#8 - JRL 7005
January 5, 2003
Russia recruits army volunteers
Margaret Coker - Cox Moscow Correspondent
Sunday, January 5, 2003
Pskov, Russia --- In a city where Russia's past military glory is enshrined in a myriad of statues and monuments, a division of elite paratroopers is spearheading the transformation of the once-fabled Red Army.
The 76th Pskov Airborne Division, a highly decorated unit that has sent men to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia, is seeking to be the first Russian military unit to fill its ranks with full-time contract soldiers.
The challenge is daunting. Russia's bloated officer corps is resistant to any change of the 1 million-member conscript army. Money also is sparse, and reform has become a political football.
Yet doing nothing is not an option, military experts say.
''Our army is a huge military machine that Russia's impoverished economy and society cannot afford," said Vladimir Voronov, a military analyst for the daily Novoye Vremya newspaper. "It's the same burden that led to the broviet Union 11 years ago. But since that time, the armed forces have not changed at all. The doctrine, structure, formation, logistics, armament, tactics, strategy, personnel and even training are still Soviet.''
Acknowledging the army's collapsing morale, aging equipment and substandard training, President Vladimir Putin last fall ordered his defense minister to formulate a new national security policy and a modernization plan for the armed forces.
Sergei Ivanov, widely regarded as Russia's version of Karl Rove for his closeness to the president, decided to focus first on manpower issues, using the Pskov paratrooper division to enact what has become known as the ''reform experiment.''
Now this town 800 miles northeast of Moscow, the site of major military confrontations dating back 1,000 years, is on the front lines of a policy battle.
Reform backers say the new plan will save the Russian army and the men serving in it.
''If we don't reform the Russian army, we can forget about the Russian army,'' said Boris Nemtsov, a Russian lawmaker whose small party has made military change a cornerstone of its platform.
Last year, nearly 3,000 draftees deserted, accusing their officers of carrying out savage hazing and protesting what they call subhuman living conditions during their two years of mandatory army service.
Conscripts make approximately $3 a month, and low-ranking officers make an average wage of about $75 a month. An estimated 20,000 noncommissioned officer positions are unfilled. To make matters worse, Russian demographic trends show that by 2010, the country won't have enough eligible males to fill draft quotas.
Enter contract service, an idea Ivanov says will let Russia fight modern wars with a smaller army that the struggling economy can pay a living wage.
While the military brass doesn't dispute the sorry state of the army, they have come out against Ivanov's plan. The reasons, analysts say, have as much to do with rifts between Ivanov, a former KGB agent like Putin, and the uniformed armed forces leadership.
Ivanov announced in November that by 2007, he would like to see contract servicemen filling most of Russia's combat-ready units, starting with Pskov and then moving to an additional 10 divisions, seven brigades and 13 regiments of marines, paratroopers and airmen. This would total about 124,000 volunteer soldiers, or less than 15 percent of the entire armed forces.
The general staff, however, wants to delay the start of a transition to a contract army until 2011.
The brass also insists that each contract soldier should be given his own apartment free of charge --- one of the main perks for Soviet-era troops.
Nemtsov criticizes this idea as ''sabotage'' because there isn't enough money to fund such a building spree.
In meetings with Ivanov and Putin, Nemtsov has presented what he calls more ''forward-looking'' ideas, such as increasing wages and covering costs of higher education for veterans.
Military leaders ''want to bury reform by burying money into holes in the ground," Nemtsov said.
"This won't produce better soldiers, of course, and so reform will stop," he said. ''Our surveys show that the servicemen should be paid a living wage. Let them make enough money to afford rent, afford a family and afford to serve their country.''