On May 25th, the Valdai group was taken to Alabino, on the outskirts of Moscow, to visit the base of the 5th Guards Independent Motor Rifle Brigade (formerly known as the Tamanskaya Division). The visit included tours of the brigade’s museum, the barracks in which enlisted soldiers live and the base’s sports facilities. We also viewed military training, visited the firing range and an exhibit of some of the weapons and equipment used by the brigade, and ate at the cafeteria used by the soldiers.
The visit began (as all visits to Russian military installations seem to) at the base museum. The guide described the history of the Taman division, focusing almost entirely on the Soviet period and especially on World War II. There was a small room at the end of the exhibit devoted to the post-Soviet period, focusing on the division’s role in the conflict in Chechnya. But other than that, the museum had a very Soviet flavor, as you can see in the photos below.
After the museum tour, we were taken to visit the housing facilities for the soldiers. Almost all of the soldiers on base were conscripts. We were told there were just a few specialists who were on contracts. The conscripts no longer live in barracks — instead they are housed in dormitories — four soldiers to a room, with two rooms sharing a bathroom. The facilities include a game room with ping pong tables and a TV room. There are also vending machines. All in all, the conditions seem much better than they used to be in the past. Of course, this is not a typical brigade, so conditions may be better here than in other units.
Food preparation at the base has been outsourced. We ate at the same cafeteria used by the conscript soldiers — the food was certainly quite good and plentiful. However, the brigade still has to maintain a food preparation team since the commercial providers do not travel with the brigade on exercises and would not accompany them in the event of a conflict. But I’m sure the soldiers were all happier eating the food provided by the contractor than they would have been eating food cooked by other soldiers.
The most interesting part of the visit was the training. We visited both the basic training facility, located immediately behind the living quarters, and a larger firing range, located about a mile away from the rest of the base. A wide range of training was on display, including weapons firing, the use of grenades, NBC decontamination, field medicine, etc. All types of training were being conducted concurrently, at “stations” located near each other. The photos below should provide the necessary context.
I only got one photo from the firing range:
And some hand to hand combat training, which took place next to the firing range:
While all the shooting and running around looked very impressive, we could not fail to notice that the sounds of firing started just before we arrived at each facility. Also, one of the Western participants who had extensive military experience at a command level noted that the advanced individual training on display at Alabino showed some serious gaps. Some examples:
- Automatic rifle targeting practice was intended to train the soldiers in aiming at different points of the target. There were no technical means (i.e. laser-beam) to determine whether the soldier executed the activities correctly. The officer just stood by and checked whether everybody took part.
- Hand grenade throwing tactical training was not realistic. Two soldiers moved forward, one firing short bursts to the left, the other to the right. When new targets suddenly appeared at a distance of 25 meters, the soldiers were trained to stand still, get their grenades ready, throw them at 20 meters, then dive for cover, and after explosion start moving forward again. In actual combat, any soldiers remaining upright while facing three enemy targets would have been killed. The proper reaction would have been to first dive for cover, with one soldier continuing to fire while the other threw grenades.
- NBC decontamination training was problematic. Other soldiers did not react when the NBC alert was given. Only the soldiers at that station reacted, and even they continued walking around without protection in the liquids they had used for decontamination after scrubbing their comrades. If this happened in real life, they would have all been dead.
- At the firing range, the results of live firing didn’t play a role in subsequent targeting. There was no target control system. During our visit, the RPG was fired at a target 75 meters away. After the first round landed short (50 meters maximum), the second round was fired more like anti-missile defence high into the sky, and the third round again a miss. No corrective action was visible after the firing.
The overall assessment by my colleague was that the instructors were not instructing, there was no control of training progress, and corrective actions were not taken when mistakes were made. He characterized this as an effort where the main goal seemed to be participation rather than improvement. Or, perhaps it was a case of good ideas being turned into senseless standardized “training.” As he put it, he would not have accepted such a drill four weeks into basic training, while these soldiers were at least three months out of basic training.
At the end of the tour, we were shown some of the equipment used by the brigade, including T-90 tanks, various missile launchers, APCs and self-propelled guns. I found it interesting that the brigade commander argued that the T-90 tank is the best in the world, whereas some of the MOD’s top leaders have recently criticized the tank’s capabilities. In fact, almost all of the weapons used by the brigade were Soviet designs. Here are some pictures of the equipment on display:
So I guess the takeaway from this visit is that conditions for soldiers in the Russian military are definitely improving, but training not so much, even though this is supposed to be a special brigade where new tactics and techniques are tested. Of course, when we talk about living standards here, we should also remember that this is a special “show” brigade. It’s located close to Moscow and it has an illustrious history, so conditions there are probably better than elsewhere in the Russian military.