The Russian military is in serious trouble – its ranks are shrinking rapidly. Russia’s birthrate is low, the population is shrinking and with it the number of available conscripts, while hundreds of thousands dodge the draft and make the situation worse. The crisis is so acute, emergency legislation is being rushed through parliament to make it easier to file felony charges against draft dodgers. A bill has been introduced this week by the chairman of the Federation Council (the Russian upper house of parliament) Defense and Security Committee Victor Ozerov. The bill was prepared together with the Organizational & Mobilizational Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces that is in overall charge of drafting conscripts, training reservists and filling the ranks with contract soldiers. The bill has been favorably received in the Duma (the lower house of parliament) and, according to Ozerov, may become law in time for the autumn call up of conscripts this year (RIA Novosti, March 27).
In 2008 compulsory military service in Russia was decreased from two years to one. The decision to halve service was initiated by President Vladimir Putin in 2005 on the assumption that after serving six months many conscripts may decide to enlist as contract soldiers for three more years. Compulsory service was planned to produce a pool of potential reservists as well as a source of hundreds of thousands contract soldiers. Conscripts would not be sent into combat zones and it was expected that draft dodging would virtually disappear together with hazing in barracks (https://top.rbc.ru/society/01/12/2005/92677.shtml).
The reform ended in disaster: Instead of a planned 400,000 contract soldiers enlisting by 2008, less than 200,000 were assembled, and those turned out to be badly trained and poorly motivated. Hazing and draft dodging continued (Vedomosti, February 26, 2010). To fill the ranks of a supposedly one million-strong military, including some 220,000 officers and 180,000 contract servicemen, some 600,000 conscripts should have been called up annually, but this goal was unachievable. In 2009, some 575,000 conscripts were called up, in 2010 – 540,000, in 2011 – only 353,000. Company level positions of privates were filled to less than 70 percent (EDM, January 25). The Defense Ministry has announced that this spring it will call up 155,500 conscripts, while a year ago it was 218,000 (Interfax, March 29). If the same trend continues, by the end of 2012 the deficit of soldiers at the company level may reach 50 percent.
The military reform that began in 2008 was intended to create a more modern, battle-ready and mobile fighting force by disbanding so called “cadre divisions” – units comprised of officers and stockpiled weapons, but virtually without soldiers, capable of action only after a cumbersome mobilization of reservists to fill the ranks. Last week, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov publicly boasted that some 85 army and special forces brigades have been created, while president Dmitry Medvedev announced: “The reforming of the armed forces is practically over and most units are ready to go into battle at short notice” (VPK, March 28). These boastful statements seem to be erroneous – the new “ready for action” brigades are swiftly turning into the same “cadre units” with officers and stockpiles of mostly outdated weapons, but without enough soldiers to man them. Such brigades cannot go into action as coherent units, but may form small improvised battalion-size combat groupings into which available manpower is pooled.
It was hoped that the two-fold increase in military pay on January 1 this year could help: Conscripts called up during the spring draft of 2011 would en masse reenlist as contract soldiers. Exact figures are not at present available since the true number of active service personnel in Russia’s armed forces and multiple security services is a state secret, but apparently mass soldier reenlistment has not materialized despite the promised pay of 28,000 rubles to 35,000 rubles a month ($900 to $1,130). Such an outcome was predicted last fall by now deceased Colonel Vitaliy Shlykov, former adviser on military reform to the Defense Minister: “Even 35,000 rubles a month will not help – the FSB, FSO and other security services will offer 40,000 a month ($1,290) and get the best.” According to Shlykov, the inevitable massive decrease in the number of servicemen is not a tragedy: “It is better to have half a million well-trained, able-bodied soldiers, than a million that includes the lame, the sick and criminals, all forced to serve together” (Izvestiya, October 2, 2011).
Indeed, the number of able-bodied men is limited and decreasing in Russia as the population shrinks and becomes older. Several million serve in the Interior Ministry federal police force, the FSB security service, Border Guards, the Federal Prison Service (FSIN), the Emergency Ministry (MChS), Federal Bodyguard Service (FSO), Customs Service, Financial Police and so on. Most of these services have also been given massive pay hikes before or simultaneously with the Defense Ministry. More importantly, the almost total corruption of the Russian police force and prison FSIN service gives recruits access to a substantial additional income in bribes and racket payments, while avoiding the risks of military service in combat zones. The Russian press has been recently reporting stories of policemen torturing suspects sometimes to death to get confessions or payoffs and of prison guards providing inmates with cell phones or other forbidden items (Interfax, March 26).
To form a coherent military with substantially less servicemen than one million, the Defense Ministry must additionally reform its structure, drastically reducing the number of units to achieve full manning in those left. But such a solution seems to be politically unfeasible, so instead potential conscripts will most likely be threatened with prison terms to make them serve. According to Ozerev, last fall, the number of draft dodgers increased by 15 percent compared to 2010 and is now 236,000, but only 55 men were charged and convicted. In Russia, a potential conscript is required to personally sign a call up letter before he may be eventually prosecuted for draft dodging. The game played by hundreds of thousands of conscripts each year is to hide, live at an address different than their officially registered residence and not sign anything. Now Ozerov is proposing a drastic change – draftees must themselves come to the drafting regional commissariat twice a year after the spring and fall call ups are decreed. Failure to arrive without a legitimate excuse could be prosecuted as a felony (Kommersant, March 28). Whether this will help is unclear. Putin’s Russia is too corrupt to do anything right.