On March 31, a Russian Joint Staff official, Lieutenant General Vasiliy Tonkoshkurov, made a surprise statement about the country’s conscription campaign at a press conference on the spring 2014 military draft campaign in Russia. During the event Tonkoshkurov announced that residents of the North Caucasus would start being drafted into the Russian military along with everybody else. “Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia are also subjects of the Russian Federation, like the others,” he said. “There are no restrictions on the draft in (those regions).” Over 230,000 Russian army service members are contract personnel, but the Russian armed forces and the country’s leaders are not ready to consider going to an all-professional army, Tonkoshkurov said during the press conference (https://function.mil.ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=11913536@egNews).
This recent announcement that North Caucasians would once again be drafted into the Russian army was quite unusual. The Russian military began cutting the number of conscripts from the North Caucasus back in 2009, and in 2011–2012 the number of men drafted from all the republics of the North Caucasus plummeted. Chechen men have not been drafted into the Russian army since the birth of the contemporary Russian Federation in 1991, because of the intermittent Russian-Chechen wars and ongoing tensions in the region. In 2013, Chechnya supplied 620 men to serve in the Russian army inside the republic. Dagestan supplied only 1,000 conscripts, even though the military had planned to draft 2,000 conscripts from the republic. A mere 300 people were drafted from Ingushetia last year (https://www.bigcaucasus.com/events/analysis/02-04-2014/89842-callofduty-0/).
Experts have provided different explanations for the Russian military’s reluctance to draft North Caucasians. Some have argued that Russian commanders could not cope with the hordes of undisciplined North Caucasians, who often become organized into tight, aggressive groups inside the military despite Russian efforts to integrate them. The Russian media regularly reported on how the North Caucasians hazed ethnic Russians. North Caucasians serving in the Russian army were occasionally severely beaten up or even killed, but the country’s media was relatively reticent about the murders. From a security standpoint, some Russian experts argued, the North Caucasians posed a danger to Russian operations against the rebels in the North Caucasus, since the insurgency recruited North Caucasians who had received military training.
Whatever the reason for limiting the military draft among the North Caucasians, it adversely affected the prospects for residents of the region, since the Russian government outlawed hiring those who had not served in the military for government and municipal jobs. Restricting North Caucasians from military service may have been devised specifically to weed out potentially disloyal residents of the region and provide opportunities to those considered the most reliable. The openly discriminatory nature of the restrictions on North Caucasians serving in the military led various Russian officials to deny the charges or promise to restart drafting the North Caucasians. By the end of 2012, the then new Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the restrictions would be lifted, promising to draft up to 10,000–20,000 men from Dagestan alone (https://www.km.ru/v-rossii/2013/03/28/sergei-shoigu/707156-genshtab-poobeshchal-popolnit-armiyu-tysyachami-kavkaztsev). But Shoigu’s bold promises never materialized—at least until now.
The latest promises by Russian officials to remove the restrictions may be tied to the growing strain on the Russian military and the availability of formidable untapped conscript resources in the North Caucasus. The possibility of a military conflict with Ukraine may have added a sense of urgency to the Russian army’s manpower shortage. Incidentally, a public discussion of hiring migrants from former Soviet republics as contract soldiers has also started (https://kommersant.ru/doc/2452216).
The potential number of conscripts for the North Caucasus is significant, even on the scale of such a vast country as Russia. Given the backlog of young men who were not drafted earlier, Dagestan could supply up to 25,000 men for military service (https://chernovik.net/content/inye-smi/minoborony-vse-taki-ogranichilo-prizyv-s-severnogo-kavkaza). Chechnya could provide up to 80,000 conscripts, while Ingushetia could provide about 10,000 conscripts (https://www.bigcaucasus.com/events/analysis/02-04-2014/89842-callofduty-0/). Thus, the total number of potential conscripts from the North Caucasus who could be drafted in one campaign exceeds 100,000. By way of comparison, the total number of conscripts drafted into the Russian army yearly from the entire country is just under 300,000.
Despite the large unused pool of potential conscripts in the North Caucasus, the Russian government has largely been unwilling to convert them into trained military personnel. With its moves vis-à-vis Ukraine, Moscow has virtually opened a Pandora’s Box of potential conflicts across the post-Soviet space. Given the new circumstances, under which the strife in the North Caucasus could be superseded by other, more large-scale and higher stake conflicts in Europe, the Russian government may need more manpower for its army and feels less concerned about the potential disloyalty issues surrounding the drafting of the North Caucasians. While the North Caucasians may have been bad soldiers when fighting their own brethren in the North Caucasus, they could be quite useful to Moscow in fulfilling its neo-imperialist objectives in other areas of the former Soviet Union, particularly when it faces the massive 44 million manpower potential of neighboring Ukraine. Given President Putin’s increasing political adventurism and military expansionism, Moscow may require additional manpower to implement its goals in the post-Soviet space.