Russian officials are insisting, and many commentators are accepting without question, that the reduction in the fall draft quota this year shows Moscow is on course to meet President Vladimir Putin’s promise in 2012 to end the military draft entirely by 2020 and to have a fully professional military by that time. The fall 2017 draft quota was set at 134,000 conscripts, compared to 147,000 last spring and 152,000 last fall (, September 29). In today’s budgetary and demographic situation, it is highly unlikely that this declining trend in draft quotas can continue. Moreover, a decreasing reliance on draftees faces stiff opposition from commanders who still make plans for mass armies. But even if ever-lower quotas could be maintained at the current rate, Russia would still be drafting young men into the military until at least the mid-2020s.
Indeed, although it has not attracted much attention in the West, the Russian defense ministry published a draft of an order, in mid-September, outlining how Russia will conduct a conscript call-up during times of war or military emergency (, accessed October 5). This document is hardly an indication that Russian commanders are really thinking about ending conscription anytime soon. Furthermore, it seems to dispute the conclusions of a recent United States Department of Defense study that Russian draftees are poorly motivated and would not fight well (, September 24).
Some Russian commentators, like Sergey Krivenko, who heads the soldiers’ rights commission in the Presidential Human Rights Council, do admit that “this transition is taking place not as quickly as one would have liked…” Still, as evidenced by the reduction in the number of draftees now, “it is taking place” (, October 2). However, with the next presidential election approaching, Krivenko’s words appear to have more to do with suggesting that Putin is keeping his promises from five years ago than with reality.
Moreover, as Valentina Melnikova, a leader of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers, points out, the portion of the Russian defense ministry responsible for conducting the draft has remained unreformed, despite changes in all other subdivisions of the ministry. In fact, she asserts, the defense ministry has been conducting recent drafts in exactly the same way the Soviets did: ignoring health and other problems of potential soldiers in order to fill draft quotas. And in predominantly Slavic regions of the country, such an undiscerning approach is becoming increasingly difficult because of low birthrates at the end of the 1990s (, October 2).
The army could easily meet its overall quotas if Moscow were willing to draft at the same rate in majority-ethnic-Russian as well as non-Russian areas. But it does not want to do that because were the military to equalize the conscription rates across the country, the ethnic composition of the Russian Armed Forces would quickly shift toward Muslim nationalities. This fall, only 200 young men will reportedly be conscripted in Ingushetia, despite there being 12,000 in the draft pool there (, October 2). And only 500 are slated to be called to service in Chechnya, out of an existing draft pool in that North Caucasus republic of 80,000 (, October 2). By contrast, 6,000 Muscovites are going to be called up this fall (, October 5). Given apparent increasing hostility between Slavs and Muslims in Russia as well as recent incidents of violence by the latter against the former, it is perhaps no surprise that commanders and their political bosses are limiting the intake of traditionally Muslim nationalities into the military (, October 1).
Unlike most countries, Russia drafts twice a year, three months in the spring and three in the fall. Thus, this fall’s draft, and official statements about the future, will not end the ongoing debate about whether Russia needs a draft or not. That debate, recent articles in the Russian media suggest, will revolve around the three reasons why some, in both the military and especially the political establishment, favor doing away with conscription, and why others, including many uniformed officers and, perhaps counter-intuitively, some non-Russians do not.
Supporters of a professional army routinely give three basic reasons for their position: First, a professional army is less dependent on the country’s demographic situation (, April 1). Second, professional soldiers are better motivated, serve longer and, thus, can be better trained. And third, professional soldiers are much less likely to be affected by popular attitudes against a particular conflict; hence, the Kremlin can use them as it wants, with little fear that they will oppose being sent to fight (, October 14, 2014).
Meanwhile, opponents of doing away with the draft offer the following three justifications: First of all, they say a professional force and the benefits Moscow will have to provide its members will cost vastly more, possibly far more than the country can afford (, April 1). Second, Russian military doctrine, like its Soviet and tsarist predecessors, is based on mass armies rather than smaller professional ones. Senior commanders thus think about commanding large formations composed of predominantly drafted soldiers, rather than smaller professional units—and in many cases, they do not want to change. And third, because of a quirk in Russian law, many non-Russians, especially in the North Caucasus, need a draft for other reasons (, , November 26, 2013). Anyone who wants to become a police officer, for example, must have a military “ticket,” that is, must have served in the military. That is easier to do if there is a draft because conscripts serve shorter periods of time than contract soldiers (kontraktniki).
Consequently, some North Caucasians are now bribing draft boards (the military commissariats) to draft them—not because they want to serve in the military, but because they need the military “ticket” for their careers (, October 2). Such cultural and institutionalized obstacles are likely to forestall any conclusive shift to an all-volunteer Russian army for a long time to come.