MOSCOW – With sky-high popularity ratings virtually assuring his reelection next Sunday, there seemed to be little need for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to stage a dramatic campaign stunt.
But there he was, all dressed up like a naval officer, standing on the swaying deck of a nuclear submarine in the frigid Barents Sea and ready to witness the firing of a ballistic missile.
Putin waited and waited on the deck of the submarine Arkhangelsk, but the missile was never fired.
The next day, Feb. 18, Putin tried again, this time dressed up as an officer in the Strategic Rocket Forces. A missile was launched but soon veered wildly off course and self-destructed after 98 seconds.
Not exactly the kind of campaign footage the Kremlin had in mind. An embarrassed Putin ordered investigations into what he called the “shortcomings.”
Putin has made modernization of the military one of the priorities of his administration, but reforms have stalled, and the armed forces, once the only rival to the United States’, have become a national embarrassment.
Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the general staff, has called the situation “beyond critical.”
Soldiers and officers are so demoralized and poorly paid that they often hold extra jobs or resort to extortion, corruption or theft. Chechen guerrillas hiding in the Caucasus mountains have more sophisticated Russian-made weapons than the Russian forces they are fighting.
The army can’t afford the new T-95 tank, even though it’s made by Russian contractors. The navy hasn’t commissioned a new submarine in a dozen years.
Every branch of the military is in dire straits.
The remnants of the Soviet Navy rarely venture into blue water any more; most of the submarine fleet sits rusting in berths. The sinking of the nuclear sub Kursk in August 2000 cost 118 lives, and nine more sailors died last summer when another nuclear sub, the K-159, sank while being towed to a scrapyard.
There is so little housing for naval officers’ families that wives and children are forced to live in old, dry-docked submarines.
“The navy is dying,” said Adm. Eduard Baltin, the former commander of the Northern Fleet’s nuclear submarines. “We already hear that there will soon be no oceangoing navy and that our coasts will be guarded by the [fast, lightly armed] so-called corvettes.”
In the Air Force, pilots get barely a tenth of the necessary training time in the air, only a handful of hours per year, because of a lack of money for jet fuel. Russia’s fleet of Tu-160 Blackjack long-range bombers was grounded for three months after one crashed in September.
The million-man army is blighted with alcohol abuse, defections, suicides, and hazing so brutal that it amounts to ritualized torture. Even grizzled senior officers were alarmed last spring when a member of the elite Kremlin Regiment was found in a toilet – inside the Kremlin – with his wrists slashed. He reportedly had been badly beaten, apparently by fellow soldiers.
The army is about to begin its annual conscription drive. Forty percent of last year’s recruits were high school dropouts, 7 percent were felons, and only 30 percent were physically fit enough to undergo any field training. The rate of HIV infection among recruits is 27 times what it was five years ago.
“They come in drunk and disorderly, and there are no professional sergeants to train them or discipline them,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst in Moscow.