Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 177

Less than a week after Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree launching the country’s fall military draft period (Itar-Tass, September 21), an influential social group has called for an end to military conscription in Russia altogether. The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers demanded on September 24 that the military call-up system in Russia be abandoned, and that the money saved by that action be used to pay the salaries of Russian officers. In making its demand, the mothers’ group cited budgetary shortfalls, which, it says, are leading to increasing rates of crime and desertion in the armed forces. “Everyone understands perfectly well that no material resources are left to feed, clothe and provide soldiers with shoes,” the group charged in an open letter to President Yeltsin. It also claimed that Russian officers–victimized themselves by a declining military budget and wage and payment arrears–are treating conscript soldiers with increasing cruelty (Vremya, MN, September 23; Russian TV, Kommersant Daily, September 24).

At least some of the mothers’ claims appeared to be based on solid evidence. According to one Russian daily, official statistics from the Main Military Prosecutor’s Office indicate that already troublesome crime rates are up this year over last among troops in Russia’s “power structures” as a whole. Nezavisimaya gazeta reports that the regular army accounts for the bulk of those reported crimes. It points with alarm to the fact that most rapidly rising crime rates are found in Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops. It also suggests that, as the mothers’ group charges, crimes perpetrated by officers against their subordinates are indeed up as well. The newspaper concludes that the Kremlin’s recent military reform efforts have failed to make any positive difference in the quality of life experienced by Russian servicemen (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 25).

The Russian Ministry of Defense expects to call up about 160,000 draftees this autumn. That figure, Defense Ministry officials say, is 30,000 fewer than last year. They attribute the reduction to the fact that Russia’s regular army is to be whittled down from 1.5 million soldiers to 1.2 million by January of next year (Russian TV, September 24). Indeed, a Russian Security Council official was quoted on September 25 as saying that Russia’s “power structures” as a whole–that is, the regular army and the troops of the Interior Ministry, border forces, and various security organs–will be cut from some 2.3 million troops to 1.5 million by 2005 (Russian agencies, September 25).

During his 1996 presidential campaign, President Boris Yeltsin promised to end conscription in Russia by the year 2000. The pledge was a popular one, for all the reasons described above. Since then, however, Defense Ministry officials have suggested that declining defense spending levels would force them to postpone the transition from a conscript force to one manned exclusively by more highly paid contract volunteers. That resistance seems likely to continue–which could leave the Russian president caught between social groups demanding an end to conscription and an emboldened military leadership which was never enthusiastic about the all-volunteer force in the first place. The issue of conscription is also likely to be raised during social protests being planned by Yeltsin’s political opposition this fall. Yeltsin’s political opponents, including a number of ex-generals, have been critical of the Kremlin’s military reform plans. Some have tried to incite disgruntled Russian officers and servicemen to join in political protest actions against the Kremlin.