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Problems beset Russia army reform

By James Rodgers
BBC News

Russian soldiers march during a Victory Day Parade on Red Square in Moscow, file pic from May 2008
The 2008 parade came months before Russian troops rolled into Georgia

Richer, stronger, prouder: in May 2008, Russia revived its tradition of parading military hardware across Red Square.

Three months later, its forces rolled into Georgia. The fighting lasted less than a week. It seemed to be a swift and stunning victory for the Russian army.

Doubts soon emerged.

"There were some failures which I don't think were expected, in the way that Russian forces performed," said Christopher Langton, the senior fellow for conflict at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.

"Particularly in the air force: they lost seven aircraft to a not particularly well-developed air defence system in Georgia, and I think that surprised a lot of people."

Communication problems

There were other, even more basic, shortcomings.

Alexander Golts, a military correspondent since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 30 years ago, picked out the example of a senior officer unable to communicate orders.

The life of those who serve can be nasty, brutish, and short - even in peacetime

"This general asked some journalist who was near him to borrow his mobile phone, just to give command to his officers," he said.

"Russian military radio stations are more or less useless in mountains."

It is now clear that this was not the straightforwardly successful campaign which the Russian army initially described.

The Russian Defence Ministry did not reply to the BBC's request for an interview for this story but, speaking at a news conference ahead of the anniversary of the war, the deputy chief of the Russian general staff admitted to weaknesses.

"Of course, the Russian armed forces taking part in this conflict showed that not all is well with us," said Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn. "First and foremost, there were technical problems."

Radical reform

So Russia's reaction to its victory was not simply backslapping and celebration. Politicians and generals alike realised that things needed to improve.

"Just after the war ended, the Ministry of Defence speeded up the most radical military reform in the last 50 years," said Mr Golts.

"This war showed that the Russian army is still rather mighty, but nevertheless, it's old fashioned. It cannot answer the challenges of modernisation."

Those challenges amount to more than just modernising equipment.

Despite suggestions in the 1990s that the Russian army would eventually become a professional force, it still relies largely on conscription.

The life of those who serve can be nasty, brutish, and short - even in peacetime. In 2008, 471 Russian soldiers died in non-combat incidents.

Suicide accounted for almost half of the deaths.

Nato threat?

Masha Lipman, an expert on Russian society and the regions at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, highlights bullying - or "hazing" - as a frequent factor.

A policeman stands near a missile-launcher in Moscow on 5 May during a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade, May 2008
A look at the Russian army beyond public parades and politicians' pronouncements reveals an institution beset by problems

"The worst problem of all in this conscription army is the threat to human life, as a result first and foremost of brutal hazing, which every year results in numerous deaths, suicides, and mutilations," she said.

"As a result, those who can avoid draft avoid - and there are various tricks and bribery is one of them - but those who cannot usually end up being those who are not well educated, those from the provinces, those from poor families, sometimes undernourished, sometimes not very healthy."

The official rhetoric in Russia concentrates not on this, but on a perceived threat from Nato.

At the same time, the reform programme that was speeded up after last August's campaign in South Ossetia actually foresees a massive reduction in troop numbers.

"We have 355,000 officers' positions," explained Mr Golts. "The defence ministry wants to cut this number to 150,000."

In that context, he was dismissive of frequent pronouncements from Russian leaders that the country faces a threat from Nato.

"It means that all this militarist rhetoric which [President Dmitry] Medvedev and [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin like so much, about Nato that moves towards our borders, about all global adversaries, is just militarist rhetoric," said Mr Golts.

Beset by problems

That gap between rhetoric and reality is echoed in a division between politicians and commanders.

The former are seeking to implement change. Many of the latter are less enthusiastic. Christopher Langton believes that jeopardizes the chances of progress.

Tank in South Ossetia (file)
Last year's war against Georgia was not a straightforward victory

"At the moment it is the president and the minister of defence who are beginning to make progress," he said.

"But of course when this happens in Russia, it has to be accompanied by investment in defence, and investment in defence is now hampered by an economy that isn't growing at the rate it was growing.

"So there are some very big difficulties facing the reform programmes."

Russia still has a formidable nuclear arsenal. In that sense, it is a major military power.

But a look at the Russian army beyond public parades and politicians' pronouncements reveals an institution beset by problems of equipment, morale and discontent.

Western headline writers' tales of the bold Russian bear do not tell the full story.



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