Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 161

In an article published on August 30 by the Moscow Times, the well-known Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer (for his analysis of Russian arms sales figures see the Monitor, August 29) casts a critical eye on the manpower cuts envisaged under the Kremlin’s current military reform program. Official Russian sources today peg the strength of Russia’s regular armed forces at about 1.2 million men, and claim that planned personnel reductions will lower that figure to 800,000-850,000 by the year 2005. But Felgenhauer, who is reported to have good contacts within the military, disputes both these figures and the military and political leadership’s real policies with respect to military manpower issues. In a nutshell, Felgenhauer charges that the armed forces will never get down to the approximate and well-publicized 850,000 figure because the armed forces today actually number closer to 1.4 million (he provides the figure of 1,365,000). And this means, he says, that even if the planned reductions take place the army will still number about one million men. Indeed, Felgenhauer charges that military leaders–with the knowledge or acquiescence of their political counterparts–have understated the real size of the Russian army for nearly a decade. And if such lies obscured the partial failure of earlier manpower reduction efforts, he argues, then why should the same thing not happen again under President Vladimir Putin? In this same context, Felgenhauer also argues that since the demise of the Soviet Union Russian military leaders have consistently tried to maintain the size of the armed forces in hopes that the “bad years” would eventually pass and that they could then restore the army to its former glory. He suggests that that sentiment is alive and well in Moscow today (Moscow Times, August 30).

Felgenhauer’s provocative assertions raise a number of obvious questions. Not the least among them pertains to the argument contained in numerous Russian press reports of recent years to the effect that the Russian army has actually had fewer–not more–than the statutory number of men in uniform (the 1.2 million figure) because of a combination of low conscription rates and a mass out-migration from military service of disillusioned younger officers. Indeed, it has not been unusual to see suggestions in the Russian press that the armed forces could actually implement a large portion of the manpower reductions now being mandated by the Kremlin not by dismissing more soldiers but simply by eliminating existing, unfilled posts. Felgenhauer himself wrote last November that the “Defense Ministry will be reduced by 365,000 staff positions. Not men, you will note, but staff positions. Since thousands of positions are not occupied at present… there will be no need for mass discharges” (Moscow Times, November 16, 2000).

Russian generals, moreover, have continued to corroborate this view in remarks made this year. A top General Staff officer, for example, said in February that the previous fall’s conscription campaign had left the army ten percent under full strength and that even after the planned reductions are implemented low draft rates will keep the army at least 5 percent below statutory strength (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 20). Such alleged concerns about the draft army extend also to the officer corps. Reports suggest that more than 100,000 officers have left the armed forces over the past three years and that the army now faces significant shortages of junior officers (Versia, March 6-13; Moskovsky Komsomolets, February 24, 2000). According to Russian military commentator Aleksandr Golts, senior officers currently outnumber junior officers in the Russian armed forces and there is now one officer for every two soldiers–an astonishing ratio (The Russia Journal, May 9).

Despite such numbers, Felgenhauer is not alone in suggesting that the military leadership has been hiding the fact that the army is actually bigger than official figures would suggest. Segodnya published a piece early last fall, for example, making essentially the same point that Felgenhauer’s more recent article: It pegged the strength of the army at that time at 1.4 million and predicted that planned reductions would still leave the army with about a million men (Segodnya, September 16).

It is easy in such instances to question the reliability of Russian newspaper reporting on the armed forces. But while that may be a contributing factor to the current confusion, the bigger problem is the armed forces own lack of accountability to the public and the manner in which–even ten years after the Soviet Union’s demise–Russian military leaders are able still to shield the armed forces from some of even the most rudimentary forms of public scrutiny. Whether the army is actually bigger or smaller than reported, therefore, the real issue of concern for those hoping to reform the armed forces should be the one of accountability. But despite launching what it is portraying as a major restructuring and reform of the armed forces, the current Kremlin leadership does not appear to have any particular interest in addressing this question of accountability. Indeed, the current military reform plan itself was formulated under President Vladimir Putin’s direction in a fashion more in keeping with Russia’s totalitarian past than in what the Kremlin would have us believe is its democratic future. That bodes ill for the future of the Kremlin military reform plan, and for the prospects of military reform contributing to Russia’s development as a properly functioning democracy.