Once-feared Russian army proves to be hollow force THE WAR IN CHECHNYA

January 15, 1995|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- The military debacle in Chechnya has forced Russians to the devastating conclusion that their army is in serious disarray, undisciplined, poorly trained and ill-equipped.

The army's ignominious performance has exposed Russia's ultimate military secret, experienced officers and others say: A decay that set in more than 30 years ago has severely debilitated the nation's defenses.

"The army has disintegrated," said Yuri I. Deryugin, a retired colonel and military sociologist. "The army that won World War II, that strong army, only existed until 1957. Then it gradually began to decline, so slowly that it was difficult to see."

While the United States was spending billions of dollars for powerful Cold War defenses, said Colonel Deryugin, the Soviet army it so deeply feared was beset by the same pathologies that were eroding economic and political life.

Influence and connections began to replace intelligence and hard work in the army as in other institutions. Fulsome reports became more important than actual achievements.

In Chechnya, the first major military test since the failed Afghan war, the army has proven a major embarrassment to the Russian government. Small groups of Chechen rebels have held their ground while Russian soldiers absorb high casualties, destroy homes and kill civilians.

"The whole world has come to know the main Russian military secret," said Lt. Gen. Alexander Lebed, who commands the 14th Army in Moldova.

"Russia no longer has an army -- what it has is only military formations of boy-soldiers which are hardly capable of achieving anything."

Today's Russian army is not only poorly trained but below strength: The latest draft, conducted last fall, produced only 9 percent of the necessary recruits. About 70 percent of army divisions are at half strength; none is at more than 75 percent strength. And over a third of the soldiers failed to graduate from high school, leaving the army ill-equipped to handle modern weapons.

Russia's defense establishment for years neglected its soldiers and their training, relying instead on nuclear weapons, according to Pavel Felgenhauer, defense editor for Russia's Sevodnya newspaper.

"The truth is that the Russian army was never really as powerful as it appeared from paper comparisons between numbers of tanks and artillery pieces held by East and West," Mr. Felgenhauer wrote last week.

"The Russian army was designed to fight a nuclear war, and therefore it doesn't meet with much success in conventional fighting."

Thanks to the general liberalization of society, Colonel Deryugin said, for the first time officers and infantrymen can discuss shortcomings openly.

A 19-year-old soldier named Alexei deserted last week as he was about to be sent to Chechnya. After a year in the army, he feared he didn't know how to defend himself.

"I only used a Kalashnikov once," he said, "and I never managed to hit the target."

Sasha Belov, 18, a tall, black-haired youth, is back from the front, lying in an Interior Ministry hospital outside Moscow being treated for rotting skin on his feet and legs.

"Of course we didn't know how to behave in battle," he said. "We were only taken to the target range twice."

He was sent to Chechnya seven months after he was drafted. His group had five armored personnel carriers, only two of which worked.

"Everything depended on commands from Moscow," he said, "and in Moscow they were wearing holes in their trousers" -- meaning they were wearing out the seats of their pants by sitting in their chairs.

Career officer laments

On a snowy day last week, Col. Mikhail Moskolets sat in a car outside a Moscow army post and talked about the military's fissuring and crumbling. Officers and soldiers going in and out of this military installation showed little hesitation at chatting with a foreigner, giving their names and talking openly.

Colonel Moskolets, 35, has been in the army 18 years: "Every year I have watched the training get worse. On paper the regulations and requirements have gotten stricter, but that's only on paper."

He has watched as higher-ups worried more about privilege than performance. The 4 million-man Soviet army was shrinking to 1.7 million, and troops coming home from the Baltics and Germany set up housekeeping in fields and tents because there were no apartments or barracks for them.

"No one wants to go into the army now," the colonel said. "They know it's a bad life with low pay" -- about $3 a month for privates, less than a prison inmate gets.

From 1981 until 1985, he said, he was stationed in the Crimea, assigned to train soldiers. "The training was weak even then," he said. "Many things were taken out of the air. We reported things we never did."

The colonel said the soldiers in his command were inspected twice a year by a visiting team of higher-ranking officers. "How well the soldiers performed depended on that year's harvest," he said.

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