Remaking The Army

Sinking submarines, desertions within the ranks, suicides, corruption, decay and dissolution. Russia's generals are no longer running a superpower's military, but they still think Army life is fine--and are fighting fiercely to stave off anything that smacks of change.

For almost a decade, Russian leaders have been promising to reform a military machine that employs 3 million and drafts 400,000 young men each year into what can turn out to be a life of disease and neglect. But if the country's lawmakers and President Vladimir Putin have their way, that tradition may pass. America's swift victory in Afghanistan has underscored what a well-trained and -funded military can do, and the lesson has not been lost on Russian leaders. By 2010, Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov aims to re-create the Russian Army as a wholly professional force, complete with a slimmed-down career-officer corps and a fully volunteer rank and file--not to mention modern equipment, decent salaries and housing--and a war readiness that modern Russia has never seen. The first step is what the brass most adamantly oppose: the right of conscripts to opt out of military servitude and choose alternative service instead.

If passed by the Duma, new legislation would allow thousands of Army-age youngsters to fill labor-intensive social-sector jobs--working in hospitals, schools, public-works projects and anywhere else Russia's plunging birthrates have left little manpower for menial or heavy work. Socially and demographically, it makes good sense. It also dovetails with Putin's aggressive brand of socioeconomic and political modernization. Yet the Army balks at handing the Kremlin greater control over what is essentially a bloated and corrupt institution, living by its own Soviet-era rules. Losing the right to draft a multimillion-man Army would represent a striking symbolic break, a final rebuff to the old Red Army's glorious past. For Russia's old-style generals, the whole notion of alternative service and a volunteer Army smacks of treason. At the same time, they see NATO expanding eastward; they hear Putin talking about a new partnership with the United States, to the point of granting bases within the borders of the former empire. No wonder the military elite is trying to sabotage these plans, says Alexander Goltz, a military expert with Russia's Ezhenedelny Journal. "It's a question of their very survival."

Clearly, drastic changes are in order. Goltz likens today's Army to an inverted pyramid. "There are more colonels than lieutenants," he says. It's also not uncommon to find four to five officers for every 10 soldiers. Many of those "soldiers" are often in fact wives of the brass, "recruited on paper as machine-gun and mortar operators, when in fact they sit at home with the kids," says military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. Considering that officers' salaries are low and military housing is often decrepit and isolated, the perk of a second salary is an understandable bonus. Yet it's also an undeniable drain on the system.

Previous reforms have been half-hearted. In the 1990s, former president Boris Yeltsin made military reform a re-election issue--then promptly forgot about it. "Yeltsin didn't give a damn about the Army. He only wanted the personal loyalty of the top generals," says Felgenhauer. "He wanted them to fight amongst themselves and drink booze." Decay has been the trajectory ever since. Thousands of conscripts each year die as a result of brutal hazing, accidents, deteriorating health and living conditions and plain negligence. Hepatitis, dystrophy, malnutrition and tuberculosis are common among conscripts, recently joined by HIV, drug addiction and mental illness. Suicide rates are sky-high and rising. Desertion and draft dodging are epidemic--one of every 10 recruits--to the point that police and military forces have begun special operations to round them up.

Conscripts bear the brunt of ingrained corruption, in some cases even being sold out for services of varying legitimacy. At one Defense Ministry base in Moscow, they have been forced into male prostitution, according to the Union of the Committees of Soldier's Mothers of Russia, which has received at least 14 complaints from conscripts asking to be transferred. Officers and older soldiers prey on recruits, extorting money and other favors from the likes of 20-year-old Dimitry, who sits quietly in a hallway at the union, seeking its protection. "The commanders force me to go home each month and collect money for them," he says. His brother Yakov elaborates: "If he doesn't return, he's a deserter; if he comes back empty-handed, they'll make him an invalid."

Desertion is punishable with stiff jail terms. But that didn't deter 19-year-old Artyem, who claims he ran away from his base in southern Russia after soldiers there threatened to kill him. Dozens of other young conscripts have fled as well, he says. "We're all used to being beaten, and all you can do is run away." For those who serve in combat in Chechnya, the situation is even more miserable. "The life of a soldier is worth nothing," says Valentina Melnikova of the Soldier's Mothers committee, when asked about independent casualty figures in Chechnya. "Real statistics don't exist in Russia because people don't matter."

Reform is therefore more than top-down military policy, but also a serious grass-roots social movement. The idea of alternative service and a volunteer Army has become less a pure military matter than "a question of human rights," argues Yevgenny Zelenov, a member of the Parliament's Defense Committee. He envisions an alternative to military service in keeping with the old Soviet tradition of sending out young teachers and specialists to the countryside. "We have some of the most educated people in all the world, and yet we have isolated regions where no one will go to teach," he says. "This way these men would actually be helping our government and fulfilling their duty."

The military, predictably, offers a different vision. If there's to be alternative service, the brass proposes, it should last three to four years, twice what a conscript would serve. Conscientious objectors would be obliged to carry out their duties on military bases, cleaning toilets until the age of 22 or 23--a suggestion that prompted one Putin cabinet minister to liken the plan to "a concentration-camp system." Like it or not, Russia's military will sooner or later have to adapt to the new wind blowing. Putin's administration is gearing up to reform not only the military, but also Russia's corrupt judiciary, police and other branches of government that have clung stubbornly to their Soviet past. He recently sacked the top naval officers involved in the Kursk submarine debacle. He closed a key Cuban base for eavesdropping on the United States, despite fierce opposition from Defense chiefs. Ultimately, change is an exercise of political will, notes Alexander Goltz. "The military is terrified that Putin is ready to show this will." The question is just how far they're willing to go to stop him.