Russia is a country with serious problems of political corruption, which extend to many aspects of its society, including the military establishment.
A few days ago, the writer Chris Owen, who is publishing very good analyzes on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, published a Twitter thread that has gone viral talking about corruption in the Russian Armed Forces, a corruption that he relates to problems that are being observed among the Russian military in Ukraine such as expired rations, defective vehicles, lost radios, insufficient units and even the abandonment of soldiers.
Russia, the country with the most political corruption in Europe
According to the corruption perception index published by the NGO Transparency International, Russia ranks 136th out of 180 countries: it is the most corrupt country in Europe. In fact, on March 4, that NGO described Russia as a “kleptocratic system”, that is, a system dominated by thieves. “The vast wealth that Russian kleptocrats have amassed – and continue to enjoy – has helped President Putin tighten his grip on power, exert illicit influence over the affairs of other nations and embolden his geopolitical ambitions”, Transparency International noted.
The armed forces are “the most corrupt government structure in Russia”
Owen notes the following in this regard: “Like every other state institution in Russia, the armed forces are riddled with corruption at every level. This is nothing new: in his 1854 Sevastopol Sketches, Tolstoy wrote of Russian officers: “While they are in the service their main aim is the acquisition of money.” In 1998, Russia’s Prosecutor General called the Russian Armed Forces “the most corrupt government structure in Russia”. If anything, it’s got worse since then“, the writer adds in his analysis.
Corruption in recruitment and its effects on troop health
On how corruption operates in the Russian Armed Forces, Owen states that corruption begins even before someone joins the army: “only the poor or the stupid allow themselves to be conscripted. The rest get out of it by bribing a doctor or recruiting officer. The ‘fee’ was reportedly between $5,000-$10,000 in 2007. Up to 70% of those summoned for conscription buy their way out of it, leaving the armed forces with the poorest and least healthy. This leaves the Russian military with chronic problems of fitness and efficiency.” Owen recalls that Colonel General Vladimir Mikhailov stated in 2007 that more than 30% of the 11,000 men recruited annually into the Russian Air Force were “mentally unstable”, 10% suffered from alcohol and drug abuse, and 15% were ill or malnourished.
The recruits, exploited in military networks of prostitution
“If you get conscripted, you’ll be treated as the lowest of the low and exploited ruthlessly by older soldiers, known as ‘dyedi’ (‘uncles’). This could include being forced into prostitution, doing unpaid labour, or even selling your own blood to earn a few rubles”, Owen notes, adding: “In 2007, conscripts in St Petersburg told Russian media how older soldiers forced them to perform sexual services for influential middle-aged clients or face torture. Young soldiers were reportedly forced to go with clients in their cars. The dyedi kept a list of ‘providers’.”
The exploitation of Russian recruits for sexual purposes gives rise to authentic prostitution networks. Owen notes the following: “Other soldiers spoke of being “sent out to the park to earn money”. It was reportedly possible to pick up a soldier in the centre of Moscow or visit a nearby military base where clients could choose one for $100-500 – money that would go to the dyedi, not the conscript.”
The lack of means faced by professional soldiers
On professional soldiers, Owen notes: “If you’re a contract soldier – a military professional – you’re a step up but are still exploited. Salaries are low ($240 monthly before the Ukraine war). You may well need to buy your own uniforms, boots and fuel. Newer uniforms and boots of the right size are often unavailable because they’ve been stolen and sold off, so you’ll need to purchase them online. Ironically, ex-NATO surplus boots are reportedly favourites for their comfort and durability.”
“You may also need to pay for your own accommodation. Although you will get a bed in a barracks for free, you may find that it’s unheated because the money for electricity has been stolen or otherwise gone unpaid. Not much fun in Russia’s cold climate”, Owen says. “There are, however, compensations to being a low-ranking soldier or junior officer – you may be posted to a military depot. These offer endless opportunities for theft. Avito, Russia’s equivalent of eBay, is full of adverts for likely stolen items of military equipment.”
The theft of material and its effects on the operation of the armed forces
Russian society tries to fill these gaps with initiatives to buy material for its soldiers. Owen comments: “Russian bloggers are currently crowdsourcing money to buy equipment for the frontline troops in Ukraine. Ironically, many of the items they’re buying were likely stolen from Russian military depots in the first place. These are very good times for corrupt quartermasters.”
Corruption also affects military vehicles: “Even tanks aren’t immune to the plague of looting. When reserve T-72s were shipped from storage depots to go to Ukraine in March 2022, they reportedly arrived without electronics, optics or even engines – all looted or stripped out. Only 1 in 10 was reportedly usable.”
The most extreme cases of theft of military equipment in Russia
Thefts of military equipment by the soldiers themselves, which were already a problem during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1978-1989), continue to be a scourge today among the Russian Armed Forces: “In one remarkable instance, a 72-ton prefabricated Pantsir-2PU command bunker was stolen from a military base at Myaglovo, Leningrad Oblast in early 2020. Investigators were unable to discover what had happened to it, but it was most likely taken for the metal’s scrap value“, Owen says.
