Crisis looms in Russia's armed forces
On August 29, Major-General Viktor Batmazov, the deputy commander of the ground troops on educational work, told Ekho Moskvy radio station that bullying remained a problem within the Russian armed forces.
"There are precedents, there are beatings, we must admit. Certain commanding officers, even in the rank of a platoon leader or a company commander, beat soldiers," he said. In his view, "this is boosted by the arrival of a generation that has been brought up in the streets and holds different values". Batmazov said that there were efforts to deal with the problem at all levels within the military.
As Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov's reform agenda was implemented, witnessing an unparalleled transformation this year in the table of organization with the switch from a division-based to a brigade-based structure (apart from the airborne forces, or VDV, where the division structure survived intact), corruption and crime appeared to rise.
The unexpected turn of events as these new brigades emerged caused such concern among the top brass that on July 7 a special collegium of the military department and the Main Military Procuracy discussed the issues. Mikhail Yanenko, the chief of the Main Military Procuracy Press Service, explained that the idea of holding such a collegium had first been mooted in May, but the event was postponed until July after Serdyukov returned from vacation. Chief Military Procurator Sergey Fridinskiy's keynote report was reportedly "tough and unpleasant for the defense ministry leadership".
They considered the implications of the fact that, during the first six months of the year, there had been no reduction in crime within the armed forces or in the number of manifestations of corruption. Indeed, the number of crimes among contract servicemen, non-combat fatalities and suicides among the troops increased compared with the previous year.
What especially troubled the procurator was that officer crime had apparently tripled in 2008. Criminal proceedings for crimes related to corruption were instituted against a total of more than 500 officers, including 350 senior officers, 117 troop unit commanding officers and 20 generals. "This is the biggest figure in the past five years," Fridinskiy stressed. However, based on undisclosed statistics for 2009, it appeared that this poor record might now be eclipsed. Crimes related to officer corruption mostly involved bribe-taking, official forgeries and embezzlement.
As the "new look" brigades were formed, progressing towards its completion by the end of the year, Fridinskiy asserted that the process was also accompanied by an "alarming" rise in recorded crime within the armed forces; approximately one quarter of those crimes were committed by officers. Consequently, he called for the creation of a permanently staffed investigative agency in the military.
In the first half of 2009, the Moscow Garrison Military Procurator Viktor Ivanov uncovered "more than 250 violations of the law, disciplinary and material action was taken against more than 120 officials and 18 criminal cases were instituted". This represented a clear increase on the previous year.
One high-profile case involved Lieutenant-General Vladimir Shukhovets, the deputy chief of the Ministry of Defense Main Armored Transport Directorate; Colonel Anatoliy Ilderyakov, chief of the 101st Defense Ministry Central Vehicle Repair Plant; Colonel of Justice Rostislav Buts; and Major-General Andrey Glushchenko, the former Moscow military commissar.
In July, Colonel of Justice Igor Pervushin, the chief of the legal group of the Navy Directorate of Shipbuilding, Armaments and Operations, was arrested. The military alleged that Pervushin had received 500,000 roubles (US$15,600) from Vasiliy Yakubenko, the deputy general director of NPO Volgo OAO (open joint-stock company). In return, he was required to delete from a Defense Ministry report any information concerning infringements committed by the company during its work on a state contract for repairing navy ships and vessels.
Increased levels of bullying
Since the beginning of 2009, according to the Russian Defense Ministry there were 181 non-combat deaths. Twenty-three personnel were killed in non-combat incidents in June: 14 apparent suicides, six accidents, two incidents involving breaches of the rules for handling weapons and one death as a result of dangerous driving.
Moreover, officers implicated in the institutionalized phenomenon of dedovshchina revealed equally disturbing trends. One anonymous Defense Ministry official said "1,082 service personnel were victims of criminal actions by officers last year". In 2008, 280 officers were convicted of hazing related crimes, "including 18 troop unit commanding officers".
In the spring of 2008, a commander in a Far Eastern Military District unit tortured seven conscripts with a hot iron. In Chechnya, where the Russian authorities had claimed that only contract personnel served, one warrant officer was poisoned and the regimental commander attempted to cover up the crime, even prohibiting his hospital treatment. Warrant Officer Mukhambetkaliyev consequently died en route to hospital.
