Russian leader remilitarizes nation

Published March 8, 2000|Updated Sept. 26, 2005

In the nearly two months since Vladimir V. Putin became acting president of Russia, the world has barely begun getting to know him. But already, he is building a clear record in one area of policy. Little noticed by the West, Putin, a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB, is rapidly remilitarizing Russian society.

Visitors to the old Soviet Union used to be surprised at the sheer number of people in uniform in the streets. At 18, men were conscripted for two years of mandatory military service. Virtually everyone who had graduated from a technical, medical or foreign-languages college was considered an officer of the reserves and required to report for regular training exercises.

Young schoolchildren had to take part in bomb drills and survival games, complete with toy guns for boys and nurse training for girls. Starting at 14, students learned warfare in a mandatory class called primary military preparation; one activity was taking apart and cleaning the famous Kalashnikov rifle. All men and many women were required to carry military cards, and the all-important internal passport also indicated military status.

In the 1990s the number of people in the services dwindled as budgets were cut and opportunities increased in the private sector. When Russia ended its involvement in Afghanistan, more young men began to be exempted from the draft. The 1993 Russian constitution guaranteed the right to alternative civilian service, and a few hundred men managed to claim it by going to court. The military preparation class in schools was abolished in 1989. Training exercises for reservists were quietly discontinued.

But like other Soviet legacies, the institutionalized military nature of Russian society remained ready to be resurrected. Since Putin took office on Dec. 31, he has issued 11 presidential decrees. Six concerned the military.

Putin's second decree _ after the one granting immunity from prosecution to Boris Yeltsin, the former president _ established a new Russian military doctrine abandoning the old no-first-strike policy toward nuclear weapons and emphasizing a right to use them against aggressors "if other means of conflict resolution have been exhausted or deemed ineffective."

Soon another decree re-established mandatory training exercises for reservists. How many will be called up this year and whether they may be required to serve in Chechnya is unclear, since two of the decree's six paragraphs are classified as secret. (This is the sort of problem that journalists in Russia will be encountering often, since a Jan. 17 Putin order granted 40 government ministers and other officials the right to classify information secret.)

Other decrees related to military administration, public information about the war in Chechnya and commemoration of a general's death.

Putin has also focused on the military in his capacity as acting prime minister. His government's first legislative action re-established military training in secondary schools, both public and private. Russian teenagers will once again become intimate with the Kalashnikov.

The Ministry of Education's plans to expand the school curriculum to 12 years will also have a military impact. Boys will graduate from high school not at 17, as now, but at the conscription age of 18 and will not have time to try to gain acceptance to colleges that could grant draft exemptions. As for alternative service, Russians can forget about it: The first young man who went to court to claim this right in the Putin era was jailed for avoiding the draft.

On Jan. 27 Putin's finance minister announced that defense spending will be increased by 50 percent. Where will the country get the money, when it consistently fails to meet its obligations to an increasingly impoverished population?

The government's latest resolution contains an eerily ingenious solution to one urgent social problem: From now on, military detachments will be encouraged to "adopt" boys 14 and older who are orphaned or have single mothers.

Russia's remilitarization not only testifies to Putin's resolve to press on with the war in Chechnya but signals a return to the besieged, us-against-the-world mind-set that Russia had begun to leave behind. Yet as the March 26 election approaches, Putin has been complimented as a reformer and an inevitability by President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, NATO Secretary General James Robertson and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.

Such overtures make those of us in Russia who hope never again to touch a Kalashnikov feel very lonely indeed.

+ Masha Gessen is chief correspondent at the Russian news weekly Itogi. +

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