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Page last updated at 10:22 GMT, Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Tim Whewell
By Tim Whewell

Drive into the sprawling base of the Russian Army's 76th Airborne Division in the north-western town of Pskov, and you are greeted by a large mural with the unit's motto "Honour, Glory, Professionalism".

The first two words reflect age-old concepts in the armed forces; the third, a very new one.

That is why I have come, because the elite 76th Airborne (which first fought in Germany, and later in Armenia, Chechnya and most recently last year in Georgia) is the template for radical plans to streamline the world's fourth largest army and turn it into a leaner, meaner fighting force.

Tim goes parachute jumping with the Russian army

If you have not heard much about the reform, that is not surprising.

It is so wide-reaching, and so controversial that the Kremlin is not keen to advertise it.

Even Russian journalists are rarely allowed onto army bases these days, and for their western colleagues it is more difficult still.

But Newsnight's been allowed to film in two units that the Ministry of defence is particularly proud of.

The 76th, Russia's Paras, and the Air Force's elite Pilot Training and Aircraft Testing centre in Lipetsk, south of Moscow.


The division now based in Pskov dates back to 1939.

Watch Tim Whewell's films on Newsnight this week at 2230GMT, BBC Two and online

International military might (Tuesday 17 March 2009)

Military reform controversy (Wednesday 18 March 2009)

Russia's middle classes (Thursday 19 March 2009)

Its most tragic, yet proudest, moment in recent times, came in 2000, when almost a whole company - 86 men - were wiped out in a battle with Chechen guerrillas.

Back in 2002 the authorities announced it would be one of the first units in the army to stop taking conscripts, and become completely professional.

Its ranks would be filled by "kontraktniki", a new term for soldiers who have signed contracts to serve for a set number of years.

In the past, the Russian Army's hardly had the kind of reputation that would encourage recruits.

More than one thousand soldiers a year die in accidents, by suicide, or as a result of the institutionalised physical abuse of young conscripts known as "dedovshchina".


But army minders in Pskov were keen to show me how attractive a career option the military can now be.

BMD4 airborne combat vehicle
New hardware includes the BMD4, an airborne combat vehicle

The word "barracks", they told me proudly, has been abolished.

Instead, soldiers live in "hostels", just two to a room, and free to bring in their own televisions, computers and other possessions.

Except during wartime or special exercises, they are free to go out into the town or do whatever else they like after their duty ends in the evening.

There is no McDonald's or any other commercial outlet on the base such as you might find in a British or American garrison.

And it is hard to imagine western squaddies singing at the tops of their voices as they march to and from every meal.

But at least soldiers no longer have to wait for an order to sit, another to start eating, and a third to get up again.

And the cooking is now done not by conscripts, but by an outside firm of professional caterers, the first to be employed in any unit.

The aim, says my army guide, Colonel Alexander Cherednik, is simple: "We now think a soldier should do his own job. The less time they spend on unnecessary tasks, the more they have for training."

New hardware

Russia's military shows off new hardware

In the units I visit, training does appear to be intensifying.

Officers and men of the 76th Airborne now perform a minimum of six parachute jumps a year.

Back in the 1990s, when the armed forces were plagued by a shortage of fuel, some did only one or two.

At the Lipetsk air centre, I am told Russia's "top guns" are flying up to 170 hours a year, almost twice as many as they could a few years ago.

In both places, they have new hardware to show off.

In Pskov, they have taken delivery of the latest model of airborne combat vehicle, the BMD-4, now being equipped with Glonass, the Russian satellite navigation system.

In Lipetsk, they now have two of the first completely new model of plane to arrive there in 15 years, the Su-34 fighter bomber, with new avionics systems.

Staggering cuts

But the reform is not just about re-armament.

Russian soldier firing machine gun
Russia wants a fully professional military, but still depends on conscripts

It is about structural reorganisation, the most far-reaching in at least 50 years.

And that is what is so controversial.

Instead of the existing cumbersome four tiers of control, from military district at the top to regiment at the bottom, there will be just three, military districts, tactical commands, and brigades.

Many existing units will be reformed or amalgamated.

The civilian defence minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, is also demanding drastic cuts in Russia's disproportionately large officer corps. Now there is an officer to every two and a half men.

After the reform there should be just one to every 15, more similar to western armies.

But that means losing a staggering 200,000 jobs.

Elite unit

Not surprisingly, there is massive political opposition by an old guard who believe the reforms will only serve to weaken Russia.

Under pressure, the deadline for completing the cuts has been put back from 2012 to 2016, and army chiefs have been forced to promise that they will be achieved by natural wastage, not compulsory redundancies.

Meanwhile, there is uncertainty about whether Russia can now achieve the full professionalisation that was one of the unstated aims of the reforms.

Even in an elite unit like Pskov, the experiment has not fully succeeded, more than six years after it began.

Only about 80% of the men are "kontraktniki", the remainder are still conscripts.

Wages and conditions still are not good enough to attract more, and as Russia's hit by economic crisis, it may be hard to find the resources to improve them.

This may be the most determined of Russia's many recent attempts at military reform, but its success is still far from certain.

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