Staunton, October 15 – There is a memorable scene in the BBC series “The Wilderness Years” in which a British intelligence officer tells Winston Churchill that Hitler has increased the production at a textile factory. The then-dissident MP looks at him incredulously as to what that can mean, until the officer explains that Germany needs cloth for military uniforms.
It is often the case that many observers ignore what seem to them that kind of change until it is too late. One such change, this time in Moscow, would appear to fall in that category and deserves attention for what the Kremlin may be planning as well as for a delineation of the constraints under which it is operating.
Yesterday, Interfax reported that the Russian government has sent to the Duma for approval amendments to the Russian law on military service that would allow Russians to serve in the military for shorter terms than the usual year or more in response to current challenges abroad (interfax.ru/russia/532527).
Such changes, the government said, were necessary to ensure that units could be brought up to necessary strength rapidly and also “increase their military capability during a period of extraordinary circumstances.” Both those who had been drafted and those in the reserves would be eligible to sign up for such short-term contracts.
Under existing law, such people must sign contracts for two, three or five years, but under the terms of the amendments the Russian government has asked to be approved, they would not have to sign up for periods longer than six months to one year, the government said in its message to the Duma.
The Russian government pointed to the need for such people in the struggle against terrorism, but its own words indicate that far more is involved. According to the draft legislation as reported by Interfax, such short-term contracts will also be let to people who will serve in the Russian navy and its submarines.
This proposal reflects the longstanding trade-off between Russia’s need for people to serve in the military and its need to have them work in the economy, the difficulties Moscow now faces in financing longer periods of military service, and quite possibly the resistance of Russians to agreeing to serve for longer periods.
But in the current environment, such an arrangement – and given the ruling United Russia Party’s dominance in the Duma, its approval is almost certainly guaranteed – suggests two important conclusions.
On the one hand, this may be the Kremlin’s way of rapidly building up its forces for a confrontation without making the kind of announcement that would put the West and Russian on notice. And on the other, it may mean that the Kremlin lacks the funds and the willingness of Russians to serve to ensure that it can maintain such a force for a prolonged period of time.
That in turn could mean that Moscow is preparing to engage in new military action sooner than many currently suspect, but not as many fear because it is so strong but rather because the Kremlin faces real constraints in manning its military, all the hurrah-patriotic propaganda notwithstanding.