March 4, 2011: The continued use of conscription in Russia has become yet another issue in the battle against corruption. The problem is that if you have cash and connections, you can avoid conscription. Young men, from well off families, in major cities are, are drafted much less often (less than 20 percent as often) as those from rural areas. The urban kids either have the money (several thousand dollars will get you listed as unfit for service) or the connections (to get it done for a favor). It's easier to just "disappear" in the city, while in rural areas, everybody knows your name. Moreover, the rural guys have higher unemployment to deal with, so a year or so in the military is seen as a rational economic choice. Moreover, more of the rural population is more patriotic, and see military service as, well, service. But it's no secret that the urban kids are avoiding their service, and contributing to the corruption everyone complains about, to do it. More Russians are in favor of just getting rid of conscription, something most Western nations have already done (with no ill effects). It's no secret what this would cost, about $6 billion a year. Other nations that abolished conscription found that an all-volunteer force had better morale and performance. The Russian armed forces could use more of that. It's also well known that, for the next decade, the government is spending over $60 billion a year to buy new weapons and equipment. Having higher quality troops to use this stuff seems like a no-brainer. But the senior civilian and military leadership have resisted eliminating conscription, believing that it's worth it because it is a cheap way to create a reserve of men with military training. This reserve was seen as a lifesaver during both World Wars, and might be needed again if, say, China invades.
Largely because of the conscription problem, Russian efforts to reform and upgrade its armed forces have, so far, failed. The basic problem is that few Russian men are willing to join, even at good pay rates. Efforts to recruit women and foreigners have not made up for this. The Russian military has an image problem that just won't go away. This resulted in the period of service for conscripts being lowered to one year (from two) in 2008. That was partly to placate the growing number of parents who were encouraging, and assisting, their kids in avoiding military service.
But there are other problems. The latest crop of draftees are those born after the Soviet Union dissolved. That was when the birth rate went south. Not so much because the Soviet Union was gone, but more because of the economic collapse (caused by decades of communist misrule) that precipitated the collapse of the communist government. The number of available draftees went from 1.5 million a year in the early 1990s, to 800,000 today. Less than half those potential conscripts are showing up, and many have criminal records (or tendencies) that help sustain the abuse of new recruits that has made military service so unsavory. With conscripts in for only a year, rather than two, the military is forced to take a lot of marginal (sickly, overweight, bad attitudes, drug users) recruits in order to keep the military and Ministry of Interior units up to strength. But this means that even elite airborne and commando units are using a lot of conscripts. Most of these young guys take a year to master the skills needed to be useful, and then they are discharged. Few choose to remain in uniform and become a career soldiers. That's primarily because the Russian armed forces is seen as a crippled institution, and one not likely to get better any time soon. With so many of the troops now one year conscripts, an increasing number of the best officers and NCOs get tired of coping with all the alcoholics, drug users and petty criminals that are taken in just to make quotas. With the exodus of the best leaders, and growing number of ill-trained and unreliable conscripts, the Russian military is more of a mirage than an effective combat (or even police) organization.
All this comes after more than a decade of reforms in the armed forces, particularly the army. Poor discipline, low morale and incompetent performance are all legacies of the Soviet era (1921-1991). Russian commanders, envious of the success of all-volunteer Western forces, have long studied their former foes, and finally decided to adopt a lot more Western military customs. For example, one recent reform ordered that Russian troops would not be confined to their barracks most of the time. In the Soviet era, the conscripted troops were treated like convicts, and their barracks were more like a prison than the college dormitory atmosphere found in troop housing for Western military personnel. Russian conscripts are now be free to leave the base on weekends, and work only a five day week. Things like this help a bit, but not enough.
The effort to attract more capable recruits (or veterans to stay in) as "contract soldiers" (serving five year terms) was crippled because the pay was never able to match what was available in the civilian sector (to the high quality young guys the military sought). Instead, the army tried to get by with accepting lower quality contract soldiers. That did not work out well. With the number of officers being cut down to 150,000 (and enlisted to 745,000 over the next five years), it was easier to afford big pay raises for the remaining officers and NCOs, but not for hundreds of thousands of contract soldiers. Additional money has been found to try and hire higher quality contract soldiers, but it's unclear if that has worked yet.
