In Russia, an army of deserters
A model program for military reform stalls due to lack of funds and personnel.
Anatoly deserted from his Army unit just two months after being inducted, after he and other conscripts were beaten with shovel handles by older soldiers during an "education session."Skip to next paragraph
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The 19-year-old says the new draftees were told they had to "earn their keep" by begging and breaking into nearby civilian homes to steal money and valuables. "I'm not against Army service," says Anatoly, who was assigned to a unit near the central Russian town of Narafominsk. "I'm willing to serve in any other unit, but not that one."
Anatoly, and thousands more like him, are a sign that the Kremlin's ambitious effort to reform the military, announced a year ago, may be running out of steam.
Breaking decades of secrecy on the subject, the Defense Ministry conceded this month that 2,265 conscripts deserted in the first half of this year.
But the true number is more like 40,000 annually, according to the Soldiers' Mothers Committees, the only public organization that aids deserters.
In an unusually frank speech last month, Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin, Army chief of staff, admitted that the officer corps is "bogged down in embezzlement and corruption" and that a decade of underfunding and failed reform has left the armed forces in a critical situation.
"The system of compulsory military service in this country is almost indistinguishable from prison," says Natalya Shvol, who is in charge of processing deserters who come to Soldiers' Mothers' Moscow office. "In my experience, no young man runs away from his unit except under the most extreme conditions. Many of these boys describe intolerable treatment, including savage beatings, torture, extortion, lurid threats, and routine humiliation."
Hunched in tattered army coats, sometimes shivering with fear, dozens of deserters collect every day in a dingy corridor at the Moscow committee office. Denis, thin and taciturn, ran away from his Moscow region Army unit repeatedly, complaining of continual beatings and insults at the hands of officers and older soldiers. His mother, sitting with him, says she returned him to the barracks three times, believing his commanding officer's assessment that Denis just has "a weak character." Now she says she understands that the boy is genuinely terrified of the Army camp and can't go back, so she brought him to the Soldiers' Mothers. "I don't know what to do with him," she says, twisting her scarf in her hands. "I can't understand what's going on in this country at all."
The Mothers organization runs what might be described as "halfway house" military units in cooperation with government prosecutors where deserters are brought back under Army jurisdiction while their cases are examined. Valentina Melnikova, national chair of the Soldiers' Mothers Committees, says it is the only legal way to help them. She says that more than half of deserters who give themselves up under this program receive medical discharges and most others are transferred to new military units.
"When a deserter comes to us, we tell him the first thing he must do is get back within the law," Ms. Melnikova says. "Then we try to find ways to save him from returning to the unit where he was abused, and we usually succeed. The main priority is to relieve the boy from the charge of desertion, which in this country entails very serious criminal penalties. There is no statute of limitations, so it means a ruined life."
Down from the Soviet-era peak of 5 million, the Russian armed forces have about 2 million personnel, including some 600,000 conscripts, who serve a compulsory two years. Twice-yearly draft campaigns bring in about a quarter-million young men, but about two-thirds of those eligible avoid serving by arranging legal student or medical exemptions.