Russian Army Lacks Recruits, but Will Not Draft North Caucasians

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 23

On November 22, the authoritative Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta published a report on how the Russian army is becoming increasingly undermanned. According to the paper’s sources in the Russian military, the new Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was “extremely displeased” with a report by General Vasily Smirnov about Russian military units lacking about half (40–60 percent) of their assigned staff. The best-manned military units, unsurprisingly, are located in the Southern Military District, which encompasses the North Caucasus and nearby areas, where the military reportedly has 90–95 percent of the listed staff. On November 21, Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov stated that the Russian army would add 50,000 contract personnel every year, and by January 1, 2017, there would be 425,000 contract soldiers in the army. However, the Russian parliament’s defense committee reported that the finance ministry budgeted money for 2013 that would provide only for an additional 30,000 contract soldiers, while for 2014–2015 no funds were allotted for additional contract soldiers. Experts say that if the Russian army’s numbers fall under the one-million-man benchmark, the whole defense doctrine for the world’s largest country will have to be reviewed. The well-known Russian military expert Alexander Goltz reckons that the defense minister has two plausible options—either to cut the number of military personnel well below one million men and make the army fully professional in ten years, or to increase the conscript service term from the current one year to two or, even better, three years (

Even the contract personnel apparently do not feel much attachment to their work and service, since it is estimated that 35 percent of them will not extend their contracts. This suggests that more government funds will have to be spent on already existing contract personnel. The Russian army is trying to cut costs by transferring hundreds of cantonments where officers’ families reside to the civil authorities. In the Primorye region in Russia’s Far East, the region’s authorities and the defense ministry reached an agreement to transfer nearly 400 such cantonments along with over 100,000 hectares of land to the civil authorities (

Increasing the term of conscript service back up to two years is a highly unpopular measure that the Russian government appears intent to avoid. Military service is unpopular in society, with nearly 170,000 potential conscripts currently shirking mandatory military service. After the chairman of the parliamentary defense committee, Vladimir Komoedov, proposed increasing conscript service to one and a half years, the negative feedback was overwhelming, even from the military themselves. The last Soviet Defense Minister Mikhail Moiseyev told Izvestia: “Raising the question today about increasing conscript service means putting the army at loggerheads with public opinion and hugely damaging the country” (

Russia’s military draft takes place in Russia twice every year, in the spring and fall. According to some observers, this fall’s draft campaign has been by far “the strangest in the history of the country.” While the army is evidently undermanned and there are many runaways among the conscripts, young men from the North Caucasus are kept from serving in the Russian military. The new policy introduced across the region in the fall of 2011 is not even officially recognized. To hide the exclusionary policies, the military still drafts people from each republic, but only those of “Slavic origin.” Out of 3,320 conscripts who were to be drafted from Dagestan in fall 2011, only 121 Slavs were drafted, while the rest were put “on reserve”—as if there were too many conscripts available and no shortages of personnel in the Russian army (

According to some sources, the Russian military did not want to draft North Caucasians because they feared they would learn martial skills and use them against the Russian military forces fighting the insurgency in the North Caucasus. Others alleged that drafting North Caucasians resulted in the spread of radical Islamist ideas among Russian military personnel, including some officers, and Moscow decided to resolve this issue by cutting off all of the North Caucasus from the draft (

Those who do not go into the military are barred from government jobs, including the police. So the combination of refusal to draft North Caucasians and restrictions on access to government jobs leads to a further increase in alienated young men who will be even more likely to join the insurgency. Military service is a serious issue even in relatively peaceful republics of the North Caucasus like North Ossetia. The number of conscripts in North Ossetia in the fall of 2012 dropped to under 1,000, while just a year ago, in the fall of 2011, more than 2,200 conscripts were drafted from the republic (

The chairperson of a non-governmental organization that works with conscripts, Lora Gogaeva, told Regnum news agency that the level of prejudice against North Caucasians in the Russian army is very high. “Some [among the Russian command] do not like young people from our region; some may harbor personal resentment against our young men and take revenge on innocent soldiers,” Gogaeva told the news agency. “They beat up the soldiers, provoke them; and the conscripts are always at fault. Our young people endure until the last moment, and only then they respond” (

The situation in the Russian military shows that a process of separation of ethnic Russians from the North Caucasians is under way, despite solemn proclamations by officials of unwavering protection of the unity of the country.