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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Combating Non-Combat Deaths

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The big news in military policy last week was the ongoing spat between Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and chief military prosecutor Alexander Savenkov. While Savenkov has warned of a crime wave in the military, Ivanov maintains that the criminal situation in the armed forces has been improving with each year.

Savenkov delivered another blow last week when the Military Prosecutor's Office announced that 46 servicemen had died in a single week, June 6 to 12, as the result of what are called "crimes and incidents." This figure included 37 Defense Ministry soldiers along with servicemen in the Interior and Emergency Situations ministries, according to a spokesman for the Military Prosecutor's Office, which investigates crimes committed in and by the military. So serious is the problem that the Military Prosecutor's Office held a closed-door meeting last Thursday to discuss the sharp increase in non-combat deaths in the military.

It is telling that commentators have generally dismissed the possibility that the dispute between Ivanov and Savenkov might actually be about the number of soldiers who die each year in the military. Some have suggested that Savenkov's recent announcements have been politically motivated. Others contend that powerful forces would like to see Ivanov, a possible successor to President Vladimir Putin, knocked out of the 2008 presidential race before it begins. Still others believe that the squabble has resulted from a personal grievance between the two men.

Military prosecutors have certainly known for some time that Russian soldiers die in numbers that would be unacceptable in any country we like to refer to as "civilized." According to official figures, 1,286 military personnel died as a result of crimes and incidents in 2000 alone. Another 1,200 died in 2003 and 1,100 last year.

These figures are entirely unreliable, however. The military has been caught trying to lowball the numbers of non-combat deaths in the past. Ivanov, for example, announced at one point that just 337 servicemen had died in 2003. Some time later, however, Lieutenant-General Viktor Buslovsky, deputy chief of the Army's Main Training Directorate, apparently forgot that his boss had already spoken publicly on the issue and provided a figure three times as high. At the same time, it's clear that none of this is news to the country's leadership. They've simply decided to make the best of a bad situation.

Our soldiers and officers are dying from dedovshchina, the hazing of new recruits by more experienced soldiers. They're dying from the incompetent handling of weapons, suicide and traffic accidents. But the cause is always the same: The Kremlin and its generals are attempting to maintain an enormous, conscription-based, Soviet-style army comparable in size to the U.S. Army.

From the economic point of view, this attempt is obviously turning the military into a huge black hole. Over the last seven years, defense spending has increased five-fold, yet the situation in the Army has not improved. Given its current circumstances, the regime is spending huge but still limited sums on defense, and a Soviet-style army can only be effective when all of its resources -- human, financial and material -- are deployed exclusively in the pursuit of military goals.

The fact is that Russia has roughly the same amount of military hardware as the United States, but its military budget is a fraction of the whopping U.S. budget. The cost of maintaining missile systems and nuclear submarines, destroyers and tanks is more or less constant no matter what country you're in. Therefore Russia's attempt to maintain a Soviet-style army inevitably results in low pay for soldiers and leaves officers in a humiliating position. In the end, it leads to commanders committing suicide and soldiers getting beaten to death.

Serving as a military officer has become so unattractive that each year 10,000 graduates of military institutes quit before they have put in a day of active duty. To cover these losses, the Defense Ministry calls up graduates of civilian universities and institutes, just as it would during wartime. Today one in three platoon commanders in the ground forces graduated from a civilian institution, according to Army General Nikolai Pankov, head of the Defense Ministry's personnel service. General Vladimir Moltensky, deputy commander of ground forces, has said that 80 percent of entry-level officers are graduates of civilian institutes.

The Army, which resists the idea of creating a corps of professional sergeants, now relies on precisely these officers to train recruits and maintain discipline in the ranks. In reality, however, today's sergeants have no more experience or knowledge than the soldiers they're meant to be training.

As a result of such "training," safety rules are violated and recruits die because they can't even handle their weapons. It should be obvious that "commanders" like these enjoy no authority among the soldiers and often resort to hazing as the only tool available to them for maintaining discipline.

Strange as it may seem, the funds allocated for increasing battle readiness have also played a role in increasing the number of non-combat deaths. Commanders immediately got the urge to assure their superiors that their units could fulfill all sorts of difficult tasks, but they're trying to fulfill them using worn-out equipment because the money was allocated for the acquisition of fuel and lubricants.

What's more, the majors and lieutenant-colonels who are in charge of military training came up during the crisis of the 1990s and received negligible training themselves. It's no coincidence in my view that 46 servicemen died in mid-June when training exercises are in full swing.

Whichever way you slice it, a huge conscript army is built on the principle that an unlimited number of human lives can be sacrificed in order to achieve a military objective. Given the economic and demographic situation in Russia today, such an army is little more than a myth. But Russians are paying for this myth with their lives.

Alexander Golts, deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.