Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 103

Russia State Duma deputies have launched a concerted effort to rally opposition to the American military’s rising interest in, and possible future deployments around, the Caspian region. Specifically, some deputies fear that the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline might be used as a pretext for stepping up the U.S. military presence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. However, as these concerns were being voiced in Moscow, more evidence emerged about the impoverished and declining condition of the Russian armed forces. Yet many Russian deputies continue to ignore the implications of such pitiful conditions within the military, preferring instead to regard the uniformed services as a mechanism through which policymakers should oppose American strategic influences in the former Soviet Union.

Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee, said the construction of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline has grown from an economic issue into a political problem. “First and foremost, it is a question of Russia’s national security and the expediency of a foreign military presence in the region, which would look especially strange against the background of the pullout of Russian bases from Georgia,” Margelov asserted. Similar denunciation and paranoia were evident in the statements of many Russian deputies who believe that the long-awaited opening of the Caspian oil pipeline would serve as a pretext for the United States and other Western powers to seek to protect these legitimate economic interests by military means in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and possibly Turkey.

Unfortunately, the options for Russian military planners are rather restricted, in view of the continued decline of the army. Such declining standards, combined with problems of discipline, morale and professionalism, confront senior Russian planners with the stark reality that the Russian military is no longer combat capable for deployment beyond Russia’ borders.

Russia’s much hailed and internally debated attempts to increase the professional component within the armed forces and to reduce the numbers of conscripts serving often against their will has only confirmed the dire plight of the contemporary Russian military. The experiment in professionalizing the 76th airborne division in Pskov Region resulted in 6,200 men passing through the unit — though 2,200 have had their contracts terminated. The reasons for such catastrophic results appear like an anatomy of decline and despair for Russian military commanders, desperate to see improvements in the manning system. These included alcoholism, anti-social behavior, and insubordination. Colonel-General Alexander Savenkov, deputy prosecutor-general and the main military prosecutor, suggested that many of these contract soldiers reported, “They had made a mistake in their choice of profession, and some even admitted that they regarded contract service as a temporary earning opportunity while there was no work to do on the farms.”

At a news conference in Moscow, Savenkov explained that the rising number of recorded suicides within the Russian army in 2004 is the direct result of bullying and brutal treatment by colleagues. “Two hundred and forty-six men died, a particular reason being that they were unable to endure abuse from their fellow servicemen,” he noted. Bullying now accounts for about half of all suicides. Only 59 criminal cases have been launched in connection with these cases, leading to convictions of officers, conscripts, as well as contract soldiers. The incidents of bullying within the beleaguered Russian army are up 25% over 2004, yet commanding officers continue to ignore such trends, turning a blind eye to the conditions and treatment of their men. It is little wonder that during the past 12 months Russian courts sentenced 213 officers for evading military service.

Savenkov lamented the rising criminality of the contemporary Russian officer, pointing to 1,400 recorded cases of Russian officers convicted of a variety of military crimes last year. Of these offences, around 46.9% were committed by senior officers, showing the collapse in military discipline affecting the morale of the armed forces as a whole. Efforts to tackle these and other symptoms of declining standards have been hampered as a direct result of the limitations placed on the army to arrest those suspected of disciplinary abuses or bullying, owing to changes in legislation in July 2002 governing the right of commanders to place servicemen on disciplinary arrest. Savenkov can do little more than highlight the familiar tale of Russian servicemen abusing colleagues and the breakdown in military discipline and morale that plagues efforts to reform the Russian army.

Thus, strategic imperatives, seemingly readily advanced by eager Russian deputies hoping to curtail Western influence on Russia’s southern periphery, cannot be reflected in real-time measures to support Russian economic and political interests in these regions. Quite simply, Russia can deploy only token forces, as it is currently considering in Kyrgyzstan, but cannot become embroiled in any real show of force, since its military simply cannot project adequate power beyond Russia’s borders. Such a conundrum will continue to confront Russia’s authorities for some time, during which its options for muddying the political waters will be restricted to slowly withdrawing forces from Georgia, and huffing and puffing at American power in proximity to its once-exclusive spheres of influence.

(Itar-Tass, May 24; RIA-Novosti, May 24; Interfax, May 25)