Unloved, unpaid and under-fed ... how a failed doctrine wrought havoc with Russia's dead army

Christopher Bellamy reports on soldiers begging in Moscow and officers driving taxis.
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The Independent Online
Moscow - If anyone were fool enough to attack Russia today, the only way the Russians could respond quickly would be with nuclear missiles. The rest of the Russian armed forces have reached a point of crisis and are on the edge of disintegration. It is a miracle they have not already fallen apart.

A group of young soldiers, in uniform, approach a car stopped at a set of Moscow traffic lights. They are conscripts, who are not allowed to wear civilian clothes, but they are unarmed and unthreatening. "Please, sir", one says, leaning over to the window. "Can you spare 1,000 roubles [11p]?"

Moscow sprawls, muddy and cold, a grey ocean punctuated by glittering, hermetically sealed islands of Western wealth. Much of the city is controlled by criminal gangs, who sponge off the wealth pouring in from foreign investors and from Russia's own vast natural assets, just like 1920s Chicago, but without prohibition.

Amid the foreign wealth, a lieutenant-general at the nerve centre of Russian operational planning has not been paid since August. His daughter wants to study medicine but the family cannot afford the fees, so she works in a bank, one of many Western enterprises springing up in Moscow, to try to save the money. But, at the moment, she is subsidising her father.

Last year, a fighter squadron was temporarily deployed to the Russian Far East. The officers had to make their way across Russia's vast land mass, stopping at hotels. Their expenses, and the component of their salary designed to cover food, have still not been paid.

Somehow, they manage. They always did, in an economy more attuned to real goods than to money. "Captain so-and-so isn't so badly off," they say. "Do you know, his wife works in the pilots' mess? They get all the food they need".

Fortunately, nobody is likely to attack Russia today, or tomorrow. Just as well, because with the armed forces in their current parlous state, it is difficult to believe Russia could mount a conventional defence. They would have to use the only forces they keep at a "high state of readiness" - their nuclear forces.

"We have concentrated on the main priorities" said Colonel Viktor Baranets, press secretary to General Igor Rodionov, the Defence Minister. "The strategic missile forces remain in a high state of readiness. So do the space forces."

It is highly unlikely that Col Baranets has been paid lately. Since August, hardly anyone has, and travel expenses and subsistence allowances have not been paid for a year. General Rodionov has refused to take any pay himself until the arrears have been sorted out.

These are the people to whom the pay system gives priority - the General Staff, the elite "court" division in Moscow. Servicemen in lower priority units have been without pay for much longer.

Yet, extraordinarily, some of them carry on working, although the part- time jobs they do to pay their bills are absorbing more and more of their energies. Many officers drive taxis at night.

Col Baranets and his interpreter, however, were smartly dressed, in newly introduced uniforms. "This is the extent of military reform so far" said the colonel. "A new uniform, new forms, new rubber stamps". But even the new uniforms are in short supply. Many officers only have one uniform shirt, and only wear uniform on special occasions. Even officers' uniform shoes are in short supply.

Most of the military blames the former Defence Minister, General Pavel Grachev, who was fired in advance of the presidential election in July for not grasping the need to cut the size of the Russian forces to a manageable level.

The official strength of the armed forces - army, navy, air force, missile troops and space forces - is 1.7 million, although with desertion and manpower shortfalls, the true figure is probably nearer 1.3 million.

"The aim is to reduce by 200,000 in the next two years," said Col Baranets. "In the longer term, [to reduce] to a million - maybe even 500,000. There is agreement that the armed forces are too big, but," he smiled, "the country is big also." It is understood that General Rodionov and his advisers believe that the sheer size of Russia rules out armed forces of less than a million.

But these form less than half of the 4 million men Russia still has under arms - an astounding number for a country in such difficulties. There are also soldiers in the Interior Ministry, the FSB (the former KGB), and the Border Guards, plus troops who guard communications facilities, railways, and those who belong to the Ministry for Emergency Situations.

The Russians are working on unifying the state defence structure. They like the idea of a "Joint Chiefs of Staff" set-up, like that in Britain or America. Chechnya, where army and interior ministry units shot at one another, has made a deep impression.

The overwhelming impression is that Russia has not grappled with the problem from the top down. Traditionally, the structure and even the equipment of the armed forces hasbeen driven by a vision of the character of future war, and the kind of forces needed to fight it. This vision they called "military doctrine". In the late Imperial and Soviet eras, it was geared to the possibility of the next World War - One, Two or Three. The Russians were totally unprepared for an internal war against their own people.

The problem was that, having centred on "doctrine", the whole system is paralysed until such a doctrine can be produced. In the interim, there is a consummate irony. The disintegration of the Russian military could present more of a threat to the West than its forces ever did in their most developed, Cold-War, form.

Power cuts

Strategic nuclear warheads 8,625

Total men under arms (Russian figure) 4 million, of which:

Armed forces 1.7m (probably nearer 1.3m) of which: Strategic missile and space troops 149,000; Army 460,000; Air force (VVS) 145,000; Air defence (PVO): 175,000; Navy (VMF) 190,000.

Interior Ministry (MVD) 232,000;

Frontier Forces (PV) 100,000; Forces for Protection of Russian Fed'n (FSB) 20,000; Federal Government Communications and Information Agency (FAPSI) troops 90,000 (?); Ministry for Emergency Situations troops 90,000 (?); Transport 90,000.

Total accounted for: 1,741,000

Other troops: 2,259,000

Sources: International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Russian Ministry of Defence.