The Russian military recently announced that new conscripts could bring their pet dogs with them if the animals had undergone a special training course to acquire a useful skill the military can use. This includes sniffing out drugs or explosives or tracking or security. The military is eager to get more, and better quality, conscripts and new thinking is being encouraged to make that happen, like being able to do your military service with their dog. In many rural parts of Russia trained dogs have long been present and the new military initiative is not as odd as it sounds.
Over the last decade the Russian government has been under growing pressure to get rid of conscription. Unable to do that because so few people are willing to join the military (even at competitive pay rates), the government has improved living conditions (a lot), made several efforts to reduce the traditional brutality directed at new recruits, reduced conscript service to only a year (rather than two), tolerated a lot of draft avoidance, and taken 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. All this has not been enough and more must be done to even maintain a million people in uniform.
But this means that even elite airborne and commando units are using a lot of conscripts who volunteer for these jobs. Most of these eager 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 career soldiers. That's primarily because the Russian military 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 the 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 is in sharp contrast to the old days. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, it had 5 million troops in its armed forces. Now it's less than 1 million in just Russia (which has about half the population of the Soviet Union but most of the territory). Although the Russian armed forces lost over 80 percent of its strength since 1991, a disproportionate number of officers remained. A decade ago the Russian military had about 1.2 million personnel (400,000 in the army itself, the rest in paramilitary units). But there were 355,000 officers in this force. That's more than 1 in 3. With all that, some 40,000 officer positions were still vacant. The reorganization eliminated over half of the officers but left many surviving officers bitter and in a bad mood.
During this time the Russian Interior Ministry noticed that their conscript troops are not nearly as efficient as volunteers and wanted to replace all its conscripts with volunteers. This is expensive, but the Interior Ministry makes a case that its paramilitary troops are doing most of the fighting these days and deserve the best personnel. Additional pressure comes from the fact that Russia is hosting the Winter Olympics in early 2014, and Russian Islamic terrorists have threatened to disrupt that event (which will be held in Sochi, on the Black Sea just north of the Caucasus). The new “bring your skilled dog with you” program would be particularly useful for the conscripts headed for service with the Interior Ministry (which takes about as many conscripts as the Defense Ministry).
The Interior Ministry has a lot of infantry and commandos. That’s because the Russian military consists of several ground forces. There is the army, which has about 300,000 personnel, including 35,000 airborne troops who are a somewhat autonomous force. The navy has about 20,000 ground troops (marines) and the Interior Ministry has over 100,000 “special police” that includes riot police units, light infantry units, and police commandoes. SWAT units are formed by local police, mostly in big cities, but the Interior Ministry controls a large reserve of specialist police for use anywhere in Russia.
For most of the last decade most of the “combat troops” fighting terrorists in the Caucasus have been from the Interior Ministry. There they are assisted by army commandos (Spetsnaz) and airborne forces. The army would prefer to keep most of these elite troops out of the Caucasus and ready for another emergency. The Interior Ministry agrees and wants to upgrade its paramilitary troops by having more volunteers and fewer conscripts.
Russian efforts to improve the quality of their military personnel always runs into continuing problems with conscription. In early 2013, the Russian government bowed to public pressure and agreed not to send conscripts into combat. Only “contract soldiers” (higher paid volunteer troops) will do combat, unless there is a general war. Parents also complain when their conscript sons are sent to the Interior Ministry and then, after brief training, to the Caucasus. The actual wording of these new regulations allowed conscripts to be sent to do non-combat jobs in the Caucasus, where terrorism is quite common. This was not publicized. These new rules were issued with no fanfare but the word quickly got around and parents of draft age (18-26) men were outraged. This was seen as a subterfuge to save money (less training for draftees) at the expense of the young conscripts and still send them to dangerous service in the Caucasus. While the conscripts would not be chasing after Islamic terrorists down there, they would be targets for terrorist attacks and would, because of the training cuts, be less able to defend themselves. The parents figured that out themselves. The military and Interior Ministry saw the change as necessary because conscripts are only in for a year now, rather than two, and extensive training is costly and largely wasted because most of the conscripts leave after their year is up. The larger problem is that Russia has fewer and fewer people to conscript and a very difficult time attracting volunteers.
The current plan is to increase the number of contract troops to 425,000 (for the army and Interior Ministry) over the next few years. The biggest problem with keeping conscription is that the number of 18 year olds is rapidly declining each year. The latest crop of draftees was 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 depression (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.
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. Polls constantly show that most 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. The new generation of NCOs and better troop living conditions are meant to provide an atmosphere that will not scare away conscripts and volunteers.
The Russian military has other problems as well. Corruption investigators believe that about 20 percent of the military budget is lost to corruption and outright theft. So just spending more money on the military is not an easy fix either. Worse, many, if not most, Russian arms manufacturers are corrupt and incompetent. This has gotten so bad that many reform minded generals and admirals prefer to buy foreign weapons. This means paying more but the quality is much higher and you get stuff on schedule. The Russian military needs a round of fundamental reforms but there is a lot of resistance from those comfortable with the bad old ways.