Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 9

Yet another instance of Russian conscript soldiers running amok has resulted in a shooting and a diplomatic incident at the U.S. embassy in Moscow this week. A nineteen-year-old Russian soldier was discovered on the night of January 10 by embassy personnel apparently trying to steal a car from the grounds of the embassy compound. According to an account provided by U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin on January 11, the soldier was ultimately shot by U.S. agents as he rammed the vehicle around the compound and, ignoring warnings from American officials, tried to run down two guards. An embassy spokeswoman in Moscow said that a Marine guard had been involved in the shooting.

Initial Russian police reports of the incident were confused, but the Russian soldier, who was identified as Yevgeny Ivanov, was apparently taken to the Sklifosofsky Hospital in Moscow. He was said to be in stable condition after being treated for multiple gunshot wounds. A companion of Ivanov’s, identified as 22-year-old Yevgeny Tailakov, had apparently also approached the embassy gates but had not actually entered the U.S. compound. He fled after hearing the shots and was apprehended by police later that evening. The Moscow Military Prosecutor’s Office has reportedly opened an investigation into the case. Ivanov is being held on suspicion of stealing a vehicle, a charge which could bring him up to three years in prison and possibly desertion charges. Tailakov is being held on desertion charges. Both men were reported to have been drunk on the night of the break-in, and a Russian report suggested that drugs may also have been involved (Reuters, AP, Russian agencies, January 10-11).

The shooting is another reminder of security problems faced by the U.S. embassy, which is located on a busy thoroughfare not far from the Kremlin. In an incident apparently tied to Russian protests last year over the NATO airwar against Yugoslavia, gunmen on March 28 sprayed gunfire at the embassy’s main building. In March 1997 another Russian conscript was caught in the embassy compound–in the shower of the U.S. charge d’affaires in Moscow. The latest incident came amid a heightened alert at the embassy because of lingering concerns over a possible “terrorist” threat to U.S. citizens over the New Year holiday.

But this week’s incident is an even greater reminder of the problems which continue to face Russia’s cash-strapped and troubled armed forces (official praise for the army’s “successful” campaign in Chechnya notwithstanding). The two soldiers involved in the embassy break-in were reportedly absent without leave from a military construction unit–one not subordinated to the Defense Ministry–based in the town of Podolsk, just south of Moscow (Russian agencies, January 11). Their misadventure is just the latest in a string of incidents over the past several years in which Russian soldiers–generally either conscripts or contract volunteers–have run amok and killed fellow soldiers or civilians who happened to be in their path.

Indeed, the Russian army’s construction units were identified more than a decade ago as a key source of the destructive barracks brutality which has lain behind many of these violent incidents and which has also turned so many Russian youth against military service. The units provide construction services not only for the regular army and security forces, but also for various government agencies not necessarily connected to the Defense Ministry. Military reformers have repeatedly called for the dissolution of the construction units on the grounds that they waste the army’s conscript resources and thus detract from the army’s fighting capabilities. But, as with so many other initiatives in the area of military reform, efforts in this direction have met with only limited success.