Vladimir Putin Faces Rising Anger from Within Russian Army
Adrian Blomfield in Vladivostok
23 Feb 2009
A growing number of disgruntled servicemen, including senior officers, are making contact with Russian opposition groups for the first time since he came to power in 2000.
The prospect of losing the unwavering support of the 1.2 million-strong armed forces is causing alarm in the Kremlin at a time when the Russian prime minister is already looking vulnerable.
Simmering public anger over the government's handling of Russia's stalling economy has triggered the first ever protests demanding Mr Putin's resignation.
Revelations of significant unrest in a constituency as symbolically important as the armed forces could give additional impetus to growing popular discontent in Russia.
Military disquiet could become significant in a behind-the-scenes power struggle at the Kremlin, where factional infighting has grown and there is a widening rift between Mr Putin and his one-time protégé, President Dmitry Medvedev.
Resentment within the armed forces is brewing among the oversized commissioned ranks, after the government unveiled plans to trim their numbers by sacking 200,000 officers, including more than 200 generals and 15,000 colonels.
Worryingly for Mr Putin, the officer ranks have powerful supporters in a Kremlin faction dominated by ex-military and intelligence officials.
Fearing a backlash, Mr Putin appears to be seeking to pin the blame for the military reforms on his defence minister, Anatoly Serdyukov. But there are signs that the tactic is not working.
"The days when Putin could escape blame for everything that goes wrong are ending," one army colonel said. "People are angry with Serdyukov, but they are angry with Putin too."
For nine years, Mr Putin has enjoyed the unstinting backing of the Russian military, having poured money into the armed forces as a key part of his strategy to restore Russia's might.
The former KGB officer has nearly quadrupled the defence budget to £22 billion this year and has unveiled plans for an additional £130 billion cash injection over the next decade.
But Mr Putin now faces the prospect of 200,000 embittered ex-officers on the street, who could form a powerful kernel of opposition against him.
Opposition parties say that a number of senior military figures have approached them with tacit messages of support. The feeling of discontent is even deeper in the non-commissioned ranks, who complain of appalling conditions in their barracks.
Doctors were summoned to one unheated navy base earlier this month. Of 1,000 sailors housed in the barracks, 123 were diagnosed with hypothermia, pneumonia and other serious respiratory diseases. At least one died. Such stories are common.
The anger is palpable in the port of Vladivostok, headquarters of Russia's Pacific Fleet – a city of peeling classical buildings built into low-slung hills that wallows in the nostalgia of its once great naval traditions.
Vladislav, 19, was called up to serve on a submarine stationed off Russia's eastern seaboard last year and says the conditions were appalling.
"We were brought up to revere Putin, but not any more," said Vladislav. "He doesn't care about the fate of ordinary sailors, which makes him a criminal in my opinion."
He has secretly joined a new opposition group in the Far East called Tiger, which is calling for Mr Putin's resignation and the restoration of democracy. If discovered, he faces court martial.
Alexander Golts, a leading military analyst, said: "Morale in the navy is very low, particularly in the Pacific fleet. The hazing and acts of cruelty are so unbelievable that a year as a conscript is effectively a year in Hell."