Russia’s Glacial Progress Toward a Professional Army

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 201

(Source: RIA Novosti)

Since initiating organizational reform in the Armed Forces in 2008, Moscow’s political-military leadership has not placed building a professional military anywhere near the top of its agenda. Indecision on the issue gave way to a compromise: a force mix of 12-month serving conscripts and contract personnel (kontraktniki). Recent Russian media coverage, with military service buoyed by the success of annexing Crimea and operating in ways to intimidate the pro-Western government in Kyiv, confirmed that kontraktniki recruitment is booming. Yet, beneath these reported successes, serious problems and unanswered questions remain (, November 6).

Plans on military manpower have changed little since the Anatoly Serdyukov–Nikolai Makarov defense leadership was replaced in November 2012. The new defense minister, Army-General Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of the General Staff, Army-General Valeriy Gerasimov, for a time stuck to the target of recruiting 425,000 contract personnel by 2017, and notionally these were to function in a manpower total of “one million.” Few experts seriously believed the “one million” figure, however. And in October 2013, the Audit Chamber released into the public domain a more realistic figure: 766,055 total Russian men at arms (Vedomosti, November 8, 2013).

However, in order to achieve such targets, the Ministry of Defense needed to recruit 50,000 kontraktniki annually until 2017, while reducing contract servicemen leaving military service. To compensate for this annual bleed out from contract service, the defense ministry tried to exceed the annual 50,000 target and offer better terms. In late 2013, the target was surpassed so much that Shoigu reset the final 2017 figure to 499,000 kontraktniki. In October 2014, the defense ministry similarly claimed that the target for this year has been exceeded, with kontraktniki recruitment reaching 70,000. By the end of the year, no doubt this figure will further increase. Nonetheless, Shoigu remains realistic, knowing that this year witnessed 18,000 contract personnel leaving military service. In other words, achieving such target figures is only one part of the story, but avoiding too many leaving is an equally vital element; it seems the hemorrhaging from contract service is slowing—partly reflecting better terms and conditions (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 31).

Indeed, the good news from the defense ministry that there are now more kontraktniki serving in the Armed Forces than conscripts is certainly questionable. As is frequently the case, the defense ministry’s claims and the numbers offered in support do not add up (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 31). The Audit Chamber figures for October 2013 presented the number under arms as “766,055,” with 220,000 officers, 186,000 contract personnel and official draft figures from fall 2012 and spring 2013 at 153,200 and 140,140, and the remainder (66,715) as cadets in the military establishments. One report in Vedomosti indicated that, in late 2013, there were 241,400 kontraktniki. In other words, the military experienced a net gain year-on-year of 55,400; the remaining 4,600, based on Shoigu’s earlier “60,000” claim could be accounted for by the numbers who ended their contract service in 2013 and did not renew their contracts. In December 2013, Shoigu claimed that 77,000 kontraktniki were recruited during 2013 (Vedomosti, November 8, 2013; RIA Novosti, October 24, 2013).

In terms of the number crunching, the defense ministry leadership appears to understand that reaching target figures alone will not suffice; the issue of retention needs to also be addressed. According to Shoigu, the obsession with targets has also facilitated corruption, with efforts to bribe individuals to sign contracts. Moreover, Shoigu believes that the recruitment and retention of sufficient numbers of kontraktniki pales in comparison with raising professional standards and enhancing their training (Rossiyskaya Gaeta, October 21)

Shoigu praises the level of contract recruitment, pointing to “historic” figures, but tacks on a cautionary note that “we need to think seriously about the quality.” Thus, in terms of training for contract personnel, Shoigu states that the defense ministry is examining the experience of foreign militaries that made a “complete switch” to contract service. Although reaching the goal of a fully professional volunteer military is not official policy, it seems that lessons are being drawn from militaries that pursued such options; chief among these is the actual source and method of recruitment ( October 29; Rossiyskaya Gaeta, October 21)

The traditional recruitment pool for kontraktniki in Russia is from among the conscripts. However, since 2012, the defense ministry has experimented with efforts to recruit directly from the population using mobile recruiting centers. In this regard, it is possible to enter contract military service without having first completed conscript service. These mobile recruitment facilities target large population centers and focus efforts on males ages 27–35 with a higher educational background or with specialist skills in high demand in the military (Vesti, November 5). The defense ministry does not offer any official statistics on the ratio of contract personnel drawn from among the conscript pool as opposed to recruited directly from the population; it is highly likely, however, that recruitment still depends largely on persuading conscripts to sign contracts.

Efforts to increase contract service numbers in the military center on achieving target figures, or preventing thousands from annually leaving as kontraktniki. Yet, Shoigu seems to understand that standards and training are longer-term critical factors. The drive to strengthen the contract component of the military manpower balance actually depends on an ongoing experiment to create professional non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Reporting on this initiative has been low key during Shoigu’s period in office, and there are signs that not all is well. Nonetheless, one recent report indicates that the defense ministry has introduced a system to promote the very best NCO sergeants to officer status. The commander of the Central Military District (MD), Colonel-General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, stated that the most promising NCOs in Central MD are being promoted in this manner. “The practice of selecting and presenting the best [NCO] sergeants and petty officers for appointment to the post [of officer] will be continued in all formations and units of the Central MD,” explained Zarudnitsky (, October 21).

Russia still remains a long way off from achieving a professional Army; which is not state policy. But correcting the imbalance between contract and conscript personnel faces challenges ranging from retention to the quality of recruits and the level of training that follows. The promotion of NCOs to officer status suggests that in the vision for future military manpower, the officers will continue to conduct the training of personnel. This means that a professional structure remains a bleak hope at best. In Russia’s military, numbers still matter—even at the expense of quality.