Upcoming Spring Draft Set to Be Most Difficult in Russia’s Recent History

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 12

(Source: The Riddle)

For the past decade, Russia has faced increasing difficulties in carrying out its biannual military draft (see EDM, April 10, 2018; March 31, 2022; and April 19, 2022). In 2023, however, the confluence of three factors—President Vladimir Putin’s plan to increase the size of the Russian military by 350,000; his use of a partial mobilization alongside the draft beginning last fall; and a complex series of interrelated demographic, economic and political factors—means that this year’s spring draft, now set to begin on April 1, will be the most difficult in Russia’s recent history. And some in Russia have begun to recognize this reality. Some of the steps the Russian authorities appear to be taking are overdue; others may give a one-time benefit to Moscow. But still, others are certain to create serious problems both within the Russian military and more importantly within Russian society and the political elite.

As Russia is waging its war against Ukraine, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Putin have signaled that they want to increase the size of the Russian military by 350,000 over the next three years. To accomplish this, the draft age range is expected to be raised to 21–30 years old from the current range of 18–27 while increasing the number of soldiers who sign up for contract service from the start of their military service in the hopes of attracting more educated troops and retaining them for longer periods (Kommersant, December 21, 2022; Dw.com/ru, January 1). But as Russian military expert and Jamestown Foundation analyst Pavel Luzin points out, and as all observers should keep in mind, these numbers are in fact a shell game, and the possibility of actually expanding the Russian army by as much and as quickly as the Kremlin leadership suggests is “a bureaucratic fantasy” (The Riddle, January 18).

The Russian military has always had fewer people in uniform than the nominal figure it announces, Luzin adds. In 1997, for example, the nominal head count was 1.7 million, but the real figure was closer to 1.2 or 1.3 million; in 2016, these figures were 1.013 million and 770,000, respectively (see EDM, January 6). Such a situation has persisted and calls to bring the two figures into closer correspondence have fallen on deaf ears (Izvestiya, October 20, 2020). Moreover, resolving the relationship between the nominal and real number of forces while expanding the military would require massive coercion; the elimination of most exemptions for health, education and family status; drafting migrant workers or those convicted of crimes; and opening additional positions to vastly more women than the roughly 40,000 who now serve (RIA Novosti, March 8, 2018;  Mk.ru, March 4, 2021).

But even if all these steps were to be taken, Luzin observes, they would exacerbate two other problems: the shortage of junior officers and the impact of such an expanded military on Russia’s societal, economic and political stability. Unless the Russian Defense Ministry finds a way to train more junior officers, he continues, “there will be no one to command” a greater number of troops. If the military does take in a broader swath of the population, it will be removing these recruits from the economy and lead to more worker shortages in critical areas, exacerbating economic problems and significantly worsening Russia’s already dire demographic situation (TASS, June 29, 2022).

Obviously, the Russian analyst points out, the draft will have to play a major role in any effort to expand the army—the Kremlin does not have the money to pay for an all-volunteer force—but Moscow still faces serious demographic and political constraints even with a draft. A decade ago, it could draft 130,000 men two times a year out of an eligible cohort of 1.2 million men. Now, the size of that cohort has fallen to 700,000, making efforts to pull that many men into the army much more difficult and simultaneously much more consequential demographically, economically and politically (Noyavagazeta.eu, January 14).

Aleksey Shaburov of Yekaterinburg’s Politsovet portal agrees, but he adds that changing the draft age range as Shoigu and Putin plan will have a more serious impact on Russian society than on the military itself. Such a shift will not only create disorder within the economy and have profound demographic consequences, pushing down the country’s birthrate still further, but also spark more draft resistance and flight by men subject to the draft, as well as political protests among the wives and mothers of those men sent to fight in Ukraine (T.me/mobilizationnews, November 25, 2022; Siberia.Realities, December 1, 2022 and Politsovet, December 22, 2022). But as Sergei Krivenko, head of the human rights group “Citizen. Army. Law,” stipulates, the Kremlin has decided to use the draft as the chief means of expanding the army because it has concluded that a radically enlarged mobilization effort would lead to even more popular anger and dissent (Novayagazeta.eu, January 14).

Even so, the Russian government is not oblivious to the problems involved in using the draft in this way during a time of war, which also risks intensifying public discontent if it announces a broader mobilization. Thus, the Kremlin has decided on a series of steps to try to minimize these problems. Those measures Russian experts now suggest the Putin regime will take in April 2023 include: raising the upper age limit of those to be drafted to 30 years old but not simultaneously increasing the lower age limit from 18 to 21, thus expanding the draft pool; allowing commanders to recruit professional soldiers from all draftees and not just those with more education as currently constituted and to do so from the first day of service; increasing the length of draft service from the current one-year term to 18 months or even two years; drafting men in poorer health or with less education than is now the standard; stepping up judicial enforcement of laws against draft evasion; requiring those over age 30 who have never served to be trained in some military specialty; and even introducing a rule that no one could serve in government at any level who had not been in the military (Bumaga, November 15, 2022; Interfax, January 12; Forbes.ru, January 13; Novayagazeta.eu, January 14; Idel.Realities, January 15; Svobodnaya pressa, January 19).

Many of these moves will create problems for the Russian military, none will be popular and the combination of those two developments is thus far yet another reason for concluding that this year’s spring call-up in Russia could be one of the most difficult and fateful in the country’s history, especially as the war against Ukraine drags on.