Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 68

The Russian armed forces’ annual spring draft began this week (one is also held annually in the autumn), and government sources say that military authorities intend to call up into service nearly 192,000 young men. The draft had emerged in the late 1980s as a contentious issue, and a long period began during which thousands of those subject to call-up went into hiding to avoid induction. Draft evasion had appeared to ease somewhat in recent years, apparently in part the result of efforts by military authorities to build more positive relations with Russian communities–so as to ease widespread fears over continued violence in Russian barracks life–and of greater effectiveness by Russian authorities in enforcing draft legislation. In addition, the Russian military appears to have eased its earlier insistence on enforcing the principle of “extraterritoriality”–that is, a policy whereby Russian conscript soldiers were generally compelled to serve in far-flung regions of the country. More conscripts now serve closer to home.

Opposition to the draft has also been weakened to some degree by the wide array of legal deferments which have been available for some years now to draft age youth. Russian authorities claim this year, for example, that only 13 percent of the draft age population will actually be compelled to serve. The remainder are eligible for deferments of one sort or another. Despite this low figure, Russian military authorities have suggested in recent years that they have nevertheless been able on the whole to man military units at acceptable levels. That success is in part a function of the fact that the Russian armed forces have also undergone significant manpower reductions over the past decade.

Russia’s war in Chechnya, however, is apparently complicating efforts by the armed forces to maintain force levels at close to 100 percent. According to Colonel General Vladislav Putilin, the Russian General Staff’s military mobilization chief, some 215,000 conscript soldiers will be discharged this spring. That number is larger than would have been expected because thousands of Russian conscripts are eligible for early demobilization as a result of their service in the North Caucasus. For this reason, Putin said, the armed forces will suffer shortfalls of personnel this year even if all of the intended 192,000 young men are successfully inducted this spring.

But several other problems might be related to the Caucasus war. According to another General Staff officer, Lieutenant General Vasily Smirnov, the number of draft evaders in Russia has crept up in recent months, presumably because of fears among potential draftees of being compelled to serve in the North Caucasus. Smirnov claimed that the number of draft evaders in Russia had dropped over the past few years from some 30,000 to 19,000. Since last fall, however, the number has increased once again, this time to a level of 38,000, he said. Should that pattern continue, or worsen, during the spring induction period, then the Russian armed forces–and some of Russia’s other “power structures”–could be facing significant personnel shortfalls. The military draft, it should be noted, provides conscripts not only for the regular army, but also for the forces of the Interior Ministry, the border troops, the Federal Security Service and various other security organs.

Indeed, there have been accusations leveled in Russia since the start of the latest Caucasus war that the Defense Ministry has at times been guilty of ignoring regulations by sending untrained conscripts to the Caucasus. Smirnov attempted to allay such concerns, insisting that conscripts can be sent to so-called “hot spots” only after six months of training and after the successful completion of exams. But he also intimated that the army was narrowly defining the notion of service in a hot spot, using it to designate only those involved in active combat operations. That suggests that untrained soldiers may indeed still be sent to the North Caucasus, but in support rather than combat roles (Kommersant daily, April 1; Itar-Tass, April 3; Russian agencies, April 4).

Meanwhile, the Russian Defense and Interior Ministries, whose lack of effective cooperation in Chechnya has been blamed for many of the large losses suffered recently by Russian troops in the field, will apparently strive to work together more closely in at least one area: the apprehension of draft evaders. A Russian news agency reported on March 28 that Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo had approved measures under which local police organizations will cooperate with military draft offices in the effort to locate, apprehend and induct draft evaders. The new measures reportedly also envision making directors of enterprises and educational organizations legally responsible for employing or admitting for study persons evading registration with the draft offices (Agentsvo Voyennykh Novosti, March 28).

Russian military authorities have long complained about a lack of cooperation from civilian officials in their effort to track down draft evaders. Improved and intensified civil-military cooperation in this area, if does indeed come to pass, would seem to fit in neatly with President-elect Vladimir Putin’s push for a partial remilitarization of Russian society. Putin has already backed measures that would both reinstitute military training courses in Russian schools and reactivate compulsory training programs for military reservists. The latter announcement–in which it was suggested that 15,000-20,000 reservists could be recalled to service–generated concerns that the reservists would in fact be sent to Chechnya to make up for personnel shortages there. The Kremlin denied that there was any intention to send reservists to the Caucasus (Segodnya, Itar-Tass, February 2).

There had been some hope earlier this decade–among military reformers if not within the high command itself–that Russia might make a real start toward solving some of its military personnel problems by transitioning from a conscript army into a smaller force staffed entirely by contract volunteers. Indeed, then President Boris Yeltsin had made the ending of the military draft–by the year 2000–one of the planks of his 1996 presidential election campaign. But there seems to be little momentum for any change of this sort right now. As prime minister Putin called in September for greater professionalization in the army. But remarks he made in February on the same subject were vague, contained no timetable, and failed to rule out the possibility that conscription would also be continued (Itar-Tass, September 28; Itar-Tass, Reuters, February 8; Kommersant, February 25). Top Russian military leaders, meanwhile, have dusted off old arguments that Moscow cannot afford the personnel costs that would be associated with a professional force. Some have also intimated that contract service has been something of a bust for the Russian armed forces (Krasnaya zvezda, February 16; Novye Izvestia, March 7; Parlamentskaya gazeta, March 14).