Russia has tried to change public attitudes towards the armed forces, by publicizing all the new changes and programs. But word got around that most of these efforts failed. Blame that on the Internet. A recent poll revealed that 75 percent of military age men do not want to serve in the military, and the main reason is the hazing and prison-like conditions in the barracks. There are a lot of reasons for not wanting to be in the Russian Army, but the worst of them is the hazing. It was thought that this sort of thing would speed the demise of conscription in Russia, once the Cold War ended in 1991. But the government has found that, even among the "contract soldiers" (carefully selected volunteers who are paid much more than conscripts) the old abuses lived on, and that most of the best contract soldiers left when their contract was up. It was because of the brutality and lack of discipline in the barracks. The hazing is most frequently committed by troops who have been in a year, against the new recruits. But this extends to a pattern of abuse and brutality by all senior enlisted troops, against junior ones. ItÂ’s out of control.
This hazing developed after World War II, when Russia deliberately avoided developing a professional NCO corps. They preferred to have officers take care of nearly all troop supervision. The NCOs that did exist were treated as slightly more reliable enlisted men, but given little real authority. Since officers did not live with the men, slack discipline in the barracks gave rise to the vicious hazing and exploitation of junior conscripts by the senior ones. This led to very low morale, and a lot of suicides, theft, sabotage and desertions. Long recognized as a problem, no solution ever worked.
It was thought that getting rid of conscripts would do the trick. Not so. Although the volunteers were in for more than three years, rather than two (and now one) for conscripts, the lack of effective NCOs saw the bad habits persist. Thus the need to develop professional NCOs to keep things under control in the barracks.
The hazing has been one of the basic causes of crimes in the Russian armed forces, accounting for 20 to 30 per cent of all soldier crimes. This has caused a suicide rate that is among the highest in the world. Poor working conditions in general also mean that Russian soldiers are nearly twice as likely to die from accidents, or suicide, than American soldiers.
With hazing, and the resulting poor morale and discipline, the military is also unable to keep many of its experienced and capable NCOs. Many of the best ones have been leaving the military, despite better pay and living conditions. All noted the problems, caused by hazing, as a major reason for getting out.
Conscription itself, and the prospect of being exposed to the hazing, has led to a massive increase in draft dodging. Bribes, and document fraud, are freely used. Few parents, or potential conscripts, consider this a crime. Avoiding the draft is seen as a form of self preservation.
The Russian lack of sergeants (praporshchiki) has been difficult to fix. Just promoting more troops to that rank, paying them some more, and telling them to take charge, has not done the job. So going back to look at how Western armies do it, the Russians noted that those foreign armies provided a lot of professional training for new NCOs, and more of it as the NCOs advanced in rank. But this is a long term process, and it will be years before benefits will be felt.
All this is in sharp contrast to the old days. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, it had five million troops in its armed forces. Now it's down to about one million in just Russia (which got about half the population of the Soviet Union, and most of the territory). Although the Russian armed forces lost 80 percent of its strength in the last 18 years, a disproportionate number of officers remained. At the beginning of the current round of reforms, the Russian military has about 1.2 million personnel (400,000 in the army itself, the rest in paramilitary units that are largely uniformed and armed like soldiers). But there were 355,000 officers in this force. That's more than one in three. The reorganization is eliminating 20 percent of the generals, 65 percent of the colonels, 75 percent of the majors, and 55 percent of the captains. The number of lieutenants is increasing 20 percent. The number of military organizations (about 2,500) are being cut (by 80 percent). Most of these are reserve units, Cold War relics, containing only a cadre of officers. In the event of a major war, reservists (who are no longer available) would be called up to use the stockpiled equipment (also now missing.) The Stavka (general staff) is having its personnel cut 61 percent (to 8,500), and military districts and bases are being consolidated. This eliminates thousands of officer jobs. Many generals were not happy with all these cuts, but this resistance has, so far, never got beyond sharp words and bitter regrets.