Staunton, October 18 – Confronted by growing violence in the ranks often along ethnic and religious lines and by calls from the Russian Soldiers’ Mothers Committees not put their sons in units with people of other nationalities, Moscow is planning to set up as an experiment some “mono-ethnic” and “mono-religious” battalions, according to a Moscow newspaper.
In “Nezavisimaya gazeta” today, Vladimir Mukhin reports that because of the growth of “dedovshchina” in the Russian military – officials say it is up by more than a third over the last year – the General Staff is studying the experience of “the Savage Divisions” as the mono-ethnic units at the end of the Russian Imperial period were known (www.ng.ru/printed/246560).
An anonymous source in the General Staff told Mukhin that the high command sees the formation of such units in which would serve “individuals of a single nationality or followers of a single religion” as “a way out of the situation” in which violence and indiscipline has become commonplace.
The source added that these units will be formed as “an experiment” in several of the strategic commands and will resemble the already existing East and West battalions in Chechnya, yet another way in which Chechnya is having an impact on Russian life far beyond the borders of the North Caucasus.
Yury Netkachev, a retired lieutenant journal and frequent commentator on military affairs, told the Moscow daily that “in essence, this is a return to the experience of ‘the Savage Divisions’ which existed first in the army of the Russian Empire and then for a certain time in Soviet forces.” And he suggested that the idea had merit.
The Russian military leadership shares that view and sees the formation of such units as a means of avoiding a continuing rise in the number of criminal cases involving clashes between the increasingly numerous non-Russian and non-Orthodox troops and Russian soldiers, who as a result of demographic decline form an ever smaller share of those in uniform.
Over the past months there have been a number of clashes along ethnic and religious lines in the Russian army, most recently at the Sokol Air Base near Perm where soldiers from the North Caucasus refused to obey orders and the commander turned to the local mufti for assistance.
According to Colonel Vladimir Popov, a historian and specialist on the Caucasus, the reported cases are only the tip of the iceberg, and the extent of this problem is far greater than many assume. He noted that in the formation of units in Chechnya, the General Staff had even established a special rule on the balance of Caucasians and Russians.
If there are too many soldiers from the Caucasus relative to the number of Russian commanders, the former often refuse to obey the latter. And that problem is now spreading, he said. “With the deteriorating demographic situation and the higher birthrate in the North Caucasus, Muslim draftees from there will soon form more than half of the entire contingent of the Russian Army.”
“On the one hand,” he said, “it would be better if they all served in one unit and were commanded by officers from their own region” But such an approach carries with it problems of its own: What happens if at some point “entire battalions” formed in this way “refuse to subordinate themselves to the Ministry of Defense as happened in June 1941.”
Retired Major General Vladimir Bogatyrev, a member of the Association of Units of Reserve Officers, is even more worried about the consequences of forming mono-ethnic or mono-religious units. Doing so, he said, “will not save [the army] from the problems” of insubordination and violence.
Those can be overcome only if officers learn how to better work with soldiers as educators as well as commanders, something he suggested the current leadership of the defense ministry does not appear to understand. And he said that restoring “the Savage Divisions” would be a mistake: A century ago, many of the peoples of the empire “did not know Russian.”
But today, he continued, “the situation is different. Russia is trying to build a democratic society. And corresponding to that, its army must be both democratic and international.” If it isn’t, he clearly implied, then the Russian Federation faces an increasingly problematic future, one that might involve either collapse or even greater authoritarianism.
The “Nezavisimaya” article did not discuss in any detail the history of the Savage Division of the last years of the Russian Empire, but there is one aspect of their history that may also be playing a certain role in the thinking of those at the top of the Russian military and political system now.
The units that made up the Savage Division were among the most disciplined and combat ready in the Russian Imperial Army, and perhaps most relevant now, they were the last to be infected by the revolutionary spirit that ultimately destroyed not only the Russian Imperial Army but the Russian Empire itself.