The Kremlin’s growing geopolitical ambitions have once again undermined previous successes of Russian military reform. In particular, the Defense Committee of the State Duma (parliament) recently approved amendments to the law “On Military Duty and Military Service.” The amendments, originally proposed by the Ministry of Defense, will allow military personnel to conclude service contracts with the Russian Armed Forces for a period of six months to a year. Until now, the shortest possible contract period was three years. Contracts can be signed not only with individuals in the reserves, but also with conscripts a month away from completing their mandatory service. According to the draft law, these short-term contracts apply only during extraordinary circumstances, such as for dealing with a natural disaster or other emergency, when additional forces are needed to restore the constitutional order, or to maintain or restore peace and security abroad (Rossiyiskaya Gazeta, November 1).
The Explanatory Memorandum to the bill explicitly insists that short-term contracts will help to solve problems that have arisen as the result of “a change in the military-political situation, [and the] intensification of activities of international terrorist and extremist organizations.” In this situation, the “need to increase the mobility of troops, to form aggregated and non-standard units and staffing them in a short time” becomes urgent. The bill also takes into account the specifics of military service of the crews of the ships and submarines of the Navy (Duma.gov.ru [.doc file], October 19).
With regard to naval service, the authors of the law note that the mandatory service term of sailor-conscripts can sometimes end in the middle of a long ocean voyage. Though this concerns only several hundred sailors. Therefore, commanders must be able to offer these sailors short-term contracts to extend their service. In fact, several years ago, the defense ministry had planned to transfer all sailors serving on ships into permanent, long-term service contracts. Ironically, defense ministry officials at that time argued that these contract-service reforms would bring about greater “professionalization” of all Navy crews—the identical argument being employed now for the proposed short-term contracts.
It is important to focus on the draft law’s intent to create “aggregated and non-standard units” in the Armed Forces and to rapidly equip them. This is the first time such formations have ever been mentioned in official Russian documents. Their introduction by the Ministry of Defense appears to be an attempt to give legal status to those Russian citizens who, as reported, are already fighting in Syria and before that in Ukraine (Haaretz, November 5). These people are hired through intermediaries to undertake combat roles, but their activities abroad are not covered by current Russian legislation. More recently, the government has attempted to legalize their existence by adopting a law on private military companies. However, that bill is stuck in the Duma due to opposition by the Federal Security Service (FSB), which strongly opposes sharing the state’s monopoly on violence with private entrepreneurs. Many Russian military experts contend that the defense ministry intends to solve the military’s manning problems via these proposed short-term contracts. “We have long been fighting in modern conditions; we need to form groups and forces for specific purposes… In such a way, it is possible to assemble a team of professionals selected for a particular task on different war fronts,” insisted Ivan Konovalov, the director of the Moscow-based Centre for Strategic Trend Studies (RIR, October 18). In fact, however, such an arrangement represents the legalization of mercenaries.
The establishment of contracts for Russian soldiers dates back to a 2003 federal target program to change the military from an overwhelmingly conscript- to a partially contract-service force. This decision immediately generated numerous abuses. Conscripts were frequently compelled—sometimes through violence or even forms of torture—to sign service contracts to become “professional” soldiers in the Armed Forces. For instance, commanders would keep soldiers who refused to sign the contract stuck outside in the cold for hours. As a result, more than 80 percent of so-called “kontraktniki” newly signed to the Armed Forces were troops with no more than six months of service under their belts. Officers would promise 18-year-old boys, not too experienced in legal matters, that they could voluntarily terminate their contract after serving the required two years of compulsory service. However, this represented only a partial termination, and after leaving, their salaries went into the pockets of commanders. If the deception was discovered, the soldiers were immediately declared as deserters. Not coincidentally, in 2009, after their “successful” completion of the program, the number of deserters amounted to 7,000 men (Lenta.ru, February 11, 2009).
This negative experience pushed then–defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov to annul the possibility of extending contracts to draftees; the option was retained only for reservists who, after completing their full two years of conscript service, spent some time in civilian life. A person who signs the contract is then required to pass an additional special three-month training session before being assigned to a military unit. On the other hand, the newly proposed short-term service contracts seriously undermine the professionalism and necessary skill set of military personnel. Moreover, a man who decides to fight in the military for a few months for the money will likely lack any significant devotion to his motherland.
The six-month service-contract initiative may in fact indicate that the Kremlin is seriously considering a major ground operation in Syria in the near future. Clearly, the brutal air strikes over Aleppo did not bring the desired military effect so far. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army is too anemic to effectively utilize Russia’s air support, and the Syrian government forces’ attack on Aleppo has once again become bogged down. Short-term conscripts could, therefore, play a role in implementing the operational plan worked out last year during the strategic exercise Tsentr (Center) 2015. Reportedly, these maneuvers practiced using a 100,000-strong ground force to capture an unnamed country overrun by terrorists. Russian defense ministry officials later admitted openly that the “Syrian theater” was on their minds vis-à-vis the exercise (Voenno-Promishlenniyi Kurier, November 4, 2015). But putting together such a large ground force for action in Syria is not easy: the Russian have authorities repeatedly promised not to send conscripts to fight abroad. Whereas, the government apparently does not feel it bears such responsibility for the lives of contract soldiers—even short-term ones—who, presumably, have voluntarily chosen the risky profession of a soldier. It seems, therefore, Russia is abandoning the priority of improving the quality of its military personnel in favor of simply pushing up the numbers of men-under-arms who can be sent into battle.