Russian Army’s Honor as Thin as Its Soldiers


Shopkeeper Vakhid Umarov was watching the aerial bombardment of Pervomayskaya from the bird’s-eye view of this adjacent village when two Russian soldiers scampered out of their frozen foxhole to propose a deal.

“They wanted to sell me their ammunition,” the bemused Dagestani purveyor of cigarettes and liquor explained after he turned down the recruits’ offer. “They said they needed money for vodka and something to eat.”

In the neighboring village of Sovetskaya, a trio of sooty infantrymen plodded from one farmhouse to another, inquiring of the shellshocked peasants whether they had any spare bread.


At night, as campfires lit faces set with boredom and resentment, soldiers choked down their seven-ounce rations of canned buckwheat porridge mixed with fat, hugging thin cloth field jackets as they huddled in drainage ditches to escape the wind-borne chill.

“What are the locals to think when they see us roaming their villages like skinny stray dogs, eyes burning with hunger?” grumbled a dejected artilleryman named Sergei. “Everyone is trading ammunition for bread, pickles, vodka. One hand grenade is worth one bottle of vodka. Tell me, is this normal?”

Demoralized by indecisive leaders in Moscow and physically depleted by pitiful feeding and $8 monthly pay, the foot soldiers of the Kremlin’s military machine are proving incapable of winning even the most lopsided of battles.

Nowhere is the post-Soviet decline of Russia more obvious than in its armed forces, which have become the target of harsh criticism as hopeless hordes of abused soldiers under the command of cynical and self-serving generals.

It took five days for the Russian military to position itself for an assault on 300 Chechen rebels holed up in Pervomayskaya with a human shield of at least 100 hostages. It took three more days of unrelenting bombardment with the heaviest artillery in Russia’s mighty arsenal before President Boris N. Yeltsin could declare the job done.

Still, Chechen warrior Salman Raduyev’s band of rebels appears to have gotten the better of this erstwhile superpower’s army. As many as half of the gunmen slipped out of Pervomayskaya through a cordon of 10,000 heavily armed federal troops.



Russia’s fighting forces have been deteriorating since the demise of the Soviet Union and an arms-race mentality that diverted as much as half of the Communist-era resources to the military.

Today the army is an amalgamation of dispirited youths too slow to contemplate draft evasion and veteran officers of the Soviet Red Army embittered by the willful neglect of their service.

Deprived of their Cold War-era purpose of preparing to defend a powerful motherland from foreign invasion, Russia’s 1.8 million soldiers now face deployment in domestic political battles that tend to bring them not medals and glory but finger-pointing and shame.

And when the mission goes awry, as it did in Pervomayskaya, the enlisted men and officers carrying out Moscow’s orders are often made the scapegoats to spare the careers of the top commanders.

Yeltsin lambasted his ministers for defense, police and security on nationwide television the day after Raduyev’s men seized their hostages in Kizlyar on Jan. 9. But the public show of pique with the military passed virtually unnoticed, and not a single general’s head appears likely to roll.


Cowed by the threat of punishment for daring to criticize their superiors, none of the soldiers who spoke of their hardships in the assault on Pervomayskaya were willing to give their full names.


But the complaints of the cold and ill-supplied troops have been sadly consistent. Virtually every enlisted man or officer drawn into conversation berated those running the operation for incompetence, conflicting objectives and an utter lack of strategic thinking.

“Why are we doing nothing while they improve their defenses?” one major with the elite paratroopers contingent had asked. His unit was standing idle for a fifth day while the Chechens dug in against the looming onslaught.

Once the ferocious artillery barrages began, other officers cursed their inept equipment, claiming that radios malfunctioned at crucial moments and that reinforcements came too late or not at all.

Most shackling for the troops, though, was the absence of a sense of mission and the disregard for the lives of hostages implicit in the government’s decision to level the village with the captives still in it.

Ever since Yeltsin sent armor and air power into breakaway Chechnya in December 1994, those sent to prosecute the assault have been confused by a campaign to annihilate one of Russia’s own peoples.

The Kremlin unleashed fierce firepower against Chechnya in the first months of the conflict, seizing most of the lowland territory in the Caucasus Mountains republic. But the war has bogged down since the last of the fighters loyal to fugitive Chechen President Dzhokar M. Dudayev took to the mountains and turned to a strategy of terror.


The humiliating David-versus-Goliath outcome at Pervomayskaya is in part a reflection of the low morale of troops deployed to score a political rather than military victory.

And that reluctance to fulfill a misguided mission is intensified by the physical hardships endured by troops thrown into battle with little more than the clothes on their backs.

“What can be more dangerous than an underfed and embittered army of teenagers armed to the teeth with modern and powerful weapons who, on top of everything, don’t have any clear idea of the goals of the army they are serving in?” asked Sergei, the disillusioned artilleryman.

In a commentary in the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, writer Alexander V. Minkin excoriated the federal military hierarchy for “using everything short of a nuclear bomb and chemical weapons” and yet failing to inflict as much damage on the Chechens as on the captives.

“While the other side has no tanks, helicopters or rockets, they have the incredible combat spirit of people who have been forever deprived of their wives, children and homes,” Minkin said. “They also have incredible pride, because they have been taking on the entire Russian army.”

One sergeant lamented the hardships imposed on Russian soldiers as he sat around a burning scrap pile the night before the federal assault.


Sent into battle with severely inadequate rations, no gloves, no change of clothes and no toilet paper, rank-and-file troops are in a constant state of hunger, cold and exhaustion, the sergeant said.

“Such a life, day in and day out, breaks a man down. And a broken man is incapable of mutiny. He turns into a zombie, and that’s what our leaders want.”


Hijackers of a ferry in the Black Sea surrender. A8