Attrition: Lies In Uniform


August 16, 2016: Russian efforts to reform its Soviet era military system to match the effectiveness of Western troops continues to encounter problems. While Russia tried to keep the problems secret, the Internet and the government programs to reduce crime and corruption interfere with that. The truth, so to speak, gets out. For example the government boasts of the growing number of volunteer "contract soldiers" joining the military. But the government refuses to reveal how many have stayed after their first contract (usually of four years). On the Internet you can find a lot of comments from former contract soldiers who got out because of the crime, corruption, inadequate equipment, bad living conditions and poor leadership. The government confirms some of these problems when the anti-crime and corruption organizations issue reports. For example, so far in 2016 crime in the military is up 40 percent (compared to 2015) with the most growth in corruption (up 150 percent) and drug use (140 percent). Unofficially it appears that nearly half the contract soldiers get out which is one reason why the government keeps going after young men trying to avoid conscription.

Russia encountered multiple problems while attempting to create Western style professional troops. They keep trying and there have been several major reform efforts since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The 1990s efforts were failures, in large part because of the cope need to with a military force that was losing 80 percent of its personnel and 90 percent of its budget. After 2000 more realistic reforms were attempted and since 2006 the Russian army has gone through a series of reforms that were supposed to transform the force that lost the Cold War into one that could win the next one. So far there have been some successes but a lot of misfires, which the government would prefer not to talk about.

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. At the end of the 1990s 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. One first post-1990s reorganizations 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 were doing most of the fighting in the Caucasus 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.

Since 2004 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. What everyone in the military wants is an all-volunteer force but so far there is neither the money nor enough potential volunteers to make that happen.


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