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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Military Malaise Turns Peacekeeper to Killer

GALI, Abkhazia -- One night in June at a lonely Russian post in the small village of Sida, Sergeant Artur Vaganov, 22, of the Russian peacekeeping force here, woke up to commit mass murder.

Very deliberately, he cut the post's communications, gathered together all the weapons and opened fire on his fellow soldiers as they slept in their bunks. He shot dead 10 men and wounded three more before killing himself. The building was still awash with blood the next day, eyewitnesses said.

The bloodbath in Gali, which attracted media publicity, is by no means an isolated case in the demoralized Russian army. In the same month, a private serving in Irkutsk shot dead an officer and five soldiers. Few expect the incidents to the be last.

Soldiers' mothers groups blame these atrocities on the brutal treatment of soldiers in the army at the hands of older soldiers or officers. They estimate 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers died from abuse or committed suicide in 1995.

Defense Ministry officials have acknowledged a morale problem and said one in three deaths in the army can be attributed to suicide. The former defense minister, Igor Rodionov, said recently that 500 officers committed suicide last year alone due to "unbearable living conditions."

Here in Abkhazia, where Vaganov's unit was part of a 1,600-man peacekeeping force, the troops do not show obvious signs of malnutrition or brutality. Food is plentiful and soldiers said they were being paid on time.

United Nations observers and Russian officers described some of the circumstances but they were reluctant to give a full account. An official military inquiry has now been closed.

An ethnic Russian from Bashkiria, Vaganov was by all accounts a good soldier until the night in June. A UN military observer remembered him as "very correct, efficient, good at his job."

He had served 2 1/2 years military service in an elite unit and after a year back in civilian life, had signed up for a life in the army. He was taken on immediately because of his good training, a spokesman at the Russian peacekeepers' headquarters in Sukhumi said.

He described Vaganov as a "very demanding" soldier, with high standards. Problems began Vaganov was "psychologically not suited to the job."

But others, including UN military observers, were more sympathetic, citing the stresses of the peacekeepers' job in Abkhazia and the poor general state of the Russian army.

"It is as with the Russian army everywhere. Recruitment is not good, morale is not good, equipment is not good. We see it here," said one UN officer, adding that he heard that troops had not been paid since December.

Others pointed out that Russian peacekeepers in the cease-fire zone had little chance for rest and recreation. "They have no bar or place to relax when off duty," said one.

"When rotated, they are just sent to another post," he said.

Abkhazia, which boasts the most beautiful beach resorts in the former Soviet Union, should be a relatively pleasant posting. The Russian military headquarters is based in the best sanatorium on the beach in the capital, Sukhumi, and last month was full of Russian officers' families on vacation.

Sitting on the terrace of a nightclub overlooking the sea, the Russian military spokesman nevertheless insisted serving in Abkhazia was tough. The soldiers and officers can never leave their bases, and the spokesman said he only got to swim once a week.

The Russian troops have become targets of snipers and mine attacks in the cease-fire zone, probably from Georgians who accuse them of siding with the Abkhaz during the war and doing nothing to stop the ethnic cleansing, looting and burning of their homes.

The latest Russian casualty was just 10 days ago, on July 30, when a soldier was hit by a sniper at night at his post in the cease-fire zone. The Russians have lost 51 men in three years of peacekeeping and have been 120 wounded, a high figure for a force that never numbered more than 2,500.

"You can see how they stand at the gate, fully armed with flak jackets," said Roman Dbar, a government official in charge of ecology. "They cannot feel in a comfortable position."

One UN officer likened the Russian's role in Abkhazia to that of British soldiers in Northern Ireland. "Peacekeeping can be difficult. They want to help the locals, but they have their orders," he said.

Much of the crisis in the Russian army has been put down to poor leadership, but there are signs that the Russian command in Abkhazia is trying to put things right.

New commanders in the region appear to be conducting a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the local population, helping the villagers with much needed transport and medical treatment. The villagers, who return the favors by giving the soldiers fresh produce, say they have noticed a difference. One officer on the front line has even brought his civilian wife to live with him.

The soldiers are also hopeful that their mission may be drawing to a close. Alexei, a senior lieutenant commanding a unit in the cease-fire zone, said he thought the peacekeepers would be able to pull out in two years' time.

"We need to extend the mandate for 1 1/2 years and in that time resolve the issues," he said. "After that, if there is peace we would not be needed."