Attrition: The Incredible Shrinking Russian Armed Forces


January 9, 2009: Russia is having a difficult time maintaining personnel strength in its armed forces. There are currently about 1.2 million troops (these include the paramilitary forces of the Interior Ministry). Over the next three years, that will intentionally be reduced to one million. This will be accomplished by eliminating over 100,000 unneeded officers, and nearly as many lower ranking conscript troops.

The Russians don't need the lost officers, and can't get all the conscripts they need anyway. Currently, about 40 percent of the troops are conscripts, who serve 18 months. Every six months, about a million men (aged 18-27) are eligible for conscription. But 80 percent get taken off the roles for medical reasons (usually by bribing a doctor), or get removed from the conscription database by bribing a government official. Many of the 200,000 who are called up every six months, are those who cannot afford the bribes, and simply don't show up. The police try to catch these guys, but often don't succeed, and eventually stop looking. Most of the volunteers are unenthusiastic soldiers, and the government would like to replace all of them with volunteers. But that costs more than Russia can afford at the moment. Meanwhile, it's estimated that conscripts, and their families, pay about $350 million a year in bribes to avoid service.

Russia is also having problems attracting volunteers to its armed forces. Although the pay is competitive, the reputation of the military is not good. The suicide rate inside the armed forces is more than twice that of the civilian population (currently about 30 per 100,000 people, and that's down nearly a third in the last six years). Even so, most Russian military personnel are career troops, including most officers. These are often people who are unable to get a civilian job, or prefer the predictability of military life.

The volunteers, or "contract soldiers" are paid about the same as policemen. But cops aren't on call all the time, don't have strenuous training exercises, or risk getting sent to places like the Caucasus to battle brutal criminal gangs and Islamic terrorists. This despite the fact that serving in such "combat zones" comes with combat pay that more than triples the contract soldiers income.

The army wants to more than triple the number of contract soldiers from the current 200,000. As in other countries with a volunteer force, the biggest problem has been a booming civilian economy. With the high price of oil, and large oil exports, Russia was awash with cash, and most of it is going into expanding the Russian economy. Every new civilian job, is one more obstacle for the army recruiters. But that is changing now, as the price of oil plummeted, and a recession has set in. But recession means the government is collecting less money. Moreover, the generals want to spend additional cash on replacing Cold War era weapons and equipment. This stuff is worn out, and often obsolete compared to what Western, or even Chinese, forces are using.

The military is trying to make life in uniform less unpleasant, hoping to entice more potential conscripts to do their time, and prevent a personnel, as well as equipment, shortage in the armed forces.



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