The Russian Military

The Russian Military

The Russian Military

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Jan. 7 2000 9:30 PM

The Russian Military

Not mighty, not red, and barely an army.

Russian soldier

In 1942, the Soviet army saved the world from Nazism by holding Stalingrad while the Germans pounded it to rubble. Today, that army's delinquent stepchild, the Russian army, is fighting a city battle of its own. The Russians are pounding their own city, Grozny, to rubble and are murdering Russian civilians in the process. Their conquest of Grozny, which should conclude by the end of January, will complete a methodical campaign of brutality. Since October, more than 100,000 Russian troops have inched through Chechnya, leveling villages with low-precision artillery and dumb bombs. This "pacification" has killed many Chechen guerrillas and civilians and has turned most of the survivors into refugees. "In its indiscriminate use of firepower against civilian targets, it is as bad as anything since World War II," says Lani Kass, a professor of military strategy at the National War College.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.


No matter. The war against the Chechens, who are despised as Muslim terrorists in slavic Russia, is wildly popular, proof that Russian military power is returning. Chechnya is payback for Afghanistan, for the first humiliating Chechen war of 1994-96, and for NATO's bombing of Serbia. The army's triumph will ensure Vladimir Putin's election as president in March. It has already restored the military's prestige and budget.

But the notion that Chechnya's rape represents a return of Russian military glory is preposterous. Russia is turtling through Chechnya partly because it doesn't have enough competent troops to fight more quickly. Russia can rely on only about 20,000 skilled soldiers in an army of 700,000. Analysts believe that Russia could muster "one or two" decent army divisions out of a paper strength of 70 divisions.

Russia's military is a lumpen-army, the dregs of dregs. Conscription remains mandatory, but more than 80 percent of young Russians avoid it. The enlisted ranks fill with the stupid, the sick, and the criminal. These soldiers are little better than cannon fodder. Russia makes no serious effort to train them, because it doesn't have qualified noncommissioned officers, and its officers can't control the conscripts. Hazing is unbelievably brutal: More than 1,000 soldiers are murdered every year by their brothers-in-arms, and more than 500 kill themselves because of the horrific conditions.

Pay is laughably small and usually in arrears. Russia has shelved its longstanding plan to switch to a volunteer army because it can't pay enough to recruit soldiers. According to the CIA, Russia spends only one-sixth as much on the military as the Soviet Union did during the '80s. Clothing and rations are scarce: Navy servicemen have starved to death. Alcoholism is rampant, as soldiers drink everything they can get their hands on. (In the '80s, the Mig-25 was nicknamed the "Flying Restaurant" because crews would drain and drink its alcohol-based hydraulic fluid.) Hepatitis flourishes because troops don't know how to dig latrines. The army is "a kingdom of darkness," says U.S. Army War College professor Stephen Blank.


Russia can't afford to equip its so-called soldiers. Only a tiny fraction of Russian materiel is equal to modern Western equipment. Russia lacks up-to-date communications, computers, and precision munitions. Much hardware remains from the Soviet buildup, but most of it doesn't work. Soldiers cannibalize spare parts to keep a few vehicles working. Pilots lack the fuel and equipment to fly training missions. Russian arms plants still produce excellent weapons for export (anti-ship missiles, for example), but the Russian military can't afford to buy any of them.

Russian conventional forces have grown so flaccid that Russia has altered its nuclear policy. It used to abjure first-use of nukes. Now first-use is an essential part of military doctrine, because Russia knows it can't defend itself conventionally. (The only good news about the military is that it has regained secure control over its active nuclear weapons--though not over discarded nuclear material.) Even the Pentagon, which has long featherbedded its budget by inflating the Moscow threat, has largely stopped pretending that Russia can endanger U.S. military interests. The Russian army is no longer the great Russian bear but a "rather vicious ferret," says Mark Galeotti, a Russian military analyst at Britain's Keele University.

