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Ch 7: Mobalizing The Hordes(The Threat:)


Compared with most other armies, the Soviet ground forces are old-fashioned. In the nineteenth century the Germans pioneered the system of mass conscription in peacetime. Young men were called up for a period, taught the rudiments of drill and how to handle their relatively simple weapons, and then sent home at the end of their service. They then formed part of the reserve, ready if needed to rejoin the colors and do their duty. By the eve of World War I, all the continental armies operated on this system, and the intricacies of the mobilization procedure were the main concerns of the general staffs of the day. So complex were these proce­dures indeed that once the mobilization system was put in motion it was very difficult to stop and became one of the reasons for the outbreak of the war.

Most armies today have substantially altered this system. Although many countries retain conscription and reserves, the reservists are regu­larly called up for retraining. Israeli reservists can count on spending a portion of each year in uniform. The West Germans, French, and Dutch also recognize the fact that worthwhile military skills grow stale with disuse. Even in the United States, National Guard divisions train regu­larly. Without constant refresher courses, the skills that are retained by veterans amount to little more than a familiarity with military routine, which raw recruits can pick up quickly enough anyway.

Only the Russians among the world's major military organizations have retained the nineteenth-century system. Officially, Marshal Petrov has a force of 169 divisions at his disposal (the eight airborne units are outside his direct control). Of this number, only 54 divisions are fully equipped and manned, and these are called Category 1 units by NATO intelligence. The rest are divided into Category 2 and 3 units, which vary from units having most of their equipment and perhaps half or two-thirds of their men to units having virtually no equipment and little more than a small nucleus of officers. The official Russian military term for these low-readi­ness units is kadrirovannye, or "cadre," but officers prefer to pun on the word and call them kastrirovannye, or "castrated." In time of war, these 115 reserve divisions would be brought up to strength with veteran con-scripts recalled for duty.

In theory this is a formidable system. Since the regular forces release 1.8 million draftees back into civilian life every year, the Soviet Union should have millions and millions of veterans trained and ready for ser­vice. But, as noted, almost none of these men will have had any retraining since they were discharged; none of the veterans I have talked to had ever been recalled for routine retraining. Some had seen extra service during emergency mobilizations, but these exercises, as we shall see, do not inspire much confidence in the efficiency of the system.

There have been three large-scale mobilizations of Soviet reservists in the past twenty-five years: in 1968, for the occupation of Czechoslovakia; in 1979, for the invasion of Afghanistan; and in 1980, for the aborted intervention in Poland.

By July 1968, there were at least 500,000 officers and men of the ground forces poised to occupy Czechoslovakia. The reservists of western Russia, from the Baltic to the Ukraine, had been summoned from their civilian jobs, tugging on the uniforms they had been presented with on the day they left the service. The call-up included machines, as well as men; as already mentioned, every truck in the Soviet Union has a set of military, as well as civilian, license plates. In 1968 both trucks and drivers were frequently called up together. Since the call-up happened at the beginning of the harvest season, the results for the economy, especially the food supply, were unfortunate. The effects were so severe that General Sergei S. Maryakhin, who was in charge of all support services for the invasion, had to admit to the problems in Krasnaya zvezda: "It is no secret," he wrote, "that the exercises urgently required the requisition of thousands of units of powerful technical equipment and motor transporta­tion from the national economy and the removal of thousands of reservists from [working in] the fields, at a time when the heavy work of the harvest was at its peak throughout the country."

While the economy staggered from the disruptive effects of the mobili­zation, the army did not find it easy to assimilate the influx of the reservists. In The Liberators, his satirical but invaluable memoir of life as a Soviet officer, the pseudonymous defector Viktor Suvorov describes the condi­tion of his unit in the Ukraine at this time:

After receiving its 'battle technology' [the military euphemism for the unit's collection of clapped out trucks commandeered from the civilian sector] the infantry was forbidden to leave the cover of the forests. On the roads and fields, only tank crews, the artillery and one parade battalion of armored personnel carriers were training. All the remainder were standing along forest cuttings and forest clearings. Viewed from outer space, it must have looked menacing, but not from the ground. The military hierarchy was afraid of frightening the locals by the look of our army: fat, untrained, and undisciplined soldiers, who had forgotten all they ever knew, in worn-out vehicles of all possible types and painted all the colors of the rainbow... . From outer space the Americans saw new divisions increasing like fungi. Their reconnaissance noted mighty tank columns on the roads and calculated that innumerable infantrymen lay hidden in the for­ests. And so it was, in fact, but this infantry was neither organized nor controlled and, what is most important of all, was incapable of fighting.
Any doubts about the effectiveness of this force were speedily dispelled once the Soviet army had entered Czechoslovakia. For political reasons, the Czech army chose not to resist, although the Soviets had cleverly weakened their capability anyway by inducing it to use up most of its ammunition in extensive joint maneuvers during the early summer. This lack of opposition was fortunate for the Russians.

