Vienna, January 25 – Some 20,000 soldiers, divided almost equally between draftees and those on contract, are currently being sought by the Russian military and militia for desertion, an especially disturbing figure both because it highlights the continued existence of dedovshchina in Russian forces and because many of those now AWOL have taken their weapons with them.
That number, Aleksandr Stepanov writes in today’s “Versiya,” likely understates the problem because the provisions of Russian military law and the desire of commanders not to harm their own reputations both allow the Russian powers that be to understate the numbers of both deserters and those taking arms with them (versia.ru/articles/2010/jan/25/dezertirstvo).
Valentina Malnikova, the secretary of the Union of Committees of Soldiers Mothers, says that the major cause for this phenomenon is the continued mistreatment of soldiers, up to and including the use of torture by fellow soldiers, known as “dedovshchina” in Russian, and by officers, many of whom have little training or ability to manage their subordinates otherwise.
But she also suggested, Stepanov continues, that this “epidemic” reflects the lack of the screening of draftees, a view with which doctors agree. Because of demographic decline, the medical boards are pressured to approve many young men who are not qualified, perhaps as many as 10 percent of the total.
Although desertion exists in all armies, the number of soldiers leaving their units in the Russian Federation is especially high, Stepanov says, a reality that few either in the military or the society are prepared to confront, especially given that the military has systematically tried to “cover up” this phenomenon.
Indeed, he continues, “an entire system of cover up has been developed: If, for example, a soldier runs off without arms and does not commit any crimes, commanders do not report about his flight for as long as they can in the hopes that the soldier will soon return” to his unit and thus not be “a deserter.”
And when a group of soldiers deserts, something that military rules require be immediately reported upwards to the ministry, commanders typically choose instead to report “about each soldier separately” reporting about each member of the group with “a pause between of a day or two.”
Russian military law in fact helps commanders to do this. It specifies that a deserter is only “someone who illegally leaves his unit with the firm intention of never returning to military service.” Consequently, if someone goes AWOL but declares after he is caught that he plans to return, he won’t be called a deserter but rather described in less dramatic terms.
That has allowed the authorities, the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers says, to keep the number of cases where someone is tried for desertion down to “several dozen” a year, even though the number of soldiers leaving the ranks is much larger – albeit no one knows exactly how many, not even the Chief Military Procurator.
Most of those who desert, the Union suggests, do so to save their lives, but prosecutors say that perhaps a third of those who desert or go AWOL do so either because they themselves have already committed crimes or because they believe that the weapons they can take with them will allow them to enter the civilian criminal world.
Mikhail Agapov, a former military psychologist, says that “in return times, ever more soldiers are fleeing with their guns. They clearly know that this makes their crime more serious, but for young people, guns have their own attraction,” being viewed by many of them as a means of “solving more quickly” any problems they may have.
Tragically, the retired lieutenant colonel suggests, there are ever fewer professionally trained junior officers who know how to work with young men and there is no equivalent to the system of “zampolits” or political officers that existed in Soviet times and that was responsible for maintaining morale.
Although the defense ministry is not interested in having the problem discussed, it is aware of it and has begun to conduct special inspections in units, like the 138th Motorized Rifle Brigade of the Leningrad Military District, from which many soldiers have deserted after beatings.
Whether such measures will “stop the mass exodus of deserters,” Stepanov concludes, is “difficult to say. At the very least, experts on the subject have doubts that they will have a major impact anytime soon, all the more so because the ongoing contraction of the military is keeping many officers from thinking about the longer term.