Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 29

In a brief foray into Russia’s never-ending military reform debate, Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin told students at a meeting outside of Moscow two days ago (February 8) that Russia needs to further professionalize its army. As is the case with so much of what Putin has said on various policy issues, however, he offered nothing definitive in his February 8 remarks. His comment that Russia needs a professional army, moreover, was probably less than it seemed. He suggested also that the army’s use of professional soldiers–that is, voluntary recruits paid on a contract basis–should be extended particularly to “science-intensive” posts and to those units engaged in particularly dangerous operations. Those comments suggest Putin may not support the establishment of a fully volunteer army–a goal that former President Boris Yeltsin set in 1996–but that he may instead back an army comprised at least in part of conscripts. Putin also said that he supports the institution of alternative service in the armed forces, although he again apparently provided no details.

Putin’s cautiousness in speaking on the question of professional versus conscript soldiers can probably be traced both to the upcoming election and to Russia’s war in Chechnya. Given the abject and sometimes dangerous conditions faced by Russian conscript soldiers even in peacetime, the issue of military service is an especially emotive one now, as the military leadership maneuvers to deflect charges that it has used young and poorly trained conscript soldiers in Chechnya. Indeed, Yeltsin’s embrace of a fully professional (volunteer) army during the 1996 presidential election was clearly aimed at winning votes among both young people and those who have criticized the army’s maltreatment of its conscript soldiers. Putin’s stated support for alternative military service–something still not instituted in the Russian army despite years of debate–is likely also to be a vote winner with this same audience.

Although Putin’s political considerations in this area are probably similar to those of Yeltsin four years ago, his need to placate military leaders may be greater. Putin has clearly built his political success to date on his performance as a defender of the Russian army, a proponent of increasing the country’s military might, and–most generally–a guarantor of the country’s security. Yet many of the military leaders who have enthusiastically lined up behind Putin over the war in Chechnya are themselves traditionalists with deep reservations about a fully volunteer military force. At the least, many believe that a fully professional army–which they say would be far more expensive to maintain than the current mixed force–is impossible at the present time because of budgetary shortfalls. In the weeks that remain before the presidential election, therefore, Putin seems unlikely to take a definitive stance on an issue which has divided defense experts since before the demise of the Soviet Union.

With regard to the public at large, however, Putin’s statement of support for a professional army may have been intended in part to ease the concern of those–particularly younger voters–who might be anxious over some other actions taken recently by the country’s acting president. On February 1, for example, Putin signed a decree calling up reservists for military training in the year 2000. These call-ups have been issued in previous years, but the army’s severe funding shortages have ensured that no one needed to take the call-up seriously. That appears not to be the case this year. The Russian daily Segodnya reported on February 2 that the call-up would be the largest in a decade and could involve from 15,000-20,000 reservists. Even more spectacularly, the newspaper suggested that many of those called up would be sent to Chechnya to make up for what Segodnya said was a troop shortage there. Russian defense officials emphatically denied the Segodnya report, and particularly the allegation that reservists could be sent to the Caucasus. But the denials may nevertheless have stoked some suspicions by failing to disclose exactly how many reservists would be called up and what exactly would be expected of them (Segodnya, Itar-Tass, AP, February 2; TV6, February 4).

If talk of the reservists call-up provided one echo of the militarized Soviet past, a Russian daily provided evidence of another on February 5. Izvestia reported that a government decree–signed by former President Boris Yeltsin just before his resignation on December 31–calls for the return of courses in military instruction to Russian schools. The newspaper cast doubts on the effectiveness of the new program, and warned that it would suggest to the West that Russia is in the process of transforming itself once against in “the sort of militaristic monster” seen during Soviet times (Agence France Presse, February 7).