The armored columns drove into Czechoslovakia in four main thrusts, from the Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, and East Germany. Simultaneously airborne units captured Prague Airport. The airborne element was the only part of the operation which could have been claimed to be a success. The first plane was able to land in the early hours of August 20 by the simple stratagem of pretending to be a civilian airliner in distress. Once the troops who burst out of the plane had overcome the unsuspecting Czechs in the control tower and other key points, the way was clear for other troop planes to land. Otherwise, the invasion quickly degenerated into chaos. Units got lost, armored units ran out of fuel, and troops ran out of food, while almost from the moment they crossed the border, the columns got stuck in enormous traffic jams, which would have provided tempting targets in a shooting war. Even after all the units had eventually found their positions, other problems appeared, as the troops began to wonder why they had been sent to occupy the country in the first place. Despite stringent precautions on the part of the authorities, several hun­dred men took the opportunity to desert across the frontier into Austria.

After two months, the units that had poured into the country in August were withdrawn and the reservists sent home. They were replaced by fresh divisions of conscripts; these moved straight into secluded camps, which were sealed off as much as possible from the local population and where their successors in the five Soviet divisions of the Czech garrison remain to this day. Suvorov, whose unit was one of those withdrawn in October 1968, pithily recalls: "As they left Czechoslovakia, our divisions reminded one of the remnants of a defeated army, fleeing from the hot pursuit after a shattering defeat."

The next opportunity for the Soviets to mobilize for an invasion did not come for another eleven years, and when it did, the enemy was shooting back.

For the move into Afghanistan in December 1979, the authorities mobilized reserve units close to the border, in accordance with accepted practice. This meant that at least two of the divisions dispatched to Kabul were made up not of Russians but of Central Asians, Category 3 "cas­trated" units, which had been hurriedly filled out with local former draft­ees. Unfortunately, most of these men had spent their draft years in noncombatant units, wielding a pick and shovel or working on the rail-roads. But when they were demobilized, they automatically went on the books of the local division, which was where they had to report when they got the call for the Afghan operation. Thus, the motor-rifle divisions used in the initial phases of the invasion looked warlike enough, but the bulk of the men in them had had little experience in the care and maintenance of tank transporters, field artillery batteries, tanks, and all the other mod-ern weapons.

To add to the problems of General Ivan Yershov's old mentor, Marshal Sergei Sokolov, who was in charge of the operation, these Asian troops were not only untrained, they were also politically unreliable. Perhaps the Russians had thought that using troops linked by race, culture, religion, and even language to the Afghans would help things along, but the collaboration went in quite the wrong direction. The Central Asian troops were observed passing ammunition to the locals, buying Korans in the bazaars, and possibly even handing over their personal weapons. There have even been reports that some Soviet Central Asians are prepared to oppose their government in more direct ways. Louis Dupree, an adventur­ous scholar in Afghan studies, spent some time in the main Kabul jail in 1978, when there were already some Soviet troops helping the Marxist Afghan government battle the insurgents. While incarcerated, he reports having met some Uzbeks, an ethnic group on the Soviet side of the border, who had come down to fight against their own government.

By the end of March 1980, the Soviet authorities evidently had con­cluded that the use of Asian troops in Afghanistan had been a mistake. They withdrew them and sent the reservists home, along with thousands of others who had been mobilized but kept in camps inside the Soviet Union. Since that time, the Soviet forces in Afghanistan have been almost exclusively made up of units of militarily more proficient and politically reliable Slavic conscripts.

This problem of unreliable border populations is not necessarily unique to Afghanistan. As a residue of the expansion of Russian power during the nineteenth century and after the Second World War, the Soviet border tends to slice through peoples with ethnic, cultural, religious, and political ties to each other. More than 1 million Poles live just inside the Soviet Union, as do 3 million Rumanians (known as Moldavians), to million Iranians (called Azeris), and huge numbers of Kazakhs and Uighurs, separated by the border from their fellow tribesmen in China.

