Attrition: Russia Cures Disease In The Barracks


July 16, 2014: Russian military reformers are pointing to improved health among the troops as being the result of improvements in living conditions for the troops. Disease rates among soldiers were down 13 percent last year and this is attributed to more comfortable barracks, especially the installation of showers and washing machines along with better clothing and food. There is more medical care available and commanders have been ordered to allow troops to seek medical care for minor ailment and not, as in the past, only treat soldiers who were seriously ill and often in need of hospitalization. The reformers have to make a case for reforms because since the end of the Cold War in 1991 the traditionalists have opposed reforms and what reformers call efforts to drag the army out of the 19th century. There has been a lot of resistance to change inside the military and among some civilian groups, especially when it involved ancient and often uniquely Russian practices. All this new stuff from the West was seen as, well, un-Russian.

There are many recent changes that rattle the traditionalists. For example, the reformers got troops liberated from the prison-like restrictions they have long endured. For generations Russian conscripts were confined to their barracks when not on duty. This was not pleasant, as the barracks were often decrepit and uncomfortable. The barracks themselves are now being upgraded because they long lacked flush toilets, showers, central heating, and many other amenities Western troops take for granted. In these old barracks troops were allowed to bathe once a week in a bathhouse (actual or improvised for the occasion). Now most troops have showers and some have received wi-fi and modern furnishings. Newly built barracks have flush toilets, showers, better insulation and central heating as standard equipment. This is not the first time Russian soldiers have lived like this. During the Cold War Russian troops stationed in East Germany lived in modern barracks, and that was one reason why duty in Germany was considered a choice assignment. Many older officers and NCOs remember the good old days in East Germany and tend to back the reforms.

Another new reform that received a lot of opposition from traditionalists had to do with socks. The reformers wanted to replace the traditional rugged (and crudely made) slip on boots and foot wrappings with Western style combat boots that use laces, that come in many different sizes, and are meant to be used with socks. The problem with the foot wrappings (“portyanki”) was that if you did not wrap your feet just so, slipping the foot into the “tarpaulin” boots would leave your flesh exposed to the rough inside surface of these boots. This could lead to debilitating blisters. The old-fashioned boots were widely disliked by most of the troops forced to use them. The number of older officers who still favored this 19th century footwear are fading away. Since 2013 portyanki and the old boots that only come in two sizes are gone and this made the troops very happy.

Military reform has never come easily to Russia and usually occurred when a particularly strong and harsh ruler was in charge. In modern times Russia has undergone four periods of major military reform. The first was in the early 18th century, under Czar Peter the Great. The next was under Field Marshall Milyutin in the late 19th century. In the 1930s, over a dozen daring reformers made the military ready for modern warfare. However, most of these men were executed by paranoid dictator, Josef Stalin, just before World War II. For over 60 years there was not much real reform until 2008, when Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov sought to recast the Russian military into a force similar to those found in the West. This meant fewer officers and conscripts, more NCOs and volunteers, plus new equipment, weapons, training methods, and tactics. Serdyukov was replaced in late 2012 and it was thought that his reforms might be halted. That did not happen, but some of his reforms were delayed.

One of Serdyukov’s most unpopular (within the military) moves was to shrink the size of the officer corps. Despite the fact that most of the officers being let go were not really needed, this elicited a lot of protests from active duty and retired officers. The mass officer firings continued anyway. Shrinking the officer corps proved bad for officer morale, as could be expected. Moreover, most of the good officers had left after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and the Russian military saw its budget slashed by 80 percent. Building an NCO corps was difficult because the 1930s reforms had gotten rid of it (because officers, all members of the Communist Party, were considered more politically reliable than NCOs). The big problem is the collapse of the Soviet era military industries. With orders from the Russian military disappearing in the 1990s, many of these firms disappeared or switched to civilian products. Those that survived did so with export orders. The defense industries lost their best people, who left for better paying jobs overseas or in new non-defense firms in Russia.

Then there's the corruption, which expanded in the military in the 1990s, as the size of the force shrunk over 70 percent. Officers and troops sold off a lot of unneeded military equipment and officers stole money they had control over. This caused all sorts of problems, from lack of maintenance for equipment and barracks to shortages of fuel (to stay warm during the severe Russian Winter) and food (causing hunger and even some starvation deaths among lower ranking troops). For most of the last decade military prosecutors have been busy sending corrupt officers to jail. But that has not eliminated the problem. Low troop morale also remains a problem. Thus it should be no surprise that the government has given priority to keeping nuclear weapons, and the missiles that deliver them, in good shape. As for the rest of the armed forces, change is coming very slowly but it keeps coming. The ancient Russian army traditions are gradually being peeled away and the Russian army is slowly evolving into a 21th century force.





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