The collegium in July also discussed hazing as well as the increase in non-combat deaths. Aleksandr Kanshin, the Chairman of the Russian Public Chamber Commission for the Affairs of Veterans, Service Personnel and their families, said the figures had increased by 15% in the first quarter of 2009 in comparison with the same period last year. This included a 40% increase in such fatalities within the elite Federal Security Service Border Troops and an overall 11% increase within the armed forces. Since the start of 2009 conscripts no longer serve in the Border Service, suggesting that even after "professionalizing" the structure, such problems persist.
Kanshin suggested that as the officer corps are further downsized it will witness a deterioration in such statistics "in view of the upcoming cuts to the officer corps and the troops' poor readiness for the replacement of officers with NCO's and also as a result of the inadequate formulation of the statutory legal foundation for the military reform and the tight deadlines for implementing it". It is interesting to note that Kanshin criticized the absence of a legal foundation or firm timescale for the current military reform.
Despite the Defense Ministry emphasis on the "new look" military being created, it has equally exposed serious challenges and exacerbated pre-existing problems. From 2000 until the autumn of 2008, the Defense Ministry did not officially conscript young men for military service who had a criminal record.
However, after reducing the term of service from two to only one year, the draft plan has been automatically increased by almost three times compared with 2007. Many within the Defense Ministry hope that this will prove to be only a temporary measure.
Some conscripts with criminal records were drafted in the autumn of 2008. According to unofficial Defense Ministry figures, the proportion of conscripts with a criminal record in this year's spring draft campaign totaled 170,000 - that is, more than half of all conscripts (the conscription plan was for 305,000). In this context, the increases in crime, corruption and dedovshchina being reported are hardly surprising, and the top brass are bracing for worse figures this autumn. Russia has approximately 1,037,000 active troops.
On July 5, an outbreak of violence was reported among new recruits from Dagestan serving in a military unit in the city of Aleysk in Altay Kray. Afterwards, these conscripts staged a hunger strike demanding to be transferred to another unit. Conflicting reports indicated that as many as 200 personnel were involved in a mass brawl, which might have erupted as a result of ethnic tensions. The main military prosecutor's office confirmed that the fight had occurred, but downplayed the numbers involved.
As this crisis effectively caught the defense planning staff unawares, measures were hurriedly put in place to mitigate the worst effects of this upsurge in crime. For example, the Defense Ministry announced an initiative to counter dedovshchina by installing video surveillance systems within the barracks as an additional measure.
This has already been the subject of an experiment conducted in the 27th Brigade in Teplyy Stan; video surveillance has been functioning there for more than a year. Russian defense officials believe that this might facilitate an increased level of discipline, and reduce the number of regulations violations.
In addition to these technical initiatives, an effort is underway to promote the use of the army "community" more effectively. In the longer term, this might involve further adjustments to service regulations. However, as an interim measure, the duties of officers will be increased by compelling them to examine all crimes committed by their subordinates and announce this during assemblies of officers, warrant officers, sergeants or soldiers.
Notes from these minutes will then be attached to the culprits' personnel files. New appointments for servicemen convicted of disciplinary or criminal offences will be banned.
Nonetheless, these measures aside, a clearly worried Defense Ministry concluded that something deeper was needed. Therefore, in early July, Serdyukov initiated a meeting with Patriarch Kirill, in order to "consult" him on defense issues. On July 21, President Dmitry Medvedev duly announced that an official chaplaincy would be introduced in the Russian armed forces by 2010.
Serdyukov hopes to offset the rising levels of crime, bullying and corruption in the armed forces through a mixture of effectively ad hoc measures aimed at shoring up the system that he is reforming. By introducing official chaplains, it is hoped that moral, ethical and social guidance might be provided to conscripts.
However, the depth of social ills afflicting the contemporary Russian military may be deeper than the defense minister recognizes. Reflecting the deep-seated demographic problems within the country, these issues in the military will not be easily resolved.
Roger N McDermott is an honorary senior fellow, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent at Canterbury (UK) specializing in defense and security issues in Russia, Central Asia and the South Caucasus.