Low Morale, Little Loyalty

Last week, newspapers discussed the results of secret opinion polls made by the Defense Ministry and leaked to the press. The Kremlin is deeply unpopular among military men, and only 20 percent of officers supported government policies as of early January.

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

This discontent was obviously fueled by the haphazard reform to replace social benefits with cash payments. This hit the lower and middle ranks of the military hard. In response, the Kremlin has announced additional pay hikes targeted at servicemen who use public transport in the Moscow and Leningrad regions. However, the latest polls show that the vast majority of officers continue to dislike the nation's political leadership.

In the past, analysts and observers had only anecdotal evidence that President Vladimir Putin and his policies were extremely unpopular within the ranks of the military. Now this opinion has been fully supported by polls, whose results were so damning that the authorities classified them.

Since 2000, when Putin took over the Kremlin, official propaganda has been spinning the so-called "Russian comeback," the revival of a nation that was plunged into chaos in the 1990s but was getting stronger and reasserting itself under Putin.

Many were initially fooled by the spin, and some, mostly foreigners and Russians living abroad, still believe the yarn. Russian officers in active service know better: Billions of petrodollars did not improve their lives, but have mostly been misappropriated by the corrupt bureaucracy.

When converted to U.S. dollars at the official exchange rate, the average officer's pay has increased from approximately $100 per month to more than $200 since 2000, but the increase has been almost completely eaten up by inflation.

Another reason for mass discontent is that the recent pay hikes are special bonuses that do not affect officers' base pay. These one-time payments do not add anything to pensions and place the well-being of officers' families at the mercy of their commanders and the finance officers of their military units.

Since the collapse of communism, reports of conscript hazing have multiplied. The less widely reported story is the constant economic hazing of officers by their commanders and superiors. On a whim, a military commander can employ an officer's wife, can give additional pay or withhold it, and can allow flexible working hours so an officer can take an additional unofficial job. A commander can help an officer's family with housing or do nothing.

Complacency within the ranks has increased dramatically since 1991, and a commander can demand almost anything from his subordinates. There are, of course, good and decent unit commanders, but in general, corruption is high and morale universally low.

The military resembles a food chain, with those on top feeding on those below. It is a system in which conscripts hate their officers, who in turn hate their superiors, and everybody despises the generals and political leaders that created this degrading food chain in the first place.

Low morale and bad working conditions lead hundreds of soldiers and officers to commit suicide each year. There are frequent incidents of shootings in which soldiers kill other soldiers, sergeants or officers, or officers kill soldiers. In recent years armed deserters have killed several generals.

In 2000, Putin publicly promised to "restore the Army and the Navy," but little has been done. There are few new arms or equipment, and the number of fatal accidents is growing, while much of the almost $20 billion allocated for procurement since 2000 has apparently been misappropriated. In Chechnya, the military uses old T-62 and T-54/55 tanks in combat -- vintage tanks from the 1950s and early 1960s -- because there are no spare parts left to keep newer T-72 and T-80 tanks operational.

In combat situations, the old tanks are held in the rear while soldiers and officers go in with light weapons to face the enemy and suffer the inevitable heavy casualties. Last week, in a fight with rebels in the Chechen capital, Grozny, four officers in several elite FSB antiterrorist units were reported killed. Six rebels were reported dead. Since last September, the FSB Alfa and Vimpel special units, which have a total of slightly more than 100 active combat officers, have lost more than 20 of these valuable men.

The discontent in the ranks is smoldering while all the Kremlin does is spin out more propaganda about how good things are under Putin.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.