Arbat Square’s Dream Machine Conjures Up a Professional Russian Army

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 187

(Source: AP)

Russian presidential elections are frequently preceded by an apparent promise to reduce or abandon conscription and move towards an all-volunteer force. Vladimir Putin’s imminent return to the Kremlin has proved to be no exception. On September 30, Colonel-General Vasily Smirnov the Chief of the Main Organizational-Mobilization Directorate announced that the target figure for the fall draft has been slashed to 135,850. This follows drafting 218,720 in the spring. The presidential decree signed by President Dmitry Medvedev on September 30 to set the fall draft target at 135,850 was duly publicized in Krasnaya Zvezda by October 4 ( Smirnov linked the reduced target figure to the demographic hole and the “plan” to transition towards a predominantly contract personnel system of manpower, adding “This number [135,850] fully meets the needs of the Armed Forces” (Interfax, Rossiya 24, September 30).

The defense ministry’s capacity to favor distant dreams above realistic planning on military manpower evidently fell victim to election fever. The longer Smirnov spoke the greater number of inconsistencies he displayed. Referring to Russia possessing “one million” strong Armed Forces, Smirnov estimated that there are 220,000 officers, “200,000” contract personnel and seemed a little vague on how the remainder is accounted for, but hinted that these are conscripts. Aleksandr Golts, the deputy editor-in-chief of Ezhednevny Zhurnal, told Ekho Moskvy “The real numerical strength of the Armed Forces is nowhere near one million.” And referring to claims about the growing numbers of contract servicemen, Golts added that this is “not true, to put it mildly” (Ekho Moskvy, September 30). On October 3, Viktor Litovkin the executive editor of Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye reflected: “Judging from the generals’ figures, we do not have an army of a million right now. The maximum is 800,000” (REN TV, October 3).

On October 5, Arbat Square’s disinformation machinery was in full swing promoting the promise of better times ahead. Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov referred to “one million” personnel, while stressing that the huge cut to the draft stems from the need to commensurately boost contract personnel figures. Russia will have 220,000 officers, 425,000 contract soldiers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and a maximum of 270,000 conscripts; not quite one million, but who is counting? Pankov noted that in July, Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov had set a target of 425,000 contract personnel by 2017, and this would be developed around professional NCOs. Colonel (retired) Vitaly Tsymbal, the Head of the Moscow-based Institute for the Economy in Transition, commented on building a reformed force structure based on professional NCOs, noting it had been said before without any action (

Tsymbal was not alone in wondering why the figures did not add up, or in recognizing that the top brass had doggedly defended the spring figure as essential to “meet requirements” and now claimed these targets can be met with a much lower figure. In an article in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Sergei Konovalov referred to Putin commenting on the problems associated with the draft during the recent United Russia party conference. Putin linked the draft reduction to demographic factors and said the only real option is to man posts using contract personnel, but then he wondered whether money might be diverted from healthcare or education. Promising to significantly enhance officer pay from January 1, 2012 while also offering more reasonable pay for larger numbers of contract soldiers and NCOs risks overstretch (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 3).

Konovalov concurred with Litovkin’s estimate that the total manpower is no more than 800,000, and highlighted that the Russian military consequently has one vacant post in every five. But the actual level of under manning may well be much worse. There is no evidence that there has been an upsurge in kontraktniki recruitment during 2011. However, expressing the General Staff’s dissatisfaction with standards among contract and conscript personnel, Army-General Nikolai Makarov the Chief of the General Staff estimated that a capacity exists to recruit no more than 50,000 contract soldiers and NCOs annually and said the first of this new batch would appear by mid-2012. Placed in the context of Serdyukov setting 2017 as the target for reaching 425,000 this suggests the current level of contract servicemen may be as low as 125,000; thus the under manning may be significantly worse than officially acknowledged (Krasnaya Zvezda, September 13).

Equally the problems of achieving a 70 percent contract personnel figure are multiple. Since conscripts are the principle recruitment source for contract personnel, any effort to raise the numbers of kontraktniki would be undermined by first reducing the former. President Medvedev has criticized contract recruitment driven by quota and advocates a more empirical approach. The fixed quota route has been tried and failed previously.  Remarkably, Serdyukov now speaks of the completion of the “first phase” of the reform related to manpower and structural changes, despite the most severe challenges remaining unresolved (Komsomolskaya Pravda, October 6). In this context it is hardly surprising that Alexei Arbatov, the head of the International Security Center at the World Economy and International Relations Institute, believes that the latest reform effort in Russia will not yield the results expected of it (Ekho Moskvy, September 7).

Additional complicating factors concerning resetting the draft target to 135,850 include the fact that from this figure an unspecified number will serve in non-defense ministry units such as in the interior troops or emergency ministry forces. The strength of the Armed Forces constitutes the number of service personnel, officers, soldiers and NCOs and civilians. Calculating this strength means knowing the authorized staff (shtatnyy), payroll (spisochnyy), available (nalichnyy), and supernumerary (sverkhshtatnyy) components. There are also established strength (ustanovlennaya chislennost) and strength shortages (nekomplekt chislennosti) categories. Due to the under manning and poor training of personnel the label “permanent readiness” applied to the brigades is notional if not simply fictional. The 39 combined-arms brigades in the “new look” are unlikely to currently match the equivalent of 13 fully manned and well-trained brigades (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 16).

Precise figures on manpower, including the numbers of contract personnel, are not shared with the wider public and known only to the privileged few. The elite avoid their own sons being conscripted, while current plans leave wide scope for preserving the interests of rent extraction and corruption. Without fundamental changes to the recruitment system the army is destined to parody the computer adage: “junk in, junk out.”