Attrition: The Russian Fade


May 6, 2018: Most Russians, especially those of military age, are reluctant to serve in the military and very much against “foreign military adventures” even if they are not likely to be sent to a combat zone. The government already acknowledges that by minimizing the number of Russian troops sent to Syria or Donbas and keeping military casualties low.

The February incident in Syria where over 200 Russian military contractors died when they tried to seize a small base in eastern Syria containing American troops did not trigger calls for revenge among Russians. Instead, the attitude was that these guys took a chance to make a lot of money and it didn’t work out. There are a lot of dangerous jobs in Russia that pay well to compensate for the risk. Those who do that work are opportunists, not patriots. So the government has to go easy in Ukraine and Syria. Israel seems more aware of this than most Middle Eastern powers. That is partly because Israel has a large Russian minority, courtesy of a lot of Russian Jews coming to Israel since the 1980s and keeping in touch with folks back home.

Another aftereffect of the 200 contractor deaths was Russia revealing how many Russian military personnel have served in Syria since mid-2015. It was 48,000, and that includes army, navy and air force. Not included are contractors, who are civilians, even if they took on some of the most dangerous jobs and suffered more casualties than the military personnel. Out of those 48,000 Russian military personnel who have been in Syria (some for less than a day, few for more than six months) only about 60 have died in combat so far. There have been half as many military contractors serving in Syria and they have suffered nearly 500 dead. No official numbers of military contractor fatalities have been released but Russian volunteer organizations have tried to keep track of the funerals or other indications of young men dying in Syria and it is clear that being a military contractor is a lot more dangerous. The point here is that there are still some Russians willing to take dangerous combat jobs but there are not enough them to maintain the million man military Russian leaders want.

For the Russian military all this indicates that military service is still very unpopular and even though most Russian military personnel are now volunteers (serving on contracts) the ability of the military to hold onto those contract soldiers is always weakened if there are a lot of casualties or too much chance of being sent to a combat zone. Conscription is in even worse shape, with the number of conscripts available declining each year. In April 2018 the Russian military only ended up with 128,000 conscripts during the semiannual draft call. This was the lowest since 2006, a year when there were more young men available as well as more deferments and rampant draft dodging. In the t2 years since then, the deferments have declined, more draft dodgers have been punished severely but there are still fewer conscripts. There are simply fewer young men to conscript because of lower birth rates and more young men who are in poor physical shape or have become addicted to drugs or otherwise acquired a police record and more trouble than they are worth if conscripted anyway. All this was expected but since the 1990s Russia has been seeking solutions and finding none that work.

A 2012 parliament-ordered investigation of the armed forces found that the army was short a third of the privates (lowest ranking enlisted troops) they were supposed to have. The Russian military (mainly the Army and Interior Ministry paramilitary units) are supposed to have a million personnel. But officials admitted in 2011, off-the-record, that the real number is closer to 800,000 and relentlessly declining. A subsequent investigation confirmed this. What happened to the missing troops? Since 2012 the military has come up with a growing list of solutions for the problem but all these efforts do is slow the decline of military manpower numbers, not reverse it. Current fixes involve calling up reservists (usually for a brief period to test the system) and instead of letting the reservists quickly return to civilian life the military is keeping many of the reservists for six months or more. If this keeps up, reservists will start looking for ways to get out of the reserves. The economic recession since 2014 (because of low oil prices and sanctions) was supposed to encourage more Russians to volunteer but that did not happen. Recruiting foreigners had minimal impact and so the Russian military keeps fading away.

The military has 220,000 officers and about the same number of "contract personnel" (higher paid volunteers, who fill most of the NCO slots). Thus conscripts still make up a large portion of the military and it's getting harder and harder to find enough people to take. The means that there are two classes of Russian military personnel. Most (about 70 percent) are much less capable (most of them conscripts in for one year of service) supervised by many of the least capable officers and NCOs. But a third of the military are more enthusiastic volunteers and conscripts. These staff the elite special operations, airborne, security and specialist units. In other words, while the Russian government claims to have a million military personnel on duty the reality is the reality is that there are less than 800,000 (and apparently closer to 700,000) people on active duty and only about 200,000 of those are really good at what they do and want to be in the military.

Conscripts are inducted twice a year, in April and October. In 2011, the April intake was 220,000 but fewer than that actually made it into uniform. In 2018 the April draft was 128,000. In 2011 only about 75 percent of the men who showed up were considered fit to take. In 2018 standards of “fitness for military service” are much less strict and the military has to cope with a lot more recruits who are of marginal use.

By 2012 the military reluctantly accepted the fact that they would not be able to obtain more than 270,000 conscripts a year if that. In the last six years maintaining anything close to that number meant taking less willing and able men. Senior leaders now accept that they will never command a million man force.

