Speaking at his 5th annual Kremlin press conference on 31 January, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the creation of a military police. "Control over the observation of law in the army should be tightened," Putin said.
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, also speaking to journalists on 31 January, said that along with the military police, his agency will educate troops about the dangers of hazing and introduce severe punishments for taking part in or covering up such incidents.
The idea of setting up a military police has been broached before. In July 2005, Vladimir Lukin, the ombudsman for human rights in Russia, wrote a special report, published in "Rossiskaya gazeta," about abuses within the armed forces. In the report, Lukin suggested measures to prevent rights abuses, including the creation of a military police.
Lukin proposed that such an organization should be responsible for policing military facilities, observing military discipline, and investigating military crimes. Importantly, the military police would not be subordinate to the military command and would be funded by a special line in the state budget.
The Defense Ministry responded positively to Lukin's recommendations,but since then nothing further has been done. Perhaps characteristic of the authorities' attitude are comments made by Ivanov, who has said that 80 percent of Russian Army units are free from hazing.
The tragic case of Sychyov, who was reportedly beaten with other soldiers in Chelyabinsk on New Year's Eve, is the last in a long line of hazing incidents that has blighted the Russian Army in the last decade.
According to the Defense Ministry, 16 soldiers died last year as a result of bullying. Official figures put the number of suicides in the army in 2005 at 276 and the number of noncombat deaths at 857.
A Russian hazing victim is hospitalized in 1997 (ITAR-TASS)
However, many human right activists believe that "suicides and accidents" are just euphemisms for hazing deaths. According to Valentina Melnikova, head of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees, bullying in the army is on the rise, "Ekho Moskvy" reported on 26 January. Thousands of soldiers desert every year, Melnikova said, and around 50,000 soldiers and their parents appeal to her organization for help every year.
Melnikova is not optimistic that setting up a military police would help. According to regnum.ru and gazeta.ru reports, she said such a body could hinder investigations already launched by the military prosecutor's office.
She has called for the resignation of Defense Minister Ivanov. "One should severely punish not only those responsible for this tragedy but the generals and the whole leadership of the Defense Ministry," she said.
While the military police is a proven institution existing in many Western countries, it is doubtful that it alone will be able to do much to curtail abuses in the Russian Army. Such measures are only likely to be effective alongside more far-reaching reforms such as the switch from a conscript to a professional army and the introduction of civilian control of the military.