Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 216

Russian President Vladimir Putin moved unexpectedly last week to endorse a plan calling for the gradual transformation of Russia’s armed forces from a predominantly conscript-based force to one to be staffed, eventually, on a fully professional basis by voluntary recruits. Proposals to professionalize the Russian army, however, have been mooted in the past–and have always been highly controversial. It is unclear in this context whether Putin’s latest initiative to end conscription is serious, both because of the lengthy and vague timeframes being mentioned by government officials in connection with the plan and because considerable resistance among military leaders to the plan remains.

News of the military staffing proposal comes, moreover, as the Kremlin pushes a series of other military reform policies–including deep force reductions and a restructuring of the entire military salary and benefit system–that are also unpopular with much of the professional officer corps. And though reports last week made no mention of it, it appears at least possible that Putin has chosen to begin pushing for a voluntary force now as part of his broader effort to improve ties with the West and, potentially, to help grease ties between the Russian military establishment and the NATO military alliance. If so, that could further alienate those military and nonmilitary hardliners who already believe that the Russian president has moved too precipitously in recent months to accommodate the United States and the West more generally on a host of security issues.

As has been the case with a number of defense reforms the Kremlin has launched over the past year, the details of this latest proposal are mired in some secrecy and thus difficult to assess with certainty. The key document–which is said to be inelegantly entitled “on measures related to a gradual transfer of a part of the Armed Forces to service by contract instead of by conscription”–appears to have been drawn up by the government based on recommendations formulated last year by the Russian Security Council (the activities of which were being overseen at that time by current Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov). The document was reportedly presented by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to Putin on November 21 and was endorsed by the Russian president on the same day.

According to a November 22 Izvestia report, the contents of the new document had not yet been made public and efforts to learn its details were being rebuffed by the Security Council and Defense Ministry. Perhaps because of this, Russian and Western news sources have not been entirely consistent in their descriptions of the new set of proposals. In general, however, the Kremlin appears to have decided that Russia will undertake the transition to a fully volunteer military force in three stages. In the first stage, to run from now until 2003 or 2004, the Defense Ministry will draft a series of measures specifying how the transition is to be implemented. Then, from roughly 2004 until 2008, the armed forces will apparently go through a transition period during which the percentage of voluntary, contract recruits will be gradually increased as a percentage of all armed forces personnel. In the final stage, beginning roughly around 2010, the Russian army will make the final transition to an all-volunteer force.

That these plans remain tentative at best, however, was strongly suggested by the comments of several leading defense officials, including Colonel General Vladislav Putilin, who as head of the General Staff’s Main Organizational and Staffing Directorate will presumably have a big say in formulating and implementing the staffing transition plan. Putilin was quoted on November 23 as saying that its second stage could actually last until 2008 to 2010, and that the timing and details of the final stage have still not been formulated. Moreover, according to the general, implementation of the final stage continues to depend on the government being able to come up with what the military establishment insists is the requisite financing.

Indeed, in reading Putilin’s remarks, what is most noticeable is how little the debate on transitioning to a fully volunteer force has changed in Russia over the past decade–and how little the government has done to make it a reality in that same time period. Discussion on the volunteer force began in earnest in the early 1990s, and reluctant defense officials pointed at that time with alarm to what they said would be the enormous expenses involved in moving from a conscript to a voluntary force. Putilin last week kept up the tradition, telling reporters that the Defense Ministry now pays about 42,000 rubles per year for each contract serviceman it has in the ranks, and only 16,000-17,000 for each conscript. The military establishment estimates that it would cost up to an additional 13 billion rubles per year to support a fully professional force over a conscript army, the Russian general also said. Other military leaders, meanwhile, repeated parallel arguments from the early and mid-1990s in claiming that the army would also be unable to attract good new recruits unless it made massive investments in upgrading the military’s crumbling infrastructure.

In attacking the idea of a fully volunteer force, some senior officers have also leveled sharp criticism at the performance of the 150,000 or so contract military servicemen in uniform today (out of a total force of a little over a million). According to one Russian general, some 80 percent of these so-called “kontraktniki” were released from service before their contracts expired because “their professional training and moral qualities were sharply unsatisfactory.” Yet this would appear at least in part to be a disingenuous argument. In the mid-1990s Russian recruitment offices and local military personnel were harshly criticized for having wasted scarce defense funding on recruits who never should have been brought into military service in the first place. But more than five years later that policy appears to have changed little. According to the Russian daily Kommersant, some 50 percent of the current crop of contract personnel are officers’ wives and daughters. In other words, at a time when the military has urgent need of technical specialists and combat personnel, expensive contract slots are being used instead to support military family members who probably are unable to find other work in the army’s far-flung garrison towns and bases. The situation was much the same in the 1990s (Moskovsky Komsomolets, Vremya Novostei, Kommersant, Izvestia, Vremya MN, November 22; Moscow Times, November 22-23; Strana.ru, November 23).

The push for a transition to a fully volunteer military force got another boost in 1996, when then President Boris Yeltsin promised during that year’s election campaign that he would end the military draft in the year 2000. The move was a popular one, given the intense opposition to conscription that had developed among Russia’s draft age population and among those groups which monitored the abysmal and sometimes dangerous conditions which confronted young draftees once they were in uniform. In 2001 little appears to have changed on that score, and the Kremlin’s current plans to downsize the army and increase its combat capabilities would appear to make this an especially auspicious time to begin a real transition toward voluntary service.

The military leadership, including Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, appears not to see it that way, however. In comments made over the past week Ivanov has suggested that his top priorities involve reequipping the armed forces and ensuring what he calls social guarantees for servicemen. Only when those reforms have been completed, he added, will the military be ready for professional soldiers. That suggests either that the Kremlin and the military establishment are not on the same page with regard to the professionalization issue, or that the document signed by Putin on November 21 is mostly window dressing, possibly designed to please the West and placate those groups in Russia which are pushing for an end to conscription but not to push the army in any decisive way toward changing its policies in this area.