Forces: Russia’s Conscription Crisis


March 4, 2024: Conscription has been disappearing since the Cold War and the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991. Russia kept it going but the number of conscripts who showed up declined each year. In April 2018 the Russian military only ended up with 128,000 conscripts during the semiannual draft call. This was the lowest since 2006, a year when there were more young men available as well as more deferments and rampant draft dodging. In the years since 2018 the decline was reversed by issuing fewer deferments, punishing more draft dodgers, and enforcing laws against conscripts sent to combat zones because popular resistance to that threatened the conscription system. The one exception was if the fighting was in Russia, and this was the excuse the government used in 2022 as it claimed they were not invading Ukraine but reuniting it with Russian based on the contention that it belonged to Russia. The Ukrainians as well as Russian conscripts and their families disagreed with this interpretation and, after some political uproar, the Russian government mostly stopped sending conscripts to Ukraine.

Another reason for fewer conscripts is that there were fewer young men to conscript because of lower birth rates, greater proportions of young men who were in poor physical shape or addicted to drugs, or had a police record and so were considered more trouble than they were worth if conscripted. All this was expected but since the 1990s Russia has been seeking solutions and finding none that work well enough to keep the military up to strength.

As early as 2012 a Russian parliament-ordered investigation found that the army was short a third of the lowest ranking enlisted troops they were supposed to have. The Russian military, mainly the Army and Interior Ministry paramilitary units were supposed to have a million personnel. But officials admitted in 2011, off-the-record, that the real number was closer to 800,000 and slowly but relentlessly declining. A subsequent investigation confirmed this. In 2021 it was still no more than 800,000 but that was not discovered until Russia invaded Ukraine and eventually learned that its battalion task groups had only 500-600 troops instead of 800, and then only because conscripts were illegally to bring them up from about 400 men each.

Since 2012 the military has come up with a growing list of solutions for the problem, but all these efforts do is slow the decline of military manpower numbers, not reverse it. Current fixes involve calling up reservists, usually for a brief period to test the system but instead of letting the reservists quickly return to civilian life the military was keeping many of the reservists for six months or more. This was one reason for the short-term, less than 12 month, contract. Doing this too often made reservists refuse to appear when recalled. The economic recession after 2014, because of low oil prices and economic sanctions for grabbing Crimea from Ukraine. was supposed to encourage more Russians to volunteer but that did not happen and there was less money for increasing the pay for contract soldiers. Recruiting foreigners had minimal impact and so the Russian military kept fading away.

The military had 220,000 officers, also on contracts, and many veteran contract personnel who provided technical experts and other senior enlisted personnel. These were higher paid contract soldiers, some with a decade or more of service, who often become the long-absent Russian NCO, Non-Commissioned Officer, or sergeants, but there are not enough of these NCOs to make a difference. Conscripts still make up nearly half of the military and it's getting harder and harder to find enough people to conscript or willing to sign a contract. This means there are two classes of Russian military personnel. About 70 percent are much less capable, with most of them conscripts in for one year of service or new contract soldiers on two- or three-year contracts. These are supervised by inexperienced junior officers and a much smaller number of career NCOs. A third of the military are more enthusiastic volunteers and conscripts. These staff the elite special operations, airborne, security and specialist units. In other words, while the government claims to have a million military personnel on duty, the reality was that there are only about 200,000 troops on active duty who are good at what they do and want to be in the military.

Conscripts are inducted twice a year, in April and October. In 2011, the April intake was nominally 220,000 but fewer than that actually made it into uniform. In 2018 the April draft was 128,000. In 2011 only about 75 percent of the men who showed up were considered fit to take. In 2018 standards of “fitness for military service” are much less strict and the military has to cope with a lot more recruits who are of marginal use.

By 2012 the military reluctantly accepted the fact that they would not be able to obtain more than 270,000 conscripts a year needed to reach the official strength of a million personnel. In the last six years maintaining anything close to that number meant taking less willing and able men. Senior Russian generals accepted that they would never command a million-man force unless there was a war.

Lowering their standards in order to make their annual quotas just fills the ranks with more troublesome people, who cause more of the good troops to get out. In the last few years, the military has quietly stopped accepting many volunteers or conscripts from Moslem areas, especially Chechnya and Dagestan in the Caucasus. The wisdom of this was made clear when Russian intelligence reported that the most effective Russian Moslems who joined and fought for Islamic terrorist groups were military veterans. In contrast, Russian Moslems who had not served in the military were less likely to become Islamic terrorists and if they did, they were used as suicide bombers or support staff, not as long-term fighters. Moreover, commanders continued to report that if more than a few percent of their troops were Moslem there would be morale problems or worse.

