Leadership: Russia Battles Corrupt Officers and Loses


April 2, 2007: Several years of anti-corruption efforts in the Russian armed forces are not, according to senior commanders, having much impact. There were 21,252 investigations in the Russian military last year, a two percent drop from 2005. The worst cases included 22 deaths from hazing or abuse by superiors, and 193 suicides (often caused by the hazing.)

The hazing and corruption in the military is a complex issue. For one thing, Russia does not have military police to deal with this sort of thing. During the Soviet period (1921-91), the KGB kept an eye on criminal activity in the military, but was more concerned with loyalty and espionage. The violence and hazing in the ranks was not seen as a big problem. It is now, because Russians can vote, and the parents of young men getting abused while doing their conscript service, are making a lot of noise over this issue.

The hazing developed after World War II, when Russia deliberately avoided developing a professional NCO corps. They preferred to have officers take care of nearly all troop supervision. The NCOs that did exist were treated as slightly more reliable enlisted men, but given little real authority. Since officers did not live with the men, slack discipline in the barracks gave rise to the vicious hazing and exploitation of junior conscripts by the senior, or simply stronger and more ruthless, ones. This led to very low morale, and a lot of suicides, theft, sabotage and desertions. Long recognized as a problem, no solution ever worked.

The basic problem is simply poor discipline. But now the Russian army has an NCO corps, and one that is growing in size and experience. It's possible to exercise more control over what goes on in the barracks. In addition, the number of volunteer (or "contract") troops is increasing. In the next few years, some 70 percent of the troops, and all of the NCOs, are expected to be volunteers. These soldiers are much better paid than conscripts, and more is expected of them. The Russians want to see if their new NCO corps actually works, when the sergeants are ordered to shut down the traditional hazing.

Corruption became common, and tolerated, during the 1970s and 80s. When the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, corruption got worse. With no KGB to interfere, and lots of surplus weapons and equipment to steal, the Russian military fell apart. The armed forces were downsized, shrinking to less than a third of its Cold War size. Most of the best officers got out, seeking better employment opportunities in the civilian economy. Inflation, coupled with few raises, made it almost mandatory to steal in order to get by. It got so bad that, in the 1990s, there were cases of military personnel starving or freezing to death, because officers had stolen the money meant for food and fuel.

When the current anti-corruption campaign got underway, it was discovered that over a thousand officers had criminal records, and because of the way the current military legal system works, new laws were needed to get rid of these men. Many of the corrupt officers are quite senior in rank, and able to protect many of their lower ranking criminal associates. There are so many corrupt officers and NCOs, that a "criminal atmosphere" is present in many military organizations. Apparently it will take years, perhaps a decade, of sustained effort to change that atmosphere.


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