Leadership: Russia Recognizes Reality


November 30, 2016: Three years of low unusually low oil prices and other financial problems (international sanctions in response to the Ukraine invasion) have forced Russia to cut back on its military modernization plans. But one benefit of the continuing economic recession is that it has become possible for the military to meet its goals for increasing the number of career (volunteer) military personnel. It appears that the military will meet its goal of having 695,000 volunteer troops by the end of 2017. That means only about 30 percent of military personnel will be conscripts.

The Russian contract soldiers have been useful, but expensive, since they were first introduced in the early 1990s. Many Russians wanted an all-volunteer military but that was unaffordable. The number of kontraktniki (contract) soldiers increased as money was available. There were also political aspects to this because there was tremendous anger over the continued use of conscription. This led to spending more money on replacing conscripts with better paid volunteers. Thus in 2013 it became possible for the Russian government to promise not to send conscripts into combat. Only contract soldiers would not be sent into a combat zone, unless there is a general war. As a result of this 2013 policy, combat training of conscripts was reduced from six to four months. Actually, training was cut in half, but conscripts were to not be sent to a combat zone (as in the Caucasus) until they had been in uniform for at least four months. 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 parents of draft age (18-26) men soon found out and figured it out and 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 military 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. By 2014 there was a demand for “volunteers” in Ukraine, which was technically now overseas. Russia had to offer bonuses to former contract soldiers to get them back in uniform long enough to serve 6-12 months in Ukraine or Syria.

The military was still trying to get by with fewer conscripts. By 2013 the military had 420,000 officers and "contract personnel" mainly to fill most of the NCO and specialist slots. Thus most of the troops were still conscripts and it remained difficult to find enough people to coerce into uniform. Worse while the armed forces needed over 600,000 conscripts a year they could only obtain 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 was 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. Russians note with fear that the Chinese now have an army three times the size of theirs and spend three times as much on defense. China is also building an effective NCO corps, something that has long made Western forces much more effective.

In 2013 the plan was to increase the number of contract troops to 425,000 by 2017 and use 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 the traditional abuse inflicted on new troops and help stop those who are still bullying their fellow soldiers. These new contract soldiers were also selected on the basis of willingness to make a career of the military and eventually take on more responsibilities (becoming NCOs, technical specialists or officers). To meet the goal of 425,000 contract soldiers the military will have to bring in 50,000 new contract soldiers a year. That goal was largely because army service, despite being so despised that even competitive (with civilian jobs) pay and better living conditions began to work because there was more and more unemployment. The government use of nationalist propaganda and giving the victorious Russian troops in Syria lots of publicity helped. The situation in Ukraine was different in that Russian troops were never officially there so you could not publicize how they were doing.

Russia has finally accepted the Western view that the quality of troops, not the quality and quantity of their weapons is more important. This is something many Russian military personnel suspected but until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 you could not propose going that way. But now that Russia has had over a decade of recruiting and training troops in the Western style there is ample proof that concentrating on the quality of troops is more important.


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