Russian Military has More Problems with Regional Loyalties than Ethnic Ones, Duma Military Advisor Says

October 3, 2014
Russian Orthodox priest baptises army recruit. Photo by RIA Novosti/Vadim Zhernov

Staunton, October 2 – Draftees who maintain attachments on the basis of where they are are a greater source of violations of military discipline than are those who identify as members of a particular nationality, according to a retired Russian colonel who served as deputy commander of the unified Russian forces in the North Caucasus and now gives advice to the Duma.

And while there is some overlap between the two – people from a particular place are often members of the same nationality – it is far from absolute, and the regional dimension is more significant than the ethnic one, Boris Podoprigora told the Federal News Agency on October 1.

The issue of ethnicity and dedovshchina – the Russian word for “hazing,” described officially as “unstandard military behavior” – has resurfaced this week given Moscow’s decision to extend the military draft to Chechnya, something it has not done for 20 years, and the fears this has sparked among some about the impact of doing so on unit cohesion.

Podoprigora said he wouldn’t overemphasis the danger and that he personally has “always called for drafting all citizens of Russia without exception when they reach the corresponding age.” Moreover, he continued, he “does not see any particular link between the nationality of a soldier and his inclination to violations” of military discipline.

According to the veteran and now military advisor to the Russian parliament, “already in Soviet times, dedovshchina originated as a rule from among soldiers who formed the majority in a given unit.” Tyically, such majorities were made up of men from a particular region or city rather than of a given nationality.

The retired colonel said that he remembers serving in a unit “dominated by men from Tashkent.” “You can believe me or not,” he continued, but among them was not a single Uzbek: these were ethnic Russians and Koreans. Nevertheless, they introduced significant dissonance in the actions of commanders.”

When people say that men from the North Caucasus will do so regardless of how many of them there are in a particular unit or the strategy commanders adopt, Podoprigora said, “I don’t believe it because what is involved is not nationality” but rather the failure of military commissariats to assign men so that there won’t be too many from any one place.

Ethnicity matters much less than the propensity of soldiers to group themselves on the basis of where they are from, he argue. For example, he said, “if in a company of 100 men, there are 40 draftees from Vladivostok, I assure you that they after six months will dominate all the others.”

In other comments, the military advisor said that sergeants should play a key role in maintaining discipline, that he “does not see the need” for a chaplaincy corps, and that he thinks the religious needs of soldiers should be satisfied off-base and not on a daily basis on it. Otherwise, religious activities could affect military readiness.

Podiprigora’s comments may strike some as an indication that Moscow has fewer problems with draftees than they had thought, but in fact, his remarks suggest that the Russian command has even more than many had imagined, if regional attachments can be the basis for violations of indiscipline as much or more than ethnic ones.

And that in turn calls attention to something else that most Russian commentators and many Western analysts are reluctant to consider: the national identity of ethnic Russians is in this case as in others much less strong than are regional attachments, something that makes building a “Russian world” and even maintaining a single Russian state that much more difficult.