A private tragedy and high politics: the case of Andrei Sychev


Saving Minister Ivanov.

Who Wants to Get Rid of Ivanov?

Shoot the Successor Down.

Defeating a Particular Minister.

Those are a few of the headlines from articles over the past week concerning the tragic incident at the Chelyabinsk Tank Institute.

“This is crazy,” says Vasili Gulin in the Gazeta newspaper. “Some are seriously discussing whether dedovshchina (abusive bullying of new conscripts by older soldiers) will change in the wake of the Andrei Sychev tragedy. Meanwhile, others are calculating how many points the opponents of Ivanov-as-Successor have scored by airing dirty linen in public.”

Practically all the media admit that the Chelyabinsk incident is nothing out of the ordinary for the Russian Armed Forces. Then again, says Novoye Vremya magazine (its headline was “Saving Private Sychev”), the reaction of the top brass to the tragedy was also typical.

At first, as everyone now remembers (and is “unlikely to forget,” adds Vremya Novostei, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov declared ingenuously that he was unaware of the incident: “I don’t think it can be anything serious – otherwise I’d know about it.”

But that’s not necessarily the case at all, says Vremya Novostei; the practice of concealing bad news from higher-ups has persisted since the Soviet era, just like the savagery within the military environment.

Thus, says Vremya Novostei observer Semyon Novoprudsky, we might primarily rebuke Ivanov for “lacking the political weight and/or the political will to finally carry out military reforms, abandoning the principle of universal military service, which has discredited itself in Russia.”

What’s more, as Union of Right Forces policy council member Boris Nemtsov says in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “Ivanov has made every effort to sink and sabotage military reforms – for example, he completely messed up the transition to contract service for the 76th Pskov Paratroops Division.” Like many of his fellow politicians, Nemtsov maintains that “dedovshchina – that is, torture and abuse – will persist until conscription ends.”

But not everyone agrees with that opinion. Kommersant-Vlast magazine presents the answers of some prominent individuals to a question about dedovshchina. The majority of respondents confirm that the problem existed in the past as well.

But Iosif Kobzon, holder of a Soviet award for excellence in the performing arts and now chairman of the Duma culture committee, says that nothing of the kind used to happen in his day: “Back then there was the institution of political workers, party functionaries and council members, who kept an eye on non-regulation relations.” But the democrats “destroyed all that.”

Viktor Ilyukhin, leader of the Army Support Movement, also denies encountering any dedovshchina when serving in the Navy, aboard submarines: “Our voyages lasted three or four months. Any victim of abuse could take revenge by opening the valves to let the water in – and everyone would die.” All sailors understood that, says Ilyukhin, and his arguments sound more convincing than Kobzon’s.

Mikhail Zelikhanov, member of the Duma commission for North Caucasus affairs, says he didn’t suffer from dedovshchina when serving in the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya: “Non-regulation relations simply couldn’t happen there.” Probably for the same reasons that abuse couldn’t happen aboard a submarine.

But Franz Klintsevich, head of the Russian Union of Afghanistan Veterans, says he was involved in fights with older soldiers on more than one occasion. “Dedovshchina has always existed in the military,” Klintsevich told Kommersant-Vlast. “It’s a reflection of the nature of relations between men.”

“The problem is that dedovshchina is convenient for officers,” says Denis Gutsko (Booker Prize winner, 2005) in Ogonek magazine. “It makes all kinds of tasks very easy. Most of the day-to-day tasks faced by commanding officers. Dedovshchina is a long-established, self-replicating process – and the older soldiers, the abusers, are almost always on good terms with their commanding officers.”

Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “Sadism in the military is certainly and outrage – and not only in the military, but also in prisons, the police force, and even in schools.”

In Pavlovsky’s view, however, the blame for that sadism should rest with society, not the authorities: “Because the sadists come in from civilian life.”

Pavlovsky considers the current all-out campaign against dedovshchina “rather hypocritical.” In his opinion, it’s nothing other than “an attempt to bring down the defense minister.”

Pavlovsky notes: “This attempt isn’t coming from civic organizations, but from forces within the bureaucracy who want civic organizations to do their dirty work.”

Indeed, out of all the numerous cases of dedovshchina, why has this particular case produced such a strong reaction from the public and the authorities?

The reaction of ordinary citizens is understandable, says Kommersant-Vlast; they are shocked by the brutality. “Ordinary people would also be shocked by other dedovshchina cases, if they ever found out about them. But that usually doesn’t happen.” Stories of dedovshchina “don’t go any further than the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers.” Even if the Military Prosecutor’s Office does go as far as prosecuting older soldiers, and someone is convicted and sentenced for non-regulation relations, such cases don’t get much media coverage.

