Russian soldiers face hard times Bartering bullets: Demoralized, underfed, poorly paid, the once-vaunted troops of Moscow scrounge for food as Chechen rebels humiliate them in Pervomayskoye.


TERECHNOYE, Russia -- Shopkeeper Vakhid Umarov was watching the aerial bombardment of Pervomayskoye from the bird's-eye view of this adjacent village last week when two Russian soldiers scampered out of their frozen foxhole to propose a deal.

"They wanted to sell me their ammunition," the bemused Dagestani purveyor of cigarettes and liquor explained after he turned down the recruits' offer. "They said they needed money for vodka and something to eat."

It was a typical illustration of the state into which a once-vaunted army has fallen.

Demoralized by indecisive leaders in Moscow and physically depleted by pitiful feeding and an $8 monthly pay, the foot soldiers of the Kremlin's military machine are proving incapable of winning even the most lopsided of battles.

In the neighboring village of Sovietskoye, a trio of sooty infantrymen plodded from one farmhouse to another, inquiring of the shell-shocked peasants whether they had any spare bread.

At night, as campfires illuminated faces set with boredom and resentment, soldiers choked down their 7-ounce rations of canned buckwheat porridge mixed with fat, hugging their thin, cloth field jackets as they huddled in drainage ditches to escape the wind-borne chill.

"What are the locals to think when they see us roaming their villages like skinny stray dogs, eyes burning with hunger?" grumbled a dejected artilleryman who would only give his name as Sergei. "Everyone is trading ammunition for bread, pickles, vodka. One hand grenade is worth one bottle of vodka. Tell me, is this normal?"

Nowhere is the post-Soviet decline of Russia more obvious than in its armed forces, which have become the target of harsh criticism as hopeless hordes of abused soldiers under the command of cynical and self-serving generals.

It took six days for the Russian military to position itself for an assault against 300 Chechen rebels holed up in Pervomayskoye with a human shield of 100 hostages. It took another four days of unrelenting bombardment with the heaviest artillery in Russia's mighty arsenal before President Boris N. Yeltsin could declare the job done.

Still, Chechen warrior Salman Raduyev's band of rebels appear to have gotten the better of this erstwhile superpower's army. As many as half of the gunmen slipped out of Pervomayskoye through a cordon of 10,000 heavily armed federal troops.

Russia's fighting forces have been deteriorating since the demise of the Soviet Union and of an arms-race mentality that diverted as much as half of the Communist-era resources to the military.

Today, the army is an amalgamation of dispirited youths too slow to contemplate draft evasion and veteran officers of the Soviet Red Army embittered by the willful neglect of their service.

Deprived of their Cold War-era purpose of preparing to defend a powerful motherland from foreign invasion, Russia's 1.8 million soldiers now face deployment in domestic political battles that tend to bring them not medals and glory but finger-pointing and shame.

And when the mission goes awry, as it did at Pervomayskoye, the enlisted men and officers carrying out Moscow's orders are often made the scapegoats to spare the careers and perquisites of the top commanders.

Cowed by the threat of punishment for daring to criticize their superiors, none of the soldiers who spoke of their hardships in the assault on Pervomayskoye was willing to give his full name.

But the complaints of the cold and ill-supplied troops have been sadly consistent. Virtually every enlisted man or officer drawn into conversation berated those running the operation for incompetence, conflicting objectives and an utter lack of strategic thinking.

"Why are we doing nothing while they improve their defenses?" one major with the elite paratroopers contingent fumed because his unit was standing idle for a fifth day while the Chechens dug in against the looming onslaught.

Once the ferocious artillery barrages that leveled Pervomayskoye began, other officers cursed their inept equipment, claiming that radios malfunctioned at crucial moments and that reinforcements came too late or not at all.

Most shackling for the troops, though, was the absence of a sense of mission and the disregard for the lives of innocent hostages implicit in the government's decision to level the village with the captives still in it.

The humiliating David-vs.-Goliath outcome at Pervomayskoye is in part a reflection of the low morale of troops deployed to score a political rather than a military victory.

And that reluctance to fulfill a misguided mission was intensified by the physical hardships endured by troops thrown into battle with little more than the clothes and knapsacks on their backs.

"What can be more dangerous than an underfed and embittered army of teen-agers armed to the teeth with modern and powerful weapons who, on top of everything, don't have any clear idea of the goals of the army they are serving in?" asked Sergei, the disillusioned artilleryman.

One sergeant lamented the hardships imposed on Russian soldiers as he sat around a burning scrap pile the night before the federal assault.

Sent into battle with severely inadequate rations, no gloves, no change of clothes and no toilet paper, rank-and-file troops were in a constant state of hunger, cold and exhaustion, said the sergeant.

"Such a life, day in and day out, breaks a man down. And a broken man is incapable of mutiny. He turns into a zombie, and that's what our leaders want."

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