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Changing the Red Army

  • Owen Fay

In Moscow, the Russian government has just wrapped up celebrations marking 60 years since victory in World War II. Back then, the Red Army was instrumental in helping defeat Germany. Today, Russia's army is undergoing dramatic changes. Whether those changes will be for the better, remains to be seen.

1945 -The defeat of Nazi Germany. Glory days for the victorious Allies and the Soviet Army, but that was a long time ago.

Today's Russian Army is bogged down in the break-away republic of Chechnya. It's under-funded and under fire. Military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says, "This is an army that is divided, that is not ready for battle. This is an army with an increasingly bad morale."

The army's soldiers guard thousands of nuclear weapons, yet 70 percent of Russian conscripts find ways to dodge the draft to this million-man army. In the last year there were 500 suicides in the Russian army. By various estimates, as many as 50,000 soldiers simply got up and ran away. Victory these days is just surviving service in the Russian army, and that's not easy to do.

Stories of brutal hazing are rampant, and just last month four soldiers were found hanged south of Moscow.

At the Soldiers Mother's Committee, Tatyana Kuznetsova says, "Their uniforms are dirty. Their shoes are the wrong size. They are nothing more than cannon fodder, it's just terrible."

And so, the Russian government is trying to create a new army. Near Moscow is the Tamanskaya Division headquarters, one of the first Russian bases for contract soldiers. The living conditions are luxurious by Russian standards.

Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Shutikov approves of the new system. He says, "For two years the servicemen used to train and then they would leave. Then, we'd have to go get new recruits, train them and in turn they would leave. Contract service means we have professional troops whom we train and they continue on with their service. It will improve the professionalism of our army."

Soldiers like Sgt. Alexei Pershikov agree. "The conditions here are much better. You can see there's a TV set in every room. Some even have dvd's, fridges, and there are no more than 11 people per room. From four to 11. People live like one group and build teams and perform their missions much better because they understand the psychology of one another," says Sgt. Pershikov.

In Chechnya it is now reported that the army fights with World War II era weapons because they can't find parts for modern tanks.

In this division soldiers say the equipment is not as old and they have parts.

President Vladimir Putin has tried to revive Russian arms sales. The best tanks and airplanes get sold abroad, a five and a half billion dollar a year business. But the money doesn't go back to the Russian Army.

And that creates even more division in the ranks according to analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, who says, "Nothing materialised, and so now he's extremely unpopular with the military and within the security forces."

Change, however slowly, may now be coming to the Russian military, but this is not the same Soviet Army that fought the so-called great patriotic war 60 years ago.