Leadership: Russia Cancels Conscription


July 4, 2012: The Russian Army leadership is, at last, in nearly complete agreement that fundamental reforms are needed. For the last two decades traditionalists have been opposing adopting Western methods of recruiting, training, and leading soldiers. But the old ways of using mostly conscripts, no real NCOs, and lots of officers to supervise everything have completely failed now that Russia is no longer a police state. Russia isn't exactly a democracy either but the army can no longer order the population to surrender their sons for two years of military service under brutal and unhealthy conditions. Growing opposition to military service has made it extremely difficult to get anyone for the military and troop quality has plummeted. Draft dodging has reached epidemic proportions and efforts to attract more highly paid volunteers have failed as well. The basic problem is the Soviet era tradition of senior troops brutalizing new recruits. Consider the impact of this sort of thing. For example, a third of all recruits are hospitalized at some point during their service because of injuries or malnutrition, all the result of the bullying and incompetent leadership. Ultimately, 20 percent of recruits are discharged early because of injuries or illnesses they have endured. This sort of thing gives Russian politicians nightmares about huge crowds of Russian mothers gathering in Red Square demanding justice for their mistreated sons. Something, everyone now agrees, has to be done. While it will be expensive to eliminate conscription, it has reached the point where all the alternatives are worse.  

Currently the military has 220,000 officers and 200,000 "contract personnel" (higher paid volunteers, who fill most of the NCO slots). Thus most of the troops are conscripts, and it's getting harder and harder to find enough people to coerce into uniform. The armed forces needs over 600,000 conscripts a year but can only obtaine about 400,000, and that number is declining each year. Most of the missing troops were young men who were conscripted but never showed up. The barracks are thinly populated and the situation is becoming a major national scandal. So now it is generally agreed among the generals that conscription has to go and better troop supervision (via competent sergeants) has to be established.

Russia's military leaders have come to understand that the key problem has always been the lack of adequate troop supervision. In other words, Russia lacked good sergeants (NCOs/non-commissioned officers). This is because during the Soviet Union period (1921-91) the communists took away NCO's responsibilities and duties and turned these tasks over to young officers. The officers were considered more trustworthy by the communist leadership. There was one major flaw in that plan. Without NCOs no one was maintaining order and discipline in the barracks. The young lieutenants normally assigned to run a platoon had no experience handling troops and were often intimidated by bullies in the ranks. There were not enough more experienced, but higher ranking, officers to come and back the lieutenants up. While the threat of arrest and prison (or labor camps) prevented mutiny or complete anarchy, the stronger troops picked on the weaker ones, making military service extremely unpopular for all the wrong reasons. The conscripts didn't mind serving their country but they did not like being bullied and exploited by gangs of slightly older soldiers.

For over a decade now the generals have tried to break this cycle of "hazing." Taking advice from their Western counterparts they sought to develop NCOs who could take charge of the barracks. They discovered that building an effective NCO corps from scratch is not easy. For one thing, the culture of hazing is very hard to extinguish. Many of the first "professional" (carefully selected, trained, and better paid) NCOs gave up and got out of the military as soon as they could. Facing down the gangs of bullies was more trouble than it was worth.

The latest reform effort is based on increasing the number of contract troops to 425,000 over the next four years and using a special six week training and selection program, to make sure the right people are signed up. The six week course is a series of training and testing sessions that determine if candidates can handle the stress of military life and possess enough maturity to avoid hazing and also help stop those who are still bullying their fellow soldiers. These new contract soldiers are also selected on the basis of willingness to make a career of the military and eventually take on more responsibilities (becoming NCOs or technical specialists). To meet the goal of 425,000 contract soldiers the military will have to bring in 50,000 new contract soldiers a year. If that goal is achieved most of the enlisted troops would be contract troops and professional enough to eliminate the bullying among the conscripts. If that can be done, and most of these new volunteer soldiers do indeed renounce the culture of hazing, then the bullies will be a small minority, few enough for officers and existing NCOs to take care of. Over the next decade many of the new contract soldiers will rise in the NCO ranks, never having been polluted by the culture of hazing and ready to crack down on any junior troops who try to revive the bad old ways (and many will, having heard stories from older male relatives or their friends).

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.

With conscripts now in for only a year now, 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 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 growing number of ill-trained and unreliable conscripts, the Russian military is more of a mirage than an effective combat (or even police) organization.

The government found that, even among the contract soldiers 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 six months or so against the new recruits. But this extends to a pattern of abuse and brutality by all senior enlisted troops against junior ones. It’s long been out of control. The abuse continues to increase because of the growing animosity against troops who are not ethnic Russians.

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 less than one 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 in the last 18 years 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 that are largely uniformed and armed like soldiers). But there were 355,000 officers in this force. That's more than one in three. With all that some 40,000 officer positions were still vacant. The reorganization eliminated over half of them.

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. Getting the corrupt officers out of the military may prove more difficult than eliminating the young bullies.




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