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Tuesday, 18 January, 2000, 01:29 GMT
Analysis: Russia's suffering conscripts

Russian soldiers "It is important not that the conscript serves, but that he suffers."


By Russian affairs analyst Stephen Dalziel

The impression given by some recent reports on the military operation in Chechnya is that, after three months pounding away at Chechen villages, the Russian army has suddenly ground to a halt.

The spectre of defeat, as the army suffered in Chechnya in 1996 has apparently come back to haunt it.

Battle for the Caucasus
Once again, tales are being told of the poor conditions suffered by Russian conscripts.

It is widely known that conditions for Russian conscripts at the best of times are tough.

Bullying of younger soldiers by their seniors - known in Russian as dedovshchina - is a widespread problem.

The Russian army is poorly-equipped, often badly-fed and morale is low.


Russian soldiers Conscripts don't expect to be treated well
An opinion of conscript service often heard in Soviet times has never completely gone away: "It is important not that the conscript serves, but that he suffers".

Although figures are not available, it is known that a high percentage of young men who should be conscripted manage to avoid it, either by buying some sort of excuse such as a doctor's note, or by simply not turning up.

And if ordinary peace-time conditions are bad enough, it follows that fighting a tricky enemy over difficult terrain in unpleasant winter weather is going to make things even worse.

Undoubtedly, it was with this in mind, and with the experience of the Chechen War from 1994 to 1996, when the Russian army was humiliated, that Russian generals began this campaign in a much more cautious manner.

Appalling conditions

By concentrating their efforts on long-range air and artillery strikes, they were able to continue the military operation for three months with very little actual fighting.

But it was also likely that the closer they came to storming the Chechen capital, Grozny, the test for the army would be far greater.

The conscripts' plight has been publicised by the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, who reckon that the number of casualties suffered by the Russian army may be as much as six times the official figure of 500 dead.

But the concerns being raised by the Soldiers' Mothers are not new.

The Committee was formed during the Afghan War of 1979 to 1989, since when it has continued to highlight the often appalling conditions under which Russian conscripts serve.

Sacrifice worthwhile

The Committee's problem is that these conditions are now sufficiently well known for them not to shock the Russian public.

Furthermore, the public, and, indeed, the soldiers themselves, do not measure their conditions against those enjoyed by a Western army.

With levels of expectation lower as to what conditions of service will be like, Russian generals know that their soldiers will put up with a situation their Western counterparts would not tolerate.

And, even with military setbacks, the overwhelming impression in Russia remains that this war is very different from the earlier one.

Many believe that, if Russia can deal with the problem of Chechnya once and for all, the sacrifice endured by the conscripts will have been worthwhile.

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See also:
17 Jan 00 |  Europe
Chechens 'buy off' Russian troops
17 Jan 00 |  Europe
Analysis: Chechnya making regional waves
16 Jan 00 |  Europe
Russia 'hiding true Chechnya toll'
13 Jan 00 |  Europe
Chechens feel Russia's might
13 Jan 00 |  Europe
Russia accused of war crimes
12 Jan 00 |  Europe
Russia rethinks Chechnya tactics
12 Jan 00 |  Europe
How Russia pays for the war
10 Jan 00 |  Europe
Can Russia win the Chechen war?

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