SPECIAL REPORT/ESSAY

AN ARMY IN RETREAT

THE SOVIET MILITARY IS IN CRISIS

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 4 1990
SPECIAL REPORT/ESSAY

AN ARMY IN RETREAT

THE SOVIET MILITARY IS IN CRISIS

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 4 1990

AN ARMY IN RETREAT

THE SOVIET MILITARY IS IN CRISIS

As he stood with more than 30,000 other spectators in the bright spring sun of Moscow’s Red Square, Vasily Borze’s pride and pleasure were unmistakable. All around him, hundreds of red banners and flags fluttered in a stiff breeze. Above, on a podium atop Lenin’s tomb, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and other members of the ruling Politburo stood at attention. Through the centre of the square, in an impressive but ominous procession that lasted more than 30 minutes, was the object of their attention: a parade of Soviet weapons used over the past 50 years. The weapons ranged from obsolete Katyusha rocket launchers from the Second World War to modern-day T-80 tanks. For Borze, a veteran of the war who is now in his 70s, the May 9 ceremony, commemorating the 45th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender, held both past and present significance. “We will always need a strong army,” he declared. “It was true then, and it is true now.”

Despite such sentiments, the meticulously orchestrated celebrations could not hide signs that the Soviet military faces problems of unprecedented proportions. Already

battered by the grinding, -

nine-year involvement in support of the Afghan government’s war on rebel forces, which left an estimated 15,000 Soviets dead, the Red Army is feeling the effects of the sweeping changes set off by President Mikhail Gorbachev. The collapse of Eastern European communism and the crumbling of the Warsaw Pact have left Soviet defence policy in shambles. At the same time, there is ample evidence of plummeting morale within the Soviet ranks: a steep rise in crime, record levels of desertion and draft evasion, and growing inter-ethnic strife. Experts note that, with the military’s influence in apparent decline within the Kremlin, the generals have been trying to reassert themselves in recent months—pressure that is widely believed to have slowed progress towards a strategic arms reduction treaty. There have even been suggestions that the

military’s moves have gone beyond political pressure. In early May, Alexander Yakovlev, a Politburo member regarded as Gorbachev’s closest adviser, took the unusual step of denying widespread rumors that factions of the army plotted last February to overthrow Gorbachev. The rumors alleged that more than

4,000 soldiers gathered less than 100 km outside Moscow with the goal of taking over the Kremlin. But Yakovlev insisted, “We have no facts to suggest that the army is working in any way at all against perestroika.”

Revered: Even the possibility of such subversion is painful in a country that has long prided itself on its armed forces. Before the Soviet revolution in 1917, the elite regarded army service as one of czarist Russia's "nost revered professions. Members of the n anarchy often held high-ranking military posts. Since the revolution, the exploits of the Soviet armed forces have held a prominent place in the country’s folklore and official history. Such cities as Moscow and Leningrad, which underwent long sieges during the Second World War, are formally designated “Hero Cities.” Veterans of that conflict, which the Soviets call the

Great Patriotic War, usually wear their medals on their civilian clothes and receive special privileges and respect unmatched in the West. Said Vassili Gorolov, a retired 74-year-old war veteran: “Every day, people still show me they appreciate the things we did.”

Now, the country’s reputation as a super-

power is partly built on the fact that, with an estimated 5.3 million members, the Soviet armed forces are the largest in the world. Western experts openly admire Soviet troops for their toughness and discipline under fire. And they say that, although Soviet arms lack the technical sophistication of electronically controlled Western weapons, they have their own distinctive merits. The Soviet TC-70 tank is uncomfortable and unwieldy, but it has seven times the range of some tanks used by Western countries. The major difference between many Western and Soviet weapons, said a military attaché at a Western embassy in Moscow, is that “theirs are made to kill with—and ours look good while you die in them.”

