Poor health and draft-dodging plague Russia’s army
Following a relentless period of high-profile military exercises, testing and showcasing elements of the reform of the Russian Armed Forces, senior officials had to face the numerical reality of the tough task of drafting young men to serve in the military. Four years after launching a controversial and systemic reform of the old system, adopting a brigade-based structure for the Ground Forces, downsizing the officer corps, forming a new system of strategic commands and promising better times ahead for military personnel, the defense ministry leadership has admitted that it simply cannot afford to move toward an all-volunteer force (RIA Novosti, October 7).
Consequently, the Russian military press is again widely covering the deep-rooted problems in the biennial draft to bring 18-27-year-old conscripts into the Armed Forces to serve for 12 months. Not only are the figures depressing reading for the defense ministry, but the staggering scale of the health issues and draft dodging among the declining recruitment pool suggests that the “permanent readiness” brigades may be undermanned by at least 30 percent (Interfax, October 15; Krasnaya Zvezda, October 9; Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 5).
While Western and Russian military analysts will find little that is new in these developments, the moribund manning policy advocated by Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov cannot be considered as anything other than a failure of the core goals of the reform process. Despite aiming to create “permanent readiness brigades,” it has long been clear that there are significant gaps between the public claims around the “new look” for the Armed Forces and the real level of manning within the units. Equally, although both Serdyukov and the Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, have promised to gradually increase the numbers of contract personnel (kontraktniki) to 450,000 by 2016, which seemed to mark a trend toward gradual professionalization of the military, the system of mixed-manning (kontraktniki and conscripts) appears to be the long-term model in the absence of viable policy alternatives (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 5).
In an interview with Itogi on October 15, Serdyukov explained that a professional army in Russia is not an affordable option, though Russian military economists and other specialists have questioned the “unaffordable” argument often used by those wishing simply to preserve or defend the draft. Serdyukov stated: “As defense minister, I would undoubtedly like the Armed Forces to be staffed 100 percent by professionals. But in the foreseeable future we cannot afford this. Therefore, the contract-draft principle of staffing remains the main one for the time being. This will enable us to ensure the full strength level of the troops and prepare resources for mobilization without additional expenditure” (Itogi, October 15). Essentially, the minister publicly declared that neither he nor his ministry have any answers to these problems of military-manpower.