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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The General Disassembly

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Every time disaster strikes the armed forces, from the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000 to the brutal hazing of a conscript at the Chelyabinsk Armor Academy earlier this month, the public is shocked not just by the details, but also by the monstrous lies that military officers tell to their civilian commanders in the Defense Ministry and the Kremlin. Few now recall why President Vladimir Putin appointed his close friend Sergei Ivanov to head the military. Ivanov took charge in the wake of the Kursk disaster, when Putin suddenly realized that the top brass were brazenly lying to his face. The president sent in his most trusted ally to put a stop to the lies.

Six years later, Ivanov admitted helplessly that his generals had deceived him about the situation in Chelyabinsk for 25 days. With affected outrage Chief Military Prosecutor Alexander Savenkov announced that the commander of the tank school, Major General Viktor Sidorov, had informed Moscow that the hazing victim, Andrei Sychyov, was suffering from nothing more than an erysipelas skin lesion on his left leg. By that time doctors had already amputated both of Sychyov's legs and his genitals, which had become gangrenous after he was beaten by drunken senior servicemen, including at least three officers, for three hours.

Ivanov and Savenkov could have found out what happened in Chelyabinsk by picking up a newspaper, of course. Instead, the military leadership insists that it was misled by unscrupulous officers at the tank school. The fact is that a culture of deceit prevails in the military. Commanders instinctively lie when confronted with a crisis. You may recall that in February 2004, when the Navy twice failed to launch a ballistic missile from a Northern Fleet submarine during maneuvers, then-Navy chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov insisted that nothing but a simulated launch had been planned. The fact that Putin had flown in to observe a "simulated" launch didn't bother Kuroyedov one bit.

The culture of deceit among officers, just like hazing in the ranks, is par for the course in our large conscript army. The top brass are doing everything in their power to maintain this system, and Ivanov has repeatedly said that Russia will always have a conscript army.

This model assumes that the entire male population receives basic military training during their two years of compulsory service. In case of a major threat to national security, the military can call up from 6 million to 20 million men. The idea is that this enormous army will defend the country as it did in World War II: Soldiers perish in their very first battle and are replaced the following day.

For this kind of army it's the quantity, not the quality, of military personnel that matters. Since morale is irrelevant, there is no point creating a corps of professional noncommissioned officers to ensure discipline in the ranks, as they do in any normal army. In the absence of NCOs, responsibility for maintaining order is placed on second-year soldiers, who abuse the raw recruits. No other method of discipline is possible in the Russian military.

The Defense Ministry has deliberately undermined the creation of a professional corps of NCOs. After all, if sergeants were to appear in the barracks, what would the officers who now serve as squad leaders do? The introduction of NCOs would require a wholesale reform of military training and the duties of officers.

This huge conscript army doesn't need educated officers with a strong sense of their own worth, however. It's simpler and cheaper to encourage relations among officers that often recall the hazing that occurs among the enlisted men. Junior officers are entirely dependent on their immediate superiors, who can do with them what they like. They can promote their subordinates or transfer them to the back of beyond, and all without explaining their reasons. Lieutenants, just like the grunts, have no defense against the whims of their superiors. It stands to reason that this system does not produce the traditional sort of officer -- honorable and direct. It fosters the mentality of enserfed lackeys whose fate hangs on the whim of their masters. This is why generals, who have paid for their stripes with 30 years of daily humiliation, find it so easy to lie through their teeth. The only way you get to be a general is by dissembling day in and day out.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.