Some of these thefts seriously jeopardize the security of the military itself: “In a similar incident, a submariner in the Northern Fleet stole parts of devices for controlling a nuclear submarine’s reactor. He stole and sold rheostats made of a very expensive palladium-vanadium alloy, but disabled the reactor in the process.“
Corruption among Russian officers
Owen also addresses the situation of mid-ranking officers: “Life is a lot cushier at this level as you can sign contracts, command troops and oversee bases. There are a lot more opportunities for corruption at ranks from major through colonel. Your perks may include using conscripts to build your dacha, or hiring them out to others to work in building sites, fields or factories. Naturally, the conscripts get no compensation for this work. Even Russia’s elite missile forces have not escaped this kind of abuse.“
The “dead souls” scam: a problem that already comes from tsarism
Corruption among officers gives rise to a curious phenomenon that has been going on in the Russian Armed Forces for many years: “You also have the possibility of stealing your men’s wages, as they are paid in cash. Or manipulating budget allocations to claim money for non-existent extra personnel and pocket the difference. Non-existent troops are known as ‘dead souls’, after a classic Gogol poem. ‘Dead souls’ are nothing new. In 1854, the Economist newspaper noted how much the Russian forces in the Crimean War were under strength. “The Russian armies are often armies on paper only. … The colonels … and officers … have a direct interest in having as large a number on the books and as small a number on the field as possible – inasmuch as they pocket the pay and rations of the difference between these figures.”
That problem persists today, as Owen notes: “Remarkably, the Russian Army doesn’t know how many soldiers it has. In 2001, Gen Nikolai Kormiltsev stated that the army had accounted for only 82% of its authorised personnel – something that was regarded as a major achievement. Things are unlikely to have improved since. Figures leaked to Novye Izvestia newspaper in 2003 indicated that there were at least 30,000 “dead souls” in the armed forces.“
“The 2012 case of Col Sergey Ustinov and Maj Hovik Babayan, two Eastern Military District officers, illustrates how this scam works,” Owen says. “Babayan was responsible for providing food services to troops under Ustinov’s command. He forged documents, signed by Ustinov, showing 29,000 more soldiers were being fed than actually existed. The pair pocketed 6 million rubles for feeding the surplus ‘dead souls’.“
Corruption among recruiting officials
“Researchers estimate that as many as one in ten Russian officers are corrupt. Military procurement is particularly rife with corruption“, Owen says. “Let’s first consider the case of Colonel Sergei Serkin, formerly the chief provisions officer for the North Caucasus Military District. In only two years in his position, Col Serkin acquired several apartments, a house and an Audi car with a total value of about $200,000. One of his schemes was accepting bribes to purchase 3,500 tons of low-quality codfish, normally used as cattle food, for army rations. Another officer, Col Evgeny Pustovoy, served as head of procurement for armoured vehicles. He was convicted in January 2022 for stealing more than $13 million by faking contracts for batteries between 2018 and 2020.“
Corruption in the storage bases of the armed forces
The problem of corruption is especially acute at storage bases: “Two Air Force officers, Lt Col Vladimir Storozhuk and Senior Warrant Officer Ivan Tolkachev, maintained a lucrative racket in Kubinka selling spare parts for planes and ammunition. They were caught after trying to sell top-secret Su-27 components for $250,000. A larger ‘officers’ band’ operated from the Malino military airfield, some 88 km southeast of Moscow. They traded extensively in aircraft engines, equipment, and air-to-air missiles, earning millions of dollars a year before they were arrested.”
“In the Far Eastern Military District, Col Alexander Berezhnoy served as the Russian Ministry of Defence’s food department before being arrested on bribery charges in 2017. He earned 368 million rubles from awarding lucrative contracts to local entrepreneurs who’d bribed him“, Owen adds.
The “voluntary-compulsory requisition” scam
Another scam is the “voluntary-compulsory requisition”, says the writer. “Because of bureaucracy and corruption, requisitions for equipment and supplies are often slow to arrive. So to make up the difference, officers are compelled to pay for their own equipment and official travel. In one prosecuted instance, a commander and guard captain extorted over 137,000 rubles from their subordinates “for the needs of the division”, threatening otherwise to “write a report on the improper performance of their official duties.” They likely pocketed the money.“
On the cases he has pointed out, Owen warns that they “are just the tip of the iceberg. Many more cases are never detected, or if detected, never prosecuted, or simply covered up.” The strong censorship suffered by the Russian media helps to cover up these scandals.
The effects of that corruption on the Russian invasion of Ukraine
This explains such unusual events as Russian soldiers stealing washing machines and other household utensils and then sending them home, as well as the looting committed by Russian soldiers against Ukrainian supermarkets, in order to supply their poor combat rations. The corruption of the Russian recruitment system also gives rise to troops that are more likely to commit all kinds of crimes and looting, since they are poorly paid recruits, accustomed to robbery in their own ranks, in many cases with mental problems, with a bad economic situation and who suffer all kinds of abuse from their superiors.
This corruption also explains facts as surprising as the high number of abandonment of Russian vehicles by their crews, which causes the high number of vehicles captured by the Ukrainians, many of them intact. That corruption also explains, in part, the low combat morale of the Russian troops and the stagnation of their logistics lines, eaten away by widespread corruption in the armed forces. Ironically, in this invasion the Russian soldiers not only have to fight against the Ukrainians, but against the kleptocratic regime that keeps Putin in power and that is the cause, to a great extent, of the disappointing performance of the Russian military in this invasion.
Photo: Daniekl Semyonov/AFP. Russian soldiers at a recruitment center in Stavropol on April 21, 2011.
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