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Europe

Russia celebrates victory day ahead of army reforms

May 9 is the day Russia celebrates the anniversary of its victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. But this year morale among the soldiers parading through Moscow has been hurt by plans to downsize the army.

Russian World War II veterans embrace

WWII veterans in Red Square

Even as it worked to reduce the size of the military, Russia celebrated its victory in World War II with a parade in Red Square that featured 10,000 soldiers, and a display of the latest military hardware. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev honored the veterans in a speech and said that the nation is ready to repel aggression.

"We are sure that any aggression against our citizens will be given a worthy reply," Medvedev said. "The victory over Fascism is a great example and a great lesson for all peoples and is still current today when people are again starting military adventures."

The May 9 parade dates back to the Soviet period and since 2008 it again features the large-scale display of the country's military technology. But despite the glittering display in Moscow, there are changes ahead for the Russian army.

Tough reforms are needed

Moscow is pushing through reforms that will make 200,000 army officers redundant. Leaders say their goal is to make the military leaner and meaner and respond to lessons learned in last year's war against Georgia.

The conflict that began in breakaway region of South Ossetia in August saw Russian forces incapacitate the Georgian army in a matter of days, even though it was the first time they had fought outside their own borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

To some observers, the speed of their victory gave the impression that a resurgent Russia had succeeded in demonstrating its role as a regional power. But retired general Alexej Fomin, from the Unions of Soviet Officers, says the invasion only proved that Moscow's military machine needs a serious overhaul.

"When our 58th army deployed, a number of weapons systems broke down and there was no way it could repair them," Fomin says.

Russian tank in Red Square

Russian army to reduce size

"The group's combat readiness was greatly reduced. There was no decent reconnaissance. That's why the Georgians were able to advance on the city of Tskhinvali."

The chief of Russia's General Staff, General Nikolai Makarov, was also critical of his troops' success, describing the army's structures as too cumbersome to be effective in a regional conflict.

"The results of the Georgian war have increased the pace of reform," Russian military analyst Alexander Golz says, adding that years of investing heavily in new weapons had done little to improve the army's combat-readiness.

"Leaders have realized that even if you pump a lot more money into the army, its current structure means that most of the cash disappears in a black hole."

"It's become clear that fundamental changes are needed."

Downsizing

Wide-reaching reforms are expected to put more than 200,000 Russian army officers out of a job within the next few years. By 2012 the total size of the army is to be halved to about one million soldiers.

Russian Defence Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov has signalled the first units to be disbanded will be reserve divisions, which are staffed only by officers in peacetime and draw on reservists to fill the ranks in emergencies.

"The Russian army is re-inventing itself," Golz explains. "Instead of preparing for a full-scale war involving millions of soldiers, its conventional forces will only be able to intervene in regional and local conflicts."

From a foreign policy perspective, Golz says the troop reductions indicate Moscow no longer considers NATO its prime security threat - even though recent months have seen the Kremlin express outrage over NATO exercises in Georgia and US plans to build a missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland.

"It's very interesting to compare the concrete plans for Russia's military development with the aggressive rhetoric we often hear from the government," Golz says. "There are clear and direct contradictions."

Safety net?

The Russian government insists its plans to downsize the military will be conducted in a socially responsible manner. But retired general Alexei Fomin says many officers are worried there won't be any safety net to support them if they're put out of a job.

"Many don't know what to do," Fomin says. "They're taking whatever jobs they're offered to make sure they'll be able to feed their families. Sure they're being promised apartments, but most officers don't expect those promises to be kept."

As Russia continues to feel the impact of the global economic downturn, few soldiers are confident the situation will improve in the near future.

Author: Erik Albrecht/Sam Edmonds/Andy Velvur

Editor: Andreas Illmer

DW.DE