Peace Time: November 17, 2002

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Russia's attempts to create a professional armed forces are being sabotaged by having too many troops and too little money. The Soviet era conscription system was seen as corrupt and ineffective even before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. New recruits were brutalized and exploited by conscripts who already had 6-18 months of service. It was obvious that the only way to eliminate this system was to go with an all-volunteer force. But the military is still a major employer, with some 1.5 million people on the payroll. Only about 800,000 of these are actually in the military. Another half million are in various paramilitary organizations (border guard, railroad police, national police), but still use conscripts to keep up to strength. The remainder are civilians working for the military. 

The government tax collection system is still creaky, and the military rarely gets all the money it's supposed to have, and not on time either. Half the military manpower is conscripts, and each of these get only a few dollars in "pay" each month. The rest are civilians, officers and "contract soldiers" (volunteers) that are supposed to be paid a living wage. This can range from $100 a month in rural areas, to several hundred dollars a month in cities. The army also pays combat duty bonuses for contract soldiers who serve in a combat zone, like Chechnya. Thus can be over $300 a month. But that hasn't worked because the contract soldiers don't always get the higher rate. Pay is delayed, stolen by superiors, or the army says they only get the higher rate for those days they are under fire. This has backfired because contract soldiers can quit anytime they want in peacetime. And, technically, Chechnya isn't a declared war. So when combat units are told they are going to Chechnya, or already there, many of the contract soldiers (older and the most experienced troops in the unit), just quit. They can often just go an enlist as contract soldiers in some other unit. All of this is perfectly legal. 

The logical thing to do is to cut the payroll, and that has been proposed several times. But the military bureaucrats are reluctant to let go of people. Large numbers of employees are a form of power and job security. Moreover, many of the military officers and bureaucrats see no other jobs for themselves. So they cooperate to frustrate government plans to shrink and professionalize the military. 

So far, the government has not pushed real hard. This would entail dismissing thousands of senior officers and officials, and then trying to find reform minded younger officers to fill the gap. No one at the top wants to risk pushing the military into chaos or, worst of all, open rebellion. The current government seems content to let change come slowly, as the old Soviet era officers and officials retire. But there is a price to be paid. Corruption is widespread, with payrolls and living expense funds regularly plundered. And last year, 218 conscripts committed suicide (with two times than number dead under suspicious circumstances that could be suicide, and not training accidents or disease.)

 


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