Morale: Things Are Not Going Well In Russia


September 7, 2009: Things are not going well in the Russian armed forces. Violence (by officers and NCOs against troops, and troops beating on each other) and corruption (over 500 officers prosecuted last year) continue to increase. So far this year, there have been 181 non-combat deaths among the million troops of the armed forces. Most are suicides or the result of sloppiness in handling weapons or equipment. Some of this is due to poor training, but often the deceased was drunk at the time of his demise. Hundreds of officers are prosecuted each year for physically abusing their troops. There are many more cases of troops injuring each other, usually as a result of bullying. Thousands of troops end up requiring medical care each year because of all this.

Meanwhile, the Russian armed forces are going through a tremendous reorganization, which involves firing or retiring over 120,000 officers (leaving over 200,000 still in uniform) and eliminating thousands of headquarters (which used to provide employment for many of the dismissed officers). The army will now use the brigade as the basic unit (instead of the division, which had been the case for over a century). Most Western nations had already adopted the brigade type structure, something which the Russians were considering even before the Cold War ended in 1989. Meanwhile, the conscription period has gone from two years to one. This means many more troops must be drafted to maintain strength. But a growing number of potential conscripts are drug addicts, have criminal records or are in lousy physical shape. The military considers the addicts hopeless, but you can usually do something with the thugs and wimps. Unfortunately, the thugs often end up beating the crap out of the wimps, and anyone else who seems weak.

The Russians want an all-volunteer forces, but has lacked the money to replace all conscripts with higher quality, and more highly paid, volunteers. But first, they have to create an effective number of NCOs (sergeants). After World War II, Russia deliberately avoided developing a professional NCO corps. They preferred to have officers take care of nearly all troop supervision. The NCOs that did exist were treated as slightly more reliable enlisted men, but given little real authority. Since officers did not live with the men, slack discipline in the barracks gave rise to the vicious hazing and exploitation of junior conscripts by the senior, or simply stronger and more ruthless, ones. This led to very low morale, and a lot of suicides, theft, sabotage and desertions. Long recognized as a problem, no solution ever worked.

During the 1990s, when military budgets were cut by over two-thirds, most of the best officers got out, and went on to make their fortunes in the new market economy. That left a lot of career officers who saw no other job prospects. Many turned to corrupt practices to supplement their low military pay. Corruption got out of hand. It's still out of control.

The hazing and corruption in the military is a complex issue. For one thing, Russia does not have military police to deal with this sort of thing. During the Soviet period (1921-91), the KGB kept an eye on criminal activity in the military, but was more concerned with loyalty and espionage. The violence and hazing in the ranks was not seen as a big problem. It is now, because Russians can vote, and the parents of young men getting abused while doing their conscript service, are making a lot of noise over this issue. Taxpayers are more interested in what the military is doing with their money.

For any meaningful change to occur in the military, there has to be a major upgrade in leadership throughout the force. The first step is to get rid of the most troublesome and least effective officers. Money for more NCOs and contract soldiers will have to come out of the existing personnel budget. Sacking most of the existing officers seems like the way to go for solving both of these problems. 

One solution that seems to have made a difference was the installation of video cameras on bases. Since the video is stored, and provides evidence of crimes (which can send troops to prison, which is not a good place to be, even for a tough guy.) But a longer term, and more effective, solution is to convince all officers that the welfare of their troops is really, really important. But first, the culture of corruption within the officers corps has to be eliminated, and that is proving a difficult task.


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