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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Testing the Woefully Unfit

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Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has announced that officers have undergone comprehensive testing to determine whether they are qualified to serve in the military. The only results that have been made public so far concern top- ranking commanders. Of 250 generals and colonels in generals' positions, 50 have been declared unfit for their jobs and will be fired. In all likelihood, no less than 20 percent of lower ranking officers will also be deemed unfit to defend the nation.

These numbers are actually low. They don't reflect the much higher percentage of personnel who are not fit to serve. Because of a lack of funds in the 1990s, combat training was brought to a halt (unless you count the first Chechen war). Ships didn't leave their bases, individual aircraft flew as few as 20 hours per year instead of the necessary 160 hours, and no training maneuvers were conducted at all. Officers advanced in rank only as a result of how long they had served, not based on their level of qualifications. That is one of the main reasons why there are so many unfit personnel in the armed forces.

Head of the General Staff Nikolai Markarov did not mince words when he spoke at the Academy of Military Science on Dec. 16. "Our pilots' preparedness level has dropped to dangerous levels," he said. "During the Georgian conflict, we could literally count on our fingers the number of pilots who were capable of carrying out military tasks under simple, straightforward conditions."

The situation with the ground forces is even worse. "We had to search through the entire armed forces for individual lieutenant colonels, colonels and generals who were capable of participating in combat operations because staff commanders of "paper divisions" [shell divisions made up only of officers with no soldiers] and regiments were simply in no condition to resolve military challenges. When those commanders were given people and equipment, they simply became disoriented, and some even refused to carry out orders," Makarov said.

The defense minister's plan was to cut the number of officers from 305,000 to 150,000 by firing those who do not want to raise their qualifications and those who have become spoiled by a decade of doing nothing. Judging from events, this is the real purpose behind Serdyukov's decision to conduct the merit review.

All of this would have seemed fair and justified were it not for one circumstance. When Serdyukov announced the planned cuts six months ago, high-ranking Defense Ministry officials affirmed that the process would be carried out in strict accordance with the law. Any officer with 10 years of service was entitled to receive an apartment as compensation plus a one-time payment of up to 185,000 rubles ($5,600).

The problem is that the state cannot afford to compensate dismissed officers, and the crisis made a bad financial situation much worse. When it became clear that the funds for severance packages were woefully low, military leaders thought up the idea of conducting competence testing. After all, officers who don't pass the test can be fired according to a different article in the law -- for having violated the terms of their service contracts. And the beauty of this article is that it allows the military to dismiss officers without any obligation to provide them apartments or other compensation.

The other trick is to tell an officer that he can "voluntarily" leave the armed service. This will still technically keep him on the "active list" for receiving an apartment, but the odds of ever moving up on that list are very low.

It is easy to predict what will happen next. The military is quite skilled at convincing its officers to quit "voluntarily" by bringing their service record into question and placing demands upon them that are impossible to fulfill.

In addition, these manipulations and traps discredit the entire reform process. With the testing program, the military leadership has shown that all abusive and deceptive means are justified in the name of "military reforms." Who is going to trust the next program that is also presented as another "reform"?

In the end, reforms will be seriously delayed if they don't grind to a halt altogether. And that is something we have seen happen more than once over the last 15 years.

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