For a decade now the military has not been attracting the kind of quality volunteers they had hoped to get and are lowering their standards in order to make their annual quotas. This just fills the ranks with more troublesome people, who cause more of the good troops to get out. In the last few years, the military has quietly stopped accepting many volunteers or conscripts from Moslem areas, especially the Caucasus (especially Chechnya and Dagestan). The wisdom of this was made clear when Russian intelligence reported that the most effective Russian Moslems who joined and fought for Islamic terrorist groups were military veterans. In contrast, Russian Moslems who had not served in the military were less likely to become Islamic terrorists and if they did they were used as suicide bombers or support staff, not as long-term fighters. Moreover, commanders continued to report that if more than a few percent of their troops were Moslem there would be morale problems or worse.

The basic recruiting problem is two-fold. First, military service is very unpopular, and potential conscripts are increasingly successful at dodging the draft deliberately or otherwise. But the biggest problem is that the number of 18 year olds is rapidly declining each year. By 2009 all draftees were born after the Soviet Union dissolved. That was when the birth rate went south year after year. Not so much because the Soviet Union was gone but more because of the economic collapse (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 less than half that 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 have made military service so unsavory.

With conscripts now in for only a year, 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 military is unpopular for conscripts mainly because of the brutal treatment they receive. This has not been getting better, and "hazing" incidents are still increasing each year. This is serious stuff. There are a lot of reasons for not wanting to be in the Russian Army but the worst of them is the hazing (of new men by guys who have been in a few months longer). It was thought that this sort of thing would speed the demise of conscription in Russia, once the Cold War ended in 1991. Didn't work out that away. The government has found that, even among the "contract soldiers" (carefully selected volunteers who are paid much more than conscripts) 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 out of control. The abuse continues to exist in part because of the growing animosity against troops who are not ethnic Russians and especially against those who are Moslem. Because of higher birthrates among the Moslem populations, nearly 15 percent of eligible conscripts are Moslems and that is seen as more of a problem.

This hazing originally developed after World War II, when Russia deliberately avoided developing a professional NCO corps. They preferred to have officers take care of nearly all troop supervision. The Soviets failed to note that good NCOs were the key to effective troops. The Soviets felt that officers were more reliable, as they were more carefully selected and monitored. The NCOs that did exist were treated as slightly more reliable enlisted men but given little real authority. Since officers did not live with the men slack discipline in the barracks gave rise to the vicious hazing and exploitation of junior conscripts by the senior ones. This led to very low morale, and a lot of suicides, theft, sabotage, and desertions. The hazing has been one of the basic causes of crimes in the Russian armed forces, accounting for 20 to 30 percent of all soldier crimes. This has caused a suicide rate that is among the highest in the world. Poor working conditions in general also mean that Russian soldiers are nearly twice as likely to die from accidents, or suicide, than American soldiers. Long recognized as a problem no solution to the hazing ever worked.

Conscription itself, and the prospect of being exposed to the hazing has led to a massive increase in draft dodging. Bribes, and document fraud are freely used. Few parents, or potential conscripts, consider this a crime. Avoiding the draft is seen as a form of self-preservation. The government has cracked down on the parent-backed draft dodging with little effect. That’s because there is still so much corruption in Russia and evading conscription is seen by many as not really criminal, especially when the parents can afford to pay a bribe to keep their only son (and often an only child) out of the Russian military.

The Russian lack of sergeants (praporshchiki) has been difficult to fix. Just promoting more troops to that rank, paying them some more, and telling them to take charge, has not done the job. So going back to look at how Western armies do it, the Russians noted that those foreign armies provided a lot of professional training for new NCOs and more of it as the NCOs advanced in rank. But this is a long term process and it will be years before benefits will be felt.

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 800,000 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 by the end of the 1990s a disproportionate number of officers remained. This problem was solved, after encountering much resistance from officers in general, after a series of reforms, the number of officers was reduced by over 50 percent.

As a result of these personnel problems, Russian efforts to reform and upgrade its armed forces have, so far, failed. The basic problem is that few Russian men are willing to join, even at good pay rates. Efforts to recruit women and foreigners have not made up for this. The Russian military has an image problem that just won't go away easily. This resulted in the period of service for conscripts being lowered to one year (from two) in 2008. That was partly to placate the growing number of parents who were encouraging, and assisting, their kids in avoiding military service.

All this comes after more than a decade of reforms in the armed forces, particularly the army. Poor discipline, low morale, and incompetent performance are all legacies of the Soviet era (1921-1991). Russian commanders, envious of the success of all-volunteer Western forces, have long studied their former foes and decided to adopt a lot more Western military customs. For example, one recent reform ordered that Russian troops would not be confined to their barracks most of the time. In the Soviet era, the conscripted troops were treated like convicts and their barracks were more like a prison than the college dormitory atmosphere found in troop housing for Western military personnel. Russian conscripts are now free to leave the base on weekends and work only a five day week. All barracks have showers (a recent achievement) and troops accommodations are the best they have ever been. Things like this help a bit but not enough.

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. As a result of all these factors, prospects of a revival of the traditional large Russian armed forces continues to fade.


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