November 26, 1996
The Russian defense minister recently said conditions were so bad in Russia's army that soldiers might not follow orders in future crises. But he denied the army was on the verge of mutiny. We have a report from one famous unit by Lawrence McDonnell of Independent Television News.
LAWRENCE McDONNELL: In fields outside Moscow, Russian soldiers are busy gathering food for winter. Nothing new about this. Through the centuries, the Russian army has grown used to feeding itself. And nowadays, soldiers are normally drafted in to shore up a dilapidated agricultural sector. But this year, it's different. These troops are here to earn cash. The army hasn't been paid for months. Starved of funding, it's on the brink of collapse, reduced to a pathetic shadow of its once mighty Soviet predecessor. This is the 119th paratroop regiment, or part of it. Two thirds of the regiment are out in the fields. For the rest, it's cabbage as usual. The 119th has seen action in every hot spot around Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Alexander Lebed was division commander of these troops when they were counted among the country's finest. Today, he says Russia should be ashamed of its army and has warned that if the situation is allowed to deteriorate further, there could be a mutiny. These days, the regiment's commander, Vladimir Glebov, spends most of his time arguing with the defense ministry about food and housing. He told me his best officers left the army after they were told the ministry couldn't afford to produce the medals they'd been awarded for fighting in Chechnya.
LT. COL. VLADIMIR GLEBOV: (speaking through interpreter) The officers feel cheated out of the symbol of their valor and humiliated . We do our duty but the State is failing us. Officers are breaking their contracts because the Government breaks all of its promises.
LAWRENCE McDONNELL: One thing the regiment isn't short of is weapons. When they're not picking potatoes, the troops still spend much of their time on the firing range. The 119th is only an hour's drive from Moscow. Three years ago when opposition forces led an armed uprising against the government, the regiment was one of the first ordered into the capital. Then they were motivated by the belief that they were fighting for a better future in the name of democracy. Today, with morale so low, one wonders if they'd be as quick to answer the same call to arms.
LT. ALEXANDER GRISHIN: (speaking through interpreter) When the Government needs something, it always turns to us, and we've never refused them. We always answer their bidding. But when they don't need us, they forget about us.
LAWRENCE McDONNELL: Olga Danilov lives in an army flat on the base. Her two youngest children, Sasha and Katya, are just back from nursery, hungry as ever. Olga's mother helps out at home, but she's no help with the finances. Both Olga and her husband, Alexander, serve in the regiment's medical unit. Neither has been paid since June, even though Alexander is a lieutenant colonel. Yesterday, they both queued up to sell blood to pay for their children's nursery fees. They got 10 pounds a pint and need every penny.
OLGA DANILOV: (speaking through interpreter) Whole families come to sell their blood. Everyone waits in line when the blood stations are set up. Many travel into Moscow because the price of blood and plasma there is higher.
LT. COL. ALEXANDER DANILOV: (speaking through interpreter) It's not an army but a gang of criminals and paupers. We're dressed in uniform but forced to bet outside church. The Government tells us to wait, but it doesn't tell us how to survive.
LAWRENCE McDONNELL: On the training ground of the 119th, women officers are taught the rudiments of parachute jumping. Mostly mothers in their mid to late 30's, they're the only ones prepared to serve under contract. They're paid a tiny amount and, like the others, haven't even received that. And to add insult, they rarely jump; the unit can't afford the fuel. Russia's airborne troops are amongst the proudest in her armed forces. They've always been in the front line. Three years ago, they attacked Boris Yeltsin's political enemies in the white house, and they fought and died bravely in Chechnya. But today, they feel angry and impoverished. They haven't been paid for months, and many blame the government that until now they fought so hard to defend. In Moscow, a senior member of the Duma Defense Committee told Channel 4 News Russia's armed forces are caught in a power struggle between the Defense and Interior ministries and are being played off against each other to serve political ambitions in the Kremlin.
LT. GEN. MIKAIL SURKOV, Parliamentary Defense Committee: (speaking through interpreter) Our leaders have decided to forget about the army, and that creates animosity between those who are paid and those who aren't. It's a cheap, low level game of divide and rule.
LAWRENCE McDONNELL: This weekend, the 166th motorized rifle brigade arrived back at its base in Moscow from Chechnya. More than a hundred men from the regiment died in fighting. Some opted not to join in the celebrations. Underpaid and undervalued, few soldiers believe today's Russia is led by an administration worth dying for.