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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Army of Criminal Pros?

It has become a tradition that all military reform plans in Russian always consist of three stages. Since 1992, three different defense ministers have introduced three major military reform plans. The first stage of each plan lasted about two years and was successfully completed.

The first stage of each plan differed in nature: in 1992, it was the completion of the withdrawal of forces from Germany and elsewhere; in 1997, the merger of the Space Forces with Strategic Rocket Forces; and now the current experiment to create one volunteer airborne division. However, all these reform plans had something in common: The first stage was always modest and did not fundamentally change the basis of our Soviet-style military machine.

Each time, the first stage of military reform was successfully completed and a more ambitious second stage was initiated with lots of fanfare. The main objective of the second stage has always been essentially the same -- a serious overhaul of the military and the creation of a much more modern, battle-ready, mobile and professional fighting force.

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The third stage of military reform has always involved proclaiming a full or partial wind-up of compulsory conscription and the creation of a "dream-team" military, armed with the most modern precision-guided weapons -- on a par with that of the United States and other major Western powers.

But in Russia the third stage of military reform has never happened -- it always fizzles out at stage two. The defense minister who initiated the reform plan is then dismissed and transferred to a different government job. A new minister takes over, states that Russia urgently needs military reform because its armed forces are disintegrating, the folks in the Defense Ministry put together a new three-stage plan -- and the merry-go-round starts all over again.

Will Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's reform package that was officially put forward last week follow the same fatal pattern? Without forceful political intervention from the Kremlin the answer is a resolute yes.

The military top brass do not want to "reform" the present Soviet-style military -- instead they want a 10-fold increase in defense spending, to get a fifth of GDP or more, as in Soviet times.

Most generals argue that Russia is a very rich country with lots of oil, gas and other natural resources, but that after the demise of the Soviet Union Jewish oligarchs stole this wealth. Most uniformed military men expect President Vladimir Putin to confiscate the oligarchs' "illicit" wealth and spend it on a new Soviet-style major military buildup.

With such unrealistic expectations still widespread, its very hard to believe that the Defense Ministry will ever stop sabotaging genuine reforms that could create an effective, much smaller military. Last week, Ivanov stated that the draft will never be abolished and that the present two-year term of compulsory service may be cut to 1 1/2 years, but only after 2007 or 2008.

Today, there are some 800,000 conscripts in active service, about 600,000 in the Defense Ministry, with the rest enlisted in other armies -- the Interior Ministry, Border Guards, etc. There are also more than 130,000 "contract" soldiers in the Defense Ministry forces.

This relatively large number of contract soldiers is spread out throughout all branches of the military and does not significantly increase overall battle readiness. Last week, Ivanov announced plans to concentrate the contract soldiers in 92 front-line army, airborne and marine units by 2008 to create a ready-for-action, more disciplined and capable force.

This plan -- the core of the announced "second" stage of military reform -- seems to be entirely rational. But what happens if as currently, in the absence of a centralized contract soldier recruiting service, these front-line units get bums and bigots as volunteers?

Last month in Chechnya a company of contract soldiers went on strike and staged a noisy demonstration in Grozny, brandishing weapons, refusing to obey orders and demanding the Defense Ministry pay them money the men believed was due. Ivanov ended this protest action by promising to look personally into the men's grievances.

No one was disciplined. The volunteer soldiers returned to their regular activities: Marauding, extorting bribes, drinking vodka, using heavy drugs, and torturing and killing Chechens at random. Is this Ivanov's idea of an ideal army? With such volunteers, it's hardly surprising that the generals sabotage reforms, believing conscripts are better.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.