Sick Recruits, Sick System

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The army has been hit with a strange illness. Hundreds of new conscripts have contracted pneumonia almost simultaneously in both ends of the country -- in Kaliningrad and Siberia. Official statistics show that only 100 soldiers fell ill in each place, but human rights activists claim that the number is much higher -- so high that whole army barracks had to be turned into on-site hospitals. One of the conscripts, Anton Yumatov, who was a law school graduate, died.

The army reacted to the crisis in a typical fashion -- by denying that the epidemic even existed. Later, the Military Prosecutor's Office was forced to admit that there were violations of "the safety requirements for military service and, in particular, violations of disease-control regulations in the soldiers' barracks."

What this vague statement doesn't explain is how the illnesses broke out simultaneously in two regions separated by 4,000 kilometers. Some experts point out that recruits who had just arrived at military bases had been given vaccinations, which may have been the reason for their sickness. Others insist that officers simply overworked the soldiers to make sure that conditions were not too comfortable for the new recruits.

Another possible reason: The officers, who have been stuck in a dead-end military career for the past 10 or 20 years, took out their anger on the new conscripts, whose mandatory service was reduced from two years to one in 2008. Particularly harsh treatment was reserved for "the smart ones" -- that is, university graduates -- who were forced to stand outside for prolonged periods wearing only a shirt in temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius.

Just at the time when massive cold fronts hit Siberia and Kaliningrad, draftees were housed in primitive military barracks that lacked hot water and heat. This led to a massive outbreak of pneumonia and one death. It is quite typical that military bureaucrats dismissed the incident, saying that the illnesses were a normal occurrence and nothing to get excited about. According to the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees, the same organization that disclosed the pneumonia cases in Siberia and Kaliningrad, there have been pneumonia outbreaks in dozens of other garrisons as well.

Just as doctors speak about a "systematic disease" to describe an illness that infects the circulatory, respiratory and nervous systems simultaneously, there is a similar condition in Russia's mass-mobilization army. Once this infection has spread through the military officer corps, no one cares about a few hundred soldiers when the total number is close to 1 million. If during a war the first 100,000 soldiers can be easily expended as cannon fodder, it makes perfect sense that a few hundred ill soldiers are of no concern whatsoever.

The irony, however, is that the Defense Ministry is trying to put an end to the strategy of a mass-mobilization army. The ministry has announced plans for downsizing the number of officers by two-thirds and the number of ground-troop units elevenfold. These are not only the same hundreds of thousands of officers who should have headed battalions and regiment reserves, but also the units that have to provide them with the necessary weapons. The single justification for preserving the conscript army in recent years was the need to have a reserve for a mass-mobilization army numbering into the millions, and since this need has seemingly disappeared, eliminating the conscript army as we know it would be a logical conclusion to this whole plan.

Nonetheless, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and his allies are not risking doing away with the conscript army since mandatory military service is one of the most important elements of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's model for governing the country with a strong hand. The problem is that the conscripts are dead weight in the new, modern army that the Defense Ministry is attempting to assemble. Officers who dream of getting accepted into the professional units couldn't care less about these conscripts. The main feature of a mass-mobilization army is the deep contempt toward the conscripts -- the faceless cogs in the huge military machine. And this is the real reason why the army suffers from such a severe systemic illness.

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