At first, this was also true of the Sychev case. Kommersant-Vlast traces the chronology of events.

On January 8, Vostochnyi Eskpress (a local television company in Chelyabinsk) was contacted by an emergency medicine doctor who described the injuries of a soldier admitted to a civilian hospital in the city.

On January 12, Sychev’s story appeared in the local papers and online. Radio Liberty picked up the story on January 13 and continued it on January 14, 17, and 19.

A criminal investigation was launched and six people were arrested. But the national newspapers didn’t mention the story until January 25, when the Prosecutor General’s Office website posted an official announcement about the Sychev case, noting that Chief Military Prosecutor Alexander Savenkov was supervising the investigation personally.

Kommersant-Vlast points out that relations are strained between Defense Minister Ivanov and Chief Military Prosecutor Savenkov, who has accused the Armed Forces of being “sloppy” and blamed them for the rise in dedovshchina cases. Moreover, Savenkov has criticized Ivanov himself in the past; when Ivanov appointed Admiral Gennadi Suchkov, former Northern Fleet commander, as his advisor after the K-159 submarine sinking, Savenkov described this decision as “entirely inconsistent with the objectives of justice.”

Under the circumstances, says Kommersant-Vlast, the Prosecutor General’s Office announcement could be regarded as yet another attack on Ivanov. And Ivanov’s absurd statement that he’d been “high up in the mountains” and “hadn’t heard anything” about Sychev – that wasn’t a reply to journalists; it was a reaction to the “plotting” of the Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office.

As a result, the Sychev case started getting coverage in the national media, “called in to ensure not just an honorable defeat for Ivanov and the Defense Ministry, but perhaps even a victory, to some extent.” Then Ivanov told the media that the persons responsible would be identified and punished. And during his Kremlin press conference, President Vladimir Putin told journalists about Ivanov’s new initiative: establishing a military police force.

Andrei Sychev’s family has been given an apartment in Yekaterinburg, courtesy of the Defense Ministry. Sychev himself has been flown to Moscow for treatment at the Burdenko Central Military Hospital, where the best doctors in the military are still fighting to save his life.

In this, at least, Sychev might be described as lucky – unlike the numerous other soldiers who have fallen victim to dedovshchina.

Novoye Vremya magazine cites some terrible statistics. There are at least 3,000 non-combat deaths a year in the military, and at least 15% of them, according to the Mother’s Right Foundation, are murder cases or deaths due to injuries from severe beatings. There are also numerous suicides among soldiers who break down as a result of abuse.

There’s an impressive list of top brass who have hastened to speak out about the Sychev case: not only Defense Minister Ivanov and Chief Military Prosecutor Savenkov, but also Chief of the General Staff Yuri Baluyevsky, and Colonel-General Vladimir Moltenskoy, deputy commander of the Ground Forces, and Colonel-General Reznik, head of the Main Directorate for Educational Work. The location of the tragedy has been visited by the Ground Forces Commander himself, Colonel-General Alexei Maslov.

The reaction is extraordinary, says Novoye Vremya: “Nothing like this has ever happened before, not even when soldiers are killed in battle by the platoon, or entire companies desert, taking their weapons and shooting the guards.”

Novoye Vremya says: “Past experience of analyzing stories ‘planted’ in pro-Kremlin media and directed against particular generals indicates that such moves are always part of a propaganda campaign used as a smokescreen for bringing down some faction among the top brass.”

Novoye Vremya then indicates “who’s the target this time.” It quotes Chief of the General Staff Yuri Baluyevsky, who expressed “profound outrage” that those in charge of the Chelyabinsk Tank Institute, “as well as the commanders of the military district and the Ground Forces, were not aware of the true state of affairs.”

Colonel-General Alexei Maslov, Ground Forces Commander, was subsequently questioned by the Military Prosecutor’s Office (as a witness, so far). Novoye Vremya says this amounted to a public warning about an attack on Maslov.

It’s easy to guess at which level such actions can be sanctioned, says Novoye Vremya. “Thus, for someone out there, the case of Private Sychev is nothing more than a convenient pretext for a pre-planned attack on the Ground Forces command, with the aim of purging it. For example, purging it of General Kvashnin’s people.”

Then again, says Gazeta, there are “numerous examples of less senior individuals easily surviving far more substantial attacks.”

For example, after the Kursk submarine sank on August 12, 2000 with the loss of 119 lives, Admiral Kuroyedov “remained in command of the Navy for another five years, giving him time to excel at missile firing exercises and sink another submarine as it was being towed for dismantling.”

