Russia is expanding a program that allows young men to avoid conscription (usually by bribing their way out of it) with a new college program. Men can study military matters for 450 hours during two years and then undergo three months of training at an army base. After that the student enters the reserves as an enlisted soldier. Those who do very well in their military studies go into the reserves as junior NCOs (sergeants). Russian military leaders also know from experience that a small, but significant percentage of those who take this university level reservist course opt to join the active military and become career officers or NCOs.
The Russian reserves don’t train or get called up as much as the American ones do, or even those of most other Western countries. That may change, and if it does Russia wants to have some quality people in the reserves to make it work. This military training for college students has been in operation since 2008, but at only 72 schools and for fewer than 250,000 students. Now all universities in Russia will carry the program, opening it up to some three million students.
Russians can delay the draft by attending university but eventually the military will seek out graduates or dropouts to get them for their one year of service. This has been getting more difficult since the 1990s and the end of the Cold War. As a result 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) and tried some pretty exotic ploys to encourage young men to join, or not dodge the draft. For example the army now allows conscripts to 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 or building more comfortable barracks and ensuring that they stay in good repair. In many rural parts of Russia trained dogs have long been present and the new military initiative is not as odd as it sounds although so far it has attracted few takers. Another new idea involves giving selected conscripts the opportunity to switch from one year of low paid conscript duty to two years as a “contract soldier.” That means much better pay and assignments as well as serving with a better grade of soldiers.
The current overall plan is to increase the number of contract troops to 425,000 (for the army and Interior Ministry) over the next few years. That means doubling the number of contract troops now in uniform. Not only are there not enough volunteers, but there are not enough conscripts either. The biggest problem with 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. These low quality conscripts will not be allowed to try the two year “contract soldier” option.
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 knowledge (from recently discharged conscripts telling their stories over the Internet) that the hazing and prison-like conditions in the barracks still exists is still out there. The new generation of NCOs and better troop living conditions are meant to provide an atmosphere that will not scare away conscripts and volunteers and will be reported by recent veterans over the Internet. It takes time to build new barracks and for the word of that to get out and change attitudes.
The army has made several major attempts to reduce the traditional brutality and hazing directed at new recruits. This involved reducing conscript service to only a year (rather than two), tolerating 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 (the military is short over 20 percent of its authorized manpower) and more must be done achieve find the million people in uniform the military says it needs.
But this means that even elite airborne and commando units are using a lot of conscripts who volunteer for these jobs. Many of these guys are expected to take the two year contract option. Currently these eager young recruits need a year to master the skills needed to be useful and then they are discharged. Few choose to remain in uniform and become career (“contract”) 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 on active duty. 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 about as many 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 recent reorganization eliminated over half of the officers but left many surviving officers bitter and in a bad mood.
Meanwhile attitudes among civilians changed and military service was disparaged. It was now OK to avoid conscription. For most young Russians it has become cool to be a draft dodger. Memories of the mighty Red Army that vanquished the Germans in the 1940s is fading from memory while the corruption, mismanagement and brutality in the military remain a vivid reality.
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. 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.
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.