Attrition: Russia Agrees To Dump Conscription


April 14, 2011: President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia has admitted that conscription in Russia will have to go. Sometime in the 2020s, the last Russian conscript will enter service. That may happen sooner, because conscription is very unpopular with Russians of all ages, and all attempts to change this attitude in the last decade have failed. For the last two years, not enough conscripts have been willing to answer their draft notice. Dodging the draft is no longer seen as unpatriotic, but simply a rational response to an inhumane situation.

President Medvedev has a complex cultural problem here, which even he has not demonstrated an understanding of. Put simply, while Western nations developed an attitude that men of all classes could honorably serve as enlisted troops, or officers, it was very different in Russia. There, enlisted troops never got any respect. As war heroes, yes, but not as a form of service to the nation. In Russia, only officers got any respect. Worse yet, Russia never developed the attitude that senior NCOs (non-commissioned officers, or sergeants and petty officers) are worthy of respect. In the West, it is accepted that a senior NCO is a highly respected and vital military professional.

To demonstrate how this hurts the Russian military, consider how Russian political and military leaders see the problem of encouraging veteran NCOs to stay in uniform. Many of these Russian big shots talk about how they can turn senior NCOs into junior officers. This is something that is rarely done in the West. There, junior NCOs often become officers. But most NCOs want to make a career of it. They, and the officers that command them, know that the best NCOs are the most senior ones, something that most Russians leaders (military and political) can't seem to grasp.

An increasing number of senior Russians are coming to understand that the superiority of Western combat units is, in large part, because of the NCO system developed in the West. This is not the first time Russia has grappled with this problem. Russia was on the way towards adopting this system before World War I, but the Bolshevik revolution derailed that, causing most Russians to believe that senior NCOs (Sergeant Major, 1st Sergeant, Chief Petty Officer) were yet another aspect of the decadent West that must be avoided. While Russia has adopted a lot of other Western techniques in order to get their economy going, there has been a surprising amount of resistance to dumping military customs that, well, never really worked too well.

It's all about the abuse of young recruits. The Russians like to call it hazing. Such hazing incidents were up 16 percent last year. This was very bad news for draft age men and their parents. 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 way for a long time. 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 a year, 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. What made it worse last year was the growing animosity against troops who are not ethnic Russians.

This hazing originally developed after World War I, 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.

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. Meanwhile, Russian officers have to change their attitudes towards (less contempt, more confidence) NCOs. That has proved to be very difficult, even for Russian NCOs who have seen Western NCOs in action. They see that as some kind of Western magic, like cops who are not always looking for bribes, not something that would ever happen in Russia.

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 be free to leave the base on weekends, and work only a five day week. Things like this help a bit, but not enough.

The effort to attract more capable recruits (or veterans to stay in) as "contract soldiers" (serving five year terms) was crippled because the pay was never able to match what was available in the civilian sector (to the high quality young guys the military sought). Instead, the army tried to get by with accepting lower quality contract soldiers. That did not work out well. With the number of officers being cut down to 150,000 (and enlisted to 745,000 over the next five years), it was easier to afford big pay raises for the remaining officers and NCOs, but not for hundreds of thousands of contract soldiers. Additional money has been found to try and hire higher quality contract soldiers, but it's unclear if that has worked yet.

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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