Russia Battles Hazings, Desertions in Military
The Russian soldiers were napping when a burst of automatic gunfire shot up their dugout in the Caucasus Mountains. Two shadows slipped into the valley below, leaving eight corpses behind.
Officials at first blamed the usual suspects, rebels from nearby Chechnya, but then the investigation took a different tack. After a four-day hunt involving thousands of police, Pvts. Oleg Khismatulin and Nikolai Bozhkov were caught and confessed to killing their comrades, saying it was vengeance for having been hazed.
The killings in late August topped national television headlines as the bloodiest military shootout since February, when two Russian paratroopers fled their unit and killed 10 police officers and civilians.
It has highlighted anew the military’s worsening problem of hazing and desertions, and seems to lend urgency to President Vladimir V. Putin’s push to replace conscription with a mostly professional army by 2010.
One desertion got into the news in early September because of its scandalous scale: 54 soldiers left their unit in southern Russia and marched some 35 miles to Volgograd to protest beatings by their officers.
But most desertions, a daily occurrence throughout the armed forces, go unreported unless they turn violent.
According to the deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, Lt. Gen. Vasily Smirnov, 2,270 servicemen fled their units during the first six months of the year and 860 remained missing. Smirnov said 2,265 deserters were at large, some for as long as 10 years.
Russia’s anti-draft activists give a much higher figure -- about 40,000 -- and say only radical reform can improve things.
“The military degradation has gone too far to deal with through evolutionary steps,” said Ida Kuklina, an activist with Soldiers’ Mothers, Russia’s leading anti-draft group. “The army is the only part of Russian society that has remained virtually unreformed since Soviet times, except for shrinking in size.”
She said her group believes that about 3,000 servicemen die every year in shootouts, suicides and accidents -- not counting daily casualties in the war with separatists in Chechnya.
Smirnov said that excluding deaths in battle, 483 servicemen died on and off duty in the first half of the year, about one-third by suicide.
Hazing starts with routine demands for young conscripts to clean toilets, wash older soldiers’ socks or beg on the streets for cigarette money. The defiant or weak-willed are beaten and, in some cases, tortured, raped and killed. In one glaring example, Russian media recently reported a military prostitution ring in Moscow in which sergeants offered their men as prostitutes.
Captured deserters usually face a military tribunal and are sent to punishment units. Sometimes, authorities simply return deserters to their units, as apparently happened to the 54 soldiers who marched to Volgograd.
Desertions aren’t unique to Russia.
During the Vietnam War, according to figures cited by Col. Robert D. Heinl Jr. in the Armed Forces Journal, the U.S. military in 1970 had 209 “fraggings” -- soldiers’ slang for murder or attempted murder of an unpopular officer -- and 65,643 desertions, the rough equivalent of four infantry divisions.
But hazing in Russia’s military is so widespread and brutal that it has no parallel abroad, Russian anti-draft campaigners say.
The Defense Ministry has started posting morale officers to units. But at a battalion stationed near the Caucasus Mountains’ city of Vladikavkaz, no change was evident. A morale officer said neither he nor other officers were making any efforts to prevent hazing.
“The older soldiers educate young troops. This is the way the army is built,” said the young lieutenant, who identified himself only by his first name, Dmitry. “We mustn’t break the established rules.”
Every Russian male aged 18-27 is supposed to serve two years in the military, but college deferments, health exemptions and bribes mean that only about 12% of potential conscripts were actually called up this spring, compared with about 17% three years ago, according to military officials.
Struggling to fill the ranks, the military routinely drafts men with mental illnesses and criminal records.
“The current law doesn’t forbid calling up convicts with suspended sentences, some of whom have strong criminal habits,” said Mikhail Yanenko, a spokesman for the Chief Military Prosecutor’s office.
Yanenko also said many military crimes occur because poorly paid officers are negligent.
Dmitry, the lieutenant, said he is satisfied with older soldiers looking after young conscripts at his unit and intervenes only if a soldier behaves defiantly.
After a new conscript recently threatened to flee, “we locked him up with his hands and feet tied for a week, and all his impertinence was gone,” Dmitry said.
He added that he also uses a 28-inch, hard-rubber baton he calls an “educator” to punish unruly soldiers.
Anti-draft activists say officers make little effort to prevent suicides and killings in the military because they carry virtually no responsibility for soldiers’ deaths.
“Violence is an inherent part of the existing system,” said Kuklina of the Soldiers’ Mothers group. “This problem will never be solved until the draft is abolished.”
Under pressure from the Kremlin, the military launched a two-year pilot project in September to switch one airborne division entirely from conscripts to professionals, and build housing and other infrastructure. The military views it as a test of how quickly Russia can afford a fully professional military.
But Putin’s order to phase out conscription has met stubborn resistance from the top brass, who say the military lacks the funds to pay for a professional military. In fact, the number of professionals is falling.
In April, 132,000 of Russia’s 1.3 million servicemen were contract soldiers, down from 260,000 a few years ago.
The military blames low pay of around $100 a month, about the same as the nation’s average wage.
A declining birth rate threatens to further diminish the military, with anti-draft campaigners predicting the number of conscripts will drop by half after 2005.
Liberal lawmaker Boris Nemtsov, who advocates a contract army, warns: “Russia may physically lose its army in 2005-2006.”
Yuri Bagrov in Vladikavkaz contributed to this report.