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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From Berlin to a Soggy Tent

After several years of intensive withdrawal of forces from Eastern Europe, Germany, the Baltics and Transcaucasus, the Russian Army seems tired and disoriented. Many formerly front-line divisions, regiments and brigades have ended up in places that are very odd from a strategic point of view. The elite 337th attack helicopter regiment has been sent from the German city of Mahlvinkel to Siberia. Tanks, self-propelled howitzers and guns from the same garrison in Germany have been sent to the 22nd Army in Nizhny Novgorod.


In Germany this united fist of tanks, elite ground troops and attack helicopters was ready to carry out combined air and land operations in the Fulda Gap. Now they have been scattered throughout the Russian hinterland.


Abandoned garrisons on the border with Finland have been reinforced. There is little danger of war in this area for the next 100 years, but if these divisions are needed somewhere else, their redeployment will take a lot of time, considering the state of Russia's roads. The fact is, the troops were sent wherever there were old bases where they could be housed.


Young, ambitious officers, who served on the front line in Germany, feel awkward with their tanks and helicopters in Siberia or the Urals, 1,000 kilometers from any possible enemy.


Last week Defense Minister Pavel Grachev visited the 144th motor-rifle division in Yelnya. The division had been withdrawn from Estonia on Aug. 31 and deployed to a wet, muddy, swampy field. A few roads were laid before the minister's arrival, filled in with gravel and crushed stone, but when one of the Moscow generals rashly took a step to the side, he fell up to his knees in mud.


The 144th division was supposed to be disbanded in Tallinn, but this spring plans were changed "due to the strategic importance of the western border," according to Grachev. The soldiers are still living in tents with camp stoves, but they are supposed to be moved to heated "metal barracks" before the cold weather comes. In principle, the troops should then be moved from these barracks to a real building, but no one knows when that will be. There is no money.


The division now consists of only 1,670 soldiers and officers. There is more heavy weaponry than soldiers, all of it left out of doors.


The 144th division is subordinate to the command of the 1st Guards' Tank Army, which was recently transferred to Smolensk. It was there that Grachev announced last week that "he had come to find out if the troops can really survive the winter." He tried to convince the men that things would get better. He said that by 1996 the construction of military bases would be completed, and units in the western regions would be up to full strength.


The 10th Guards' tank division, formerly one of the best in the Soviet Army, was transferred from the town of Altengrbov in Germany to the southern part of Voronezh region, to the town of Boguchar on the banks of the Don River.


Strategically, the division is ideally placed: It is 60 kilometers from the border with the Donbass region of Ukraine, where the population is primarily Russian speaking. Just 30 kilometers to the south of Boguchar is the border of Rostov region and the beginning of the North Caucasus military region, where the limitations on heavy weaponery imposed by the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe are already in effect.


But the strategic plans drawn up by the General Staff in Moscow do not impress the soldiers and officers of the 10th tank division, who are living in tents or in the huts of local residents. They brought cement slabs out of Germany and have stood their tanks on them. But they know that during the rainy season they will not be able to move the tanks until decent roads are built -- the tanks will sink in the mud. Hundreds of Turkish workers are now building housing for the 10th division, financed by Germany. But no one is building roads.


In almost every garrison, Grachev publicly asked an officer picked at random "if he liked the defense minister." And, of course, he always received a positive answer.


But the question itself betrayed the general's insecurity. The problem is not only in living standards. Officers simply do not comprehend Moscow's political decisions, which throw them and their families into one or another hole in Russia, or send them to a hot spot in the near abroad, to a war they do not understand.





Pavel Felgenhauer is the defense and national security editor for Segodnya.