Under Sergey Shoygu, the Russian MOD has pretty much accomplished two things.
First, it has generally improved service conditions for the average officer and soldier. More money is available for this purpose than at any time since 1992. It is financing military construction on a broad front.
Second, it has conducted a concerted and successful campaign to suppress almost all negative information about the armed forces. It has driven once vigorous Russian military journalism to its lowest ebb. It’s no surprise since President Vladimir Putin has done the same to civilian journalism.
Still, a Gazeta.ru piece by Vladimir Vashchenko from 29 September is reminiscent of the best in Russian military journalism.
Vashchenko writes (not for the first time) about v / ch 54046 — the 9th Independent Motorized Rifle Visla Red Banner Order of Suvorov Brigade. The 9th IMRB for short.
Recall that the 9th IMRB — along with the rest of the 20th CAA — is relocating from Nizhegorod to Boguchar in Voronezh Oblast. Boguchar wasn’t picked out of a hat. It’s a strategic point on today’s map. For Russia, it’s the frontline of the war in eastern Ukraine.
The 9th adds significant ground power to Russian forces near pro-Moscow Lugansk.
Vashchenko writes about the deaths of several of soldiers in the brigade over recent months.
On 24 September, a 35-year-old contractee killed himself. He was an infantryman from the 2nd Battalion. His suicide was precipitated primarily by family problems.
Earlier in September, another serviceman died after a fight with some locals, according to official reports, but a source tells Vashchenko he was run over by an officer driving under the influence.
In April, a conscript died just 23 days before his demob date. With no evidence of a crime, his death isn’t being investigated.
Another conscript died in the spring of last year, but Vashchenko could unearth no details about what happened.
Vashchenko writes that social networks of mothers with conscript sons report Boguchar has a bad reputation as a formation where officers extort money from their young charges.
The author talked to several men who serve, or served, in the brigade. Some came to him after reading his August story about Boguchar.
One told of sleeping two men to a couch because of the lack of proper bunks. He also had to buy his own uniforms. A friend in his unit had to pay to go to the infirmary about a problem with his knees.
An emotional ex-soldier told Vashchenko, “It’s a ‘hole,’ not a unit!”
Another claimed the brigade keeps two sets of medical records. One for inspections indicating all soldiers are perfectly healthy, and a second set detailing their true maladies.
He told Vashchenko that anti-terrorist drills in the brigade were a joke. Its perimeter was porous, and it never passed. A man acting the part of suicide bomber walked around the brigade and could have “exploded” several times.
He said the brigade’s command made sure to intimidate the troops before inspections to ensure none would tell their guests about real conditions in the formation.
He said officers looked at soldiers like cattle, cattle that gave them money once a month. Soldiers were abused if they didn’t pay “for the company’s needs” on time. They even had to pay 500 rubles to receive their demob.
The command used certain soldiers to “supervise” others and keep them in line. One group were troops from the material support battalion. They ran the brigade’s canteen which was really a mobile “trading post” for the financial benefit of unit commanders.
Vashchenko’s interlocutor says his service in Boguchar dissuaded him from signing up as a contractee. He sums it up:
“I believe the army certainly has to be harsh, at times even cruel, just not like there. You know under pain of death I wouldn’t go into battle or on reconnaissance with a single one of our officers. And this given that I served after getting a higher education, but imagine what happens with kids of 18 who don’t yet have a strong psyche. To me the army and conditions like Boguchar turn little boys not into real men but into scum and vermin that follow a one-way road — prison, alcoholism or drug addiction.”
Vashchenko also talked to Valentina Melnikova, head of the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees of Russia. She traveled recently to Boguchar and called the situation “monstrous” with men living in tents and 4,000 personnel relying on a single water source. But she hasn’t received complaints about abuses in the brigade.
A Different Take
On Topwar.ru, Roman Skomorokhov offered a spirited refutation of Vashchenko’s article on the 9th IMRB. He writes that he visited the brigade six weeks ago. According to him, Vashchenko simply repeats lies and throws mud on the army.
Skomorokhov claims security is good, and it’s not possible for an intruder to wander around the base. Conditions are not ideal, he admits, but it’s not like the 1990s. Boguchar is a hardship post at the moment, but one that is vitally needed to defend Russia’s southwestern frontier.
Moreover, Skomorokhov says, those now living in tents will be housed in newly-built barracks before winter.
There are injuries and deaths (outside of combat or training) and crimes in every army. So what’s different about the Russian case?
The difference is a pervasive effort to suppress reporting of such incidents, or explain them away if they do make it into the news. Considerably more energy is expended on this now than ten years ago.
The brigade wants to keep incidents in the brigade. The military district wants to keep them in the district. The MOD wants to keep them in the MOD. The Kremlin wants to keep them from gaining traction in the foreign media. Remember the case of Andrey Sychev?
Russians don’t want anyone to think their armed forces are not as modern, not as lethal, not as scary, not as well-financed, or not as orderly as they present them. And this Potemkin village mentality has served them well.
The problem is, when fooling the bosses or the outside world about what is really happening, one also fools oneself. And one is found out eventually.
Look at the Baltic Fleet. Its entire command was purged in June for this reason. The MOD announced that high-ranking fleet officers were dismissed for:
“. . . not taking all essential measures to improve the housing conditions of personnel, the lack of concern about subordinates, and also misrepresentations of the real state of affairs in reports.”
The Kremlin is not stupid. It has always had its own channels of information inside the Russian military. What does it do with what it learns? The Baltic Fleet case might have been nothing more than serving notice on the rest of the military to clean up its act.