The basic Russian recruiting problem was two-fold. First, military service was very unpopular, and potential conscripts were increasingly successful at dodging the draft deliberately or otherwise. But the biggest problem was that the number of 18 year-olds was rapidly declining each year. By 2009 all draftees were born after the Soviet Union dissolved. That was when the birth rate declined year after year. Not so much because the Soviet Union was gone but more because of the economic collapse caused by decades of communist misrule that precipitated the collapse of the communist government. The number of available draftees went from 1.5 million a year in the early 1990s to less than half that by the 2020s. Less than half those potential conscripts were showing up and many have criminal records or tendencies that help sustain the abuse of new recruits that have made military service so unsavory.

With conscripts now in for only a year, rather than two, the military is forced to take a lot of marginal sickly, overweight, bad attitude, and drug-user recruits in order to keep the military and Ministry of Interior units up to strength. This worked during the cold war because conscript service was three years for elite units. With one-year conscripts, elite airborne and commando units using some conscripts find that these eager conscripts take a year to master the skills needed to be useful and then they are discharged. Few chose to remain in uniform and become career soldiers. That's primarily because the Russian military is seen as a crippled institution and not likely to get better any time soon. With so many of the troops now one-year conscripts, an increasing number of the best officers and NCOs get tired of coping with all the alcoholics, drug users, and petty criminals that were taken in just to make quotas. With the exodus of the best leaders and a growing proportion of ill-trained and unreliable conscripts, the Russian military was more of a mirage than an effective combat or even police organization.

The military was unpopular for conscripts mainly because of the brutal treatment they received. This never got better, and hazing incidents keep increasing each year. There were a lot of reasons for not wanting to be in the Russian Army but the worst of them is the hazing. One year conscription was supposed to solve this, but new conscripts were tormented by conscripts who have been in just a few 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.That did not happen and the government found that, even among the contract soldiers 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 six months or so against the new recruits. But this extends to a pattern of abuse and brutality by all senior enlisted troops against junior ones. It remains out of control. The abuse continues to exist in part because of the growing animosity against troops who are not ethnic Russians and especially against those who are Moslem. Because of higher birth rates among the Moslem populations, 15 percent or more of eligible conscripts were Moslems and that was seen as more of a problem than a solution.

Hazing originally developed after World War II when Russia deliberately avoided developing professional NCOs. They preferred to have officers take care of nearly all troop supervision. The Soviets failed to note that good NCOs were the key to effective troops. The Soviets felt that officers were more politically reliable, as they were more carefully selected and monitored. 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. This hazing was one of the basic causes of crimes in the Russian armed forces, accounting for 20 to 30 percent of all soldier crimes. This caused a suicide rate that is among the highest in the world. Poor working conditions in general also mean that Russian soldiers were 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.

Conscription itself, and the prospect of being exposed to hazing led to a massive increase in draft dodging. Bribes and document fraud were freely used. Few parents or potential conscripts consider this a crime. Avoiding the draft is seen as a form of self-preservation. The government cracked down on parent-backed draft dodging with little effect. That’s because there is still so much corruption in Russia and evading conscription is seen by many as not really criminal, especially when the parents can afford to pay a bribe to keep their only son, who is often an only child, out of the Russian military.

The Russian lack of sergeants or praporshchiki has been difficult to fix. Just promoting more troops to that rank, paying them more, and telling them to take charge, did not work. So going back to look at how Western armies did 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 was a long-term process and took years before benefits would be felt. By 2022 there were a lot more of the veteran NCOs available and they probably made a difference. But the losses were so heavy in Ukraine that it may never be known how good those NCOs were.

All this is in sharp contrast to the old days. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, it had five million troops in its armed forces. Now it's less than 800,000 in just Russia, which had about half the population of the Soviet Union but most of the territory. Although the Russian armed forces lost over 80 percent of its strength by the end of the 1990s, a disproportionate number of officers remained. This problem was solved, despite complaints from officers and, after a series of reforms, the number of officers was reduced by over 50 percent.

The Russian military has an image problem that just won't go away easily. This resulted in the period of service for conscripts being lowered to one year (from two) in 2008. That was mostly to placate the growing number of parents who were encouraging, and assisting, their sons in avoiding military service.

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 1921-1991 Soviet era. Russian commanders, envious of the success of all-volunteer Western forces, have long studied their former foes and decided to adopt a lot of 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 were now free to leave the base on weekends and work only a five-day week. All barracks now have hot-water showers and troop accommodations were the best they had ever been. Things like this help a bit but not enough.

Russia 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. Polls consistently show that most 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. As a result of all these factors, prospects of a revival of the traditional large Russian armed forces continues to fade. The defeats in Ukraine have not helped.

Conscription still exists in some countries, often because not enough volunteers can be found or because the country found itself at war. Countries that still have conscription are Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Cyprus, Egypt, Eritrea, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Iran, Israel, Jordan, North Korea, South Korea, Kuwait, Latvia, Libya, Lithuania, Moldova, Norway, Russia, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, and Ukraine.




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