Russian Military Plagued By Falling Conscript Standards

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 65

President Putin’s recent changes in the senior personnel in the Russian armed forces have aroused concerns about the future course of the military. Those appointed, at least on paper, hold out the promise of steady improvement in the military, rather than continued decline. Colonel-General Alexander Belousov, First Deputy Defense Minister, strongly believes that Russia cannot afford any further slippage in its combat readiness, otherwise its military will become a school where the art of warfare is known in theory but lost in reality. Belousov’s recipe for rectifying the problems that confront the post-Soviet force concentrates on enhancing training and procuring technology. Putin must solidly support the armed forces at this crucial juncture, according to Belousov, “As never before, we need moral support and a belief in the fact that we are doing will be found worthy” (Itar-Tass, July 28).

The problems in the Russian armed forces are everywhere apparent, and have been so for many years, without remedy from the state — let alone moral support. Frequent reports of soldiers going AWOL or brutality within the barracks have flourished within a military culture that has become numbed to such reports. The July 9 crash of a Tu-22M3 supersonic long-range Russian bomber, which killed the four-man crew, illustrates the scale of the problems. General Vladimir Mikhailov, Chief of the Air Force, admitted that a generator failure caused by the neglect had caused the tragedy (Interfax, July 28). The crew had failed to switch on the back-up system, meaning the plane attempted to land without electricity. Mikhailov was clear and pointed in his conclusion: poor training was to blame.

Such examples seem to confirm the assertion that Russia’s military merely needs improved — or at least adequate — training. However, the manning structure itself shows perennial signs of strain as it struggles to cope with supporting a system designed for the Cold War.

Colonel-General Vasily Smirnov, head of the General Staff’s main organization and mobilization directorate, considers that securing 9.5% of the entire draft base in the spring 2004 draft was far too small. It has been in steady decline during the last decade, with around 27% accepted from the draft base in 1994. Unfortunately, the Presidential team considers the same draft a success, since it collected 95% of the fixed-term soldiers the army requires. Such a positive spin diverts attention from the real horror of the draft: the poor quality of the new draftees. Russian medical doctors reportedly judged 50% of draftees to have “limited suitability” on health grounds; many fail the medical and get a reprieve from the unpopular military service. This has a direct affect on manning the higher readiness formations and Special Forces. Educational quality is also in decline: 25% of draftees have only eight years of education; 6% were registered with the local police, 2.7% were known to have a drug-related problem, and 5% had a criminal record.

The General Staff solution to these manpower problems is simply to increase the numbers: expanding the number of draftees from the draft base by 2 or 2.5 times in the next five years. Currently the entire draft base is 1.6 million, which is expected to decrease within two or three years to between 800,000 and 1 million. If the army switches to a 12-month term for draft service, it would have to recruit 200,000 in each draft campaign, around 20-25% of the total number of conscripts. In other words, the General Staff vision entails returning to higher percentage levels than the Russian armed forces recruited in 1994 (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 22).

What the current plans ignore, or fail to properly address, is not so much the quantity of recruits but their quality. Any reform campaign will falter if the building blocks of the armed forces are crumbling from within. Russia’s manning system is deteriorating, and while clever plans can be laid to manage the demographic crisis, it is the characteristics of individual draftees that will determine the quality of the military of the future.

Defense Minster Sergei Ivanov wishes to form a modern and combat-capable military, but his vision is not currently matched by plans that address how this will be achieved in reality. Those who seek successful military reform in Russia will not take comfort from the staccato approach to finding a solution to its manning problems. Any plan that supports the traditional conscript system, without taking into account Russia’s declining population or the fast declining standards in health, education, and morale, will be doomed to fail.