Vienna, August 10 – The number of non-combat losses of the Russian armed forces is not only six to nine times greater than Moscow claims but reflects the problems many Russian commanders now have in interacting with their opposite numbers from other countries during international military maneuvers.
Last year, Ruslan Gorevoy reports in the current issue of “Versiya,” Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said that his forces had suffered 471 non-combat deaths, but Veronika Marchenko, the head of the Mother’s Right Foundation, said that the actual figure is much higher, 2500 to 3,000 (versia.ru/articles/2009/aug/10/zhertvy_voennyh_uchenij).
The difference between official and unofficial figures, Gorevoy says, is not simply about intentional underreporting but rather because the Russian defense ministry does not count those who die from injuries after they have been demobilized or those who die “in the course of joint military exercises with the armies of other countries.”
Both of these figures are classified secret, just as they were in Soviet times. Gorevoy’s article focuses on the second of these categories, and he reports that military experts say Russian forces are losing “approximately 150 to 200” men every year.
That figure, he continues, is approximately the same as the one Soviet forces suffered 20 years ago, a kind of progress Gorevoy suggests because the Russian armed forces now take part in up to eight international exercises each year whereas in Soviet times, such exercises occurred “much more rarely – one or two times annually.”
According to Gorevoy, the deaths Russian forces are suffering during joint exercises with the armies of other countries are the result of a variety of factors. Some are simply the product of sloppy work, the failure of Russian technicians to ensure that equipment is packed carefully so that it will work as intended.
Others are the product of secretiveness, either by the Russian forces or by those they are cooperating with. On the one hand, Gorevoy says, sometimes Russian commanders do not install the latest technology, such as flotation devices for tanks, and soldiers die when they are ordered to drive them across rivers.
And on the other, both Russian and foreign armies often are working with maps that are either outdated or distorted to prevent foreigners from knowing where things are. During joint maneuvers with the Mongolians last year, Gorevoy said, map errors meant that approximately 100 soldiers from both armies were fired upon in error.
The journalist notes that similar “cartographic” errors were responsible for deaths and injuries during Russian exercises with the Kazakhstan and Armenian militaries. Most recently, during this summer’s Peace Mission-2009 maneuvers with China, inaccurate maps led to approximately 15 Russian deaths and 60 Chinese ones.
But technical issues like equipment and maps are not the only problems in these exercises which lead to uncounted non-combat deaths, Gorevoy continues. Others involve failures to communicate accurately what each side is supposed to do or even to understand what the games are intended to look like.
One such disaster took place recently when Kyrgyz commanders suddenly decided to change the nature of the game and revert to what they had done in an earlier exercise with Russian forces. Because they did not make clear their intention, 120 Russian soldiers came under fire and approximately 15 were killed.
Retired Col.Gen. Leonid Ivashov, the president of the Moscow Academy of Geopolitical Problems and a frequent critic of the Russian defense minister, offered the following explanation for why Russian officers now find it so difficult to participate in joint exercises without suffering significant losses.
In Soviet times, he pointed out, there was no real need to consider how to deal with such problems because they mostly did not arise: In the Warsaw Pact, there were a number of countries, but they had “common standards of armament and common approaches to command and to strategic and tactical planning.”
Something like that, Ivashov said, “is being reestablished in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but the time needed for the restoration will take more than year.” And until then, Russian commanders will have to cope with far more differences than they were used to – and Russian soldiers are likely to be the victims.