Russia's Army Waits for Reforms, Its Potential Waning

In Russia, the problem of her armed forces has long since become one of the most urgent and hard to resolve. The giant army is a vestige of the epoch of imperial grandness. This heritage, besides machinery and the number of servicemen, includes all the long history full of feats and victories. And the greater are those the bitterer is today's decay and humiliation. So what exactly is happening? There is a lot of talk today as to what kind of army we need and what for as well as who should serve, how and how long. How those who opt for alternative service should prove their pacifist convictions? Where the money to pay for all the reforms should come from? Not too many ask what if anything at all we can do with the army we have on our hands. While being distracted by particulars, such as older soldiers terrorising greenhorn draftees or frequent desertions, not too many notice that a very special system of relationships has formed in the army - between people or rather between ranks, between those above and those below. We are not talking here about the principles of authority very natural in an army and sanctified by law. Besides the official system, often totally ineffective and therefore idling, there is a certain informal system of relationships there. This system most often proves too hard for a young officer trying to reform the army from the bottom to do anything about. His enthusiasm is doomed and lasts no longer than a couple of years. Those who find themselves inside the system, even if luckily they are not brutalised and stay out of Chechnya, change fast. To survive in a system one must live by its rules.

In the army, the vertical of authority works in a simple way and consequently without fail. Reprimands descend the staircase of ranks. The wave of aggression moves downwards, from the Minister of Defence to a private, always one way. At the bottom, aggression accumulates, then splashes out in senseless brutalities, suicides and murders committed by deserters. In practical military management, there is a fallacious stereotype. It is believed that punishment is always more effective than encouragement. If a task is not fulfilled, a punishment follows. If it is fulfilled, then why not completely? If it is fulfilled completely, then why not 200%? A punishment follows. Everyone believes the next one, if punished, will do better next time. Yet somehow, this does not work.

In the Soviet Union, the army had one more - 'social' - function. It projected military uniformity on the society at large by making incomplete 'blanks' into fully formed Soviet citizens prepared, when commanded, to run and do whatever. The complaints about the disappearance of the military-patriotic system from school education are nothing if not nostalgia for that uniformity. For many, stability and uniformity are related, if not identical.

The first of April is at hand. I am not referring to the Fool's Day. The irony is rather sad, yet it is also the first day of the spring draft. Everyone knows how it goes. It is simply a round-up of anyone who looks of the right age. Reports as to the dragnet of the draft always bringing in a certain number of the handicapped, militia personnel or students who have the right for deferment, sound like jokes no one laughs at, yet everyone easily believes. ('What are you showing me that student's ID for? Give me a pencil, I'll make you one like that in 30 minutes!').

The General Staff's dissatisfaction with draft results is traditional. There are too many sick and too many students. The brass say the situation forces them to draft young people whose health is substandard. Yet the overall weakening of public health is no reason to lower health standards for draftees. There being enough malingerers, a considerable number of soldiers, some say up to 25%, get early discharge for medical reasons. That a healthy man is likely to become chronically ill while in the army is no secret. Finally, that in the army both simulated and real health problems are often just shrugged off is not a novelty brought by the times but rather a 'good old tradition'.

The complaints of the military brass that the only draftees available are the uneducated, dumb and crippled are ridiculous because they have created the system with their own hands. Their wish to have highly skilled and educated slaves is doubly puzzling. However, who says the uneducated and dumb young must become slaves? Recently a radical solution of the problem of the shortage of draftees was suggested. It was suddenly revealed that there were 'needed' and 'unnecessary' civil professions. Those students of state higher schools who unwittingly major in 'unnecessary' disciplines are supposed to be immediately drafted.

Strictly speaking, the lack of wish to be drafted into the army does not belong to Russia alone. The problems of the army are not the only reason for that. No one wants a spell of hard labour under strict military discipline. In 2001, in well-to-do Germany, where the tour of military duty does not exceed 10 months and everyone serves near or in his hometown, 170,000 young people refused to serve in the military, opting for civil service instead. Some young Germans say, 'All I learned in the army was drinking smoking and using profane language'. Of course, this is not entirely true. Serving in Bundeswehr, one can get trained in a profession and obtain a drivers licence free of charge while receiving a not so bad monthly pay and never being brutalised or going hungry.

Yet today the choice between either being drafted or serving under contract is looked at from a different angle.

