Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 124

Buffeted by continuing combat fatalities in Chechnya, and facing both declining numbers of eligible draftees and growing numbers of draft evaders, the Russian military command is turning to illegal methods in its efforts to get more young Russian men in uniform, a human rights group charged last week. The Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committee announced in a statement on June 22 that the military leadership has resorted to such desperate and illegal methods as seizing draft-age men in the streets, raiding dormitories and inducting men with chronic illnesses into the armed forces. “The constitution is no authority for bureaucrats fulfilling their quota of cannon fodder for the war in Chechnya,” a leader of the mothers’ group said (AP, June 22).

The Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committee is an activist group originally organized, as its name would suggest, by mothers of Russian conscript soldiers who died or suffered serious injury while serving in the armed forces. The group has been perhaps the most effective advocate of rights for conscript soldiers in Russia, and has waged a long and very public battle to hold military authorities accountable for the often abysmal treatment that many Russian draftees face while serving in the military. Conditions for servicemen were bad enough even without the war in Chechnya, as barracks brutality and the day-to-day vicissitudes of service in a rudderless and demoralized army left thousands of Russian conscripts dead or maimed. But the latest Chechen campaign, which appears to be stretching the army’s human resources to the maximum, has only sharpened those problems. The mothers’ committee said last week that it had documented cases of police–acting on military orders–seizing young men at polling stations, handcuffing young men in public parks without checking IDs to verify their eligibility for the draft and raiding a student dormitory. Military authorities are reportedly also drafting young men with such chronic illnesses as leukemia and tuberculosis, one activist was quoted as saying (AP, June 22).

The latest accusations come as the army struggles to meet induction quotas set for the currently ongoing annual spring induction campaign. (There is also an induction period each autumn). In early April, when the spring draft period got underway, military authorities were already warning that a military personnel shortage loomed. According to the general staff’s mobilization chief, Colonel General Vladislav Putilin, the army faced added pressures in this area because a government program which granted early demobilization to draftees who had served in the Caucasus meant that an unexpectedly high number of these men would be leaving the service. Meanwhile, another general staff officer, Lieutenant General Vasily Smirnov, said at this same time that the number of those young men evading military service–presumably because of the war in Chechnya–had grown dramatically since last fall, from some 19,000 to 38,000. He warned that not only the armed forces, but all of Russia’s “power structures,” would likely face significant personnel shortfall as a result. Russia’s military draft provides conscripts for Russia’s various security ministries as well as the regular army (see the Monitor, April 5).

Smirnov’s prediction appears to have come to pass. Last month the army said that as a result of exemptions–only about 13 percent of the total draft age cohort is currently subject to the draft–the military authorities were meeting only about 60 percent of their targets (AP, June 22). Moreover, according to a Russian news report published last week, the Russian army desperately needs about 90,000 new draftees right now, and is unable to get them. The Defense Ministry’s personnel needs are apparently at least partly responsible for embroiling the military leadership in a squabble with the Education Ministry, which has proposed extending the Russian school system from ten to twelve years. The Russian generals have reportedly claimed that they were not consulted in connection with the proposed education reform. More to the point, they are arguing that any move in this direction will seriously exacerbate the army’s personnel woes. As the report points out, the generals are looking at demographic statistics which say that declining birth rates will lower the number of students in Russian schools from 21 million today, to about 14 million in eight years (Novye izvestia, June 23).

One obvious route by which the Russian military leadership could attempt to mitigate the effects of these various demographic and sociological factors would be to move the armed forces from the current conscript system to one which relies predominantly on a smaller number of better-qualified volunteer recruits. Russian efforts to raise the number of so-called “contract soldiers” have met with little success, however, because military recruiters have failed to attract well-qualified volunteers to fill key combat and technical positions.

Many in the military leadership, moreover, clearly remain committed to old Soviet mass mobilization principles, and have resisted pressures for a transition to a more completely volunteer force. That same attitude is reportedly reflected in Russia’s recently approved military doctrine. According to one report, it continues to point toward a mass conscript army, and will do little to advance the professionalization of the armed forces (The Russian Journal, May 19). That failure highlights what appears to be the ambivalence of Russia’s recently elected president toward the idea of an all-volunteer force (see the Monitor, April 5). Although Vladimir Putin called in September for greater professionalization in the army, he has done little since then to advance that policy. Moreover, his decision following his electoral victory in March to retain Marshal Igor Sergeev as defense minister suggested to many that the president has decided to maintain the status quo with respect to the military leadership. Many had predicted that he would quickly clear out Sergeev and a host of other top defense figures in order to pursue military reform and to put his own imprint on defense policy.

The latest charges leveled by the Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committee, finally, could add one more item to the list of assaults by the Kremlin on human rights in Russia. With regard to the war in Chechnya, the Russian government has already been accused by human rights groups of closing its eyes to vicious attacks on Chechen civilians by Russian military forces. Now the Kremlin may have to address charges that it is abusing its own draft age population by using illegal methods to compel young men to serve in uniform.