One of the (many) problems of the Russian military has been its lack of a proper military police force, and the extent to which this has encouraged or at least done little to stop rampant criminality, including the brutal hazing of dedovshchina. Instead, the Main Military Procurator’s Office (GVP) largely has to work through unit command structures (which are often more interested in concealing than revealing crimes) and the Commandant’s Service, which is largely a guard and traffic-control service and again under local commanders.
In October 2010, and after some hesitations and back-and-forths, Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Chief of the General Staff Makarov announced that by 2012, Russia would have a proper military police force (VP: Voennaya politsiya), some 20,000 strong, and this year is seeing a rolling introduction. (I even saw a VP car at this year’s Victory Day parades, and someone has posted some video footage.) I think this is an excellent step forward (I remember when working at the Foreign Office in the 1990s writing a little memo saying that the UK ought to encourage Russia in this direction and offer assistance – I don’t know if anything ever came of it.) A proper, dedicated VP will not only act as a check on the corrupt and exploitative officers who are still such a drain on military resources and morale, they will at last provide – assuming they get the support and powers they need – a force able to check the criminality of the Russian military. After all, while the occasional senior officer may fall foul of the GVP, this usually simply reflects either unusual venality or falling from favor.
A key problem will be addressing dedovshchina, which not only blights lives but also undermines discipline and solidarity within the military. The key problem has been not just that it is culturally entrenched but also that it has been implicitly (and sometimes directly) sanctioned by many commanders. After all, with relatively little training in modern man-management and a dearth of the experienced NCOs who are so vital to maintaining discipline in Western armies, dedovshchina allowed them an informal means of enforcing their authority, sanctioning brutality by a cadre of more experienced trustees who get their kicks out of bullying the rest, so long as they also enforce their officers’ instructions as well as indulging their own whims. Sadly, the best parallel is the way the GULAGs were in effect controlled not by the overstretched prison guards but by trustee criminals.
The creation of the VP may help combat this practice, by creating a separate force able and willing to investigate. It should also be able to address the general problems of corruption, embezzlement (possibly account for up to a third of the total, although I find this high figure hard to believe) and exploitation.
One of the outstanding conundra is quite what to make of the choice of Lt. General Sergei Surovikin to head the VP, though. He is clearly an able officer who has a series of key appointments on his resume, including having been briefly the head of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate (GOU), the think-tank of the General Staff. Nonetheless, he is an interesting and not uncontroversial choice, not least because of the black marks on his record. Born in Novosibirsk in 1966, he graduated with top honors from the Omsk Higher Military School in 1987 and joined the Ground Forces. He served briefly in a Spetsnaz unit in Afghanistan in the last stages of the war and was a captain and acting commander of the elite Moscow-based 2nd Taman Guards Tank Division’s mechanized infantry battalion (itself a sign of a career on a sharp upward trajectory) during the hard-liners’ 1991 coup. Then he had no qualms when the plotters’ ‘Emergency Committee’ ordered his forces deployed close to the protesters surrounding Boris Yeltsin, and it was a vehicle under his command which infamously killed three protesters. Surovikin was arrested after the coup and kept in custody for seven months, although he was then exonerated. He was deemed to have been obeying legal orders and the deaths an accident.
This may have slowed but did not stop his rise. He went to the Frunze Military Academy, graduating in 1995 and then serving in the 201st Motor Rifle Division in Tajikistan, and then in the first Chechen war. He then went to the General Staff Academy, graduating with honors in 2002. Again, though, he was dogged by scandal, being accused of selling a pistol illegally. He was cleared, though, and the judgement was that he had simply unknowingly handled a weapon another student was selling. He went on to command forces in Chechnya and the 34th and 42nd Motor Rifle Divisions (the latter in Chechnya), gaining a reputation as a tough ‘fighting general’ with little mercy for those serving under him. In 2004, Surovikin upbraided the 34th MRD’s deputy commander for armaments so fiercely that he then shot himself with his service pistol in front of his fellow officers. Again, this seems to have done him no harm (later that year he was appointed to command the 42nd). In 2008, he was appointed Chief of Staff of the GOU, where he appears to have played a role in a major downsizing and purging of the GOU. He stayed there for relatively little time. I’ll be honest, I thought at the time that this was a demotion (technically, it was) and that maybe it turned out that he was not really cerebral enough for the position. But in hindsight, it could just as well be that he was never seen as a military thinker and his job was rather to be a loyal axeman, and once that was done it was time to move him on. In any case, he returned to operational command, becoming Chief of Staff of the Volga-Urals Military District in January 2010, and then Chief of Staff of the Central Military District.
The gossip is that Surovikin is a good man in a fight, a **** out of one. Kompromat notwithstanding, there is no suggestion that he is personally corrupt, and he might just be the kind of hard-driving ‘Untouchable’ to take on the criminal circles still powerful within the armed forces. But at the same time, he seems to be willing to take the law into his own hands and ignore the regulations. He may well be able to impose greater order – but through or at the expense of the law? Is the creation of the VP simply going to create a new control mechanism over the military (admittedly a good thing in itself) rather than begin a cultural change within it that could, eventually, create a democratic, cohesive and more transparent military. Honestly, on the latter I’m not holding my breath.