Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov appears poised to gain full control over the Russian General Staff, bringing to a close his personal antagonism toward Chief of General Staff General Anatoliy Kvashnin. A proposed law on defense, which passed its second stage in the Duma last week, will see operational control of the Russian armed forces passing entirely into the hands of the Ministry of Defense, at the expense of the General Staff, in what is regarded by many analysts as the final act being played out in a long running dispute between the two offices (Moscow Times, June 15).
Nonetheless, the recent spring military draft in the Russian Federation produced familiar problems and indications of a military in perhaps terminal decline. On the face of it, the draft, which has become a source of controversy and political debate since Russian President Vladimir Putin re-ignited the prospect of professionalizing the armed forces, was successful. In Moscow, for instance, the draft produced 5,000 troops. Though the city’s Military Commissioner Major-General Vassily Krasnogorsky considered that targets were achieved with minimal disruption, the truth revealed an altogether different picture. Krasnogorsky admitted, “About 60, 000 potential draftees are summoned to draft boards during the spring draft. But we recruit less than 10 percent of them for active-duty service. The rest have various deferments or fail to pass an examination by the military medical commission” (Interfax News Agency, Moscow, 2004). Young Russian men are no longer willing to serve in the armed forces, if they can help it.
A small percentage evade the draft, and many dodge it in a desperate attempt to avoid entering an institution known by ordinary Russians to be riddled with corruption, within which many will be bullied, underpaid, poorly trained and will accrue little in social benefits from their service. Despite persistent political rhetoric from the Kremlin, the Russian armed forces remain in decline and in desperate need of real reform.
Indeed, reportedly more than 180 Russian servicemen died in crimes or accidents in the first half of 2004. These incidents stemmed from various manifestations of low morale and the declining efficiency of the manning system in the Russian armed forces. These deaths from varied causes included road accidents, household crime, and other accidents not directly resulting from military service. The total number of suicides has declined, though it still runs at a sufficiently high level to warrant concern among commanders. In March and April 2004, suicide in the Russian armed forces accounted for 50 percent of deaths, which fell to 25 percent in May (Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostei, June 8).
Crimes in the armed forces, a near constant experience for recruits, continues to rise steadily as Chief Procurator Aleksandr Savenkov reported to Minister of Defense Sergey Ivanov. Savenkov’s analysis of the first quarter of 2004 seemed to confirm the downward trend. Worryingly, he reported that crimes in the North Caucasus Military District had increased by 43.8 percent. This is the Military District from which many Russian soldiers are drawn for service in Chechnya. The Strategic Rocket Forces witnessed an increase of 39.7 percent and the Airborne Troops 27 percent. The chief procurator also noted a “significant increase” of more than 21 percent in theft, an insidious military crime, which notoriously undermines morale and trust among colleagues. Swindling has posted a 1.5-fold increase, and abuse of authority is up by 34.3 percent. In the first two months of 2004 there were several recorded suicides: eight in the Ground Forces, seven in the Navy, and two each in the Air Force, the Strategic Rocket Forces, and the Airborne Troops (Grani.ru, May 12 2004).
The presence of such problems throughout the armed forces, and critically within Russia’s most combat-worthy formations, illustrates how far the political leadership has drifted in its attempts to reform the military. Therefore, the military structures, which Ivanov has sought to gain full operational control over at the expense of the General Staff, remain unreformed. Furthermore, Russian military reform appears caught in a cyclical time warp, from which it is unable to escape, caught up in the infighting between power ministries and political disunity over the basis on how the armed forces should be reformed.
Professionalizing the army, seen by some as a quick-fix solution, will not remedy the entrenched problems facing military planners. The “brain of the Russia army” is frozen in a bygone era, consequently content to structure its forces for a conventional war with the west that will never happen, and equally content with advances in operational tactics in Chechnya. Military crime rates, desertion, draft-dodging, bullying, suicides and low morale are merely symptoms of the ongoing failure of Russian policy-makers to rethink the nature of the contemporary threat, and achieve political consensus for a widespread and systemic defense reform program.