Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 43

Russia’s seemingly never-ending internal debate about the pros and cons of creating a mostly volunteer “professional” army has in recent days begun to heat up again. The leadup to Russia’s annual February 23 Army Day holiday provided one reason for military and civilian experts to look anew at the issue. But the more important driving force behind the quickening internal debate appears to be a new push by the Kremlin to bring the structure of Russia’s still bloated and ineffective armed forces into closer conformity with both the demands of the post-September 11 world and the limits of the Russian economy. To this end, President Vladimir Putin appears to have deliberately brought reform-minded lawmakers into the debate. Their calls for a quicker transition to a smaller and mostly volunteer force have put senior military officials on the defensive, and compelled them to move faster in drawing up their own draft plan for increasing the professional component of the Russian armed forces.

The military leadership’s current planning in this area was outlined in comments to the press by a top General Staff officer on February 27. Major General Valery Astanin, head of a department in the General Staff’s Organization and Mobilization Directorate (responsible for military staffing issues), said that General Staff experts intended to finish preparations on a draft concept for a gradual transition to a volunteer force by the middle of March. That document will be examined by the government, he said, and a version that incorporates its recommendations will be passed on to the Russian president around the beginning of July. On the basis of this concept, he went on, a federal program for the transition to a professional force is expected to be prepared by December of next year. Astanin said that, beginning in September of this year, an experiment making use of “contract” service–another term by which Russians refer to the volunteer or professional force–will be undertaken with the Airborne Forces 76th Pskov division. Astanin did not say when the move to a mostly volunteer force would take place in earnest, but his boss did. In an interview published on February 23, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that by around 2010 the majority of those serving in the armed forces should be doing so on a contract basis.

At present, the General Staff claims that approximately 22 percent of all Russian military personnel are “kontraktniki.” That reportedly amounts to about 140,000 soldiers, nearly one-half of whom are said to be women. The Duma’s Defense Committee, meanwhile, puts the total number of contract personnel at 157,000, and says that about 40 percent of them are women. The General Staff’s claim that 22 percent of Russia’s military personnel equals 140,000 soldiers does not seem to square with recent Defense Ministry statements suggesting that the size of the Russian army remains in excess of 1 million, or with Western estimates that the country has about 1.2 million people in uniform. The unwillingness or inability of official Russian military sources to provide precise figures on so simple a subject as the size of the Russian army hints at some of the difficulties that reformers have faced in trying to reduce and modernize the force.

Indeed, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union it has sometimes been difficult in Russia to separate those exercising genuine and well-grounded caution on the subject of reforming the armed forces from those who have used the alleged obstacles to creating a mostly professional army as an excuse to delay substantive action of any sort. It is certainly possible that there is some of the latter in the statements made by Astanin. For example, the Russian general raised the specter of funding shortfalls, reprising the arguments of countless, earlier opponents of contract service by claiming that the transition to a professional army would more than double the country’s defense budget–and that without taking into account additional expenditures on necessary improvements in military infrastructure. In an interview published last month, Astanin was quoted as saying that a rapid abolition of conscription–which is the basis on which the armed forces are for the most part manned today–would “cost hundreds of billions of rubles, which neither the nation nor its Armed Forces can afford; therefore the transition to a professional army could take a long time.”

Those senior officers arguing against a hasty transition to a professional army, however, are ignoring the fact that the Russian Defense Ministry made a putative start toward building a professional force in the first half of the 1990s, and that the reform effort is therefore now nearly ten years old. They also ignore the fact that the military leadership appears to have squandered billions of rubles over that time period in the careless recruitment of contract volunteers who have done little to improve the army’s combat capabilities. Indeed, the fact that nearly half of all contract soldiers are women reflects the Defense Ministry’s penchant for recruiting the wives and daughters of Russian officers rather than ensuring that highly paid (in relative terms) volunteers fill slots in key combat and technical roles.

Defense Ministry claims that a transition to a professional force would be prohibitively expensive also reflect the Defense Ministry’s apparent determination to maintain the size of the army at roughly a million personnel. But civilian critics charge that only about 100,000 of Russia’s current million man army are in any sense battleworthy, and that hundreds of thousands of troops do little more than guard warehouses containing obsolete equipment stockpiled to fight a global, Cold War-style conflict. With this and recent changes in the international security environment in mind, they have argued that Russia could transition quickly to a mostly professional force if the Defense Ministry also shed unnecessary military personnel. In fact, a reform-minded think-tank has reportedly drawn up a military restructuring plan–one that is being pushed by the Union of Right Wing Forces (SPS)–that calls for Russia to move over the next five years to an all-volunteer regular army of 400,000, backed up by a reserve force of 160,000 manned by conscripts serving for six months. Putin has reportedly not committed himself publicly to the SPS plan, but the fact that he included senior figures from the SPS in the defense reform debate suggests that, at the least, he is trying to pressure the Defense Ministry to move more decisively (Itogi, January 22; Reuters, February 17; Izvestia, February 21;, February 23;, February 27).