The Glory Days

This military has decayed immeasurably since the glory days of the Mighty Red Army. The Russian army broke Napoleon. Soviet troops, in Winston Churchill's words, "tore the guts" out of the Nazis. U.S. officials certainly exaggerated the competence of the Soviet military during the Cold War, but it was still a great force: 6 million men under arms, a 3-to-1 tank advantage, a 2-to-1 aircraft advantage. The Red Army was the only institution that matched the Communist Party in prestige. The best and brightest joined the officer corps. There were 15 applicants for every slot at some military schools. The state pampered officers with special stores, chauffeured cars, and dachas.

The Czarist and Soviet armies were not artful, but they were often effective: weak on offense, strong on defense. They performed poorly in far-flung adventures (the Russo-Japanese War, for example) but savaged invaders when the Motherland was under attack. They mastered brute-force warfare, throwing huge numbers of troops, tanks, and shells at the enemy. The U.S.S.R. won World War II by losing 8 million soldiers.


The Afghanistan invasion vanquished the myth of Soviet military invincibility and aroused the popular mistrust of the army that persists today. The breakup of the U.S.S.R. shattered the army into 15 pieces, as Russia lost nukes, ships, bases, and many of its best officers to newly independent republics. In the post-Soviet chaos, youngsters found more ways to duck conscription, and the quality of the average soldier plummeted. Boris Yeltsin, who didn't trust the army, further damaged it by elevating the interior ministry--with its hundreds of thousands of soldiers--as a separate, independent foundation of military power. The first Chechen war dealt the final disgrace. The hardened rebels slaughtered Russia's ill-prepared men, ambushing them by the hundreds in Grozny. Russian mothers traveled to Chechnya, pulled their sons off the front lines, and brought them home.

Russia's generals and politicians essentially ginned up the new Chechen war as a confidence builder. Russia has reason to invade Chechnya: The rebellious province has been agitating to form a separate, antagonistic Muslim state. But Russia was itching for an excuse to attack. When Chechens raided the Russian territory of Dagestan, and bombs wrecked Moscow apartment buildings, the army seized the opportunity. (Many suspect that the bombings were staged to marshal support for war.) Because it is a win-at-all-costs war to restore military prestige, Russian generals have shown utter indifference to civilian casualties and a willingness to lie to retain popular support. (Russia, for example, consistently undercounts its war dead.) The West tolerates Russia's atrocities because it has no choice and because it is better for Russia to take out its aggression on its own citizens than to go adventuring abroad.

The Sherman's march through Chechnya is not just boosting Russian military pride. It is also increasing the military's political clout. The Russian military has long been politically quiescent because a tradition of professionalism pervades the officer corps. But the general staff insisted that Putin grant them total freedom to prosecute the war. Putin, who wants a victory to boost his own prospects, granted it, essentially castrating the civilian defense ministry and subordinating the interior ministry. Western analysts now fear that the generals are using Chechnya to reassert control over national security and foreign policy. Their militarism and nationalism bode ill for future relations between Russia and the West. The general staff, for instance, has essentially forbidden Russia from talking to NATO.

As for the victory in Chechnya, it's a mirage. For Russia's generals and politicians, victory simply means flying the Russian flag in downtown Grozny. But Chechens are fighting a guerrilla war. Russian soldiers will shell Grozny to its foundations and fly their flags, but they won't engage in street-to-street fighting: It's too bloody. So the rebels can melt away and join their comrades in Chechnya's southern mountains. Chechnya has been fighting Moscow for 217 years and hasn't surrendered yet. It won't stop now. When the Russian army continues south, it will find itself in another mountain war--a mini-Afghanistan, this time against a tougher and better-organized enemy. The Chechens will gradually bleed the Russian garrison--one car bomb, one mine, one mortar at a time--until the Russians withdraw in frustration. But for now, Putin and his generals will get their victory --a Potemkin triumph for a Potemkin army.