On October 1 the fall military draft began in Russia with the defense ministry publicizing its “serious reorganization of the enlistment offices system,” while admitting that recruitment levels had been adjusted downwards to 271,000. The scale of this change is staggering, which has provoked many to question whether the targets for the draft will be met. The number of military commissariats (enlistment offices) has been drastically cut: in the spring of this year there were 1,647, now there are only 81. Colonel-General Vasily Smirnov the Chief of the Main Organization and Mobilization Directorate of the General Staff noted that all military posts in these offices were abolished on October 1, and replaced with civilians. Its aim is to improve control over record keeping, streamline the administrative structure and ensure its efficient use of budget allocations. However, some officers have expressed doubts over the restructuring of the enlistment offices, ranging from questioning their ability to organize training for reservists to whether having civilians overseeing the draft will result in any improvement (RIA Novosti, October 1).
Nevertheless, Smirnov was in no doubt that the draft faces serious challenges, which the reorganization is partly designed to tackle. For instance, he estimated that more 100,000 citizens temporarily move their place of residence in order to evade the draft. He was unclear about how the new system will address such problems, but his near farcical threat to hunt down draft dodgers hiding with their babushka’s in the dacha in the countryside was unconvincing; many young men will prefer to take their chances with their grandmother protecting them from military service (Interfax, September 30).
The defense ministry is convinced that after reducing the term of service to twelve months that dedovshchina or institutionalized bullying within the armed forces is now in decline, and offers statistics to support this assertion. Smirnov claimed that the recorded instances of bullying had declined over the past year by 93 percent. Nonetheless, the Chief Military Prosecutor Sergey Fridinskiy said that more than 800 servicemen had been convicted of such breaches of regulations in 2009. Violent crime is gradually declining; which offers little comfort to those petrified by the prospect of conscription. In the first eight months of 2009 compared to the same period last year, there were 13 percent fewer cases related to bullying and an 11.5 percent drop involving violence. According to the chief military prosecutor’s office the share of crimes against young conscripts in the army “is not too high,” accounting for 15 percent of all recorded crimes (Interfax, September 30).
More than 30 percent of those who presented at enlistment offices in the spring 2009 draft were deemed unfit for military service, or were granted deferments on health grounds. The former chief of the defense ministry’s Main Military Medical Directorate Vladimir Shappo said that more than 340,000 people were given deferments for health reasons in the fall of 2008, and 334,000 in the fall of 2007. 10,000 recruits were told to gain weight, which cost the state 75 million rubles ($2.5 million). Efforts to address these issues include improving the quality of medical examinations, with the numbers of military doctors more than doubling to around 700 (compared with this year’s spring draft) present at draft commissions. Smirnov said that conscripts drafted in Chechnya would continue to serve only in that republic, despite earlier claims by Russian authorities that no conscripts served in Chechnya; any future resumption of counter-terrorist operations in the region will likely involve conscripts. Moreover, he confirmed that conscripts will serve in the new bases in the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia alongside Kontraktniki, or those serving on a contract basis (Interfax, September 30).
The recruits in this draft cycle will experience something previously unknown, since on December 1 all units in the Russian armed forces will transfer to permanent readiness status. Maintaining these units at their wartime strength will above all allow the military to organize proper combat training (ITAR-TASS, September 30). Nonetheless, they are unlikely to notice any significant improvement in the use of modern weaponry. According to Nikolay Tabachkov an auditor in the Audit Chamber, the current proportion of modern weaponry in the inventory does not exceed more than 6 percent (ITAR-TASS, September 23).
The new command structure will likely escape their attention. On September 7 Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye accurately predicted that strategic-operational commands will be formed on the basis of the existing military districts. The Moscow-based defense journalist Viktor Litovkin later interpreted the confirmation of this latest reform as a return to an earlier abortive plan. He noted that Army-General Vladimir Boldyrev the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Ground Forces had recently said that President Dmitry Medvedev will sign a decree in December to make each military district simultaneously into a strategic-operational command (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 30). Boldyrev said that groups of troops will be subordinate to the strategic level commander “primarily in the operational planning, as well as in the general planning of the use of the group and its training.” This initiative resembles a failed attempt by the former Chief of the General Staff Army-General Yury Baluyevskiy, who proposed creating strategic-operational commands in theaters of operations, though not on the basis of individual districts, but by unifying several districts and fleets under the new command. However, this never received adequate support among the generals or district commanders, who apparently feared losing power and influence. Crucially, it now appears that support for implementing this reform emerged from deep within the structures, and consequently it gained sufficient backing higher up the chain of command.
The precise role of the future reserve remains unclear, which will only be clarified once a new military doctrine is passed later this year. As much as the defense ministry emphasizes the “new look” armed forces, these conscripts will be trained on the basis of combat training manuals, which are currently being re-written and will take time to introduce; many of these recruits will finish their service before the combat training system is overhauled. They will be among the first conscripts, however, to experience the new structures, as well as serving in permanent readiness units. The speed of implementing these changes is undoubtedly causing significant upheaval throughout the structures, which the defense ministry hopes will prove to be temporary (Vremya Novostei, September 25).