Yuri Rodionov, soldier

Most of Russia’s military elite passes through the prestigious Military Academy of the General Staff, known simply by its acronym, VAGSH. Its students are experienced servicemen who have already built a name for themselves in the army. Forty-year-old Colonel Yuri Rodionov, a first year student of VAGSH, is just such a character.

Rodionov’s military career has literally taken him to the four corners of Russian earth. Born in 1961 in Khimkent (Kazakhstan), Rodionov dreamed of serving in the army from his childhood. He graduated from the Higher Military School of Border Guards in Alma-Ata in 1983 with special honors and was posted in the Northwest border okrug as deputy commander, then commander of the frontier post. In January 1986 he was sent to Afghanistan as commander of the motorized group of the border squad at Tahtabazar—it was this group’s job to prevent Afghan mujahedin from shelling the Soviet border town of Kushka.

After the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, Rodionov was again sent to guard Russia’s northwest border. In 1992, he was posted in the far Northeast of Siberia, in Chukotka, first as deputy head, then head of staff of the border squad. Shortly, the promising officer was sent to study at the Frunze Military Academy which he graduated from in 1995 with special honors. In 1997, he perfected his professional education at the three-month Higher Academic Courses of the Academy of Border Guards.

In 1999, Rodionov was posted in the South, this time as commander of the Khunzaksky Border Squad in southern Dagestan. Rodionov was sent to reestablish Russian border positions there in the wake of invasions by wahabbite extremists from Chechnya. He gathered together all his officers and informed them that the life of their families depended on how well they protected the border.

Indeed, there was just a motorized brigade in Byunaksk standing between the border with Chechnya and the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala. Rodionov’s charge was to create motorized, highly-maneuverable groups to protect the border in coordination with army regulars. Rodionov’s command was so successful that, during the military action, his squad did not lose a single man.

The Chechen wahabbites were soon dislodged from Dagestan, so Rodionov’s squad was charged with sealing mountain passes through which Chechen extremists passed into neighboring Georgia, where they found medical treatment, reinforcements and supplies. There were plenty of skirmishes, and many of Rodionov’s soldiers and officers were subsequently decorated for their actions. Rodionov himself is a Cavalier of the Order of the Red Star, and has orders “For Merit in Battle,” “For Military Bravery” and others.

These awards, he said, he shares with his family, for without them he could not think of his career. His wife has followed him to the ends of Russia and his first son was born in Chukotka, his second in Khunzakh.

Given modern financial constraints, Rodionov said, voicing the current conventional wisdom of the Russian government, “maybe today it doesn’t even make sense to lock up the whole border one hundred percent. For instance, in the North, in hardly accessible places, it makes no sense to violate the border whatsoever, as there are hundreds of legal channels for entering and exiting our territory. So there is no point in throwing money out of the window.” Instead, defend the border only in the most menacing places, e.g. in Derbent, where the border with Chechnya has been closed.

Rodionov said it is not a matter of technology, but training: he can defend the border provided the border guards are adequately formed and trained. And properly focused. Legislators, Rodionov said, need to free border guards of ancilliary missions like battling with fish poachers.

Chief of the VAGSH Academy, General-Colonel Viktor Chechevatov said that Rodionov has a great future ahead of him. After graduating from VAGSH, he will most likely be appointed deputy head of staff of a border regional directorate (of which Russian has just 10), then the road is open to the post of chief of border staff and head of the regional border directorate. Clearly, in the years to come, Rodionov will be one of the key players in defining the defense of the Russian border.

Rodionov’s vast practical experience across Russia and his sound academic training are part of the reason why officers and soldiers will be lucky to serve under his command. The main reason, however, is the credo Rodionov said guides his military service: “The main thing is not to lose people.”

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