STEVE INSKEEP, host:
So South Korea's president faces a choice whether to dismiss his government. Russia's new president has already made a choice. Dmitri Medvedev has sacked his military chief of staff. This is a move seen as an attempt to impose reform on Russia's military. Now, Moscow says its army is rebounding. And its planes and ships have been sent to parts of the world they haven't seen in years, since the Cold War. Sounds impressive, but experts say the reality is far different. And we have more this morning from NPR's Moscow correspondent, Gregory Feifer.
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GREGORY FEIFER: On a field outside Moscow, soldiers fire heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades during target practice as officers shout commands. These are the men of the Tamanskaya Motorized Rifle Division, a famed unit formed during World War II.
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Regiment commander Vladimir Kuznetsov says under former President Vladimir Putin, the military reversed its post-Soviet decline.
Mr. VLADIMIR KUZNETSOV (Regiment Commander): (Through translator) We've been re-equipped with new technology. And housing and social support can't be compared to what they were eight years ago.
FEIFER: Putin boosted military spending to $40 billion a year, and he put the military on display. Tanks rolled across Red Square during a parade last month for the first time since the end of communism, and ancient Soviet-era bombers once again skirt the borders of NATO countries.
Russia still has the draft, but the military says the centerpiece of its reform program is a growing body of professional troops.
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
FEIFER: Back at the Tamanskaya division's base, soldiers practice loading their weapons. The troops here are all contract soldiers. But look closely, and you begin to see a very different picture of Russia's military than the one the authorities portray. Many men look unwashed and exhausted. At least two have black eyes, although they all say things are fine.
Alexander Viktorov tells a different story. He served in a different unit in Southern Russia and says his commanding officer extorted money from new recruits and used veteran soldiers to enforce his demands. Viktorov says they broke ribs, noses and jaws and threatened their victims with worse if they complained.
Mr. ALEXANDER VIKTOROV: (Through translator) They hit you in the face and when you fall, they kick you. It goes on until you give up. It's not the military, it's a mafia.
FEIFER: Officials say last year, 450 soldiers died from beatings or suicide. The real number is probably far higher. Hazing is deep-rooted in the Russian military, which critics say has treated its men like cannon fodder for centuries. And Viktorov says the new contract system is making things even worse, because stealing wages has provided more reason for bullying. Viktorov says he refused to hand over his money, braving beatings until he could no longer stand them.
Mr. VIKTOROV: (Through translator): I decided to leave my base while I was still alive. After one beating, I washed off the blood, smoked a cigarette, and then I slipped away.
FEIFER: Viktorov has filed suit to be discharged from the army. The Kremlin is taking action. It's appointed a former tax investigator defense minister to trace the billions of dollars that go missing. But military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says efforts to overhaul the military have so far been stymied by a hugely corrupt bureaucracy.
Mr. PAVEL FELGENHAUER (Military Analyst): End result being no new weapons, still very well salaries for the military soldiers and officers, which means that they're uncompetitive and the best men leave. This system is unworkable, and this military is not very good for anything at all.
FEIFER: Felgenhauer says the Russian military isn't ready for any kind of offensive action apart from a nuclear attack. He says despite the extra money the military got under Putin, it has managed to buy only several new fighter jets. And it can't deploy its latest nuclear submarine because its highly touted new ballistic missiles don't work.
Felgenhauer says Moscow needs to change its military doctrine and stop pretending it's a global counterweight to the West. Only then, he says, can Russia start building a new military instead of trying to revive the old Soviet one.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.