A Nation With 2 Armies

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In 1996, a little-known lieutenant general told a few journalists the last thing I expected to hear from a Russian military leader: "The armed forces should be given only concrete military goals, not political goals. Troops should be withdrawn from the battlefield immediately after the completion of the military objective."

The general was Yury Baluyevsky, who later rose to the rank of chief of the General Staff, until he resigned earlier this month. Baluyevsky's statement was unprecedented. Few military officials dared to utter such bold criticism.

Baluyevsky, who seemed to be quoting former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, made this statement after Russian forces suffered defeat in the first Chechen war. In this campaign, the army was given less of a military task than a political one -- "the restoration of constitutional order."

Twelve years have passed, and I had a feeling of deja vu last week. Two deputies to Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov -- General Alexander Kolmakov and Lyubov Kudelina, the Defense Ministry's budget chief -- made some equally surprising statements to journalists. Kudelina spoke of plans to implement Serdyukov's decision to reward the best officers serving in high-tech areas, such as the strategic missile forces, as well as airborne, ground and naval forces. The plan is to disburse 25 billion rubles ($1.06 billion) among the 30,000 most "progressive" officers. For Russia, that is a significant amount of money. Officers cited for the rewards would receive salary increases of $1,500 to $2,500 per month.

More important, Kudelina said the whole initiative to give commendations would lose meaning if people did not understand that the awards would really go to those who deserve them and not merely to officers who lick their commanders' boots.

Kudelina also mentioned how difficult it is to develop a new system of objective, transparent and merit-based criteria for evaluating officers' job performance. Military commanders have been talking about this for 10 years, but the exact process by which officers gain promotions remains largely subjective and shrouded in mystery.

Kolmakov's statements were just as sensational: "Our training levels for troops haven't changed since the 1960s and 1970s. Servicemen were repeatedly drilled on how to earn high marks during performance reviews. The main thing was to hit the target on time, even though firing range equipment has not been upgraded for at least seven years."

Kolmakov's and Kudelina's comments are a direct blow to Russia's model of a mass-mobilization army -- one that is strong by virtue of its numerical size and not the battle readiness of its individual soldiers. According to Russia's anachronistic model, soldiers and young officers typically survive just one or two battles, and therefore there is no justification for spending huge amounts of money on maximizing officers' job performance or preparing soldiers for various tactical situations if they are seen as easily expendable and replaceable.

It is very clear that the program announced by Kolmakov and Kudelina can only be accomplished by creating a much smaller but more efficient professional army based on contract service. In the current army, it is impossible to raise the quality of officer training when there are 400,000 officers. Moreover, the 500,000 conscript soldiers, who now serve only one year instead of two, can be trained in only the most elementary of military tasks in such a short time. This raises serious questions about the battle readiness of the country's conscript army.

For now, Defense Ministry leaders insist that they intend to maintain two armies simultaneously -- the first army would be a well-prepared, volunteer contract soldiers and skilled officers, and the second army would consist of inexperienced, young conscripts rounded up and sent off to serve under mediocre officers who have no hope of career advancement.

This leads to an inevitable question: Who needs that second army? Maybe the Kremlin wants to make sure the people never forgot their duty toward the state? Or perhaps it is the generals who are supporting a mass-mobilization army? After all, in order to keep the stars on their epaulets, they require large numbers of service personnel.

Twelve years ago, Baluyevsky made an unprecedented statement about the need to fundamentally change the army, but the military top brass did not support him. Baluyevsky himself forgot all about those ideas shortly thereafter. But it is good that at least one top military official understood the need for change.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.