Russia’s perennial introspection within its security elites, pondering the troubles that have so beset its armed forces generally and in Chechnya specifically, has again broached the idea of creating professional servicemen within its units deployed in Chechnya, and Tajikistan. Hailed as a potential panacea for improving the capabilities of the Russian military in these key locations, recent failures to secure adequate levels of contract servicemen highlight the depth of the crisis within the armed forces and the deep-seated difficulties being encountered by bureaucrats tasked with implementing such plans.
The military commissioners offices in each of Russia’s military districts have failed to recruit their assigned quota of contract personnel. The extent of the failure was evident within all military districts; the Moscow Military District only secured 17% of its target. The North Caucasus Military District succeeded in raising 45%, while the Urals Military District scraped together 25% (Interfax, October 8). Aware of the serious implications of the shortfalls, the Ministry of Defense has been quick to examine and release its views on the reasons for the unpopularity of professional service in the Russian armed forces. According to the Ministry of Defense, 43% of Russia’s young men avoid signing contracts to serve on a professional basis because they are simply unwilling to live in barracks and around 30% believe that the wages on offer are too low for the level of risk involved.
They evidently understand that the government will send contract personnel to trouble spots within Russia, such as Chechnya, or elsewhere within the CIS, such as Tajikistan. At the root of these attitudes lies the unpopularity of the conflict in Chechnya, viewed by many young Russian men as being beyond the interests and cares of ordinary Russians. Deeper still, despite the efforts of the security elites to reassure people that barracks and infrastructure will be built and modernized to standards in keeping with professionalizing the army, there are continued concerns over institutionalized bullying or dedovschina within the very culture of the barracks. Curing this problem requires a wholesale shift in attitudes within Russia’ planning staffs, combined with systematic efforts to root out this cancer at the heart of a failing manning system. Equally, while the Kremlin seeks a primarily military- or security-based solution to the conflict in Chechnya, there is little hope of encouraging Russia’s finest young men to sign contracts to serve there.
The shortfall in contract servicemen has also been felt within the 201st Motor Rifle Division, stationed in Dushanbe. This fall, over 1,000 young draftees have been sent there to swell the ranks of the 201st MRD, owing to problems experienced in recruiting enough men to serve on contracts. Such geographical areas are vital, since they are at the center of Russian plans to staff units serving in “hotspots”; failure to furnish sufficient professionals for these units is a blow to the overall plan to professionalize the armed forces.
Valentina Melnikova, executive secretary of the Union of Russian Soldiers’ Mothers Committees, was more forthright in her assessment of the failure, saying: “Forty-two months of dirty work that must be done, as a rule, far away from home, is too much for healthy young men, let alone those whose health is weak, and nearly all of our potential recruits are sick.” It is not as simple as she suggests, however, since reducing the length of service may not be sufficient to transform the cultural attitudes and perceptions that Russia’s youth hold towards military service (Interfax, October 7).
These problems, like many aspects of the military’s contemporary dilemmas, seem destined to worsen before there is any sustained effort to arrest the decline. Transition to professional service in Russia’s high-readiness formations is due to begin in earnest in January 2005, aiming at recruiting a total of 54,500 privates and sergeants. This would place an even greater strain on the system and is likely to statistically worsen the figures, as the numbers needed will go up, while the number of willing recruits will remain scarce.
The continued shortfalls in attracting sufficient contract personnel to serve in Chechnya or Tajikistan represents a clear failure to convince the target group of the military’s commitment to carrying out real reform. Young Russian men are not keen to sign contracts for professional military service precisely because they do not trust the system, have little interest or motivation to be deployed in conflict areas where they may feel forgotten by the rest of the population, and know all too well that they will likely face poor treatment within the barracks. Moreover, the authorities are unable to interest able bodied and well-educated young men to pursue a long-term professional career in the army. These realities appear set to continue to challenge planners in Moscow for the foreseeable future.