Former German Military attaché from Moscow speaks about search for a new identity in Russian society

During an event which was organized by the German Atlantic Association and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Mainz, former military attaché to the German Embassy in Moscow, Brigadier General Josef Niebecker – former chief of staff of the Euro Force in Sarajevo,after this time military attaché in Moscow (2008-2011), and today serving as Deputy Chief of Staff of the planning department in the newly structured command of the Bundeswehr (German Army)- spoke about his experiences as military attaché in Russia.

His presentation very vividly showed that it is in the vital interest of Germany to expand its good relations with Moscow, which have developed over a long historical period of cooperation. “Without a stable Russia there will be no stable Europe”, Niebecker emphasized, “and therefore everything must be done to encourage a positive development in Russia.”

Lost sense of history in some political circles in Germany

The speaker made clear, that contrary to the distorted picture which some German media paint about Russian President Putin, the President is facing huge tasks: among them the question how to govern this huge country with 153 different ethnic groups as well as how to mediate between the different power groups. This country where serfdom was abolished in 1865 and where in 1913 for the first time former serfs were allowed to purchase land, is facing enormous challenges, which include among other things the restructuring and more efficient training of the Armed Forces. Anybody who looks at this country in a non- prejudiced way is wondering about the “historical amnesia” (the lost sense of history), the “arrogance” and “political stupidity” which can be seen in some political circles in Germany. Those circles get agitated about the question of whether or not there is going to be a “Christopher Street Day” in Russia, rather than focusing their attention on foreign policy priorities concerning Russia.

Brigadier General Niebecker centered his presentation on three core questions: What is Russia? What is Russia’s identity today? What are the new Russian Armed Forces? During his stay as military attaché in Moscow, Niebecker had the chance to visit and tour the entire Russian Federation: a huge country with immense geographical space, (one has to remind oneself all the time), a country which has 12 different time zones and where 2/3 of the population lives beyond the Urals. In order to get a sense about the distances one has to consider that the next airport near the airport of Khabarovsk is 2300 km away. If in Russia winter starts, the northernmost regions which are otherwise only accessible by airplane can be reached over the frozen rivers. The speaker presented a photo which shows the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri rivers- a huge geographical area which marks the border between Russia and China. One must imagine for a moment that if one looks at the global map from the standpoint of the Russians, it is obvious that there exist strong encirclement fears. While on the Russian territory only 1,5 persons live per square kilometer on the Chinese side it is 800 person per square km. It is only a matter of time when the area is becoming Chinese, the speaker said.

He pointed out the diversity of ethnic groups and religious communities in Russia. Aside the 153 ethnic groups there are five religious communities which are recognized by the state and which shape the profile of the country: the Russian- Orthodox Church, which is the strongest religious community, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and nature worshippers (which are mostly located in the northern region).

A huge country like Russia has always been “centrally governed”, the General said. He referred to the very turbulent history of the country since the beginning 90ies – the collapse of communism and the founding of the Russian Federation under President Jelzin, a president under whose government corruption, inflation and the privatization of state companies were spreading wildly. In the collective unconscious of the Russian people, this period under Jelzin is identified as a period of total chaos and confusion. This is one of the reasons why up to this day the term “democracy” has a negative connotation for most Russians, the speaker said. The speaker pointed to a photo which shows the building of the domestic intelligence service FSB, which is responsible for the supervision of the Russian people. Aside its regular armed forces Russia has various security services and armed militia organizations. An example is the oil and gas company Gazprom and the state railway company, each of them having their own armed security forces.

An important aspect for assessing the situation in Russia is the question of “national identity”. The speaker showed a photo with a huge sculpture. The monument was first unveiled in 2010 in memory of the 65th anniversary of the victory over fascism in 1945. The sculpture depicts motives from the life of the Russian people and the deep love of Russian society for “Rodina” (fatherland). Since the 1990ies, as the speaker outlined, there have been several attempts to “redefine” the identity of the Russian people. At one point they wanted to celebrate the memory of the Russian victory over the Poles (17th century); another attempt was to celebrate the memory in Alexander Newski, who destroyed the Teutonic Knights (13th century); other attempts were to celebrate a constitution day. The strongest effect however is the national holiday of the 9th of May, the national remembrance of the patriotic victory over fascism. As the speaker outlined, this 9th of May holiday still exerts the strongest identity, since it is associated with the memory of the “Great Patriotic War” (World War II). During this war Russian society was under existential threat and there was no family which did not have to mourn the loss of family members and relatives. The symbolic value of this 9th of May parade in which every year also highly decorated veterans participate, is shown by the fact that preparations for the military parade, which includes the march of 200.000 soldier in front of the Kremlin, already begin in the month of November. The former military attaché reported from personal experience that he was once invited to participate in the 9th of May celebrations and that he witnessed to his amazement that young Russians, upon seeing him in his military uniform , came up to him congratulating him for the “victory”, the victory over fascism which also Germany carried. It is precisely this “warmth” and “openness” which was shown to him by so many Russians, which proves to him, as the speaker said, how deeply the German- Russian relations are culturally anchored in the population. “For Russia this war was an accident of history and the bond of friendship between the two countries is long and substantial.”

The speaker emphasized that the Russians admire very much the way in which the Germans commemorate the war dead and take care of the war graves. He pointed out different Russian –German initiatives which were taken in the last years. Upon the initiative of the German War graves commission, German and Russian soldiers and young volunteers from all over Europe have taken care of cemeteries of the war dead in Stalingrad, Kursk, and Smolensk—war sites where both sides had suffered heavy losses. The General reminded that in August German and Russian soldiers laid down wreaths together at a war cemetery near by Smolensk, a symbolic gesture which expresses the commemoration of the war dead on both sides.

Progress of Russian military reform

Niebecker pointed out that under former Defense Minister Anatoli Serdjukov, a reform of the armed forces was begun, in response to the many problems within the armed forces. Among others the armed service will be reduced to one and a half years, regular lunch breaks were introduced and a free weekend for each soldier. He also pointed to the problems of young people living in towns who want to escape “military service” and that in the long run, an army of 600.000 soldiers and non-commissioned officers can be maintained. One problem is the basic training of the recruits as he himself eye witnessed. There is a prevailing lack of non- commissioned officers and sergeants (now the aim is to train 120.000) and the problem is that the hand weapons training is carried out by Lieutenant Colonels, which in Germany is done by non-commissioned officers. The Serdjukov military reforms provide for a substantial reduction in the number of officers and a reform of the officer training. He also hinted at the fact that in terms of the new recruits many of them come from the country side – where in some parts there is still malnutrition.

Asked about President Putin’s remarkable speech in Valdai, in which the President had outlined his intent to strengthen the involvement and participation of the Russian citizens in the political system, Niebecker replied that Putin finds himself in a very complicated situation. The task which he is confronting is to mediate between the different power groups – among them the extreme nationalists. One should not forget that in Russia there are a few extreme rich people, a larger layer of poor people, but so far no strong middle class.

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