Soviet Small Arms Land in Wrong Hands

May 29, 2002 -- Picture this: It's a bracing spring morning in eastern Siberia, Russia, and a resident of one of the remote villages near the Russia-China border leaves his home for a hunt in the vast marshlands surrounding an abandoned Soviet air base.

This is fair hunting terrain and the man, a resident of the remote Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) in eastern Russia, has every reason to believe his hunter's luck will not let him down.

What he does not expect though, is the booty he finally stumbles upon in the marshland: five 30mm cannons from a Sukhoi (Su-27) fighter jet, five large-caliber artillery shells, a self-propelled missile, and a dummy air bomb — a veritable small arms haul.

An exceptionally crazy day in Russia? Not really.

With the formal setting up of the NATO-Russia Council on Tuesday, under which Russia was permitted to join NATO's decision-making process, the international community has heralded a new era in post-Cold War history. But even as world leaders gathered at an airbase outside Rome on Tuesday celebrated the all-new cooperation between once-adversarial blocs, Russia — and the world — is still reeling from the fallout from more than half a century of superpower military buildup.

In the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the shrinking of the mammoth Soviet military apparatus resulted in a massive surplus of arsenal in many states, including the former Soviet republics. But while international attention has been focused on the stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in the region, an issue that tends to get overlooked is the cascade of small arms — automatic rifles, grenades, submachine guns, pistols — emerging from the region that are often a breeze to buy, sell and fire.

In some parts of Russia, incidents of locals stumbling upon caches of small arms are not isolated, with local news services carrying reports of economically strapped residents of regions such as Siberia selling abandoned military hardware to scrap yards for much-needed extra cash.

Arms Tales From Around the World

While reports of hunters ending up with caches of small arms and scrap yard merchants brokering surface-to-air missiles are certainly ignominious, they are the just the tip of an iceberg of the global proliferation of small arms created in part by corruption, economic pressure and often a lack of political will.

As armies in Northern America, Europe and theformer Soviet Union shrink in the post-Cold War world, much of their excess equipment is given away or sold cheaply to other countries.

While China and the United States are the world's biggest suppliers of small arms, Russia earns an estimated $20 million a year on the export of Russian-made light and small arms. But while the arms business is strictly controlled in countries like the United States, the business gets murky in countries such as Russia and the former Soviet republics, where governments are unable and sometimes unwilling to monitor illegal arms deals.

Although reliable figures on the extent of illegal small arms transfers is hard to come by, the United Nations estimates that approximately 3 million people were killed around the world in the 1990s by small arms. And according to the independent Small Arms Survey 2001, small arms are implicated in well over 1,000 deaths every single day.

In the post-Cold War era, tales of small arms shipments doing the rounds in airplanes registered in countries such as Liberia and Swaziland; of arms dealers collecting their payments in diamonds in Sierra Leone; of hard cash transactions between Taliban and Chechen rebel leaders and small arms dealers abound.

These arms are a part of an estimated 550 million small arms currently in circulation, many of which are initially sold legally, but at some point are diverted into the illegal market, often smuggled into countries that are under international arms embargoes and fueling bloody civil strife in countries from Sri Lanka to Sierra Leone.

Safeguarding Weapons and Augmenting Incomes

"Small arms emerging from Russia, like those emerging from most East European bloc states, emerge from stockpiles of weapons being sold off and transferred around the world," says Nicholas Marsh of the Oslo-based International Peace Research Institute. "In Russia, there are thefts from state arsenals, usually by people who are supposed to be guarding the arms, but end up selling them because they are paid so little and they use the weapons sales as a means of augmenting their incomes."

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world has watched with concern as successive Russian administrations have struggled to cope with the bloated, aging and unaffordable military machinery left behind by the Soviet system.

Once a formidable and feared force, the Russian military decline hit a very public nadir during the Kursk tragedy, when 118 Russian sailors perished as the nuclear submarine sank to the bottom of the icy Barents Sea in August 2000 after two huge explosions ripped the pride of the Russian navy's Northern Fleet.

For many Russians, the botched rescue efforts and President Vladimir Putin's disastrous handling of the situation (he remained on holiday while the disaster unfolded) marked what columnists have called the sinking of Russian pride with the doomed submarine.

Hard Lessons From the Kursk

But while Putin has publicly pledged to revive the armed services, the lessons from the Kursk disaster have been hard to implement. Nearly two years after the tragedy, the state of the Russian military is, by Putin's own declaration, "hardly optimal."

Most experts agree that the root of Russia's military headaches stem from budget constraints that account for poor maintenance of military infrastructure and a World War II army model based on conscripts rather than a volunteer force.

Every Russian man aged 18-27 is required to serve in the military, a rule that sees an estimated quarter-million young men conscripted into a service that typically pays them just one ruble (about 3 cents) a day, despite widespread cases of draft-dodging.

Although Putin, like his predecessors, has periodically affirmed his commitment to transforming Russia's military from a conscript to an all-volunteer force, Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has warned that the transformation would be a slow process, which would require huge expenses from the state.

But Celeste Wallander, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says there are more systemic problems within the Russian military that require systemic solutions.

"Money is not the solution to everything," says Wallander. "But it's certainly needed to attract a more competitive pool of labor. It's not the conscripts that are corrupt, but the poor conditions they live in that drives them to corruption. "

Battered and Bruised in Chechnya

Despite the economic hardship of revamping the system, many experts believe the reforms are necessary to have a professional, disciplined army. "During the Soviet years, officers were very respected," says Maria Katsva of the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia. "But these days, the military enjoys no respect, which to some extent, is linked to the Chechen problem."

By all accounts, Russia's two disastrous wars in Chechnya have been the nemesis of its military. While international rights groups have strongly rebuked what is called the "climate of impunity" surrounding the Russian military in Chechnya, domestic rights groups such as the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers have criticized the military operations and the Russian army for "swallowing up boys and destroying their lives" by "subjecting them to humiliation, corruption, violence, and crime."

One of the cruel ironies of Russia's failure to monitor and control its military stockpile, according to Marsh, is the significant proportion of Russian arms that end up in the hands of Chechen guerrillas against whom the military has been waging what it calls an anti-terrorist campaign.

"As in many conflicts all over the world, where rebel groups like the Abu Sayaf in the Philippines gets most of its arms from the Philippine military, significant portions of Russian arms get into the hands of the Chechen rebels and the Russian Mafia," says Marsh.

In January 2000, Russia's independent NTV network showed footage of a truck of contraband weapons, which officials in neighboring Georgia said were sold by Russian troops on the black market from one of their bases in Georgia. Most of the weapons, said Georgian officials, were slated to be smuggled into Chechen rebel hands.

Although Russian officials said the tape was fabricated, for the Russian military, a news report of its officials selling weapons to be fired upon its own people was yet another grim reminder of the advanced stage of decay of the once mighty Russian military.

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