When the young Moldavians, Azeris, Western Ukrainians, and the like are drafted, they tend to be dispatched to the noncombatant branches of the service; but once on the reserve lists, they are eligible for duty with
the nearest combat unit. This leaves the authorities with the invidious choice of either accepting Iarge numbers of ill-trained and potentially disaffected troops into the forces during a mobilization or simply exempt­ing them from reserve duty altogether, thus denying the state large num­bers of potential soldiers.

The third operation by the Soviet army to gear itself up for military action ended, probably happily for all concerned, without any troops actually being sent across the border. By mid-November 1980, as I de-scribed in Chapter 4, the Politburo had authorized a mobilization of the Carpathian, Baltic, and Byelorussian Military Districts prior to intervening in Poland. In at least one of these districts, the Carpathian, the mobiliza­tion was a disaster. Reports reached Moscow that large numbers of reser­vists had failed to answer the call. Many could not even be located by the military authorities (15 percent of the Soviet population changes address every year). Those who did turn up were housed in tents, and since winter had set in, this may have been the reason that so many of them promptly deserted and went home. There were, in fact, so many deserters, that the authorities gave up trying to catch and punish them. Other aspects of the operation displayed a severe lack of coordination. Units were shifted back and forth around the countryside for no apparent reason, and trucks were pointlessly requisitioned off the roads in the middle of the night.

As previously discussed, the foul-up gave Brezhnev the lever he needed to turn the tables on the interventionists in the Politburo and the army high command. The shake-up in the senior ranks of the ground forces which ensued was accompanied by fierce criticisms by military spokesmen of the readiness of the forces. General Borisov, who took over command of the Soviet forces in Czechoslovakia in January 1980, went on record with unprecedented accusations to his subordinates of "drunkenness, abuse of rank, corruption, mismanagement, waste, bureaucratism." Mar­shal Nikolai Ogarkov himself spoke out several times in the next few months about the need to shape up the army's reserve system. But, as ever, politics took precedence over military efficiency, since General Belikov, the commander of the Carpathian Military District, where the worst scenes of disorganization took place, was not sacked owing to his close association with Brezhnev.

Predictably, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency refused to counte­nance that anything could have gone wrong with the Soviet reserve sys­tem. The agency was asked by a Congressional committee to comment on reports from Kevin Klose, the Moscow correspondent of the Washington Post, about the disorganization and desertions. Klose insists that he and other Western journalists got the story "from what had always been very reliable sources, who were derailed and specific enough about what had happened to be totally convincing." Despite this, the Defense Intelligence Agency took refuge in conjecture. "While it is possible that the situation occurred as described, it is not considered likely," the military intelligence service stiffly informed the joint Economic Committee. Sticking closely to the conditional tense, it pointed out that "administrative and internal security organs would act to preclude an incident of such magnitude, and to ensure punishment of the individuals involved." Like the military jour­nalists who assumed a Soviet conquest of Western Europe in 48 hours in 1947, the military establishment continues to prefer theories to facts, one such theory being, to quote Thomas C. Reed, an influential adviser to President Reagan's National Security Council, the Soviets can mobilize 200 divisions within 30 days."

The bleak record of Soviet mobilization efforts has to be balanced off against the fact that it is not an entirely useless system. Creaky though it is, the organization does exist, some of the men do turn up, and a propor­tion of them are trained. In 1941, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the country did mobilize 5.5 million men in eight days. Conditions were different then of course; it was much harder for Soviet citizens to move house without the express permission of the authorities, and the army was organized along more primitive lines, with simpler weapons than today. The condition of the U.S. reserve system does not present an overly bright picture, although some of the NATO allies, such as the West Germans and the Dutch, have what are by all accounts well-organized and practiced systems.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that an awful lot of those 177 or so Soviet divisions so frequently advertised by the Pentagon would have a meaning­ful part to play in any conflict with the United States and its allies only after a very long shakedown period, much longer than the "30 days" so care­lessly tossed off by Reed. Despite their enormous losses in World War II, the Soviets were able to find the reserves necessary to throw back the Germans. It is unlikely that a contest between East and West would last four years, or even six months, the length of time that some intelligence officials report it took for the Russians to get ready for Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. A nuclear war would probably be quite short; a conventional one would in all likelihood not last long either. Apart from anything else, the Soviet economy of today would be far more disrupted by the effects of mass mobilization than the far more primitive Soviet economy of World War II. The Israelis, who are practiced at mobilizing quickly, find that their wars cause really serious trouble to the economy if they last much longer than a month. It therefore looks as if the Soviets, if they have to go to war, will fight with what they have.


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