Russia recently revealed that its 2015 program to offer para-military training to teenagers had so far gained 350,000 members (and has a goal of one million). The program provides various programs to keep the kids busy and more patriotic. Another reason for the program is to prepare young men for military service. Russia still uses conscription but popular pressure has forced the government to reduce conscript service to one year and because so much of that time has to be spent with training (to turn civilians into useful soldiers) the military gets little practical use out of conscripts. Successful graduates of the para-military training programs can undergo a shorter form of basic training and gain an edge in getting choice assignments. The military hopes to convert many of the para-military trained recruits (especially conscripts) into career soldiers and a source of NCOs and officers.
The damage the one-year conscript service did to the military was never officially admitted until recently because senior officers were told that anyone speaking about this publicly would do serious damage to their careers. But, as officers with knowledge of the extent of the damage retired or resigned from the military, more of them spoke openly of the problem. Because of the growing demand for troops to serve in eastern Ukraine and Syria, there was more discussion on the Internet of the negative impact one-year conscripts have inflicted. Denials from the government were no longer working and active duty generals and admirals unofficially admitted it was all true, and that it was actually as bad as much of the Internet chatter implied. It was no secret that the presence of so many ill-trained conscripts in the military discouraged men from joining as volunteers (contract soldiers) and many existing officers and career enlisted men were leaving as well. For years it had been generally believed that the only effective units in the Russian military were the 100,000 or so troops in the Spetsnaz (special operations) and airborne units and even these units took some conscript volunteers and used them for support jobs requiring less training and experience.
This lack of time in service is particularly damaging for the air force and navy, which have fewer jobs for unskilled labor. Taking ships to sea is increasingly risky when so many of the crew are conscripts who have to be closely supervised and taught the many basic skills warship crewmen require. The air force is unable to maintain aircraft adequately. That means more aircraft, particularly the many older ones still in service, are crashing. Pilots are not able to fly as many hours as needed to retain skills. This situation has been made worse since 2015 because of the air operations in Syria. Those air operations are a priority and since Syria is a combat zone conscripts cannot be sent there. In any event, Syria is no place for anything but the most skilled and experienced maintainers. That means few of these maintainers are available for the air force squadrons back in Russia, which now fly even fewer hours.
The government was eager to keep this conscript crisis quiet because officially admitting it would hamper Russian diplomacy based on threats of large scale military action. East European media openly mocks Russian military threats because of the few effective units Russia actually has. The situation was becoming difficult to hide from the rest of the world. Many Russians and East Europeans regularly crossed the border on business or to visit friends and family and many of those visitors got personal testimony of recent veterans or kin of how bad the problem was and what a bad joke any Russian military threats were. That news slowly spread to Western Europe.
Russia has other problems with its actual military capabilities. Government efforts to project the image of a modern, professional and constantly improving armed forces is proving more difficult to sustain. Thus the urgency of making the para-military school program work. During the decades of communist rule, the state had complete control over the media, massive internal security forces and, most importantly, no Internet or smartphones. Those last two items have crippled efforts to persuade Russians and foreigners that Russia was still a major developer and manufacturer of new weapons. The constant stream of press releases detailing new weapons the Russian forces will be equipped with is undermined by the reality, often documented vis-a-vi smartphone video spread via the Internet. The new weapons often do not work at all and even if they do there is never enough money to produce them in the quantities implied. Russian development and manufacturing efforts are still crippled by shortages of cash and talent. Arms exports are hurt by this, especially with competitors like China continuing to produce Russian designs more efficiently (more effective, reliable and less costly in the long run). New gear that does get produced in significant numbers is usually for export customers who have the cash for procurement that the Russian military still lacks.
This poverty of money and talent is very visible with the Russian military efforts in Ukraine (Donbas) and Syria. Both are being carried out on the cheap and with as much discretion as possible because these operations are unpopular with the Russian people. They see Russian money and Russian lives being wasted on expensive political games that do the average Russian no good at all. Thus government efforts to mask just how much these operations cost in terms of resources and casualties. Hiding the spending is easier than concealing the number of dead.
But the government keeps trying, especially when it comes to improving morale in the military. That is not a new problem and that was why the government tried, in 2013, to revive the old communist era ideological training for troops and increased use of informants and opinion surveys to monitor morale and loyalty in the military. In effect, the government has returned to using the communist era "Zampolit" (political officer.) In Soviet times, every unit commander had a deputy (Zampolit) who represented the communist party and could veto any of the commanders’ decisions. The Zampolit was responsible for troop loyalty and political correctness. Sort of a communist chaplain. In 2010 the Russian Army reintroduced chaplains, something that the communists did away with in the 1920s. The new chaplains are, however, expected to report on the loyalty of the troops, to church and state. Now, additional officers are being added to handle ideological training and monitoring morale. Not exactly the return of the Zampolit, but a return of most of the Zampolits’ duties. Like their Cold War era counterparts the Zampolits proved better at reporting the bad news than dealing with it. The reports from the new Zampolits and official troop opinion polls are not encouraging, but they explain why so many young Russians and their parents are so eager to avoid conscription any way they can.
Morale has not improved but at least the regular use of opinion surveys showed that the troops were well aware of deceptive press releases about nonexistent new equipment. The troops also knew what low budget charades the operations in Donbas and Syria were. While many details of the surveys could be kept secret, the actual attitudes of the troops could not. No wonder why some Russians are nostalgic for the good old days of communist rule. If you want to see the future, look at China where newly (for the first time in history) modernized Chinese forces are a long-term threat to Russia. In China, there is lots of new gear and plenty to go around. China has a more effective economy and lots more money. China does not have to depend on conscripts and has much better trained troops than Russia.
Lacking cash the Russian government is forced to come up with other methods. Many of these new ideas are practices that were widely used during the communist period or even before during czarist times. Para-military training for high school students was used during czarist times when far fewer Russian youngsters got more than eight years of schooling. Teenagers of the aristocracy and wealthy families did attend secondary school and many of these had para-military training. So what is old is new again.