RUSSIAN troops are preparing for a possible invasion of Georgia to close down bases used by Chechen guerrillas, but many doubt Russia’s ramshackle armed forces, already bogged down in Chechnya, are capable of launching a new war.
Two years after the crisis in the military was highlighted by the loss of the Kursk submarine, blown apart by its own faulty torpedoes, promised military reforms have stalled.
The navy has its hands full plugging leaks in the reactors of dozens of its rusting nuclear submarines. The once-feared Red Army has proved incapable of subduing Chechen guerrillas, with conditions so grim that many battalions must grow their own food to stay alive.
The Kursk sinking in August 2000 led Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, to demand changes, appointing his friend Sergei Ivanov, head of the secret service as defence minister. His job was to slash army numbers from 1.2 million to 800,000. But more than a year later, the reforms have failed.
"He [Ivanov] has not been successful, everyone agrees," the Moscow defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told The Scotsman. "When he came in, he found the army had not 1.2 million troops but 1.35 million. He’s trying to cut it to 1.2 million now."
Russia cannot afford such numbers: its defence budget is the same as that of Switzerland.
The result is inevitable. Many conscripts go unpaid and unfed. Weapons no longer work, planes cannot fly for lack of parts and fuel.
"In Russia and other former Soviet Republics, helicopters and planes crash regularly," said Alexander Golts, a defence analyst at Moscow’s Russia Journal.
The rot has reached right to the top, infecting even the army’s lite corps. The annual Paratroopers Day celebrations this month ended in disaster, with one man killed in chaotic simulated battles in St Petersburg when a rocket went off-target into the crowd, and dozens of drunken paratroopers brawling with spectators.
In Moscow on the same day, 200 former paratroopers, also drunk, rampaged through markets, knifing traders they believed to be Chechen.
While NATO has spent a decade changing its Cold War tactics, Russia remains wedded to Soviet-era strategy. "Still it’s the same Soviet force, but very badly degraded," Felgenhauer said. "There are constant reports of shooting inside units, soldiers killing officers ."
Worst of all is the strain imposed by the Chechen war, now grinding towards its third anniversary . More than 20 Russians have been killed in fighting this week.
Rather than address these problems, the hawks in the Kremlin seem determined to go on the offensive. Angry that Chechen units can rest and rearm in Georgia, Moscow is considering launching a full-scale invasion. Felgenhauer feels this would stretch a crisis-torn force too far. "They could invade," he said. " But there would be trouble."