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Opinion Putin’s recruits are heading for slaughter

A satellite image shows a traffic jam near Russia's border with Georgia on Sunday. (Maxar Technologies handout/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling commanded the 1st Armored Division during the Iraq surge and later commanded U.S. Army Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to activate 300,000 “reservists” — some of whom have previously served, some who have not — to hold the line in Ukraine has led thousands of young Russian men to flee the country. The call-up is an outrage, but not only for the reasons you might imagine. Sending new recruits, poorly trained Russian reservists and untrained civilians into Ukraine is a recipe for slaughter. They will not be prepared for what they will encounter.

Years ago, I was given the command of the organization that oversees all basic training for the Army (what some call “boot camp”) as well as managing the advanced training that follows for every Army trooper. At the time, the United States was recruiting approximately 160,000 soldiers, warrant officers and officers each year.

Most Americans who volunteer to join the Army undergo 10 weeks of basic training, then head to different locations for more training in an assigned specialty. “Basic” is a packed period in which soldiers learn and practice such skills as rifle marksmanship, first aid, map reading, land navigation and grenade throwing. They also learn about working as part of a team, reacting to various kinds of attacks (artillery, chemical, ambush, etc.), drill and ceremony (how to march, salute and other elements of discipline), professional ethos and values, and a variety of other skills. It is intense.

The length of the follow-on training depends on the specialty selected by each soldier, but it’s measured in months, not weeks. An intelligence specialist who works as an interpreter spends almost a year learning the trade. Logistics specialists — truck drivers, fuelers, mechanics — spend less, depending on their jobs. Most recruits will spend three or four years in uniform, and a large percentage reenlist and stay in the professional force.

I later became the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe. In that role, I was able to visit Russia several times and observe how another army trained its conscripts and incorporated them into its force.

Russia’s army is mainly a conscript force. Twice a year, Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 present themselves to their local commissariat. This annual pool is more than 1 million men, from which 120,000 to 140,000 are deemed qualified and are compelled to serve. Russian conscripts then participate in one to two months of basic training (the exact number of weeks is not defined), followed by three to six months of advanced training in a particular skill set. Graduated soldiers report to their units for a short 12- to 18-month enlistment. Few make the army a career.

It is easy to see why. Russian drill sergeants were unprofessional and continuously harassed and hazed recruits. Marksmanship training was geared toward familiarization with a weapon, but not qualification on it. Soldiers were allocated few rounds for practice on firing ranges. First aid training was rudimentary, map reading and land navigation was nonexistent, soldier initiative was lacking, and discipline was lax.

The barracks were crowded, bunks were close, ventilation was poor. Showers and toilets were gang latrines. Food in the mess halls had small portions, no choices and little nutritional value. I didn’t observe any training on values, soldiers’ ethics, professional behavior, or the teaching of land warfare, all key parts of U.S. basic training. Most training in those areas, I was told by a Russian colonel, is conducted after soldiers leave basic and report to their units. To which I could only conclude: Yeah, right.

Shortly thereafter, I visited a tank regiment. I was ushered to that battalion’s single T-72 tank crew simulator, participated in a drill, and found the device rudimentary and unrealistic. U.S. armor crewmen spend extensive time in tank simulators before firing dozens of live rounds at different types of moving and stationary targets at extended ranges — on multiple types of tank ranges. After experiencing the Russian simulator, I went to their single tank range and was proudly told by the Russian commander that each of his crews was able to fire one live round per year. I tried to keep my jaw from dropping.

Having watched the Russian army during the first seven months of its campaign in Ukraine, I cannot say I’m surprised by any of their setbacks. The Russians performed as their training would have suggested: poorly. The casualty counts reflect this. It is no wonder so many young Russians are fleeing the country.

Which brings us back to how Putin’s 300,000 “reservists” will fare against Ukraine’s NATO-trained army. It is likely those recruits will join units that have recently been traumatized after seven months of combat and already suffer from poor morale. It won’t help that those units have recently been reinforced with prison parolees, ragtag militias from false “peoples’ republics,” and recruited guns from private armies.

The results will be predictable. Putin might continue to send unwilling Russian men to an ill-conceived and illegal invasion for which they are not trained or prepared. But it’s not warfare. It’s just more murder — this time of his own citizens.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

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