Russia’s Military Draft—Serious Problems That Go Beyond Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 45

Russian conscripts training (Source: Getty Images)

Today (March 31), President Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian Armed Forces will draft 134,500 men over the next three months and release a similar number of soldiers who have completed their service (, March 31). Russia has always faced problems with its twice-a-year draft: On the one hand, young men and their families do not want to have their lives interrupted; and on the other hand, the loss of such a large share of the shrinking cohort of young people has a serious impact on the national economy. This year, those problems have been compounded for two reasons. First, many Russians fear they or their sons will be sent to fight and possibly die in Ukraine. And second, the pool of potential manpower has shrunk due to the massive flight abroad of many young Russians, especially the most highly educated ones, whom the military would like to have. As a result, in the words of one Moscow-based commentator, the draft this time around “threatens to become a silent referendum” on public confidence in the military and in the Kremlin as well (, March 23). At a minimum, it will challenge the state’s ability to carry out the spring-time call-up; and quite possibly, it may spark new anger in the population—especially if the authorities try to meet their quotas by typically heavy-handed means.

Obviously, the war in Ukraine looms over this draft. Many Russians of all ages fear that conscripts will be sent to fight and possibly die in Ukraine in order to make up for Russian battlefield losses to date. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu promised two days ago that no draftees will be deployed in combat (TV Zvezda, March 29); but his credibility in this respect is minimal given that, earlier this month, after numerous denials, his ministry was forced to concede that Moscow was using conscripts in Putin’s war in Ukraine (, March 9). One step the Kremlin may take to try to minimize such fears, analysts say, is to seek to achieve a major victory or even end the war before the culmination of the current draft period, which extends into June. That would eliminate the concerns of most young Russians and their parents (, March 23), but it would notably not end Ukraine’s impact on the spring draft.

On the one hand, the turbulence accompanying the exodus from service of those drafted a year ago at the same time as a new group is coming on board is liable to trigger more cases of disobedience in the ranks—something already plaguing Russian forces in Ukraine (, March 26). And on the other hand, the return of veterans who may have seen service in Ukraine and can report about what is or was actually occurring there is likely to spark more protests against the war. Those protests, in turn, will certainly impel more young men to rethink their willingness to serve in the ranks of a force that puts their survival at risk (, March 25; Idel.Realii, March 26;, March 30).

Such demonstrations and street rallies are especially likely to spread in non-Russian parts of the country and in rural areas. In many non-Russian republics, the local police forces are often the best employer available to the young men who live there, but this path requires them to have first served in the Armed Forces; and in the Russian countryside, male youths also see few alternatives other than the military to escape the increasing poverty in their communities. If they change their minds because of what they hear about Ukraine, that could inter alia pose a serious problem for military command given that such people currently form a disproportionate share of the non-commissioned officers (NCO) in the Russian Armed Forces (, March 24; Sibir.Realii, March 27, 29;, March 29; see EDM, July 26, 2018 and March 1, 2022).

The aforementioned problems are only the tip of a much larger demographic predicament for Russia. Those in the 18–27 draft-age cohort now are a larger pool than was the case in recent years, but taking them out of the workforce to serve in the military appears likely to have more serious consequences because of other factors. First of all, Russian commanders want more educated young men who can more easily handle technologically sophisticated weaponry. But Putin’s war in Ukraine and resultant Western sanctions have caused a massive brain drain from Russia in recent months: many of the best-educated young men—those in the IT sector in particular—have left to live abroad. It is unlikely that many of them will return to serve in the army. Fears that even more will leave have prompted the Kremlin to give special draft deferments to IT specialists, thus reducing the size of the draft pool still further (, TRT, March 30;, March 29).

In addition, a massive outflow of immigrant workers from Russia is affecting another part of the country’s current draft-age cohort—the less-well-educated, who are prime candidates to fill the vacated unskilled labor jobs in the economy. Since the start of the pandemic, more than five million foreign guest workers have left; and due to the collapse of the Russian ruble’s exchange rate, combined with other effects of Western sanctions, another five million are projected to return home in the next few months. Thus, the Armed Forces will be competing for young Russians who might assume those lower-skilled civilian jobs. If the military takes these men, the Russian economy will suffer (, March 22).

Also affecting the availability of conscripts in the prime age group is the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the whole, younger Russians have suffered less from the novel coronavirus than older ones. Yet a portion of them have died and others are suffering either from the lingering effects of that disease or, more often, from the inability to find treatment for other ailments, because Russia has focused its reduced medical resources on fighting the pandemic rather than promoting public health more broadly (, January 24; Sibir.Realii, November 30, 2021).

To meet their quotas, the Russian military’s draft agencies will likely seek to pass for service young men who should be deferred for medical reasons. But that will mean that the military will face additional problems in the future—yet another reason to conclude that this year’s spring call-up in Russia could be one of the most difficult and fateful in the history of that country.