Who is the Russian Military? Muslims, Conscripts and Professionals


2012-11-20 By Richard Weitz

A core goal of the Serdyukov reforms was transitioning the Soviet-era mass mobilization military designed to win another global war with the West into a force optimized to fight local conflicts such as counterinsurgencies as well as participate in peacekeeping operations and counterpiracy and counterterrorist missions.

This new Russian army would have a smaller number of better-trained and more-effective units on a permanent combat-readiness footing.

The undermanned Soviet-based “cadre” units– with almost no personnel in peacetime but a full complement of senior officers –have accordingly been consolidated into a smaller number of fully manned and combat ready brigades, replacing the previous order of battle of divisions and regiments.

Reformers see the brigade as considerably more maneuverable due to its smaller size, but the Russian army brigades must rely on separate support units for the artillery fires, air defense, reconnaissance, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and other key functions that were more often an organic part of the larger divisions.

Force Manning Challenges

Manning this force has proved problematic.

The Soviet-model military relied on large numbers of conscript soldiers, captured in a biennial draft of 18–27-year-olds, because they were cheaper and, after they went into the military reserves, could provide the General Staff with a mass mobilization potential of millions of well-trained soldiers.

But with the end of the Soviet police state, it had become easier for Russia’s most talented youth to find ways to dodge the draft.

Furthermore, whatever their number, the decreasing length of the compulsory service obligation, which currently amounts to 12 months, does not provide sufficient time to train soldiers in modern combat operations.

With short-duration wars or military operations becoming the dominant planning scenario, moreover, the MOD needs more readily available soldiers who are prepared to fight quickly as well as effectively.

By increasing the proportion of soldiers serving on contracts, the reformers sought to transition to a professional military based only on long-term volunteers. Although they recognized that professional soldiers would cost more on a per capita basis than conscripts, reformers argued that they would be better motivated and trained as a result of their longer commitments, and more readily usable.

The unpopular war in Chechnya, frequent media reports of hazing, and other abuses within the military amplified Russia’s recruitment problems. Since the USSR’s collapse, various social groups—most prominently, the Soldiers’ Mothers Movement—have organized to lobby for ending conscription and curbing hazing and other abuses of Russian soldiers. Their efforts have largely failed.

Former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov lamented that the Russian armed forces were reverting to a Bolshevik-era army of “workers and peasants” since everyone else manages to avoid serving. Poor living conditions, frequent harassment of new recruits by the more senior conscripts (known as dedovschina, or “rule of the granddads”), and other problems engender widespread dissatisfaction within the ranks and frequent desertions.

Whenever the MOD hoped to improve the number and quality of servicemen by eliminating or reducing exemptions to conscription, sharp public and media reactions have forced its retreat.

Surveys show that the Russian public overwhelmingly supports ending conscription and introducing other major reforms, even at the price of higher defense spending.

Russian artillery shells militant positions near the village of Duba-Yurt in January 2000. Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Chechen_War

Previous promises to end or shorten conscription tours and increase the use of contract soldiers failed to yield appreciable results.

In addition, senior officers resisted ending conscription since it would weaken their almost absolute control over conscripts, many of whom they treat like serfs. The Russian media is replete with stories of officers using the soldiers under their command for personal projects like refurbishing their dachas or hiring them out to other employers in return for money or favors. Ending conscription also reduces the pool of readily available reservists since fewer Russians have recent military experience.

More modest personnel reforms also proved ineffective.

Few individuals have taken advantage of the provision in Russian law that allows citizens of other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States to obtain Russian citizenship by serving in the Russian armed forces for three years on a contract basis.

The reformers wanted to reduce the use of compulsory military service and replace as many conscripts as possible with volunteer personnel serving under renewable long-term contracts (kontraktniki).

In addition, the reformers sought to create a U.S.-style noncommissioned officer corps (NCO) that could help compensate for the decrease in the number of senior Russian officers and the leadership and managerial weaknesses of many of those commanders still serving. A good NCO corps could also help decrease abusive treatment of conscripts and would help promote tactical initiative.

The MOD did have some longer-term soldiers who served on contracts, but few people would join given the low salaries and harsh conditions initially offered by the Russian military.

Operational Impacts

The Kontraktniki are not precisely professional soldiers in the Western sense. Since 1992, these non-conscript soldiers and sergeants have served on multi-year contracts in return for much higher salaries than regular soldiers, but many of them do not consider the military their long-term profession. For this reason, MOD has sometimes used them primarily as disposable short-term mercenaries rather than as a cadre of long-term professionals that warrants costly training and education.

The performance of many of the kontraktniki in Chechnya reinforced this perception.

Motivated primarily by financial rewards rather than patriotism, they frequently deserted in dangerous situations or when, as happened frequently under Yeltsin, the government could not pay their salaries.

Even after the Chechnya War, those who did serve as kontraktniki often did so because their limited skills or poor health made it too difficult for them to find other forms of employment. They typically received poor efficiency ratings, presented disciplinary problems, and proved hard to train and retain, with many quitting before their contracted period of service ended.

