It is an old Russian military tradition to gather all of Russia’s top military brass in Moscow in late November or early December for a meeting to “summarize the year’s achievements and outline future tasks.” With snow already in the fields, military training ceases as the troops prepare to survive another Russian winter. This week hundreds of generals and admirals — and a sprinkling of colonels — gathered in Moscow to meet, gossip, get drunk during friendly get-togethers, and get performance ratings from their superiors.
While the Soviet General Secretary once opened the conclave, now the Russian president traditionally attends the first day of the meeting. It was at the December 1991 annual meeting that Mikhail Gorbachev passionately pleaded for the military to intervene and save the USSR from imminent disintegration. But the generals were not moved. They considered Gorbachev a traitor who had failed to support an attempt to resurrect full Communist rule in August 1991. Military leaders also assumed that their troops would not follow orders to shoot if sent to forcibly prevent the secession of the former Soviet Republics.
Since that dramatic session, Russian presidents have used the annual meeting to praise the armed forces for “successfully solving arduous problems” and training to increase battle preparedness. This week Putin promised the military more money, more housing, new weapons, and improved education. At the same time, Putin acknowledged that high inflation is eating away at the modest pay increases offered by the Kremlin (www.kremlin.ru, November 20).
Putin also accused NATO of “muscle flexing ” and “gathering military resources near [Russia’s] borders in violation of previous agreements.” In response Russia, according to Putin, will abandon the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). Moscow may reconsider fully abandoning the agreement if Western signatories ratify the adapted 1999 version of CFE, but Russia “will not wait forever.” Russia’s only true guarantee of security is “a mobile military, armed by new weapons,” Putin warned. Russia’s nuclear forces must be ready to “swiftly deal with any aggressor” (www.kremlin.ru, November 20). Putin’s Soviet-like anti-Western rhetoric and claims of being strong on defense are always well received by the top brass, who never liked NATO or the CFE anyway.
Putin is running in the December 2 State Duma elections atop the United Russia list. His address to the military chiefs, made in the presence of journalists, was clearly influenced by electioneering considerations. The address by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was more down-to-earth. Serdyukov acknowledged that military food is not good and promised to introduce new, much better rations in 2008.
Serdyukov also announced plans to scrap derelict military equipment next year: 4,000 tanks, 1,500 airplanes, and 1.5 million pieces of ammunition, but he did not enumerate how many old tanks and planes there are. All concrete figures regarding virtually every aspect of the Russian military continues to be top secret. Serdyukov claims that by January 1, 2008, “44% of Russian servicemen will be serving on contract,” but he did not indicate 44% of how many (www.mil.ru, November 20).
Currently, most Russian sergeants are 19-year-old conscripts who are not ready to lead or discipline soldiers. Most commanding officers are unprepared for the job as well. Almost half of the platoons in the army do not have permanent commanding officers in charge. Russian military academies graduate more than 20,000 new lieutenants each year, but many of them almost immediately resign to make a living in civilian society. This requires the Defense Ministry to hire annually up to 15,000 fresh civilian university graduates as platoon commanders. They are known as dvukhgodichniki, because they are mustered in for a two-year tour. Therefore, many privates and sergeants, but also many officers at the grass-roots level, are essentially conscripts who are poorly trained, poorly paid, and poorly motivated. The soldiers are poorly looked after, while the conscript sergeants and lieutenants are constantly under stress and perform duties beyond their capabilities.
Serdyukov reported plans to have professional all-volunteer sergeants, which should help reduce the constant hazing of solders in military units (see EDM, May 23), but he was uncertain on details. He confirmed that there are currently 12,800 dvukhgodichniki serving in the armed forces, but after January 1, 2008, they will not be called up anymore. Substitute lieutenants will be phased out, but this may create serious problems in filling command positions. The Defense Ministry plans to introduce severe penalties to prevent young officers from leaving service early. Also, up to 300 civilian university graduates per year will be recruited after voluntarily receiving special training and signing contracts (www.mil.ru, November 20).
The defense minister promised to streamline defense spending, to outsource logistical support to private contractors to contain graft and inefficiency, to introduce computerized command and control techniques, and other innovations. Unlike Putin’s ravings about aggressive NATO preparations on Russia’s doorstep, Serdyukov’s presentation contained many plans to introduce reasonable reforms. This is not the first time sensible reform plans have been announced, but making them stick and getting positive results are true rarities in Russia.