Aboard the Russian naval frigate Yaroslav Mudry, we were expecting to meet a gray-bearded captain, a veteran of the high seas.
Instead, much to our surprise, 32-year-old Captain Aleksei Suglobov greeted our contingent of foreign media.
“Welcome to our ship,” he said.
Noting our surprise at his youthfulness, Suglobov told us the brass “tends to willingly assign young officers who are accustomed to operating computers. That's because recent ships are equipped with high-tech devices.”
We were taking advantage of an invitation from the Russian military to foreign media to go aboard a ship in its Baltic Fleet and also observe a military ground exercise.
Together with about 30 correspondents from Europe, China and other parts of the world, I visited Kaliningrad Oblast, an enclave that represents the westernmost part of the country facing the Baltic Sea, where the fleet has its command center.
The Baltic Fleet, with its long history from czarism through the Soviet Union to modern-day Russia, has some 30 ships, large and small. It is in charge of western operations, centered on the Baltic Sea. It is part of the Russian Navy, along with the Northern Fleet, which is over the Arctic, the Russian Pacific Fleet, based in Vladivostok in the Far East, and the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
Upon arriving at the port of Baltiysk, where a major naval base is located, we were welcomed by the Yaroslav Mudry, a Russian Neustrashimyy-class frigate.
The Russian leadership has been advocating the modernization of Russia. I saw some of that effort in regards to the country's military.
The 130-meter, 4,540-ton Yaroslav Mudry, which carries about 200 crew members, is a cutting-edge vessel that went into service in 2009. A Russian Navy official said it is responsible for protecting other ships of the fleet and pursuing and destroying submarines. It also supports landing parties, the official said.
The military reform effort does not end with equipment and personnel assignments, but extends to every corner of management, as we saw on our tour.
After coming ashore, we had lunch in a cafeteria for service members. The menu of the day was stewed beef and vegetables in sour cream and tomato sauce, accompanied by rice. Vegetable soup, bread and grape and apple juice were also available. The taste and volume were comparable to those of eateries in town.
The three women servers in the cafeteria were dispatched from a private firm. The operation of the cafeteria was outsourced last year, as they said they are trying to improve service as well as cut costs. Handing me a questionnaire, one of the women said, “Give us feedback about whether the dishes were good. We will use them as references.”
The government is encouraging private firms to enter the military sector, as state-run enterprises currently win about 90 percent of the contracts. A lack of competition allows costs to stay at high levels, burdening state coffers, so Moscow is seeking to purchase military equipment from a wide range of private firms.
We were also allowed to visit an exercise area near the coast, where we observed training by the Baltic Fleet’s 336th Separate Guards Naval Infantry Brigade, the Russian version of the U.S. Marines. The brigade, which was mobilized for the First Chechen War in 1995, boasts plenty of combat experience.
“Real bullets are flying,” said an instructor who led us. “Never pick up pieces of ammunition. We are not trying to hide anything, but are trying to save your lives.”
I saw flames and smoke rising here and there, as if in actual combat. The field was dotted with broken houses and artificially made bogs, with a river running through it. Soldiers in camouflage were advancing forward, occasionally firing their rifles. They did wide-ranging tasks such as quickly donning protective gear against biological and chemical weapons, burying mines and giving aid to wounded soldiers.
“A marine has to do it all by himself,” the instructor said. “So training is especially hard.”
The instructor looked proud. But such harshness is not welcome in today’s Russia, where people are getting richer, and the middle class is growing.
In a country that has a mandatory draft, men between the ages of 18 and 27 are basically obligated to serve a year in the military. Many of these conscripts grudgingly serve under harsh conditions and others try to evade their service commitment. To keep or even enhance the military’s capability, the nation is working to make its soldiers “professional.” It is aiming at increasing the number of contracted soldiers who are highly motivated and skilled.
But contracted professional soldiers make up only around half of all the marines, who are required to be at high fitness and ability levels. I spotted recruitment posters and banners at various locations. But I heard that results of the recruitment efforts have been disappointing because of the low pay and how recruits are treated.
Back in 1905, the Baltic Fleet suffered a defeat to Japan’s combined fleet, led by commander Heihachiro Togo, in the Japanese-Russo War. Despite that blow, the fleet has remained a main unit of the Russian Navy. During the Cold War era, its importance rose even further, as a counter to the navies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
But the Russian Navy has gradually been shifting its strategic priorities to nuclear submarines equipped with nuclear missiles. Many of the submarines have been deployed to the Northern and Pacific fleets.
Also here in Kaliningrad, the fleet is becoming less important, as more attention is being focused on a new radar warning base. The newly created Aerospace Defense Forces started operating the radar base last year in response to the missile defense program in Europe being pushed by the United States. The Russian military also established a surface-to-air missile system capable of striking multiple targets at a time.
Today, the Baltic Fleet, seemingly losing its influence, mirrors problems the Russian military is facing.
The forces during the Soviet era were the guardians to protect Eastern Europe, countering the powerful U.S. Navy. The number of soldiers was said to be more than 5 million at the height of the Soviet Union, but it is now about 1 million.
The Russian military is trying to cut costs, modernize equipment and improve treatment of its troops. However, its conscription system is failing in today's Russia. In addition, the military and the fleet are floundering in choppy waters.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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