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The Baby Bust Buries The Russian Army
by James Dunnigan
October 30, 2011

The Russian Ground Forces (the Army and Interior Ministry paramilitary units) are supposed to have a million personnel. But officials admit, off-the-record, that the real number is closer to 800,000 and falling fast. Conscripts are inducted twice a year, in April and October. This year, the April intake was 220,000. But this month, only 135,000 are expected. The military is hurrying to adapt by cutting the officer ranks to 220,000, increasing the number of long term professional ("contract") soldiers and trained NCOs to 420,000 and accepting the fact that they will not be able to obtain more than 270,000 conscripts a year, if that. At the moment there are too many officers, not enough contract soldiers and NCOs and about the right amount of conscripts.

The basic problem is two-fold. First, military service is very unpopular, and potential conscripts are increasingly successful at dodging the draft. But the biggest problem is that the number of 18 year olds is rapidly declining each year. The latest crop of draftees was those 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 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 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, 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 so unpopular for conscripts because of the brutal treatment they receive. This has not been getting better, and earlier this year it was revealed that "hazing" incidents were up 16 percent last 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 years, or 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. What made it worse last year was the growing animosity against troops who are not ethnic Russians.

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 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 per cent 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.

With hazing, and the resulting poor morale and discipline, the military is also unable to keep many of its experienced and capable NCOs. Many of the best ones have been leaving the military, despite better pay and living conditions. All noted the problems, caused by hazing, as a major reason for getting out.

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 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 one million in just Russia (which got about half the population of the Soviet Union, and 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. At the beginning of the current round of reforms, the Russian military has 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 nearly half of them.

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. 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. 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. A recent poll revealed that 75 percent of 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.

 


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