Defence Committee Chairman Viktor Zavarzin submitted a bill in January proposing to extend the spring conscription from three to five months, the term for transfer to the reserve after discharge to be increased to five months, and the time new recruits spend in training to be reduced from five months to three.
The purpose of the changes proposed by Zavarzin is clear – the reduction in the term of service automatically increases the rotation of the contingent, while there are not enough people needed to fill up all the maneuver units. What’s not clear is why such a goal needs to be set at all.
The Russian army as it is today remains an alogical organisation, being the product of the first half of the last century, when the bulk of military operations was carried out by Belorussian army groups, and the quantity of divisions mattered more than their quality. But the age of global wars is over, now is the age of local warfare. Military operations are becoming increasingly targeted, while the army is becoming increasingly technological.
Obviously, such a clumsy, prehistoric organisation is unable to respond to the modern challenges, and we have seen this over the past fifteen years. And all the fuss is just about another patching over of tears in the proverbial caftan with a piece torn from the very same garment.
Why increase the length of conscription? Because we have a million-strong army based on conscription, and it needs to be filled up. Why decrease training? In order to produce more soldiers for all maneuver units because we have a million-strong army that needs to be filled up. Why increase the length of service? Because we have a million-strong army that needs to be filled up.
Why do we need an army of a million, in which two hundred and fifty thousand rookies are going to receive only three months of training, the next nine beating money out of each other and shovelling snow, and the last five getting drunk in a depot in anticipation of discharge (there is nothing to force a crowd of demobilised soldiers to continue service once the order has come through, I know it from experience)? No one seems to care. Out of the two years I spent in the army, only the six months of training really had anything to do with the army. The other year and a half were spent doing anything at all besides defending the Motherland.
The addition of untrained rookies to the troops leads to simple and sorrowful results. According to The Mother's Right Foundation, which took part in an Independent Press Centre conference, 37% of all deaths among servicemen were various accidents and road accidents, mostly due to the lack of basic training and knowledge.
“People just don’t have the time to learn how to properly use the equipment and weapons,” explains Veronika Marchenko, who chairs organisation. “For example, in one case a soldier was killed by an electrical current because he didn’t know how to properly handle electricity. In another case, a soldier was crushed by a forklift. We have no doubts as to the causes of these deaths. But in both cases, there is no one to hold to account for employing unqualified workers.”
According to the foundation, which was going through the results of last year’s work, the remaining causes of death can be summarised as follows. After accidents come suicides at 28%. Suicide itself can be divided into three categories: a third are actually suicide, another third are considered to have been driven to suicide, and the final third are the result of direct murder.
“The government benefits economically from having as many deaths as possible explained as suicides,” Marchenko stressed. “In this case, relatives lose their right to onetime compensations and further benefits. Incidents in which soldiers have been driven to suicide or murdered are rarely investigated. It is likewise unclear what ought to be done about responsibility for drafting the mentally unstable. There was one incident in which a boy was conscripted after five attempted suicides. The sixth took place in the army, and was successful.”
Twenty-one per cent of soldiers in the army die from illnesses, largely to the late or ineffective medical treatment.
“In 2010, we were approached by the parents of a conscript by the name of Mikhail Potekhin. While taking the oath of allegiance, he had to stand in line with a temperature of 41 degrees. The parents couldn’t call an ambulance because it wouldn’t come to a soldier who had no insurance policy. He refused to go to the hospital because of the mockery and humiliations practiced there. The official reason listed for his death was a wasp bite, which caused his blood pressure to drop. This is an answer to the question of how the boys are treated there and why soldiers die from pneumonia, from which no one in the last century died.”
The remaining categories includes the acts of violence (7%), death in combat (2%), while on duty (5%), and without explanation (5%).
The Mother’s Rights Foundation exists on donations alone. Since it was established, it has received nothing from the government. Just as it has never received any grants from the Civic Chamber, though it applies regularly. And yet, each of the organisation’s three lawyers dealt with 288 written consultations and 33 court cases, on average. For reference: lawyers working for a governmental programme that provides free legal support in the Leningrad region were involved in four written consultations and three court cases a year. In the Perm region, the figures were 29 consultations and 11 cases.
In all, the foundation has helped 4,227 families of dead soldiers this year, winning 67% of court cases. On enthusiasm and conscience alone.
It must be noted that the number of appeals remains stable at between 3,000 and 5,000 per year. No reforms make any difference.
A case won against the Central Post Office, which refused to accept letters paid for with stamps, is very illustrative, showing the social standing of the conscripts’ families. Among the parents of the dead soldiers, 64% don’t have the opportunity to send or receive faxes, 66% don’t have access to the Internet, 69% cannot send emails and 72% cannot print out electronic documents. In other words, for the vast majority, there is no alternative to the post. It is an army of workers and peasants, as it was once said.
Two appeals were sent. The first was sent to the chairman of the Russian government, Vladimir Putin, with a proposal to amend the Regulations on Military and Medical Expertise, so that the parents of soldiers who died more than three months after returning from military service from illnesses received in the army could also qualify for a pension for the loss of a breadwinner. At the present moment they do not qualify.
The second appeal was sent to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, proposing amendments to the Law “On Veterans”. Today, the parents of soldiers who died before 16 January 1995 are entitled to the same consideration as veterans of World War II and receive 2,547 roubles in monthly benefits. The parents of those who died later, let’s say, 17 January, receive 1,079 roubles. The discrimination that occurs as the result of a date is clear. Moreover, if one takes into account that January 1995 saw the highest number of casualties in Chechnya.
As far as discrimination is concerned, it can also be seen in Zavarzin’s changes.
“If the spring conscription is to be extended to August, then only girls will be going to college,” Marchenko said. “All the young men will go and do military service. It is more than just sex discrimination, it deprives young men of their right to a higher education. What kind of tests will they pass after a year in the army?”
Conscription is a thing-in-itself. It has nothing to do with national security. There is no doubt that the army has to be changed. But this must be a fundamental change. The army has to be cut in half and made into a contract army; conscription needs to be confined to training and nothing more, while at the same time developing the institution of recruits (for this one can look to the IDF, the Israeli army). Then it would be possible to create a professional army to deal with operational tasks and an army of many millions of trained recruits in case of a full scale war.
Instead, what we see today is a return to the last century.
“We received a letter from a village in Siberia,” Marchenko said. “A young guy died in the army there. According to the official version, he hung himself. And haematomas are visible on his body. Blackmail comes to light. And so this year, they want to boycott conscription. Normally these are law-abiding citizens, they believe Channel One and don’t gather together on the town square. But if these people have come to this, it only speaks to the fact that the situation has reached a breaking point.”
Definite conclusions can be drawn from all of this: the longer Russia puts off the switch to a professional army, the longer we will receive back from the army thousands and thousands of corpses every year.
Two out of four thousand
Danila Plashchevsky. Drafted into the army on 14 May 2010. On 15 September 2010, he was wounded by gunfire on the firing range. He was fired upon by Lieutenant Gadelshin. The wound was light, and Danila was able to make it to the medical post himself, though as a result of anaphylactic shock he went into a coma and died on 27 September 2010.
Vadim Grechishnikov. Drafted into the army on 2 December 2009, Vadim spent half a year in training, after which he was transferred to post 31524 in the Kirov region. He served there for a little more than a month. Immediately upon arrival, Vadim called his brother and asked him to transfer 2,500 roubles to a certain address, an older serviceman who was extorting the money from him stood nearby. His relatives decided not to send the money. On 25 June, Vadim was found in the forest, on the firing range, hung to death.