On February 12, a Russian presidential decree came into force that permits sending conscript soldiers to combat zones after a mere three months of training plus one month of regular service. The decree was not published on the Russian president’s official website, but instead was quietly released on a website of official legal acts. The authors of the document certainly anticipated a negative backlash among the Russian public. The combative leader of the Russian non-governmental organization Soldiers’ Mothers, Valentina Melnikova, condemned Putin’s decree, calling it “disgraceful.” According to Melnikova, the reason for the change is that “the state bears much less responsibility for the conscript soldiers than for those who serve on contract.” Some parents accused the government of using their sons as “cannon fodder” (https://www.ng.ru/nvo/2013-02-14/2_soldiers.html).
Although Russia is not officially in a wartime situation, most people realize that the presidential decree will allow the government to send conscript soldiers to serve in the volatile North Caucasus, where insurgency-related violence is rampant. Putin’s decree also appears to be linked to the government’s efforts to protect the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and to portray the situation in the North Caucasus as stable. After cutting the training time for conscripts, the government will have additional military forces to deploy in the North Caucasus ahead of the Sochi games.
The Russian military welcomed Putin’s decree, with a source in the Russian defense ministry telling Nezavisimaya Gazeta that the decree was two years “late.” In 2010, the training time for new soldiers was cut from the previous six months to three months, so, according to the source, there was no reason to wait for another three months for the soldier to be ready for deployment in combat zones. Six months’ training was appropriate at a time when conscripts served for two years, but with that having been reduced to one year of service, training periods, can be shorter, the ministry source told the newspaper (https://www.ng.ru/nvo/2013-02-14/2_soldiers.html).
Colonel-General Yuri Bukreyev told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the government set up special training centers for conscript soldiers in Central Asia at which young people were trained for six months. However, the service term back then was two years and now it is only one year. Another important distinction, Bukreyev said, is that there are no specialized training centers in contemporary Russia to prepare conscript soldiers for combat in the North Caucasus. The general said that amassing more conscript soldiers in the conflict zone is a cheap way of resolving the issue, because a professional army would require significantly more government investment.
Financial constraints are among the chief factors preventing Moscow from switching entirely to a professional army. In 2010, the government backtracked from its earlier pledges not to send conscript soldiers to the combat zones in the North Caucasus—Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia (https://www.fontanka.ru/2010/04/02/012/). The government reportedly did not keep its promise even while it was still in force, sending newly drafted soldiers to serve in the North Caucasus even before they had received any military training (https://ksmrus.ru/smi-o-nas/171-na-kavkaze).
The Russian defense ministry is also gearing up to reinstitute the exterritorial principle in conscript service. For a short while under the previous defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, conscript soldiers were allowed to serve closer to home, in the areas where they came from. The Russian Joint Staff now argues that military service near the home lowers the discipline and military preparedness of the units and the current defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, appears likely to approve of the change (https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2116336). Meanwhile, the number of runaways from the Russian military reached 236,000. In the summer of 2012, the Russian State Duma was preparing legislation to introduce a special income tax for those who intentionally avoid military service. Currently, young people who manage to avoid being drafted until they turn 27 years old automatically become immune from the draft or any government sanctions (https://www.ng.ru/nvo/2012-06-06/100_obrok.html).
While the government is trying to find additional resources to man the Russian army and to protect the Sochi Olympics from possible attacks by insurgents, the large source of potential conscripts from the North Caucasus is increasingly untapped. By the end of 2012, the Russian army practically stopped drafting men from the North Caucasian republics, including the relatively quiet republics of Adygea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and North Ossetia (https://kavpolit.com/gde-vsya-dagestanskaya-rat/). Even though the new defense minister promised to resume drafting North Caucasians, it remains unclear whether the military will actually follow up on this promise.
The current policy, which essentially appears to be putting a greater burden on ethnic Russians while relieving North Caucasians of the burden of conscript military service, will give ammunition to Russian nationalists who argue that the country must rid itself of the North Caucasus region altogether. As in the past, Moscow’s efforts to implement a big government project—in this case the Winter Olympics in Sochi—consist of extensively using up the country’s human resources while saving its financial resources for something else.