Russian Conscript System Begins to Collapse

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 68

Speaking in the Kremlin this week to the top brass of the Russian military, security, law enforcement and other so called “power structures” President Dmitry Medvedev pledged to fully support the modernization and rearming of the “power structures,” promising that the earmarked funding will not be cut. “We must be prepared to defend our country internally and at the borders,” announced Medvedev, “Or we will be simply torn to tatters.” Medvedev mentioned “the arc of instability in North Africa and the Middle East” (the Arab Spring) promising Russia will honor its obligations under existing UN resolutions, while ruling out “participation in military operations happening in the region at present” [Libya] (, April 6).

This week Medvedev together with Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov visited the base of the elite airborne troops (Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska or VDV) commando unit – the Spetsnaz 45th separate guards’ regiment – in Kubinka west of Moscow. Medvedev was accompanied by the VDV Commander Lieutenant-General Vladimir Shamanov – a highly controversial figure in the Russian military.

A decorated Chechen campaign veteran accused by human rights organizations of war crimes Shamanov, as Chief of the Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate of Combat Training from November 2007 to May 2009, ruthlessly implemented a radical military reform disbanding old-style divisions by forming new-style brigades. In May 2009, Shamanov was appointed as commander of the VDV (EDM, June 11, 2009). In September 2009, Shamanov ordered two detachments of VDV commandos from the 45th regiment to move to Moscow to defend the business property of his son-in-law Aleksei Khramyshin – a well known Russian mobster, accused of attempted murder, who remains at large (EDM, September 24, 2009). Shamanov was reprimanded for using Special Forces to defend his family business interests, but retained his command. On October 30, 2010, Shamanov was injured in a car crash south of Moscow. His appearance in Kubinka with Serdyukov and Medvedev seems to indicate a full physical and political rehabilitation.

Speaking to the rank and file in Kubinka, Medvedev announced that for 10 to 15 years, conscripts will continue to serve together with contract soldiers and sergeants.  However he did acknowledge that conscripts cannot be trained well enough during one year of service. In 2012 officers will receive pay increases, comparable, according to Medvedev, “with [their] Asian and Latin American counterparts.” Contract soldiers, in turn, will receive some 30,000 rubles (approximately $1,000) per month. The government is fulfilling a program to build housing for retiring and serving officers, so “now we must think how to accommodate contract soldiers” (, April 6).

Today in Russia the need to train and promote professional non-commissioned officers (NCO’s) is officially acknowledged, but the goal seems as distant as ever. There is no NCO promotion hierarchy in Russia and asked in Kubinka about career prospects for NCO’s that have served with distinction for 10 years or more, Medvedev was surprisingly frank: “I have not discussed this problem with Serdyukov. Maybe they would want to eventually be promoted to be officers?” Serdyukov replied: “With the right education a long serving sergeant may eventually become a lieutenant” (, April 6).

The idea to transform seasoned NCO’s into 40 to 50 year-old second lieutenants by creating special NCO promotion courses is in most cases an absurd waste of qualified manpower and reflects the gaping ignorance of the Russian reformers. Medvedev in fact muttered something about “even at 50 no way is closed,” ordering Serdyukov to think about it and report (, April 6).

In Russia’s traditional peasant army soldiers and sergeants were considered the scum of the earth and only the promotion to officer level brought privileges and the rank of a human being. In the early 1990’s together with a high-ranking Russian military delegation in Germany, I listened to a top German general’s banquet address that began with: “We as soldiers….” As the translation continued, an angry Russian lieutenant-general whispered in my ear: “Why is he insulting us? We are not soldiers – we are generals.”

Today, urbanized Russia is running out of soldiers. In 2008, compulsory military service was cut from two years to one year. The defense ministry hoped draft dodging would drastically decrease and tried but failed to increase the number of conscripts twofold to more than 600,000 annually. Only in 2009 did they manage to come close to 600,000.  In 2010 the total drafted reached some 550,000 and this spring Colonel-General Vasiliy Smirnov – Deputy Chief of General Staff in charge of the draft since 2002 – suddenly announced the draft plan has been reduced to some 400,000 per year (two drafts of some 200,000 – one in the spring and one in the fall). The present Russian military has some 220,000 officers, 170,000 contract soldiers and, 400,000 conscripts, giving a total of less than 800,000 – while the present structure of the armed forces is designed to have some 1,000,000 personnel. According to Smirnov, 200,000 young Russians are avoiding the draft by living at addresses other than their officially registered place of residence. In accordance with the present law, to be legally binding, a draft letter must be delivered personally and the draftee must sign a receipt (RIA Novosti, March 31).

According to Smirnov, the draft reduction was made “to increase conscript quality.” Previously, in a frantic attempt to fill the ranks the authorities were drafting men with criminal and drug abuse records, and with health problems. Unit discipline and coherence plummeted, so now there will be some discretion in the draft, though this week an ukaz signed by Medvedev requires the drafting of 219,000 conscripts in the spring – more than Smirnov announced. But the additional conscripts will apparently man “other power structures,” such as the interior ministry troops (Interfax, April 4).

The number of contract soldiers must be more than doubled to urgently fill the ranks, or the combat readiness of the new brigades will collapse. The figure of 425,000 new contract soldiers has been announced, but no one seems to know where they may come from. Contract soldier pay may rise as Medvedev promised, but that will only happen next year, while there are no clear career prospects for contract soldiers, or adequate lodging or service conditions, as well as no benefit packages. There is also no professional soldier recruitment service. One year conscripts serve even in the 45th VDV regiment (Medvedev spoke to one), which calls into question the actual combat effectiveness of this elite commando unit.