As the reform of Russia’s conventional armed forces continues, numerous policy planning issues have served to demonstrate the reactionary nature of many initiatives. Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, has tried to avoid shouldering the blame for any mistakes while failing to prioritize policy. The latest instance of this pattern stemmed from an upsurge in cases of viral infections among young Russian soldiers.
On January 23, defense ministry controlled Zvezda TV showed Serdyukov visiting Central Military District (MD)/Joint Strategic Command (OSK), which had been hit by a protracted cold spell with temperatures of minus 30. Serdyukov addressed a briefing: “I have instructed the main medical directorate to watch and monitor the whole situation. Secondly, we have reduced the time spent outdoors, particularly when the temperature falls below minus 20; we have even shortened guard duties from two hours to an hour; all the classes that can be moved indoors have been moved” (Zvezda TV, January 23). “New look” soldiers, as a result of Serdyukov’s effort to humanize military service, are now compelled to sleep for one hour every afternoon, and the latest innovation minimizes outside duties in certain sub-zero circumstances. While the former fulfils no military purpose, that latter raises questions about the quality of conscript currently serving in the armed forces. In the search to merely fill the numbers in the draft (EDM, January 25,18), and up to one third of potential recruits granted a medical deferment, commanders say they struggle to distinguish between the conscripts and contract personnel in terms of quality.
Addressing this latest problem, changes were made to rations, extra vitamins were dispensed, and the situation was closely monitored. Serdyukov tasked Major-General Alexandr Belevitin, the Chief of the Main Military Medical Directorate, with leading a special commission to work in the Chebarkul garrison, with doctors checking the “sanitary” and “epidemic” situation in units of the Central MD (Zvezda TV, January 24). This initiative was in response to reported instances of pneumonia and other medical complaints among the troops. On January 16, a 20-year old conscript died of pneumonia in Chebarkul, as other cases were admitted to the military hospital. Similar cases were reported on January 19, in Chernyakhovsk and a Baltic Fleet prosecutor ordered additional checks on local sanitary conditions. Deaths of conscripts from pneumonia and swine flu occurred in Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk, with more than 100 soldiers treated for pneumonia in Novosibirsk (RIA Novosti, January 16, 19; www.svpressa.ru, January 20).
These cases, according to some commentators, may be linked to poor conditions of service, with some conscripts complaining that their barracks were inadequately heated and consequently they slept in their uniforms. Equally, the five-fold reduction in the numbers of serving medics may be a factor (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 31). In any case, the defense ministry quickly initiated a PR campaign to quell any negative reporting, predictably offering data to show that the sickness rates were 15 percent down year-on-year in the Central MD (though the district itself has only been newly formed). However, the health crisis in these units indicates that despite talking up the aim to “humanize” military service, actual conditions are not what the defense ministry likes to portray (Krasnaya Zvezda, www.vesti.ru, January 22).
Addressing a closed session of “government hour” in the Duma on December 22, 2010, Serdyukov reportedly told deputies that as a result of the reform dedovshchina no longer existed in the armed forces. Indeed, during an interview with Izvestiya on December 27, Serdyukov argued that it has been replaced by “hooliganism” (Izvestiya, December 27, 2010). Igor Barinov, the Deputy Chairman of the Duma Defense Committee, said that the defense minister explained how as a result of outsourcing catering, and freeing troops from food preparation and equipment repairs, they had more time for training. In fact, Barinov following Serdyukov’s argument, suggested that soldiers were consequently “too busy” to engage in hazing. Barinov stated that the defense ministry and main military procuracy were working on supporting statistics (Gazeta, http://www.gzt.ru/topnews/politics/-anatolii-serdyukov-spisal-kalashnikova–/340768.html, December 22, 2010). Unfortunately, despite the apparent effort to cook the statistics, by January 12, the Chief Military Prosecutor, Sergei Fridinsky, confirmed not only that dedovshchina persists, but it had increased during the reform, including cases of extorting money from fellow servicemen and stealing cell phones (Komsomolskaya Pravda, January 12).
In the context of the protracted period of transition experienced by the armed forces as the reform occurs little remains to offer any sense of continuity or stability. Apparently, not even the much revered Kalashnikov AK-74M assault rifle is exempt from this appetite for change. Serdyukov, according to some sources, told the Duma defense committee that Kalashnikov’s may need to be replaced. One Duma deputy anonymously informed Gazeta that the minister’s report stressed that foreign models are superior to the Kalashnikov in their technical specifications and performance characteristics: “They are incapable of aimed bursts of fire –including the 100 series. In combat operations, professionals are obliged to fire single shots. Moreover, foreign makes of small arms are lighter, easier to handle and operate, and are frequently cheaper.” Kalashnikov’s and domestically produced Dragunov sniper rifles could in future be replaced by foreign-made arms. As an experiment, the defense ministry is considering large-scale purchases of small arms for units at the “sharp end of events,” in the former North Caucasus MD (now part of South MD) (Gazeta, http://www.gzt.ru/topnews/politics/-anatolii-serdyukov-spisal-kalashnikova–/340768.html, December 22, 2010).
Given the shortage of modern weapons and equipment reaching the conventional armed forces, the defense ministry must prioritize on the basis of first determining the most pressing shortages. Serdyukov singling out the Kalashnikov leaves many observers puzzled, as do his calls for fresh “reform ideas.” As one retired officer told Jamestown, “The defense ministry is being run like a circus, and the clown [Serdyukov] fails to test his ideas before they become policy.” On January 26, Argumenty Nedeli reported rumors that Serdyukov wants to replace senior commanders, including the newly appoint MD/OSK commanders, chiefs of the air force and navy, as well as the Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Nikolai Makarov (Argumenty Nedeli, January 26).
Many of Serdyukov’s civilian advisors know little about how the pre-reform armed forces functioned, and even less concerning how they might be organized in future. However, having surrounded himself with yes-men among the top brass, few insiders dare to point out Serdyukov’s failings.