Many professionals believe draft must be done away with, if the defence capability of the country is to be preserved and the army is to remain battle-ready. The principle once formulated by Generalissimo Alexander Suvorov to the effect that wars must be won not by numbers but by skills does not just outline one of several alternatives. It points to the only way to survive. In his article published in the Russian Journal magazine, Ruslan Pukhov, a military analyst, the Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, wrote, 'Russia can no longer be saved by a degenerate crowd in uniforms'. The necessity of the introduction of contemporary weaponry, including computerised individual arms, if this ever happens at all, forces one to think hard if we are prepared to entrust the most sophisticated military technologies to the uneducated and dumb.

The transition of the army to contract service is the reason for quite justified worries of financial nature. I have no idea how the General Staff ever arrived at that fully accomplished, this transition will require at least doubling the military budget. What should be looked at closely are the ways military personnel are used at this time.

Everyone knows what kind of work soldiers do. They dig, paint or build. Of course, this is also important, yet should we get surprised that during his two years of service the average soldier hardly learns anything useful outside of the virtuoso use of certain lexical units of the Russian language. What the military say about the impossibility of training a soldier within 6 months does not make sense because soldiers are simply not trained. Actually, what we have in our country is a legalised form of slavery, which enables such a gigantic clumsy system as the army to somehow continue existing. I wonder if anyone ever tried to evaluate the quantity of product produced by soldiers, unrecorded and unpaid for.

However, The Union of Right Forces party suggests the most radical project of reforming the army based on different calculations showing that transition to serving under contract should not result in any drastic increase in military spending. Yegor Gaidar says it would require just about $42 additional million in 2003, no more than $32 million over the period from 2005 through 2006. The Union suggests that the tour of military service be cut to 6 months immediately, total transition to contract service completed in 2003. The mood of the government verbalised by Segei Ivanov, the Defence Minister, is less radical, the suggestion being to reform gradually, over a long time. Mr. Ivanov says, first an experiment involving individual detachments and some calculations are needed. This version provides for the complete elimination of draft around 2010.

One does not need to be an economist to figure out that a professional army of such a gigantic proportion is impossible. Even now most army and navy officers have serious problems finding housing and keeping their families. What do you think is going to happen with privates serving under contract some time from now? Of course the financing of the army is now somewhat on the rise. Sergei Ivanov, the Minister of Defence, says by 2006, 50% of the total military spending will be used to upkeep the army, the other 50% - to further develop it. At this time, the ratio is 56 to 44, a couple of years ago - 70 to 30. However, the economic growth being not exactly assured, the prospects of the further development of Russia's armed forces seem doubtful. In the law of the Russian Federation 'On the Federal Budget for the Year 2002', $9.2 milliard is allocated for national defence spending. To add here various other defence and security-related items, the figure jumps to $16 milliard, that is, 4.5% of the predicted Total Internal Product. This means, one federal budget dollar out of every four will be spent on defence and security. In 2001 it was nearly one out of every three dollars. This change is due to the predicted large growth of Total Internal Product in 2002. However, that growth is still very far from being fact. Whatever. One thing is for sure. Our present economic resources are such that we cannot afford an army capable of defending the interests of Russia anywhere in the world. And this is a more serious matter than the exercise in math calculating how much money we need for our servicemen to survive. To put it short, we are talking about priorities, a comprehensible military doctrine and hard to make admissions.

Our only way out of the blind alley lies through the radical reduction and reorganisation of our whole armed forces. If one believes Vadim Solovyov, the responsible editor of the Independent Military Review there is no one, not even the Ministry of Defence knows the exact number of our servicemen. Should be around 1,200,000. The system of training not only young draftees but even junior officers also needs to be reformed. Pavel Felgengauer, a military analyst, believes unless we have professional corporals, neither brilliant technologies, nor a new professional army will do us any good.

Everyone is used by now to the idea that reforming Russia's armed forces means the elimination of draft and the introduction of serving on contract. Yet here is another topic of heated discussions, the alternative civil service. Everyone knows about the legal, ethical and economic substantiation of its necessity. Yet recently everyone became distracted by the seemingly central issue of this: how one is to prove one's pacifism to the point of the impossibility of bearing arms? Maybe one should be allowed simply to chose how and where to serve, without all kinds of conditions and humiliating proofs.

Yet even this is small if compared with another observation. Is it possible that the recently suggested law is just an attempt to preserve at all costs the existing slavery? Of course, the project of the General Staff was declined and no one took it seriously when Lieutenant General Smirnov said the duration of alternative civil service should be over 5 years! Yet any half-measures just slow down long overdue radical reforming.

Alexander Alexyeyev, &to=' target=_blank>RosBalt

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