Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 17

The Russian military prosecutor’s office announced yesterday that military authorities have arrested nearly 1,000 soldiers guilty of having deserted their military units. The announcement follows a major four-day military operation aimed at locating and apprehending deserters. According to Chief Military Prosecutor Yury Demin, the majority of those apprehended were found in the Urals, Volga, Moscow and North Caucasus regions. Demin said that military authorities would now continue their search for deserters on a long-term basis, and vowed that authorities would manage “sooner or later” to find “everyone who has evaded military service.” Demin provided no figures on how many deserters were actually on the loose in Russia today. He did say, however, that they numbered about 6,000 last year. An amnesty declared by the Russian State Duma reduced that figure by one-third, Demin claimed (Russian TV, January 22; Itar-Tass, January 25).

That amnesty has now expired. Apprehended deserters face prison sentences of up to five years. Previous Defense Ministry statements have suggested that there could be more than 40,000 deserters in Russia today. That figure, however, may include those who simply evade the draft. The Russian army drafts approximately 150,000 conscripts every six months. Because of a wide variety of available deferments–not to mention widespread draft evasion–less than 10 percent of Russian draft-age youth are inducted in each conscription period.

According to the Russian General Staff, the autumn 1998 draft period went rather well. The armed forces reportedly inducted 158,000 young men, 110,000 of whom went iton the army and navy. The 110,000 was enough to meet the military’s needs. The other draftees were sent to military units fielded by the country’s various security ministries, including the Federal Border Service and the troops of the Interior Ministry. The General Staff claimed that the quality of this year’s draft had even improved somewhat over past years (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 20).

Even if the General Staff claims are true, however, the Russian military continues to face monumental morale and personnel problems in both its conscript and professional forces. Defense Ministry statistics released at the close of 1998 revealed, for example, that crime and suicide rates in the armed forces continue to rise, while the number of noncombat deaths–a major problem for more than a decade now–has declined only slightly. Approximately 500 servicemen were killed on active service in 1998, the Defense Ministry said, compared with 600 in 1997. More than 800 soldiers, meanwhile, were said to have died in off-duty incidents in 1998, compared with approximately 1,000 in 1997. The number of suicides had reportedly risen to approximately 350 last year. Some 60 percent of those committing suicide were officers (AP, Russian agencies, December 1).

Statistics, however, cannot fully reflect the horror which military service has become for many Russian young men. Declining military budgets and a more general demoralization of the armed forces has greatly worsened what were already substandard living conditions for many of Russia’s soldiers. Brutality in the barracks–a feature of the late Soviet period–also continues to take its toll on Russian conscripts, while Defense Ministry efforts to address such problems have generally been inadequate. The result has been a series of widely publicized incidents in recent months–some of them involving the death or murder of conscripts–which have further discredited the military leadership and reinforced fears among those being asked to serve in Russia’s armed forces (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 23; Washington Post, December 29).