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Russia: Crumbling Military Puts Kremlin On The Defensive

  • Chloe Arnold

Svetlana Nanochkina, and her son Oleg (RFE/RL) Svetlana Nanochkina fights back tears as she tells how her son, Oleg, who suffers from illnesses related to obesity, has been deemed fit to serve in the army.

"My son turned 18 and we were summoned to the local military draft commission," she says. "They told us to go to the hospital, where my son was diagnosed with morbid obesity, which meant he would have been fully exempt from conscription. But when he went back to the commission, they weighed him and measured him again, they put his weight as less and his height as more, and put him in a different category saying he was fit to serve."

In the family's tiny flat in southern Moscow, Oleg says he has been in and out of hospitals since childhood with complications related to his weight. He has heart and kidney complaints, and problems with his bones. If he's drafted, he fears the worst.

"I've got so many friends who've gone into the army," he says. "Either they come back a little crazy, or completely indifferent. Or they don't come back at all. Or they come back without their limbs. And I don't want to repeat their fate. If they make me go, then my life will be over -- completely. I could simply die there."

Stories like Oleg's are nothing new in Russia, where years of poor conditions, hazing horror stories, and the conflict in Chechnya have contributed to widespread draft-dodging and desperate attempts by the military to fill its ranks.

But the state of the military has become a critical issue as outgoing President Vladimir Putin, seeking to reassert Russia's superpower status and ensure his own legacy, has brought military issues to the fore.

The Russian leader has reintroduced the Soviet-era practice of flying bomber planes on strategic sorties outside Russian airspace. He has brought back lavish Victory Day celebrations, parading tanks and hundreds of troops across Red Square. And he withdrew his country from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, suggesting Russia -- if provoked -- could once again prove a neighborhood military menace.

'A Very Bad Prison'


Putin has also sought to reverse the years of neglect and chaos that plagued the military after the collapse of the Soviet Union, pouring billions of rubles into improving conditions in the armed forces, and promising to phase out conscription in favor of a professional military.

Russia's defense budget has grown by more than six times since 2000, reaching some $35 billion last year. But Pavel Felgenhauer, the defense correspondent at "Novaya gazeta" newspaper, says for most of the 4 million people currently employed by the armed forces, little has changed for the better.

"A lot of money was supplied, but no new weapons have really appeared," he says. "Military pay has not increased dramatically. Young officers, after finishing military academies, tend to skip service almost immediately, so there's a problem with having qualified officers. And so the problems with the Russian military have, in many respects, been exacerbated."

Part of the reason for this, says Felgenhauer, is that the military still cannot compete with other employers, including the civil service and private sectors, because the pay is so low. A private earns just 8,000 rubles ($320) a month, far less than the average Russian wage of 12,500 rubles ($500).

Another deterrent is the Kremlin's simmering conflict in Chechnya -- where more than 10,000 Russian forces were killed at the peak of fighting, and where soldiers continue to die weekly in isolated skirmishes.

Add to that poor living conditions -- some 120,000 military families are still waiting for permanent accommodation in garrisons across the country -- as well as low morale and significant personal risk, says Felgenhauer, and it's little wonder few young men seek a career in the armed forces.

"Serving in the Russian military is not a very good idea. It's like having a prison sentence in a very, very bad prison, because there's hazing, bad food. Hundreds die every year from hazing -- officially, they're called 'suicides.' Even when there's not much real action right now -- I mean in the Caucasus -- there are still hundreds of casualties each year," he says.

Bullying Rife

Violence in military units remains rife. The Soldiers' Mothers Committee, a nationwide group that protects the rights of conscripts, estimates that as many as 3,500 soldiers die each year from "accidents and suicides."

Occasionally, reports of attacks on conscripts by their superiors come to light, like the case of Sergei Sinkonen, who died last year after two officers at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the Arkhangelsk Oblast of northern Russia beat him with belts and threw him into a dog cage.

The case of Andrei Sychyov, a 19-year-old conscript who was beaten so severely that doctors were eventually forced to amputate his legs and genitals, gained international attention in early 2006. The Defense Ministry first denied knowledge of the beating, but was ultimately forced to sentence the officer responsible to a four-year prison sentence and an additional three-year ban from the army.

Andrei Sychyov's case attracted international attention (ITAR-TASS)

For the most part, however, the attacks go unreported and the attackers unpunished. Private Roman Rudakov, the victim of an alleged hazing attack in late 2006, died on February 13 in Moscow while awaiting an intestine transplant. In January 2007, then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov drew an angry response from the Russian public for claiming Rudakov's health problems were the results of a medical condition and not hazing.

The Defense Ministry insists it is trying to improve conditions in the armed forces. Anatoly Serdyukov, brought in to head the ministry since Ivanov's promotion to first deputy prime minister, has fired several officials in a public attempt to crack down on hazing and corruption in the military.

Vyacheslav Sedov, a spokesman for the ministry, says the problem of hazing, in particular, is being taken very seriously. He said in addition to disciplinary measures -- the commander on duty at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome when Sinkonen was attacked has been fired -- the ministry has introduced committees to involve parents more closely in the draft.

"Last year, a social council was set up inside the Defense Ministry and parents' committees started to function," says Sedov. "I have been to military garrisons where these committees are actively working. Mothers and fathers come along and see how their sons are treated, what they eat, where they sleep. In addition, the officer in charge gives the parents his telephone number and says, 'Please call any time to find out how your son is getting on.'"

Sedov added that wages had increased almost 30 percent last year and that they would go up a further 18 percent by the end of this year. In addition, the draft this year is being decreased from two years of service to one.

Change Ahead?


But for Valentina Melnikova, who runs the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, complaints about the armed forces are as numerous as ever. The shelves of her cramped office in central Moscow are stacked high with statements and legal reports, and every day a new batch of unhappy mothers lines up outside her door to ask for help.

Does she anticipate anything will be different after the election next month, when Russians are expected to elect Putin's hand-chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev?

Medvedev has spent much of his current tenure as first deputy prime minister tasked with social issues, including some military issues. But Melnikova says it remains to be seen whether substantial reform is forthcoming.

"We always try to work with the president and with his ministries. If we are able to send him proposals to which he is amenable, then that would be good," she says. "In terms of military service, this is a very interesting time. But in principle, the position of Dmitry Medvedev is not yet clear. It's true that he is involved with housing issues in the army. But he hasn't yet said anything about problems within the military structure."

For many Russians, the answer is simple: abandon conscription, reduce the size of the armed forces, and introduce a professional military instead.

Back at the Nanochkins' flat, Svetlana puts an arm around her son. Oleg has a genuine medical reason to avoid the draft. But as many as 70 percent of eligible young men successfully avoid the draft, usually by paying bribes of several thousand dollars. The army, unable to meet its quotas, turns to poorer candidates -- and those, like Oleg Nanochkin, who are simply not fit to serve -- to make up the difference.

As if Svetlana Nanochkina's current problems weren't enough, she has a second son, also ill, who will be eligible for the draft next year. Her fears reflect those of worried mothers -- and their sons -- across Russia.

"Russia needs an army. Every country needs an army. We need armies so that we can protect our borders, so that we can defend ourselves and our children," she says. "But it shouldn't be like this -- that people are grabbed off the street. Or your son goes to the shop and the next thing he turns up as a conscript in Vladivostok. I don't think it should be like that."
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