Russians put faith in better quality troops

Grozny caught military in transition, writes Christopher Bellamy
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The Independent Online
Russian forces yesterday continued to press into Grozny from north and south, spearheaded by better quality troops from Interior Ministry, parachute and marine units.

But, with the Russian Army still bottom of the list when it comes to assigning the best quality people, the Russians have, as so often, heeded Napoleon's advice: "The more inferior a body of troops, the more artillery it requires."

A force estimated at 180 tanks, more than 120 self-propelled howitzers and maybe 80 self-propelled mortars, plus hundreds of lighter armoured vehicles, yesterday shrouded the renewed advance with a curtain of fire.

The composition of the Russian forces converging on the centre of Grozny remains unclear. The Chechen campaign has caught the Russian armed forces in the early stages of transition from a predominantly conscript body to what is hoped will one day be a more professional one, and the Russians have suffered as a result. But yesterday a slow but remorseless build-up of better quality troops was turning the tables.

The Russians set much score by replacing their former conscript army with one containing a higher proportion of career soldiers in the junior ranks. In June last year they had achieved 26 per cent and by this year they hoped to get 30 per cent, relying on conscripts to provide the other 70 per cent. They have probably achieved that but, in terms of quality, the results have been disappointing. In October the Chief of the Ground Forces (Army), Colonel-General Vladimir Semyonov, said that many of the cont ract volunteers, who joined out of desperation, maybe just for a roof over their heads, were "morally unsavoury or in defective health". Contract may actually be worse than conscript, the Russians have found.

The more liberal regime in Russia has meant that anyone qualified for tertiary education - 84 per cent of the age-group- formerly liable for conscription - is now exempt. There has also been a high incidence of draft dodging: an estimated 50,000 to 70,00

0 in 1993, although only 1,531 criminal cases have been brought, of which six per cent have been successful. And whereas a career as an officer used to be attractive to the best qualified young men, that is no longer the case.

The best of the conscripts go to the Interior Ministry forces, and to the higher technology services in the armed forces: the strategic missile troops, air forces and navy.

The ground forces get the worst. Western experts believe the higher quality of the Interior Ministry troops and other services, which may have 50 per cent conscripts rather than 70 per cent, is not so much due to the higher proportion of contract personnel, but to the fact they get better conscripts. Also, as many of the contract soldiers join to have a relatively comfortable life, they are not necessarily attracted to the more demanding life in elite units, even though they qualify for better conditions and pay.

For the ground forces, the shortage of available manpower has two very serious consequences. First, the Russian armed forces are getting only half the people they need. Last year they were 250,000 short of their authorised strength of 570,000. Second, the potential university students - now exempt - used to provide the non-commissioned officers and specialist troops. The only people properly qualified to do such jobs now are officers.