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Monday, February 23, 1998 Published at 14:46 GMT


World: Analysis

Russian Army: little to celebrate



Every year on Defender of the Fatherland Day, the Russian Army, now 80 years-old, celebrates its official founding. In its early days the army was ill-equipped, but fired with enthusiasm and had high morale. Nowadays it's ill-equipped but lacking in enthusiasm and morale is at rock bottom. The BBC's Russian Affairs Analyst, Stephen Dalziel, looks at an army in crisis.

The best that the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, could offer the Russian Army on its big annual holiday was that, as he put it, "things will soon be much better than they are now". That's pretty poor consolation for an army which has seen its standing in society plummet in the last ten years, many of its best officers leave for lucrative jobs in the civilian world and the morale of its soldiers fall lower than ever before.

The present Russian Army has its roots in a decree issued by Lenin's Bolsheviks 80 years ago. Three and a half months after the so-called Bolshevik Revolution -- now regarded by all but the most die-hard Communists as little more than a coup d'etat -- the Bolsheviks seriously feared that they were about to lose their grip on the cradle of the Revolution, Petrograd They called for volunteers to join them to save the city; and this rag-tag bunch of untrained soldiers was credited with being the founding unit of the Red Army.

The new Red Army commanders realised that there was a wealth of untapped military talent from which they could benefit, and soon ex-Tsarist officers were recruited to knock the new army into shape. It was largely thanks to the expertise of these "military specialists" -- and the disorganised nature of the "White" opposition -- that the Red Army was to emerge victorious when the Civil War finished in 1922.

The Red Army's greatest moment of glory came with the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. It also set the tone for the army's high standing in society for the next forty years. In the nuclear age, the Soviet Communist Party maintained that the Soviet Union was in imminent danger of attack, and the Soviet Army, as it was re-named after the Second World War, was the country's reliable defender.

But the debacle of the Soviet Army's performance in Afghanistan in the 1980's largely put paid to this myth of invincibility. And the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union saw the army, along with many other areas of society, fall into a depressed and penniless state. There's been talk of military reform in Russia ever since. But until concrete measures are taken, all that the modern Russian Army will share with those who answered the call to arms in 1918, is its lack of up-to-date equipment.



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