Every six months, the Russian government conscripts a new cohort of soldiers for its armed services. For the last five years, since the military draft was renewed across the North Caucasus, the enlistment quotas for republics there have been raised and lowered erratically. This has been the result of a complex tug-of-war. On the one hand, various demographic and political factors have called for raising these numbers significantly. Whereas, on the other hand, military-security concerns have suggested that a lower fraction of the available pool should be taken up in the North Caucasus than in the rest of the country.
In the spring 2018 draft, the numbers drafted in the region were down, in some cases significantly. In Karachaevo-Cherkessia, they fell by more than half from the previous fall—from 900 to 430. Last week (July 20), Rashid Temrezov, the head of the republic, announced that the figure for the upcoming draft will bounce back to almost what it was last fall (Ekho Kavkaza, July 20). He celebrated that development publicly, since it will mean that more young men from that republic will be serving in the military. He likely pushed for the increased numbers to reduce unemployment and associated radicalism among young males, and to curry favor among that age group. Obtaining “a military ticket”—as successful service in the Russian army is often referred to—is crucial to securing a job in the local police and government, often the biggest employers in a region.
Karachaevo-Cherkessia was not the only republic in the region to suffer a reduction in the number of draftees this past spring. Many in the region feared that Moscow was turning away from using North Caucasus soldiers because it had agreed to restrictions in their posting. (Unlike soldiers from other predominantly Russian regions, North Caucasians serve either in their home regions or nearby, by agreement with the government.) Dagestan’s quota was dropped from 1,950 last fall to 1,350 in the spring. Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia and Ingushetia all saw cuts as well, albeit smaller ones, despite requests by officials for increases (Kavkazr, April 18, 2018; Regnum, December 14, 2017). Others, Chechnya most prominently, did not see declines in the last cycle. And all are no doubt waiting to see whether their quotas will now be increased, like Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s, or further cut.
Between the spring and fall drafts of 2017, the total number of draftees from the North Caucasus Military District fell from 8,500 to 6,000, with most of this reduction coming in the non-Russian republics. The number of men called to the colors in ethnic-Russian-majority Stavropol also fell by 900 during that period (Regnum, October 4, 2017). The 8,500 men taken from that region was the highest number since the draft was resumed across the North Caucasus earlier in this decade.
This pattern raises two sets of questions: Why have the numbers of draftees from the North Caucasus tended to rise in autumn and decline in the spring? And what are the factors that determine Moscow’s overall use of North Caucasians in the military?
With regard to the first, it appears—though this is far from certain—that the military finds it easier to take in large numbers of North Caucasians at one time and then reduce them in the next cycle. For one thing, such practice may help prevent the formation of ethnic-based cliques inside particular military units that could quickly give rise to ethnically tinged dedovshchina (a pervasive form of hazing, in which older soldiers abuse younger ones). Accepting fewer non-Russian soldiers in intervening cohorts could be designed to mollify this problem. Additionally, this pattern may reflect a calculation that taking young men from the region in the spring will lessen the chance that they will be recruited by radicals, who tend to take to the field during the warmer months and lie fallow as temperatures drop and conditions worsen. And finally, it is even possible that the Russian military may devote more resources to integrating non-Russians at one point than at others, although there is no clear publicly available evidence of this.
The factors shaping Moscow’s overall use of North Caucasians in the military are more obvious. Three aspects push for greater inclusion of North Caucasians in the barracks, and three oppose this trend. Demographics is the most important “push”: there are vastly more young men in the prime draft-age groups in the North Caucasus relative to the overall population than there are in predominantly ethnic-Russian regions. This has been particularly true at present, as the last young men born during Russia’s years of incredibly low birth rates come of age. Some North Caucasus leaders have spoken of tens of thousands of North Caucasians who could serve but are not being drafted, while Moscow scours the bottom of the barrel to find ethnic-Russian soldiers in the rest of the country. The two other potential factors are the desire of young North Caucasians to obtain an aforementioned “military ticket” and the equally powerful desire of North Caucasian leaders to have young men in their republics do so lest they turn to militarism (see EDM, October 5, 2017).
The factors working against conscripting more North Caucasians are the opposition of Russian commanders to having large numbers of Muslim soldiers under their command. They do not trust such troops in all cases and sometimes worry that they may destroy unit cohesion. Other Russian commanders and political leaders fear that North Caucasians who do serve in the military may use the skills they acquire against the Russian state later. Finally, there is the apprehension that exposure to different ethnic groups may heighten nationalistic resentment between both Russians and non-Russians.
Fall and spring draft numbers represent the state’s attempt to work through this calculus. And they are an indication both of what Moscow wants to do, and what it feels it has no choice to do as long as it maintains a military heavily dependent on the draft.