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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On Defense and the Fatherland

When the president of the country and his defense minister choose Defense of the Fatherland Day to launch attacks on political subversion and corruption inside Russia's armed forces, it is clear that all is not well inside the former Soviet war machine.


On Monday Boris Yeltsin warned hardliners against dragging the military into politics. On Tuesday he failed to show up at the wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, while Defense Minister Pavel Grachev attacked widespread corruption inside the forces.


There are a legion of reasons why morale should be falling inside the Russian military, most involving the humiliation of a former superpower.


As units have been forced to withdraw from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics, the pride of the armed forces has been badly undermined. Where they were once feared and respected, the officers of the former Soviet Army, in retreat, have become more objects of pity.


Once privileged by relatively generous packages of salaries and benefits, Russia's officers today are badly paid with few legal options for making money on the side. Worse, as well as having to leave the former republics, many have been left begging for apartments to move into when they return to Russia.


The obvious response for the officers is to sell what they can, whether or not it is theirs to sell. For over a year, military units have been selling off equipment and services for profit. Though understandable, the practice is disastrous for discipline and morale. Grachev appears to have recognized that in his speech on corruption.


But the bottom line is that the whole identity of the armed forces was transformed last year. The Fatherland whose defense was being celebrated Tuesday is now Russia rather than the Soviet Union. The army has been limited to a defensive doctrine rather than an internationalist one that, although deeply flawed, was more than mere propaganda. It was manifested in the ranks of the troops of the old Soviet Army, where Russians, Uzbeks and Latvians served together, however unhappily.


Today Russia's armed forces are having to reform themselves under the worst possible circumstances, and some officers deeply regret the passing of the old Father-land. Some in former republics such as Moldova or Tajikistan are still in war zones or even having to fight, without knowing what for. In these areas, at least, a growing number have decided that they are still fighting for the old Fatherland - the Soviet Union - after all. That should worry not only Boris Yeltsin, but also the West.