Russian Military Manpower: Recurring Zugzwang

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 218

(RIA Novosti)

Since the spring of 2010 Russian military reform has slumbered in a crisis, over how to formulate a manning system that suits modernized forces. This was partly denoted by the top brass, confessing that the experiment with contract service had failed, and with that announcement any possible link between the “new look” and adopting an all-volunteer professional manning system was laid to rest. However, the “debate” over which formulation should gain preference, contract or conscript, has recurred for more than twenty years. There are indications that, in addition to impending General Staff “experiments” an old idea is being actively revisited as a “third way” aimed at resolving two pressing problems: ill-discipline and the absence of sufficiently high quality non-commissioned officers (NCO’s). This idea, in essence, is to learn from the Swiss militia-based system of manpower, in itself a concept with limited Russian pedigree, yet its timing makes it plausible for the reformers to consider. The detail and advocacy of this approach was outlined in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer by Colonel (Retired), Vitaly Shlykov, the Chairman of the Commission for Military Legislation in the MoD’s Public Council (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer,, December 1).

Shlykov’s article must be viewed in the context of the presentation of the idea, and in terms of the crisis facing the reform. On October 19, a roundtable in Moscow jointly organized by the World Economics and World Politics Department of the State University-Higher School of Economics and the Foreign and Defense Policy Council (SVOP) gathered experts to discuss military manpower. Shlykov was among a number of speakers, but a common theme ran through each presentation, apart from the soliloquy from Aleksandr Golts staunchly promoting a professional manning system, namely that Moscow should seriously consider Switzerland as an important manning example, which serves as the model for the Israeli Defense Forces (Shlykov noted that Finland, Denmark and Norway also adapted this model). In order to sharpen this focus, recognizing that the top brass have publicly abandoned any pretence that a professional army features among the increasingly debatable reform desiderata, some experts questioned the intellectual basis of the argument advanced by Golts. Aleksandr Sharavin, the Director of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, asserted (among other points) that it did not reflect the volatility of the military-political situation around Russia’s borders, and that a large reserve is needed, which a smaller professional army would not generate. Sharavin also concluded that Switzerland with its evident economic wealth had not pursued this professionalization paradigm (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, November 16).

Aleksandr Belkin, the Deputy Executive Director of SVOP, during the October 19 roundtable explained that the dispute between professional or conscript manning system advocates can be explained by an inadequate understanding of foreign military experience. Belkin also suggested the Swiss model could be used in Russia and referred to Lieutenant-Colonel Aleksandr Savinkin, a teacher of philosophy at the Military-Political Academy and a graduate of the Ryazan Airborne Troops Military College, advancing the idea in November 1988, and his subsequent ridicule as a result (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, November 9). In 1990, Shlykov urged caution in following foreign military experience, since the military’s development reflects each country’s domestic political situation, social structure and the national threat perception. By 2004, Shlykov and others had shifted ground and strongly recommended pursuing reform based on western military experience, and by October 2007 he told a conference in Stockholm that the prerequisite economic conditions existed in Russia to pursue genuine military reform (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, November 9).

A critical factor in the recurrence of discussing the Swiss manning model in Russia 22 years after Savinkin mooted it, is the unforeseen marked deterioration in discipline that has metastasized in today’s Russian armed forces: symptoms stemming from reducing conscript service to twelve months, rapidly downsizing the officer corps and the plan to introduce professional NCO’s only yielding a trickle in units from 2012. Consequently, the institutional void has been over filled by dedovshchina, which some reformers believed was part of the system without understanding that it is the system. Sharavin noted that it will require a decade for professional NCO’s to emerge in significant numbers (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, November 16).

These problems are receiving closer attention from the General Staff, especially on the sensitive issue of the growing numbers of Muslims serving in the Russian armed forces, and its contribution to ethnic tensions. Sources in the General Staff told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that hazing often results from ethnic tension in the units, and they may experiment with forming some units exclusively on the basis of mono-ethnic and religious unity: Russians/Russian Orthodox. Cases reported in the Russian media of conscripts from the North Caucasus bullying ethnic Russians, such as the instance in the Baltic Fleet in November 2009 when Dagestani conscripts forced ethnic Russian personnel to lie on the ground and arranged their bodies to form the word “KAVKAZ” (Caucasus) and filmed them, appear to be the tip of the iceberg. Demographic trends indicate that such problems could worsen, which would have an impact on combat readiness (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 18).

As the reform faces setbacks, while the defense leadership did not appreciate its magnitude, real problems threaten the entire process. Reminding the reformers of this dilemma, on November 28, Senior Sergeant Lenar Fattakhov a deputy platoon commander in Ulan-Ude, used his belt buckle to repeatedly hit a private over the head, kicking him in the abdomen; the private died after sustaining a fatal blow to the head as he fell (Interfax, December 2). The incident is symptomatic of the growing divide between how the reform is publicly discussed and reality in the units.

Shlykov’s article did not suggest that Russia simply follows the Swiss model of military manpower, but he intended to systematically refute the idea that demographics will force a “shotgun wedding” adoption of an all-volunteer force: there are alternatives (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer,, December 1). The reform has reached zugzswang, the German term used in chess to denote a position where a player has to move but there seems no suitable option. Likewise, there is no perfect solution to manpower, but inaction will likely crush the remaining life from the reform. After Shlykov led a team of analysts to produce a SVOP report in spring 2004, tying military reform to foreign experience, four years elapsed before the authorities acted. If the present reform is to survive, emergency measures are required. This is precisely the reason why Shlykov has advanced the Swiss model. Three conclusions may be drawn: the reform is in trouble, further controversial changes can be expected, while the key obstacle is how to learn from the best foreign military systems and adapt this to suit Russian interests.