Conscription: a basic question of civil–military relations in Russia: Alexander Golts
The military reform that Defense Minister Anatolii Serdiukov initiated in 2008 suffers from a number of basic contradictions. The cornerstone of the reform is a total rejection of the mass-mobilization army concept. About 180,000 officers have been fired and more than 1,000 troop formations and “skeleton units,” intended to be manned by millions of reservists, have been eliminated. They accounted for 83 percent of all units in the Ground Forces (Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation 2009). With that step, the army lost the ability to mobilize millions of reservists in the event of sudden military danger or conflict – a possibility that was largely hypothetical anyway. In place of these millions of reservists, the army plans to mobilize only enough military personnel to fill 60 brigades in the Ground Forces, that is, no more than 300,000 people (Boldyrev 2009) and 700,000 for the armed forces as a whole (Telmanov 2008). The logical step in this case would be to eliminate the draft altogether. The reason for keeping conscription is to prepare reservists who can be called into active duty in the event of a large-scale war. But since that need no longer exists, there appears to be no reason to force 750,000 conscripts into short-term military service every year. In fact, the military, as well as the political leadership in the Ministry of Defense (MoD), have said that conscription will not be abandoned and they are also explaining that Russia cannot afford a professional army. Not only military, but also demographic reasons are behind the debate on putting an end to conscription. Russia has exhausted its possibilities to recruit 750,000 conscript soldiers annually – the minimum number of recruits needed to maintain one million personnel and to create the semblance of a massmobilization army. This is because the number of young men between the ages of 18 and 27, the draft age in Russia, is decreasing and will continue to decrease for the next 10-15 years. In 2010 the number of 18-year-old men in Russia had become so low that it would be mathematically impossible for the MoD to fulfill the military’s conscription requirements unless it drafted those who were physically unfit for service. The inability to round up enough soldiers underscores the basic problems of trying to maintain a conscript army – particularly when the conscripts serve only one year. The Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov and other military leaders have stated that no more than one hour of preparation is needed for any unit to
begin to carry out a military order. The ambition appears unrealistic, not least when taking into consideration that every six months one-half of all personnel in each unit is discharged and replaced with untrained recruits. This means that at any given moment, a substantial number of soldiers in the Army will still be receiving basic training as new recruits. Most of the contract-employed will take sergeant positions and quite a few of them will join the Airborne Troops. According to Lieutenant-General Vladimir Shamanov, commander of the Airborne Troops, five paratroop battalions have been formed from volunteers as a Russian variant of rapid deployment forces (Kuzmin 2010). Contrary to regular promises from officials inside the MoD, it has not yet developed a methodology that would make it possible to prepare recruits in 1-2 months. Events before and during the military exercise Vostok-2010 are interesting in this respect. Vostok-2010 was scheduled for late June and took place from June 29 to July 8, at a time when half of the conscript soldiers in every unit had to be demobilized. The generals in charge of Vostok-2010 were panicked as President Dmitrii Medvedev planned to observe the maneuvers. They realized that they did not have enough soldiers to conduct the exercises and resorted to forcing conscripts to remain on duty even though their 12 months of mandatory service had been completed. “Everything now centres around just teaching the soldier to use his weapon in certain conditions, perhaps at the expense of what he ought to know. There is simply no time for studying how the different parts and mechanisms of the weapon work together when it is fired,” stated Anatolii Khromov, the head of the Combat Training Ground Forces Directorate, lamenting that the schedule did not allow for studying theory (Khromov 2010). Among the official innovations in military training of conscripts is that the military will have five hours per day of physical training. If this takes place at the expense of military training, there is a risk that it will not increase the combat capability of the armed forces. Adapting Russia’s armed forces to modern warfare will demand more training in specific military skills and learning how to handle new technology. Getting the balance right between physical training and acquiring military skills will be a major challenge. Combat readiness is one thing; actual fighting capability is another matter entirely. In fact, the whole idea of “permanent readiness” simply means that battle units are fully staffed. What these units would be capable of doing during a war is a different matter. The main concern was quantity, not quality. The single justification for preserving the conscript army was the need to have a reserve for a mass-mobilization army numbering into the millions, and since this need has seemingly disappeared, eliminating the conscript army as we know it would be a logical conclusion. Contrary to this, top generals insist they can form the Russian armed forces with conscripts. In early 2008 they insisted that they had successfully implemented a state program of partial transition of the armed forces to an allvolunteer or “contract” service. In fact, the program failed because the top generals deliberately undermined it. The plan, which was initiated in 2003,
emerged as a compromise between the Kremlin and the military top brass. During the second Chechen war, President Vladimir Putin became convinced that a mass-mobilization army was a completely ineffective mechanism for defending the country. It is not surprising, however, that the generals fought against building up an army of volunteers. Instead of implementing sweeping military reforms, a “compromise solution” was reached: It was decided that only 79 units of professional soldiers in constant combat-readiness would be formed to deal with any future regional conflicts such as the one in Chechnya. According to the proponents of this compromise solution, these professional units would be able to respond quickly to regional conflicts without having to call up reservists. At the same time, it was stated that this plan was instrumental in reducing the mandatory service for conscripts from two years to one, which was popular with the public. The MoD lobbied the Kremlin a few times during the program’s implementation, asking for reductions in the numerical goals. Initial plans called for 144,000 sergeants and soldiers to switch to contract duty. That number later slid down to 133,000 and finally to 121,000. At the end of the day, the military leadership were reporting only 100,000 soldiers on contract duty. At the same time, Colonel General Vasilii Smirnov, Chief of Main Organization and Mobilization Directorate of General Staff, said that 20 percent of all sergeant and soldier positions needed for the new professional units remained “vacant” (Golts 2009). The larger problem, however, was not so much the inadequate number of professional contract soldiers, but the low quality of these. Referring to “new” units of contract soldiers, Colonel General Alexei Maslov, at the time Commander of the Ground Forces, acknowledged: “In some aspects, they are no better prepared than corresponding units of conscripts” (Maslov 2007). In reality, the MoD recruited the contract soldiers not from the general population, which would have required a fundamental restructuring of the recruitment process, but from conscripts doing service. Moreover, many servicemen were forced into signing contracts through the use of deceit, fraud, psychological pressure, and physical violence. It is obvious that military recruits who were tricked or forced into signing a contract will not become good professional soldiers. As a result, it has become customary for contract soldiers to break their contracts by not returning to service after their first furlough. In private conversations, highranking military officials admit that during the past year they have managed to recruit only enough new soldiers to replace those who have deserted. Furthermore, contract duty in the army has bred substantial corruption. Many commanders concealed the number of deserters in order to keep their numbers on the books and pocket their salaries. In addition, some officers colluded with gangsters to extort soldiers’ salaries. Influential generals inside the MoD sabotaged the federal program for creating professional army units. The country’s entire defense system remained based on the concept of the mass-mobilization army. Even though this type of army was incapable of responding to modern security threats, military officials pretended to still believe in the myth that the armed forces were well prepared to fight the battles of the twenty-first century.