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Russia: Problems In Military Blamed On Incompetent Recruiting

By Simon Saradzhan

Moscow, 15 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The chief of the Russian Army's conscription office, Vladislav Putilin, said last week that the Defense Ministry plans to start holding recruiters personally responsible for each man they draft.

Putilin's announcement comes in the wake of a number of shooting incidents involving recruits --including some at nuclear-weapons sites-- reported in the Russian media in recent months. The issue of recruitment, a perennial problem in the Russian armed forces, has become more acute in the past few years. The avoidance of obligatory military service has risen due to a host of reasons ranging from the Russian army's involvement in Chechnya, to chronic hazing, low or no pay, and poor living conditions.

Putilin said that recruiters may even be fired if a soldier whom they have recruited, despite physical or mental inadequacy, commits a serious crime.

At the same time Sergei Ushakov, spokesman for the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office, says his office has plans to sue incompetent recruiters to recover the cost of drafting and discharging each inadequate recruit they have found fit for service.

Ushakov said more than 4,000 young men conscripted last spring subsequently had to undergo treatment at military hospitals before joining their units. Last year alone, 680 soldiers from Defense Ministry troops were discharged after military doctors found that they had been recruited despite having serious illnesses.

A recent check of Moscow enlistment and registration offices has revealed that 68 young men were found fit for service and drafted despite suffering from such serious disorders as epilepsy and other neurological illnesses.

Putilin says both enlistment offices and military doctors should develop new and more sophisticated psychiatric tests to discover physical and mental disorders in a more timely fashion. Such tests, he said, could screen out soldiers prone to acts such as shooting their comrades and commanders.

Early this week (Oct. 12), Ushakov said that as many as 20 servicemen serving in the Strategic Missile Forces --known as RVSN-- who may have had access to Russia's nuclear arsenal had been diagnosed with various mental and psychiatric disorders in 1997-1998. The soldiers were subsequently discharged from service.

Ushakov said some of those discharged were responsible for guarding RVSN arsenals and therefore could have had access to nuclear weapons.

"It was possible," Ushakov said when asked whether mentally disturbed soldiers and non-commissioned officers could have mishandled the atomic arms they were guarding. Ushakov would not disclose either the names of those discharged or where they served. He said there were no figures yet available for how many mentally disturbed soldiers had been discharged in the entire RVSN.

But RVSN spokesman Mikhail Deryugin said by phone Monday that he was unaware of any soldiers discharged from his force due to mental problems. Deryugin also stressed that only officers get to control missiles on duty. Soldiers do guard arsenals, he said, but are not able to detonate warheads that can be activated only by a well-trained officer.

According to a recent report by the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office, compared to other units of the Russian military, RVSN last year saw the sharpest rise in the number of crimes committed by its servicemen. The number of crimes in RVSN was 25 per cent more in 1997 than in the year before.

RVSN is the most important element in Russia's nuclear triad, which also includes atomic submarines and long-range aviation, and each of its recruits is supposed to pass stringent medical and psychiatric checks both when he is conscripted and when he joins his unit.

Despite this system of double checks, however, sub-standard soldiers can still end up serving in Russia's nuclear triad. Last month, a young sailor killed eight of his fellow servicemen and threatened to blow up a nuclear-powered submarine at the Russian navy's Northern Fleet headquarters near Murmansk. After killing his comrades, 19-year-old Alexander Kuzminykh locked himself up in his Akula-class submarine's torpedo bay and threatened to blow the vessel up. He then committed suicide before law-enforcers could lay their hands on him.

Kuzminykh had passed all medical tests when he was conscripted at a St. Petersburg enlistment office. He was found fit even though he had suffered from a mental disorder and had been inhaling toxicants. In addition, Putilin said last week that Kuzminykh had volunteered to serve on a nuclear submarine and passed additional medical and psychiatric tests with high marks.

The editor-in-chief of the Defense Ministry's Military Medical Journal, Leonid Galin, said that the tests administered often fail to reveal all mental and psychiatric disorders. He noted that some latent disorders develop into an acute, and thus detectable, condition only in times of increased stress

All these reports underscore a serious problem in the forces guarding Russia's nuclear arsenal. They also suggest that an above-average incidence of mental illness can be added to the catalogue of problems afflicting Russia's armed forces as a whole.