The reformers introduced measures to make military service more attractive to both conscripts and volunteers.

They attempted to improve the terms of obligatory military service by allowing conscripts to serve close to their homes in some cases, establishing a five-day work week (with two days off), and outsourcing some of the less pleasant non-combat tasks (such as cleaning and cooking) to civilian contractors.

The reforms also sought to improve recruitment and retention through other quality-of-life improvements, such as offering higher pay, making greater use of bonuses and other incentives, and providing improved housing and education opportunities. To meet service members’ spiritual needs, the MOD also authorized the employment of civilian chaplains from the four main religious groups now in Russia: Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Russian Orthodox, despite the obvious risk of increasing sectarian divisions within the ranks.

The new force employment policy excludes use of conscripts in conflict zones and anti-terrorism missions except during national emergencies.

February 22, 2012. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, during a visit to the Taman Kalinin Motorized Rifle Brigade of the October Revolution Banner and the Red Banner. Putin was shown military equipment, special weapons, small arms and knives, communication equipment and equipment for special forces soldiers. (RIA Novosti/Aleksey Nikolskyi)

The MOD would instead deploy professional soldiers and kontraktniki to “hot spots” such as Chechnya and Central Asia (where Russia has several permanent military bases). These volunteers could also participate in UN- and NATO-led peacekeeping missions, such as those in the Balkans or Sudan.

Unfortunately for Moscow, the MOD is still missing its draft quotas by as much as 30% each call-up.

In theory, Article 59 of the Russian Constitution and the federal law on military service require all young men between 18-27 years old to serve one year in the armed forces.

In practice, many potential conscripts secure legal exemptions such as repeated educational deferments, passing high school Reserve Officers Training Corps courses, or securing health excuses. Even more young men dodge the draft by feigning illness, buying phony educational deferments, going underground, or most commonly by bribing members of medical, university admission, or draft board commissions.

The individuals unable to exploit these loopholes have tended to be less affluent, educated, and healthy than the average Russian male. They also have been more prone to drug use and other criminal behavior, making it difficult for their commanders to maintain discipline or conduct training. As a result, with only 300,000 conscripts joining the 220,000 officers and 200,000 contract soldiers, Russia’s current armed forces fall considerably short of the officially cited figure of one million active-duty personnel.

Demographic Dynamics

Demographic trends compound this problem.

Experts anticipate the pool of available manpower to decrease drastically as a result of Russia’s twenty-year demographic crisis. For two decades, the country experienced plunging birth and soaring death rates, a sharp deterioration in living conditions and medical care, and a surge in chronic health problems among draft-eligible youth. In 2006, then President Putin referred to these demographic trends—which will also affect Russia’s economic and political evolution—as “the most acute problem of contemporary Russia.”

Between 1991 and 2008, Russia’s population growth declined alarmingly, reaching a net yearly loss of 700,000 people by the year 2006 and sparking serious concerns about the future of the nation as a whole. Although this decline began to level off after 2006 and turned into net growth as of 2009, the two-decade downward trend severely impacted Russia’s pool of potential conscripts for the foreseeable future, necessitating a shift away from a quantity-based military doctrine. Furthermore, the demise of the totalitarian system has decisively weakened the state’s ability to force potential conscripts to serve. In addition, the Russian Federation still has a much smaller population base than the USSR. All these factors substantially limit the number of eligible conscripts.

In November 2008, the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) released Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World. It identifies potentially serious demographic problems ahead for the Russian military that could adversely affect both the quantity and quality of its future personnel.

The overall Russian population is expected to decrease from approximately 141 million people today to less than 130 million by 2025 due to the country’s low birth rates, high mortality from alcoholism and other maladies, and other factors. In less than a decade from now, Russia is projected to have only 650,000 18-year-old males. Even if they were all healthy and willing to serve in the military, the Russian currently employs 750,000 conscripts.

Russian leaders have evinced a strong reluctance to allow for more non-Russian immigration, allocate the resources needed to develop a fully professional army, accept a substantial reduction in the size of the Russian armed forces, or take the other steps needed to manage this demographic problem.

Since Russia’s Muslim minorities continue to have large families, the NIC anticipates that the share of ethnic Muslims in Russia’s population will grow from 14 percent in 2005 to around 19 percent in 2030 to perhaps 23 percent in 2050.

In addition, millions of draft-age youth from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia regularly migrate to the Russian Federation in search of work. A study for the Russian General Staff concluded that, after taking into account differentials in deferments and medical exemptions, most conscripts could come from non-Russian ethnic groups by 2025.

The growing percentage of Muslim recruits represents a mixed blessing due to their lower educational levels and potential susceptibility to radical Islamic doctrines.

Their military skills and willingness to participate in future counterinsurgency campaigns in the Muslim-majority regions of the North Caucasus or Central Asia is likely to prove extremely problematic.

The Russian armed forces might also experience increasing religious tensions between recruits practicing Islam and those newly energized by the resurgence of Orthodox Christianity linked with Russian ethnic nationalism.