MOSCOW -- Russian Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov said Monday that soldiers facing abuse or torture from within the ranks should complain to their commander or a military prosecutor but not go running to the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, a prominent human rights organization.
Ivanov’s comments on Russian TV were in response to a series of mass desertions by soldiers complaining of brutal treatment, ranging from systematic hazing to drunken attacks.
Violence against conscripts is widely seen as a far more severe problem in the Russian military than in most armed forces. Critics decried the defense minister’s statement as out of touch with reality.
In one incident Saturday, a group of 24 soldiers fled their unit to seek help at the St. Petersburg office of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee. The soldiers are part of a noncombat service engaged in railway construction and repair under generally austere conditions.
An army spokesman accused the men of seeking to escape punishment for “hooligan acts” committed after officers tried to prevent a New Year’s Eve vodka binge.
The deserters claimed that a captain threw stools at them, fired a gun and threatened them with a knife and that a major later beat and tortured some of them. Four soldiers from the unit were hospitalized, TVS television reported.
“When servicemen appeal to the military prosecutor -- if their appeal to their direct commander brings no results -- I consider this completely normal,” Ivanov said.
He added, however, that he was troubled by soldiers’ traveling long distances to seek the help of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee.
The committee has branches in major cities across the vast country, but many military bases are in remote areas.
Ivanov pinned responsibility for most desertions on commanders who “do not know how to work with their subordinates and are not interested in what is really going on in the barracks.”
Valentina Melnikova, chairwoman of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, described Ivanov’s call for soldiers to go to military prosecutors as a “nonstarter.”
“The first thing that any military prosecutor’s office does when it deals with a deserter is to call his unit, hand the serviceman back over to his own unit and have the garrison commanders investigate the desertion case,” she said. “And there is no need to explain what can happen to a guy who ran away to complain about his commanders when he gets back into their hands.”
The only way to seriously address the problems of abuse and desertions is to make the Russian army far more professional, said Vladimir Slipchenko, a reserve major general who is vice president of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has set a goal of replacing conscription with a mostly professional army by 2010.
“The military system in Russia today does not treat soldiers as essential combat elements,” Slipchenko said. “Instead of guns, 95% of Russian soldiers have shovels and brooms in their hands.
“They are not even individuals in the proper sense of the word. They are more like items on the list, depersonalized figures that generals and other top officers use to solve their own tasks,” Slipchenko said. “That is why mass desertions have been and will keep happening.”
Official military statistics place the desertion rate at about 4,000 to 5,000 per year, but the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee puts it at about 40,000.
Melnikova said the military has not changed since Soviet times.
“Officers still treat soldiers like dirt under their boots,” she said. “The officers’ attitude toward soldiers has not changed a bit. To most officers, soldiers are still dirty and dumb animals, cannon fodder, or a source of personal enrichment.
“Besides, the cultural and the intellectual level of both conscripts and officers leaves a lot to be desired. Figuratively speaking, both come from the same family of alcoholics. In that sense, the officers are no different from the soldiers. And this is the tragedy of the Russian armed forces.”
It is clear, Slipchenko said, why many in the Defense Ministry dislike the mothers’ committee:
“They tell the truth. They are the mouthpiece that tells the public about the outrages that happen in the units.”
The Soldiers’ Mothers Committee is “not scared to say that soldiers are lice-ridden, starved and dressed in dirty, oversized uniforms,” Slipchenko said. “The soldiers’ mothers are not scared to say that conditions in today’s armed forces in Russia are not that much different from in Russian prisons. That is why servicemen run away.”
Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.