Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 77

President Vladimir Putin did not delve deeply into foreign or security affairs in yesterday’s State of the Nation speech, but he did devote one portion of his address to a related issue that falls more properly under the rubric of domestic policy: the urgent need to reform Russia’s armed forces. He appeared, despite offering nothing in the way of new or unexpected initiatives, to signal the Kremlin’s commitment to forming, eventually, a primarily voluntary force. The operative word here, however, may be “eventually.” Putin identified military reform and the transition to a professional army as a high priority, but appeared nonetheless to back top Defense Ministry officials when he said that a change of this scope could not be accomplished in a year’s time. Putin likewise referred to Defense Ministry plans that envision staffing some individual units entirely on a voluntary basis as a sort of experiment. This policy, he continued, should help the army devise the practical mechanisms that will ultimately ease the transition to a voluntary force.

Putin warned against any effort to draw out the military reform process but at the same time–seeming to echo the military leadership–spoke out against moving too hastily. The same was true of his call for professionalization of the army to go forward “gradually” and with an eye toward the “country’s financial means.” The final goal of the reforms, he suggested, was to create an “army of a new type … mobile and compact,” one capable of sustaining proper social conditions for military personnel and their families. In the same context, Putin said that it is also important to provide help for those career servicemen who, as a result of the Kremlin’s force reductions, will need “to find their place” in Russia’s private economy.

Like its Soviet predecessor, the Russian army remains in large part a conscript force that depends on biannual call-ups of draft-age young men, who serve two-year terms, for much of its manpower. But opposition to the draft has been simmering in Russia for well over a decade, and that pressure has forced the government to deal seriously with both the idea of a professional, voluntary army and the institution in Russia of alternative military service. Indeed, though Putin made no mention in his speech of the latter issue, it is probably no coincidence that his call for making the switch to a volunteer force comes only a few days after Russian lawmakers passed, on first reading, a contentious alternative service bill. Putin has offered some backing for that legislation, but his speech yesterday appeared to stake out a more cautious position on the broader and more important issue of conscription itself. Unlike his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, who had promised to eliminate the draft by the year 2000, Putin spoke yesterday only of an eventual curtailment in the length of time draftees must serve. His thinking is presumably in line with that of some civilian reformers, who have called for cutting the draft military service requirement to eighteen months. Indeed, at least one Russian report had suggested that Putin might use this State of the Nation speech to make precisely that announcement, but the policy is undoubtedly opposed by military leaders and Putin apparently chose not to do so (Strana.ru, Moscow Times, April 18; Krasnaya Zvezda, April 19).

The military reform section of Putin’s speech, in other words, appears to have been crafted to walk a careful line between, on the one hand, the growing demands of military reformers and parts of the general public for a radical shakeup of the army’s staffing methods and, on the other, the majority of the defense establishment, which would at most prefer a gradual transition to a volunteer force. The problem for Putin (assuming that he is seriously committed to creating a smaller, professional army) is that his seemingly reasonable gradualist rhetoric could be misinterpreted by the public and, ultimately, abused by more conservative elements in the defense establishment. The battle over professionalization is, after all, not new in Russia–or a product of Putin’s current military reform effort–but has been going on for well over a decade. And throughout the entire period the call for gradualism has in fact been used as a delaying tactic by those forces most resistant to military reform.