Attrition: Russia Tries To Expand Its Foreign Legion


February 12, 2015: As of 2015 Russia has made it easier for foreigners to join the Russian military. Now all you have to do is be able to speak passable Russian and have no criminal record and meet physical and educational standards. These recruits join for five years as “contract soldiers” in the military or para-military (Interior Ministry) forces. The navy and air force are particularly short of technically qualified personnel and don't care if the new guys speak with an accent. Successful completion of the five year contract makes it easier for the foreign soldier to become a Russian citizen. Russia had earlier begun accepting foreigners but only those that could prove some connection to the old Soviet Union. By late 2014 only a few hundred foreigners were serving. The new rules aren’t expected to bring in many more recruits, but every new one counts as Russia is desperate to attract enough volunteers to be able to eliminate the use of conscription.

Many other nations seek foreign recruits for the same reasons; not enough locals want to serve. Russia, for example, has a fundamental problem in that few Russian men are willing to join, even at good pay rates. Earlier efforts to recruit women and foreigners have not made up for this. The Russian military suffers from 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.

With the U.S. and other Western militaries downsizing, a growing number of countries and companies are seeking to employ these unemployed military personnel. The UAE (United Arab Emirates), Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Britain, Israel, the Vatican and France have long sought foreign recruits and with far more success than Russia. The main problem with making the switch is language. You have to be able to speak the language of the force you are joining. For many eager to join a foreign military that is not a difficult task. But for Americans it is illegal to join a foreign military and those who do so and are found out can lose their American citizenship. For some countries there is a way to get around that, by offering Americans citizenship. Australia, for example, does this. So does the United States, for that matter. This is one reason why Americans prefer to join private security companies, where English is standard and nationality is not a problem.

Many countries go out of their way to attract foreigners because it has proved difficult to attract qualified locals to the military. The Australians have had a very difficult time recruiting qualified people since the late 1990s. Years of low unemployment in Australia (partly because China is buying so many raw materials) has caused a shortage of engineering and technical specialists, and reliable skilled people of all sorts. So since about 2006 the Australian armed forces has sought military veterans, especially from similar, English speaking countries like Canada, Britain, New Zealand, Singapore and the United States. All these nations share a common language and, in general, culture with Australia. Moreover, veterans from these foreign nations have often gone through similar security vetting. The recruiting offers are being sweetened with quick granting of Australian citizenship, often as little as three months. But for all that effort, Australia has only attracted 726 foreign recruits after six years of trying. Some required signing bonuses of nearly $200,000 to make the move. The foreigners amounted to about one percent of the troops. The Australian military took some heat from the media for this, but justified it by pointing out that the foreigners being recruited often had essential technical skills, and that no Australians with equivalent capabilities were willing join, even with a big bonus.

The most successful recruiter of foreigners have been the United States, which recently had about 50,000 non-citizens in service (out of some 2.2 million active duty and reserve troops, about 2.2 percent of all troops). The navy, not the army, has the largest number (nearly half). That's something of a navy tradition, as hiring foreigners to serve on U.S. warships is a custom that goes back over a century. Currently, the proportion of foreigners in the U.S. military is historically low. It's been much higher in the past, often reaching 25 percent or more. This caused alarm, then as now, but there were never a lot of problems with uncertain loyalties.

Since 2003 some senior American officers suggested recruiting more foreigners. Not just non-citizens with green cards but foreigners who are not residents of the United States. This brought forth protests from those opposed to, well, whatever. Historically, the American military has usually had more foreigners in the ranks than it does now. During the American Civil War about twenty percent of the Union Army was foreign born troops. There were entire divisions of Irish, Germans, or Scandinavians. For the rest of the 20th century, the all-volunteer military continued to have a higher (than today) percentage of foreigners. Recruiting foreigners would enable the army to get more highly capable recruits and ones with needed foreign language and cultural awareness skills. Naturally, they would have to speak acceptable English, just as resident foreigners in the United States or citizens from Puerto Rico must. The American military pay and benefits are competitive with U.S. civilian occupations, but to most foreigners, these pay levels are astronomical. The risk has usually been low. For example only about one in a thousand foreign born volunteers died in Iraq or Afghanistan. All that and you get to become a citizen of the United States after your four year enlistment is up. The only question was which line would be longer at American embassies, the one for visas, or the one for military recruiting?

And then there is Britain. Two centuries ago Gurkhas were first recruited into the British Indian army (not the British army). After India became independent in 1947 they too recruited Gurkhas for Indian infantry units. But service in the British army was considered a better deal. Britain has long recruited foreigners into its army and navy because there has always been a shortage of British citizens willing to serve. Currently, Gurkhas comprise about two percent of British troops and come from Nepal, a small country on the northern border that was never part of British India. In large part that was because the British quickly learned that it was preferable to hire Gurkhas than fight them. The Gurkhas agreed and have always competed with each other to get into British service.

Israel has long attracted foreigners because the population is largely Jewish migrants, or their descendants. Eventually Israel established a special recruiting program for “lone soldiers”. These are Jewish men (and some women) who are not Israeli but want to serve in the Israeli armed forces. Such volunteers have always been welcome, they are often decided to become Israeli citizens after their military service. But many returned home after their service and the “lone soldier” program was set up to make their foreign troops feel more welcome and more a part of Israeli society. To that end the lone soldiers was offered the option of having an Israeli family “adopt” him during his military service so that he had someone who could help with getting used to life in Israel. The lone soldier program also provided a lot of government services to help with that. In addition to making life easier for the lone soldiers, these services helped persuade many to stay and become Israelis. Currently about 40 percent of the lone soldiers are from America and Russia and about three percent of active duty Israeli troops are “lone soldiers” and even more are foreign born but immigrated to Israel with their families.

Then there is the French Foreign Legion, which is supposed to be nothing but foreigners (except for the officers). But many French join, claiming to be from the French speaking parts of Belgium. No matter, if otherwise qualified, the "Belgians" are signed up. Currently, Foreign Legionnaires comprise about two percent of French troops.

In Italy, the Vatican (a small part of Rome that is an independent country controlled by the Roman Catholic Church) gets most of its security forces from Catholic areas of Switzerland. This is the Swiss Guard. While the French Foreign Legion dates from the 19th century, Swiss have been serving as foreign mercenaries since the 15th century. But this sort of thing disappeared in Switzerland as better economic opportunities developed in and mercenaries became less popular. Sending Swiss mercenaries to serve the pope, however, continues to be popular with Catholic Swiss.

Mercenaries in the form of private security companies have become the bane of recruiters trying to attract skilled veterans. The war on terror and the need to protect diplomats and aid workers in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East created a huge demand for these mercenaries. Such private armies had been out of style since the 19th century, when the industrial revolution made mass conscription practical. The age of conscription ended in the late 20th century and, not surprisingly, the mercenaries returned. These firms pay more than the military and are selective, taking the best available personnel. It’s ironic that the mass media decided to demonize the security companies, despite the fact that their personnel were more professional, disciplined, mature and capable than the people in uniform.





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