Russian soldiers continue to die in Chechnya, as the unpopular conflict shows no sign of changing from its dirty and unpredictable nature. Separate recent incidents in Grozny, causing injuries to a platoon commander and conscript soldier from the interior troops, and in the Chechen village of Avtury, where an explosion killed the deputy company commander and a contract soldier after carrying out a reconnaissance mission highlight the routine nature of such incidents in a war that has steadily declined in President’s Putin’s domestic political agenda. (RIA News Agency, Moscow, June 6 2004).
These attacks, which affect conscript and contract soldiers alike, also demonstrate the low cost nature of the unconventional tactics utilized by the Chechen militants, demanding a high cost deployment of Russian forces. Although the second Chechen campaign rumbles on, the debate within Russian security circles on the utility of ‘professional’ soldiers has drifted and the introduction of greater numbers of contract soldiers into the conflict zone shows mixed results.
Russia’s professional soldiers are trained for combat service in Chechnya in the 42nd Motor Rifle Division (MRD). Pre-deployment training itself, which follows a meticulous selection process involving screening by the division’s officers and reports from the Federal Security Service (FSB), takes place at Kalinovskaya in Chechnya. Careful efforts are made, at this stage to exclude those with criminal backgrounds or alcohol-related problems. Each soldier is exposed to a detailed psychological assessment containing 156 questions. At Kalinovskaya, successful recruits are further tested, including how they cope with a simulated nuclear explosion. The regimen, which includes exposure to a simulated mushroom cloud at a distance of one kilometer, reportedly costs the training center 42,000 rubles (US$2,700). Selected recruits are then thoroughly drilled and taught the skills needed in the theatre of operations. (Argumenty I Fakty, Moscow, June 1 2004).
A Russian contract soldier serving in Chechnya receives 15,000 rubles (US$515) per month, while a battalion commander receives 22,100 rubles (US$760). This is in stark contrast to the average pay throughout the Russian army of between 4,000-8,000 rubles (US$137-275). In addition to this salary, several times more than his or her counterparts elsewhere in the Russian army, each recruit receives a sign-up cash bonus on joining the campaign in the Chechen Republic. This “golden hello” is the equivalent of two months salary. A recruit can also claim an interest free loan, equivalent to ten months pay.
The training center at Kalinovskaya, a 19th century Cossack stronghold, produces 200 contract soldiers each month, replacing conscripts serving in Russia’s hotspots, realizing the aim of General Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the general staff. Kvashnin’s response to resurfacing debate on professionalism in the military, initially held in the early part of Putin’s first term in office, was to emphasize the need to deploy professional soldiers in conflict areas. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, recently announced Russia’s intention to create a professional peacekeeping unit in the near future, a move which could signal further attempts to showcase the introduction of more professional soldiers in the army. At a superficial level, with two regiments of the 42nd MRD, fully manned by contract soldiers, clear differences in combat readiness and standards of discipline should be higher.
However, Russian commanders complain that few recruits are from Moscow. They tend to join mainly from the provincial towns of the North Caucasus, or from Siberia and most are between the ages of 20-25 with some previous military service. They are attracted to rejoin by the money offered to contract servicemen. There are also continuing instances of poor discipline and bullying of colleagues, which plagues the Russian armed forces.
President Putin, in his address to the Federal Assembly on May 26, spoke at length about modernizing and reforming the Russian military. Key to this speech was the theme of strengthening civilian control over the armed forces, although in practical terms this vision is restricted to the defense budgetary process. Putin made little mention of the continued Chechen campaign or ongoing attempts to professionalize the armed forces. Plans now are confined to raising the contract component in the mixed manning system to fifty percent by 2008. Also going unmentioned is how the reform program fits into the “counter terrorist campaign” in Chechnya (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, Moscow, May 28 2004).
Presidential elections for Kadyrov’s successor, due to be held on August 29, may come down to a choice between current Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkahnov and Moscow MP Ruslan Yamadayev, with each vying for the Kremlin’s approval. Attacks by Chechen separatists may equally show no sign of abating over the summer. But the real tragedy of the continued conflict in Chechnya lies in the obstinate refusal of Russia’s leaders to recognize that Russia’s military alone may not constitute a solution to the conflict.