May 5, 2009:
The Russian military, in the wake of huge layoffs and streamlining of the armed forces, is doing something they've never done before: taking care of their own, sort of. In the midst of sweeping defense and manpower reforms, some of which are being opposed by many senior officer, the Russians are trying to do something to help the thousands of commissioned officers who will soon be out of work. In order to prepare them for civilian life, these officers are being retrained in such profitable civilian tasks as website designing, management, and technical services. The bulk of the retraining efforts center around about 60 different professional programs the soon-to-be-unemployed servicemen can choose from.
This kind of thing is new for the Russian military. While military pay and benefits have never been grand in most armies in Europe, in Russia they have been downright pitiful or nonexistent. For example, during World War I, the Russian government mounted propaganda campaigns throughout the country, encouraging the civilian populace to provide aid to returning wounded or discharged soldiers, knowing that the cash-strapped government either wouldn't provide them pensions and benefits. During the Soviet era, things were a little bit better, but military pay for conscript infantrymen, was tiny compared to that paid to factory workers and other civilian jobs. Officers did rather well, and when they retired, received the best deal, getting government jobs and decent pensions.
In fact, being a member of the officer corps in Russia has historically been a pretty sweet job. During the czarist era, the close links between the military and the monarchy meant that commissioned officers enjoyed both high social status and respectability in Russian society. Most of the highest ranking commanders were typically nobility or held imperial titles (grand dukes, etc...) During the Cold War, generals made took advantage of the corrupt nature of Soviet society, using military transports and equipment to smuggle in everything from Japanese electronics to fine china. Then came t he nineties and the fall of communism Most officers and soldiers during this period were lucky if they got paid at all, and its well known that corruption and criminal dealings were the result, problems which persist to this day. The difference was that in the wake of communist collapse, a good portion of the army officers engaged in shady dealings weren't trying to get rich, but just trying to survive. Personnel in other former communist countries have fared even worse. But the Russians are trying to do something about all this and steer their discharged military personnel towards more productive directions.
The Russians are currently in the middle of a large scale reduction in their officer corps. The only ranks being increased are lieutenants, whose numbers are being increased by about 20 percent. Other than that, the generals, colonels and majors are being laid off in record numbers. 221 generals are set to lose their jobs, along with 16,682 colonels, 75,000 majors, and 50,000 captains. That's a lot of unemployed personnel who have little to no other skills aside from soldiering.
The hope is that, in addition to steering them away from illegal means of producing cash, the newly acquired skills the officers receive in their training programs will help them strengthen the Russian economy, which in itself is necessary to get the funds that the Kremlin needs to push through further military reforms. Only time will tell if the program is successful and the Russians are able to streamline their military. Hope is that 150,000 ex-officers, and their newly acquired skills, will fare better than their predecessors, who discharged with little more than a thank you, and the clothes on their backs, after 1991.