Attrition: Learning To Trust Chechens Again

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May 6, 2014: Russia has changed its mind about keeping young men from the Caucasus out of the military. In a surprise move the Russian army announced that it is once again allowing young men from the Caucasus to volunteer for military service and be conscripted as well. This had been promised at the end of 2012 but nothing happened, until the end of March announcement. Why the change?

The Caucasus is one of the few places in Russia where a lot of the young men want to join the military. That’s because while conscription is generally unpopular in Russia, there are some areas where mandatory military service is seen as an opportunity, not something to be avoided. Yet young men in Chechnya have not been subject to conscription since 1992, even though the Chechens generally did quite well in the military. The Russian Army no longer wanted after 1991 because that’s when Chechnya went into rebellion and the attitudes of young Chechen men changed. Chechen recruits had always been a lot of trouble for their commanders and in the early 1990s that got worse as many began to claim they were devout Moslems and demanded that the army provide them with special (halal) food, prayer rooms in the barracks, and extra time off for prayer. The usual punishments (beatings or even imprisonment) did not faze the Chechens. If beaten by NCOs or other soldiers they would get organized to eventually inflict retribution. If sent to prison the misbehaving recruits would join groups of Chechen prisoners who tended to rule the prisons they were in and were often feared by the guards. So after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the Russian military simply stopped trying to draft Chechens or accepting them as volunteers. Those who wanted to serve had to take up legal residency in some other part of Russia and be able to get a good conduct reference from local police before the recruiters would accept them. After 2010 the provincial government in Chechnya instituted their own conscription (which is technically illegal) where those young Chechens who wanted to serve could do so in two special military units that only operated in Chechnya. Less than two-hundred men were involved initially and local army commanders were willing to cooperate (or too scared to refuse). The national government tried to reinstate conscription for Chechnya in 2001, but that effort ended after the few recruits taken proved to be as troublesome as ever and were released from the military. The provincial battalions proved to be a success and that played a part in allowing Chechens back into the regular army.

There are similar, but less severe, problems with two neighbors of Chechnya (Dagestan and Ingushetia) and starting in 2009 fewer and fewer people were drafted there either. Most of the people in these two areas are not ethnic Chechens but they have some of the same bad attitude and behavior problems. Most other ethnic groups in the Caucasus (Ossetians, Adygeans, Kabardians, Cherkess, Balkars, and Karachays) continue to be conscripted or allowed to volunteer for military service. Now everyone is, except for those with criminal records or connections with known Islamic terrorists. Dagestan and Ingushetia pointed out that there were many loyal and effective Moslems in the local security forces and this helped get the military ban rescinded.

The army has long had reasons for not wanting recruits from some parts of the Caucasus. Even before 1991, the Russian dominated army warned company (units of about a hundred troops) commanders to not allow more than ten Chechens in their unit. Experience had shown that ten or more Chechens (or other men from the Caucasus) would form a very tight, tough, and disciplined clique that would prey on the other troops in the company and cause all manner of discipline and crime problems. If you found yourself with more than ten Chechens it was best to try and transfer some of them out. That is no longer a major problem, but company commanders are still warned to be wary of troops from the Caucasus.

While the Chechens were the worst in this respect, the other Caucasus nationalities came close. But these days, the young men want to join the army and get a few years military experience, so they can qualify to become a "contract" soldier. These troops are paid a lot more and are considered "professional troops." Commanders actually prefer contract soldiers from the Caucasus, although many will admit that it's still not wise to have more than ten of them in an infantry company.

This admiration of the military qualities of troops from the Caucasus probably played a role in lifting the restrictions. Another reason probably has to do with the loyalty of Caucasus troops already in the military and the usefulness of local pro-Russian militias in the Caucasus. Finally, the army learned how to check character references of Caucasus recruits, and this proved effective in keeping the troublemakers out.

 

 


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