Another example cited by Gazeta: on August 19, 2002, an Mi-26 transport helicopter was shot down near Khankala, killing 127 people. Kudyakov, commander of the Mozdok Helicopter Regiment, was sentenced to three years for negligence, but immediately released under an amnesty. No senior commanders were penalized for that incident.

Thus, says Gazeta, there’s no point in asking whether Sergei Ivanov’s reputation has been damaged: if this really is a defeat, “it isn’t even significant enough to be called tactical.”

In general, the authorities have long since made it clear that Defense Minister Ivanov “is not to blame for anything, while any calls for his dismissal are opportunist and not to be taken seriously,” says Stanislav Belkovsky in Vedomosti.

All right-minded observers have already concluded that “the scandal over the Chelyabinsk micro-drama has been stirred up by the treacherous bureaucratic opponents of Minister Ivanov, who have long sought a pretext to do him some damage.”

Leontii Byzov, chief analyst at the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), told Novye Izvestia that Sergei Ivanov has a fairly good chance of becoming President Putin’s successor; the public regards him as one of the three most successful federal ministers, along with Sergei Shoigu and Sergei Lavrov.

In Byzov’s view, the attack on Ivanov has been organized by “influence groups close to President Putin” who aren’t happy with the idea of “a representative of the security and law enforcement wing” becoming Russia’s next president. Byzov considers that the human rights groups who “raised an outcry” over the Chelyabinsk drama were simply provoked to react as they did, since “they already had a position on this issue” and only had to be “given media access.”

And now, says Byzov, if Ivanov’s political career isn’t yet finished, “the trend is clear.” Ivanov is being “labelled as a loser,” but “in terms of our national mindset, a president must be a winner – he has to be successful at everything.”

Alexei Mukhin, director of the Political Information Center, told Novye Izvestia that the media war against Ivanov is being organized by “certain groups in the United States that are seeking to discredit the entire Russian leadership, due to Russia’s aggressive foreign policy stance these days and recent moves to establish Kremlin-controlled hierarchies in the oil-and-gas and automotive industries, regarded as rivals by foreign corporations.”

Mukhin didn’t explain what he meant by “automotive industry hierarchies” in Russia that might threaten the power of car-makers abroad.

Stanislav Belkovsky, director of the National Strategy Institute, is far more critical of the defense minister. In an article for Vedomosti, Belkovsky says: “Sergei Ivanov is failing disastrously to cope with his responsibilities as defense minister. Modernization of the Armed Forces, let alone the military reforms of which the Defense Ministry has talked for years, are no more than a blatant bluff.” The same goes for the “widely-promoted radical increase in defense spending.” A substantial proportion of military hardware is out of order or requires a complete overhaul. And there’s no point in talking of rearmament: “Over the past five years, foreign clients have bought enough military hardware from Russia to equip a small but modern army. Over the same period, the amount of military hardware procured for the Russian Armed Forces has been orders of magnitude smaller.” The prestige of military service has been completely lost: “During Ivanov’s period as defense minister, 250,000 officers have left the military – 170,000 of them resigning early.”

All the same, says Belkovsky, “anyone who’s even slightly acquainted with the realities of Russian politics knows that Sergei Ivanov will not resign.”

No media attacks will change that, since in today’s state administration system, “achieved results, effective management, and so on are not the criteria used to assess the performance of state officials.” According to Belkovsky, modern-day officials take senior jobs solely in order to participate in creating “a multi-level system for distributing the behind-the-scenes revenues that become available in the course of a ministry’s activity.”

And in order to justify such an official’s performance to the public, says Belkovsky, we have “the doctrine of the lesser evil.” This doctrine was finalized in 2005, “and has already found support among the intellectuals who until recently lamented the regime’s lack of strategy.”

According to Belkovsky, this doctrine says that “if Putin’s team is ousted, it will be replaced by predatory, totalitarian xenophobes” who would seek to implement further “modernization programs.” And as everyone knows, such intentions “always come to a bad end on Russian soil.”

From this standpoint, Sergei Ivanov is “the best defense minister, no matter what’s happening in the Armed Forces,” says Belkovsky. And he would make an entirely worthy successor to President Putin.

Being fourth on the public confidence ranking (according to figures from the Levada Center, cited in Novye Izvestia) isn’t bad at all. But leading pollster Yuri Levada says he doesn’t believe that Ivanov is capable of winning a presidential election – and not because of his recent “image miscalculations.”

“In order for a war minister to win an election,” says Levada, “he first needs to arrange and win a war. I don’t think Ivanov will be able to manage either.” What’s more, “changing the situation in the Armed Forces is even harder than conquering the Caucasus.”

Both presidents of Russia, Yeltsin and Putin, have made repeated attempts to do both the former and the latter.