Still, in a recent survey conducted by the government daily newspaper Izvestia, 36 per cent of army officers polled said that they were

RECENTLY, THE GENERALS HAVE BEEN TRYING TO REASSERT THEMSELVES

worried by the military’s decline in prestige among the Soviet public. And the army’s internal problems run deep. The bitter inter-ethnic conflicts that have struck the civilian population have infected the military as well. For years, the armed forces’ reputation for efficiency has been based on the high calibre of its officer corps, which is almost entirely composed of unilingual, ethnic Russians. Now, many of the new conscripts are non-Russians from republics in Central Asia and the Transcaucasian republics. A recent report by the armed forces' political department said that 10 to 13 per cent of such recruits do not speak Russian at all, and that the number of conscripts with “inadequate” knowledge of Russian is “increasing at an alarming rate.”

Conscripts: Defence ministry officials say that inter-ethnic conflicts are largely to blame for a sharp increase in crime within the armed forces—including the murders of 59 officers last year. They also acknowledge that many of the leaders of pitched battles between residents of the republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia earlier this year were army veterans who had learned their fighting skills during service in Afghanistan. For those reasons, ethnic Russian recruits often ask that they be allowed to serve together, which further heightens the distinctions between ethnic groups.

Army officers must also cope with changing attitudes towards military service among the young people that they conscript. Acknowledged Gen. Mikhail Moiseev, chief of the armed forces general staff: “Young men are less willing to do their military duty.” At present, all Soviet males over the age of 18 must serve a two-year term in the armed forces unless they are exempted for physical, educational or professional reasons. Until recently, most Soviets accepted conscription without question. But, two months ago, the Soviet defence ministry released figures showing that more than 6,000 draftees had refused to report for service in 1989, up from about 800 in 1985. The number of refusals is likely to increase even more dramatically this year because almost half of the country’s 15 republican legislatures have said that they will assist any of their residents who refuse to enlist.

Those who do join sometimes find themselves living in conditions that are uncomfortable or even dehumanizing. “Army people,” the monthly Moscow magazine Gorizont declared recently, “consistently believe that a man is some dull, underdeveloped, crude animal, or must become one during his term of service.” In recent years, senior Soviet officials have begun taking steps to eliminate the notorious ritualistic practice of dedovschina, the brutal bullying of new recruits by their more experienced counterparts. The practice officially came to light in a highly publicized

case in 1988 in which a 19-year-old Lithuanian conscript was beaten and gang-raped by a group of other soldiers. After they stopped, he seized two pistols and shot and killed seven soldiers and a civilian. The soldier, whom the army only identifies as “Arthur,” is now in a psychiatric hospital, where an official describes him as having “lost touch with reality.”

But even soldiers who escape such extraordinary ordeals can face demoralizing hardships.

The pullout of Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the past six months, coupled with the country’s already chronic housing shortage, has left an estimated 250,000 soldiers without any formal residence. And despite efforts to ease regulations concerning the conduct of soldiers, they face an often Byzantine set of restrictions. Among them: servicemen cannot bathe alone, or sublet their own apartments while they are posted elsewhere.

Deterrent: For those reasons, some Soviet military officials now argue that the country would be better served by a smaller army made up entirely of volunteers. That, they maintain, would result in better morale, lower costs and a decrease in internal tensions. But most senior Soviet officials, echoing the rhetoric of their counterparts in the Pentagon, contend that a

strong military provides a deterrent against aggression. Declared Moiseev of the general staff: “If you once fall behind, you will not be able to keep up with your opponents.”

Still, it seems clear that the decline in superpower tensions will result in some cuts in the military's size and budget. Prof. Igor Yudin, a prominent economist, recently told the daily newspaper Trud that “the international situation allows us to cut down to perhaps 1.5 million to two million men.” The collapse of the Warsaw Pact will also affect military strategy. Because the Soviets can no longer count on military co-operation from Eastern Europe, Col.-Gen. Grigory Krivosheyev, deputy chief of the Soviet general staff, said that Moscow will now base its military policy on “territorial

rather than extraterritorial principles.” That, said a Western military attaché, “is their careful way of saying they now think defensively instead of offensively.”

But no matter what changes the army undergoes, both Soviet and Western observers say that other countries would do well to remember history. Declared Artyom Borovik, a journalist who has written several critical articles about the army: “Everyone from Napoleon to Adolf Hitler has looked at our army, laughed— and then learned a lesson.” Added Borovik: “It would still be a mistake to laugh at them now.” In the warming climate of a new era of international relations, that is a lesson better remembered than learned again.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH with

ROSEMARIE BOYLE