What's Next for the Russian Military?

Reported by Keith Porter, co-host, Common Ground

WALTER CRONKITE: Following the devastation of World War II, the Soviets built one of the largest militaries in history with three million troops, naval and air bases circling the globe, and a nuclear arsenal with terrifying capacity. Now, ten years after the end of the Soviet Union, the Russian armed forces are a mere shadow of their past glory. Correspondent Keith Porter reports from Moscow.

[Announcer: Russians drive for Berlin! (sound of artillery fire)]

["Thousands of Russian tanks crush Nazi resistence and German dead litter the road."]

DIMITRY GRIGORIEVICH: (Via Translator) We went to Romania, then Poland, Germany, then Czechoslovakia—we deployed there quickly because they needed help. We were victorious, thanks to our love of the motherland.

KEITH PORTER: Dimitry Grigorievich wears a chest full of shiny, red and gold medals honoring his service in World War II. He's describing his role in the Soviet Army's liberation of countries occupied by the Nazis at the end of the war. Here at Moscow's Victory Park, Grigorievich says he's worried about today's Russian military.

GRIGORIEVICH: Today there's no army, there's nothing. When you compare the army today with what was before—you can't even do it. There was glory back then. These days, there's none.

PORTER: His comrade in arms, Alexey Vassilievich, agrees.

ALEXEY VASSELIYVICH: (Via Translator) Those soldiers were real soldiers, real officers. They saved Russia from the German fascists—and they held the nation together—that was our generation. But this generation gives up too easily.

PORTER: Pavel Felgenhauer, independent defense analyst in Russia, says the veterans have reason to worry about today's Russian military.

PAVEL FELGENHAUER: (Via Translator) Morale is very low and this is not only my opinion. That's what many high-ranking Russian generals tell me; that the morale of the Russian military is appalling. And morale continues to slide, and I know that in the top of the Russian military there is a lot of anxiety about what's happening right now with the Russian armed forces.

PORTER: This anxiety reaches beyond Russia's borders. A weak, chaotic, disorganized Russian military could pose an internal threat to democracy and could be a destabilizing force internationally according to Celeste Wallender of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

CELESTE WALLENDER: It is absolutely the case that a weak Russian military in these terms is not in American national security interests. Russia is a big place and it needs to feel secure. A corrupt, underpaid, underfed Russian military is susceptible to selling not only Kalishnikovs to Chechen rebels, but nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons to the highest bidder.

PORTER: The Russian armed forces are now four times smaller than the Soviet armed forces ten years ago. And defense spending has dropped 95%. The decline of the Russian military began when former president Boris Yeltsin deliberately cut the military budget and weakened the armed forces because he feared their political power. Now Russia is paying the price. The headlines are full of stories about sinking ships and submarines, crashing military planes, and deserting soldiers.

[Heavy altillery and Russian men shouting: "ammo is ready!"]

PORTER: Thousands of Russian troops have been killed in Chechnya. And with every new story of horrendous human rights violations and deep corruption, morale plummets even lower. So does the military's public image. World War II vet Dimitry Grigorievich reacts with anger to the stories of Russian troops selling weapons to the very rebels they are fighting in Chechnya.

GRIGORIEVICH: (Via Translator) These people are not soldiers nor officers; they're traitors. With them you can do little but line them up against a wall and pull the trigger. A bastard in life is a bastard in the army too.

PORTER: Alexandr Golts covered the Russian military for ITOGI (ee-tow-ghi), the premier Russian newsmagazine forced out of business in the Spring of 2001. He says Russian soldiers at the lowest end of the pay scale make the equivalent of one US dollar a month. Officers do a little better but still don't make anything near a living wage. Given this, Golts says the path to military corruption is sometimes paved with good intentions.

[Sounds of Army marching]

ALEXANDER GOLTS: (Golts Farm) I can tell you a usual story of how an officer became corrupted. He will use the single thing this commander can use, the slave labor of soldiers. So he uses it. He sends his soldiers to nearest brick factory or to the nearest farm, and he receives money to feed them. But in eyes of any prosecutor it is a crime. It is the normal way to corruption.

PORTER: Russian President Vladimir Putin is well aware of the morale and corruption problems in the Russian military, and he has proposed a number of steps to solve the problems. His chief aim is to make the Russian military even smaller. The goal is simple. Slash the number of troops without cutting the budget. In theory this leaves more money per soldier. But Alexander Golts says getting rid of soldiers isn't enough.

GOLTS: This logic doesn't work when we speak about Russian armed forces. From the early 90s there were at least three total—very big—reductions in Russian armed forces. But each time we received a smaller copy, but absolutely inefficient copy of the Soviet Army.

PORTER: Golts says the answer is to eliminate the draft and create a professional military—a task which will demand lots of money. But how can Russia's leaders justify more defense spending at a time when so much money is also needed for housing, agriculture, medical care, and other priorities? One age-old method for getting more military resources is to convince the public that the world is becoming more dangerous. Making that argument became much easier following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, according to Celeste Wallender.

WALLENDAR: Putin has been arguing that there is an opportunity now for Russia to be able to be in cooperation with the West and the United States, to effectively address the problems of terrorism that Russia has been facing through the 1990's, and that may ring more true to the Russian public.

[Orchestra & chorus]

PORTER: Of course some Russians, like the veterans back at Victory Park, don't need to be convinced that Russia should do whatever it takes to build a strong military.

VASSELIYVICH: (Via Translator) President Putin should take power in his hands and return everything back to the way it was—then all these generals that whine about the army should be fired.

PORTER: In the end, all agree that morale is low and corruption is high in the Russian military. The needed reforms carry a high price tag, but the new global environment may make it easier for President Putin to find the money. Yet, one problem remains. Reforming Russia's military may do nothing to stop their biggest enemy. Russian State Duma member Sergei Rogov says the biggest threat to Russia, is Russia.

SERGEI ROGOV: The enemy is us. The enemy is our inability to use the enormous human and natural resources of Russia to make life here decent and to make Russia a respectable member of the international community.

PORTER: Fixing Russia's military is a formidable, but feasible task. Fixing Russia, on the other hand, will be much more difficult. For the Russia Project, I'm Keith Porter, Moscow.

© 2001 by The Stanley Foundation
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