Russia's five-year war in Chechnya has forced them to once again rely heavily on their many elite formations. The most called-upon of Russia's specialized formations during both wars in the breakaway republic have been the Russian marines, or Naval Infantry. Formed in 1705 by Peter the Great, the Naval Infantry have seen service in almost all of Russia's major wars during the last 50 years.
The Russian Naval Infantry has always formed an important part of the country's armed forces. During the Soviet Era, their numbers amounted to around 60,000 officers and enlisted men. Today, they number about 27,000, half their former size. These comprise one division in the Far Eastern Fleet, three independent brigades, one independent regiment, and a few smaller formations. Russia has around 102 amphibious landing craft, but only 30 of these are in a state of high-readiness and repair. The rest, like much of the Russian Navy's surface fleet, is in mothballs. Still, they are a formidable force and would play a large role in any future conventional war.
Because Russia's ill-equipped, poorly-trained, corrupt, and often drug-addicted soldiers have proved inept and unreliable over the last few years fighting the Chechen rebels, the Naval Infantry have played a particularly important role in Russia's attempts to stabilize the region. Large numbers of marines, along with other special formations, have been deployed to support the regular army.
There are a number of reasons why the Russians lean more heavily on the Naval Infantry to do their counter-insurgency work. The most obvious reason is size. The Naval Infantry are one of the largest of Russia's special purpose troops, far larger than either Naval or Army Spetsnaz, and thus can be deployed in larger numbers. This is true of the country's airborne troops as well who, along with the Marines, have borne a large brunt of the fighting in the Caucasus. Also, the Naval Infantry troops bring a number of advantages with them over the regular military. They are typically far better trained and equipped for combat than regular soldiers, and also receive larger salaries (although still very small by Western standards). Officers make about the rough equivalent of $250 a month, as compared to the average army officer that makes only $200 a month, and thats the figure for senior officers (Lt. Colonel and above). Conscripts generally make around a fourth of that. $50 doesn't sound like much, but given that the average army conscript makes even less and is more often than not goes unpaid for months at a time, its a pretty good deal. Contract soldiers generally make around $70 a month. It also pays better than some civilian jobs. Russian police officers, for example, make only about $100 a month. Still, some retail vendors in Moscow make over $1,000 a month, and it can be hard for poverty-stricken officers and men to resist the temptation to resign in favor of more dough.
Marine units tend to be more professional, a coveted accomplishment in Russia's military, although conscripts still make up around 60 percent of unit strength. Russia has spent a lot more money on the upkeep of units like the Naval Infantry because they are the only ones in any kind of combat-ready condition. Typical weaponry includes the latest models, along with body armor. Competition for entry into the marines is stiff and training programs rigorous, even brutal, by Western standards. Also, unlike the regular armed forces, elite formations are considered to be less corrupt and more reliable. In short, the Naval Infantry comprise some of Russia's best combat troops. Thus, they have performed better than the regular army in most of their engagements. Leadership and officer quality is higher than in other units of the Navy, of which the marines are a part.
However, the marines bring a number of their own problems and weaknesses to the table with them. The most serious one is their lack of actual counter-insurgency training. Unlike the Army's Spetsnaz soldiers, the Naval Infantry troops are not trained to fight low-level counter-guerrilla conflicts. Quite the opposite, in fact. Russia, since the end of World War II, has placed a large emphasis on conventional large-scale airborne and amphibious operations. The latter is the exclusive domain of the Naval Infantry. Their mission is specifically to land on and establish beachheads, allowing follow-up forces to move further inland.
This lack of counter-insurgency training is a major handicap. The second problem is that, like all Russian troops fighting in Chechnya, the Naval Infantry are just as prone to brutalizing civilians and captured fighters. This has long been a tremendous problem during the war, and the marines don't seem to have any special reservations about brutality. Of course, the Chechens do the same things to captured Russian troops as well.
In short, the Naval Infantry, along with the army's paratroopers, are currently the largest, most dependable force that the Russians can deploy to help combat the rise of Chechen terrorism. Well-equipped, trained, and generally more reliable, they are far superior to the corrupt and unfed draftees that they often replace in combat. A complete lack of understanding in guerrilla warfare, however, and a tendency for brutality make for serious weaknesses in a country whose armed forces are plagued with them.