Russia's once-feared army is low on morale

It was once the most feared fighting machine on earth but the defeats of Afghanistan and Chechnya and the economic collapse at…

It was once the most feared fighting machine on earth but the defeats of Afghanistan and Chechnya and the economic collapse at home have mortally wounded Russia's army. The force which is due to share a peacekeeping role with NATO in Kosovo is low on morale, badly paid and fed and suffers from a brutal tradition of "hazing" in which young recruits become the virtual slaves of their elders.

Once the lines of the civil war song " . . . from the Taiga to the British seas, the Red army is the strongest of all" struck fear into Western hearts. In their long history the armies of Russia have camped in Berlin and at the gates of Paris. They have even crossed the Alps in victory.

That proud tradition is now moribund. Pavel Felgenhauer, the defence and national security editor of the respected Moscow daily Segodnya put it this way: "The military, including all the `other forces' - the Interior Ministry, the border guards and the Federal Security Service, or FSB - were disgraced by the Chechen debacle. They have been underpaid and underfed for years.

They have now reached the stage at which they are also underequipped and undertrained. Discipline is lax and desertion is common. In the early days of the war in Chechnya I spoke to deserters in Moscow who claimed they had been sent into battle without ever having fired a shot in training.


In military hospitals young conscripts told stories of being towed into battle after their armoured personnel carriers had broken down, of being left by their officers to fend for themselves, of living off the land. Elsewhere in Chechnya the lethal combination of the Kalashnikov in the one hand and the bottle of vodka in the other put the fear of God into the most seasoned observers.

Even in earlier times, when the military industrial complex was still intact, the army's discipline left a lot to be desired. Russian senior officers in the former East Germany were accused of massive corruption and of a dashing entrepreneurial spirit in which they put the hard currency budgets from Moscow on short-term deposit in Western banks and pocketed the interest.

When a young journalist from Moskovsky Komsomolets called Dmitri Kholodov began to investigate the situation he was conned into picking up a briefcase of "incriminating documents". When he opened it he was blown to pieces.

According to Mr Felgenhauer, in today's army officers and soldiers are committing suicide in unprecedented numbers. Commissioned officers, he wrote, committed 18,000 felonies in 1997. In the northern Caucasian, Ural and Zabaikal military districts the number of felonies has doubled annually.

Some units of Russia's diverse armed forces, however, operate at a level of professionalism which is well up to world standards. The Dzerzhinsky and Taman divisions have traditionally been considered as elite in comparison to many others. These units have also usually been based in or close to the Moscow region in case of political troubles in the capital. Their deployment in Kosovo seems extremely unlikely.

If reports from the Russian regions are indicative of the situation, it would appear that newly-formed units of special volunteers will be set up for the Kosovo operation. In the Urals city of Chelyabinsk, for example, work has started on forming a local battalion of 600 volunteers with 300 in reserve. The region's information officer said that only professionals in specialist military disciplines would be accepted for the force. "Contract volunteers" would receive a salary of $1,000 a month - a small fortune by Russian standards.

But the deputy head of the region's recruiting office, Mr Alexander Gontarenko, told the RIA-Novosti news agency yesterday: "So far I've personally seen only one volunteer."