The Russian army loves its NATO loot

Other News Materials 14 August 2008 21:14 (UTC +04:00)

(dpa) - The troopers of Russia's 58th Army, fresh from chasing their US-trained Georgian opponents out of South Ossetia, are just in love with their NATO-issue loot.

"Check out this war trophy," a T-62 tank commander named Viktor proudly pointed out to a Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa reporter. "A real NATO-standard bayonet!"

Russia's soldiers currently occupying the Gori district of northern Georgia - abandoned by the Georgian army without a shot - are festooned with personal military kit previously owned by their enemy Georgia, whose government is intent on joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Some soldiers, like Viktor, chose to obtain just a souvenir. One of the most popular formerly Georgian military items now in Russian hands is a spiffy black-handled knife.

Viktor's mates said the weapon, sometimes issued in a snappy leg holster, is suitable for locking onto a US M-16 automatic rifle sold to Georgia, and holds a great edge.

"There were piles of them in the depot over there," said a sergeant name Oleg, pointing with his thumb to a plume of smoke rising from behind a hill. "The Georgians just ran, they didn't even take their (expletive deleted) stuff with them."

The Georgian city of Gori was, until approximately the third day of the Ossetia war, the site of a Georgian infantry brigade base. Much of its supplies, the Russians said, were NATO standard in keeping with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's enthusiasm for "Western integration."

Unfortunately for Saakashvili, Russian armoured columns tipped with weather-beaten tanks crewed by men like Oleg and Viktor rumbled into Georgia proper on day four of the war and proceeded to demolish the base. Saakashvili's media spin machine kicked into high gear, accusing the Russians of violating ceasefire terms (almost certainly) and systematically looting the Georgian countryside (of which independent observers have found little evidence.)

But the Kremlin and the men of the 58th Army paid little attention, and according to other troopers interviewed the Georgian army base at Gori became sort of a free military accoutrements shopping mart for discerning Russian soldiers interested in the latest in combat style.

Russian soldiers guarding access routes to Gori, on Thursday, were proudly wearing a remarkably wide selection of "personal items" more commonly seen on soldiers wearing US or other NATO uniforms.

Highly popular among the Russians was US-issue "web gear," a torso harness used for hanging useful things like bandage packets, ropes, ammunition pouches stamped with "US," olive drab flashlights, and canteens.

One Russian soldier riding in a BMP armored personnel carrier had grabbed US-issue web gear with an mobile phone intact, left there by its former Georgian owner.

A BMP gunner describing himself as an "average Siberian guy" had hung his newly-acquired web gear on his vehicle's turret door, just like veteran US soldiers in US-made turrets in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Much of the Georgian-bought equipment now in Russian hands had little military value: reflective sunglasses similar to US Iraq desert issue, camouflage utility vests designed for NATO grenades and so not really suitable for Russian grenades, and the venerable US Army web belt, holding up dozens of pairs of baggy camouflaged Russian trousers.

But some of the gear made its new Russian owner an undeniably more survivable soldier: Kevlar vests and helmets, flares, and medical kits - all lighter, easier to use, and harder to break than the Russian counterpart - were among the booty now being worn.

As a general rule, the 58th Army's non-commissioned officers - veterans of Chechnya with at least a couple of years of service and sometimes more - got first pick. Privates mostly wore standard Russian army issue, as did officers.

"It's something to take home, to show your friends, to remember your service days when you get old," a corporal said. "It shows we were victorious."