stories about the great treatment contract soldiers get.’”

“‘They had to stand there in the cold until at least two or three men agreed to sign,’ Mr. Fetisov says.  ‘This went on for weeks, but they never got 100%’ of the regiment on contract.”

“Volunteers under contract lived three to a room in new barracks with televisions and DVD players.  Conscripts slept in bunk beds, 20 to a room.”

“Beyond that, the distinction seemed to blur.  Volunteers and conscripts alike were treated harshly, Mr. Fetisov says.  Sometimes a soldier who broke disciplinary rules was ordered to dig a deep pit and stay inside for days, he says.”

“His accounts were corroborated by two other contract soldiers, Artyom Pugach and Denis Pushkin, who served at the base and were interviewed separately.”

“The three soldiers say they experienced arbitrary deductions from their paychecks of $20 to $135 a month for what they say an officer described as ‘needs of the regiment.’  Some contract soldiers had to forfeit their final month’s pay in exchange for discharge papers, says Mr. Pushkin.”

“A 2008 study by Citizen and Army, a Russian human-rights group, said such deductions were widespread, amounting to large-scale misappropriation.  Mr. Fetisov says his commander had leeway with payroll money because his contract, like many others, didn’t state the salary he was promised.  He says the commander threatened to punish anyone who challenged the cuts.”

“‘We were told there were some financial difficulties with the military reform,’ he says.  ‘But we could see that the commanders got new cars.…We saw what they were driving, and it was clear what was being spent on what.’”

“Crime and coercion plagued other volunteer units.  Police in Russia’s Far East broke up gangs that extorted cash from soldiers on paydays at three bases.”

“In Kaliningrad, a military prosecutor’s inquiry led to the annulment in 2006 of 83 contracts signed under pressure, according to that city’s chapter of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, an advocacy group.  Elsewhere, commanders of soldiers who went AWOL kept them on the roster, pocketing their salaries, says Alexander Golts, a military specialist and deputy editor of Yezhedevny Zhurnal, an online Russian publication.”

“In 2009, Mr. Fetisov was among 160 soldiers sent to form the all-volunteer artillery battalion of the new 6th Specialized Tank Brigade.  There, he says, he injured his hand badly while cleaning the artillery barrel of a tank, and army doctors neglected it.  When his three-year contract came up for renewal, Mr. Fetisov bailed out.  At the time, he says, only 10 volunteers remained of the 160.  The rest had been replaced by draftees.”

“‘The army ran out of fools,’ his mother, Tatyana Fetisova, said recently as she listened to her son tell his story.”

“And so it went at bases across Russia.  The exodus left a handful of all-volunteer units, staffed by a few thousand contract soldiers, in an army made up overwhelmingly of conscripts, say defense officials and independent observers.”

“‘It’s no secret how the contract service was implemented,’ Mr. Serdyukov, the defense minister, told news magazine Odnako.  ‘Active duty soldiers were induced to sign contracts by all means.  Their [low] monthly salary and standard barracks life made them quit the armed forces as early as possible.  There was no systematic preparation of military specialists.’”

“Mr. Serdyukov, a former business executive close to Mr. Putin, was appointed during the enlistment effort and felt cheated by officers who resisted or mismanaged it, says Vitaly Shlykov, a retired colonel who advises him.  The minister, he says, concluded that Russia must change the culture of its officer corps before trying to switch to a professional army.”

“Backed by Mr. Putin and the current president, Dmitry Medvedev, Mr. Serdyukov is slashing the number of officers and changing the way new ones are educated.  He is training Russia’s first corps of career sergeants since the czarist era, starting with a class of 300.”

“But those leaders will take a generation to develop, Mr. Shlykov says, and meanwhile ‘Russia will have a conscription army for years to come.’”

“That is bad news for Russia, says Mr. Fetisov, the former enlistee, but at least those who serve will do so with fewer illusions.”

“‘Now everybody knows you just put up with a year of hell,’ he says, ‘and then you’re free.’”