Staunton, April 4 – Moscow’s efforts to attract more Russians to serve in the military, including such “desperate” PR stunts as asking an American actor to propagandize the virtues of serving in the Russian army, are doomed to failure because of demographic decline and widespread worries among Russians about the risks involved in military service.
In an article in the current issue of “Novaya versiya,” Aleksandr Stepanov provides a primer on Russia’s current problems in meeting its draft quotas and the ways in which these difficulties are both quite similar to and very different than those the Soviet Union faced in its last years (versia.ru/articles/2013/apr/01/otchayanniy_prizyv).
Because any shift to an all-volunteer army remains “a distant prospect,” the commentator says, the Russian authorities are going to continue to resort to “cleverness and a creative approach” such as involving American actors in their efforts. But these “banal advertising actions,” he says, “are incapable of influencing in any essential way the current situation.”
Those efforts have left the armed services with 30 percent fewer soldiers than they need, Stepanov writes, and other proposals including allowing young men to buy their way out of service or making the draft a continuing rather than twice a year program or extending the age of those subject to it from 27 to 30 won’t work either.
Still other ideas, such as drafting young women, publishing lists of those who avoid service in the media, allowing foreigners to serve in the ranks, or being willing to have former soldiers return to duty if they want are, in the opinion of Stepanov and other experts, not even going to be tried and would not for various reasons work if they were.
Consequently, the situation with the draft is only going to get worse. It has simply “exhausted itself” under current conditions. But unfortunately, the General Staff has its own plan to address this issue: it is “masking” it by “artificially reducing” draft quotas to 140,000 twice a year rather than the 200,000 its own officers say are needed.
As a result, Stepanov says, there is a shortfall of soldiers even in frontline units of up to 30 percent, “a critical situation” for commanders and for the country. And this is made worse by the fact that there are now “more than 200,000 deserters” from the ranks, although this number represents more than half of the total drafted each year.
According to Valentina Melnikova, an official of the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees, “the main problem which does not allow the army to reach its quotas is the weak health” of the cohort from which it wants to take them. “Up to 95 percent of the draftees have some kind or other of legal basis for deferment,” she says.
That is an unofficial figure, Melnikova acknowledges, but “even official data are far from optimistic. “ About 30 percent of those called are deferred for medical reasons, and many who are taken have the kind of health issues that make it difficult if not impossible for them to carry out their duties – to meet their quotas, officers often take men best identified as invalids.
Sergey Krivenko, the director of the human rights group, “Citizen, Army, Law,” says that the current Russian military continues to use a Soviet-style conscription system, one in which the actions of officers involved in the draft are kept out of public view, allowing both abuse and widespread corruptin.
“One cannot say” that the Soviet system was ideal, Krivenko continues, but “all its shortcomings were compensated by the fact that the state apparatus actively worked for the military and used its powerful propaganda tools in its behalf.” There is no likelihood of the revival of that, he says, even with Hollywood actors working in agitprop.
Unfortunately, the activist continues, the army has made things still worse for itself and more unattractive to young men by its highly authoritarian nature and by taking disciplinary steps that have had the effect of transforming classical “dedovshchina” into much more serious “conflicts along territorial and nationality lines.”
In fact, as Stepanov shows, the situation in Soviet times was not quite as good or as bad as many imagine. He traces the ways in which the Soviet leadership had to struggle to meet draft quotas when the army needed more men than now and when demographic problems were just beginning to bite.
When the Soviet Union disappeared, Stepanov argues, so too did many of the factors which kept young people from seeking to avoid military service. As a result, “over the course of 20 years the country has not in fact had fully complected and thus militarily ready units. That was obvious to everyone in the first Chechen war, and it is obvious to experts now.
And despite certain “positive changes” in military life under the last two defense ministers, the commentator concludes, military life has not become “more attractive” and shows no signs of moving in that direction anytime soon. With the size of the draft-age cohort falling, that means that the Russian army is already in a state of crisis.