Creating ‘New Profile’ Army Not Easy in Far East

A variety of press reports indicate establishing a ‘new profile’ army in the Far East is a difficult and increasingly protracted process.

On 7 September, ITAR-TASS said General Staff Chief, Army General Nikolay Makarov was in Chita to resolve a number of army problems.  The press service noted Makarov was accompanied by new Eastern Military District (MD) Commander, Vice-Admiral Konstantin Sidenko.

Specifically, Makarov was in eastern Siberia (now part of the Eastern MD) working on ‘military organizational development [строительство]’ – a Russian euphemism for TO&E changes and force restructuring – and development of base military towns and their social infrastructure.  In plain English, the General Staff Chief was in the Transbaykal sticks sorting out which units go into this or that brigade, or get disbanded, and how to provide housing and a modicum of other basic services for their soldiers, officers, and families.

But Makarov and Sidenko may have worse problems further east.

On 8 September, ITAR-TASS published a small, but significant report claiming that Khabarovsk Kray’s military garrisons and towns are not ready for winter.

Preparation for heating season in the majority of military buildings in Khabarovsk Kray is breaking down, according to the Kray’s emergency situations commission.  The poor state of preparation of communal infrastructure (i.e. boilers, coal supplies, steam pipes, etc.) and apartment blocks in Lazo, Bikin, and Vanino Rayons is alarming.

A Kray official said, “. . . supplies of winter fuel haven’t been established, boiler equipment hasn’t been repaired, facilities don’t have personnel.”  In Vanino, workers repairing a major boiler received layoff notices.  Days before the start of heating season, several boilers have been completely dismantled and there are no supplies of coal, according to the news agency.

 The emergency situations commission noted that:

“The Defense Ministry has begun transferring housing-communal servicing functions for its garrisons to private organizations, but this process has bogged down.”

The military’s Housing Management Directorate (KEU) representatives in the Far East didn’t deny the problems, but blamed them on a catastrophic lack of financing.  The military’s indebtedness to Far East communal services providers over the first 7 months of the year is 181.6 million rubles, and Khabarovsk Kray accounts for more than 88 million of this amount.

The first deputy chairman of the Khabarovsk Kray government has asked military prosecutors to intervene and force the army to prepare the region’s military towns and villages adequately and forestall emergency situations this winter.

All this comes on top of reports of similar problems last fall.  

Half of Russia’s 85 new army brigades had to move units and construct new barracks, housing, and other essential infrastructure for them, and this was proving especially difficult in the Far East. 

Almost a year ago, Vladivostok’s largest newspaper Zolotoy rog reported that officers in two newly organized brigades in the Far East were in danger of being stranded in ‘open fields,’ or field conditions, because they lacked materials and funding to prepare their garrisons.  However, the deputy commander of 5th Combined Arms Army assured the media that barracks and other buildings were being repaired for brigades at Barabash and Sibirtsevo.

Zolotoy rog reported that one battalion commander took out a private loan to repair barracks for his men.  Some officers who arrived at Barabash left after seeing the condition of their new garrison, and the brigade also had trouble keeping battalion commanders for the same reason.  The brigades reportedly turned to Primorskiy Kray’s governor for help.

So what are we to make of all this?

First, having Makarov travel out east to straighten up a mess is something of a no-confidence vote in new Eastern MD Commander Sidenko.  It’s a particularly inauspicious start since many eyes are on Sidenko to see how he performs as the first naval officer to lead this major ground-oriented command.

Second, Khabarovsk Kray had some pretty stark criticism for Defense Minister Serdyukov’s policy of privatizing logistics support functions for the army.  What might work in the new Western or Southern MDs may not work well in the remote reaches of the Eastern MD.

Third, this early warning of problems may be an attempt to prevent another ‘Steppe’ garrison crisis in Transbaykal this winter.  And the problems are not confined to active military garrisons.  Lots of remote former garrisons – with real living retirees – are caught in limbo between military and civilian municipal services.  Pereyaslavka’s problems last winter are just one case of this.  Pereyaslavka happens to be the administrative center of Lazo Rayon, cited this year as the scene of potential problems this winter.

So while the Defense Ministry and media focus almost exclusively on the attractive leading edge of the army’s ‘new profile,’ it pays to remember that Russian military reform has a large, messy trailing edge that’s found in places like Lazo, Bikin, Vanino, Barabash, Sibirtsevo, and Pereyaslavka.

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