In the early-2000s, Russia embarked on a plan to replace its anachronistic mass conscription based military with a more modern, volunteer-based system. This was in part a concession to serious demographic problems that made filling an old-style military well nigh impossible. It also reflected a recognition that a traditional conscript-based military was ill-adapted to the modern technology dominated battlefield, as had been demonstrated by the remarkable prowess of American forces. The dysfunction of the Russian conscript army, most notably the notorious дедовщина, also made change imperative.
It is now widely recognized that the effort has been an unmitigated disaster. Russian military performance in the Georgian War was less than stellar. The контрактники were never recruited in the planned numbers, and were bedeviled by the same deficiencies as the conscript troops, including widespread brutality and criminality.
But if Russia has proved incapable of creating a viable volunteer force, the demographic deficit has not gone away, making it virtually impossible for Russia to maintain a conscript army of the desired size. Furthermore, reforms intended to mitigate дедовщина, notably cutting the term of service to a mere year, have exacerbated these problems.
Russian, in brief, cannot sustain a conscript military, and cannot create a volunteer force.
So what to do? It has, evidently, given up altogether on creating a volunteer force. This was never popular with the military hierarchy, wedded as it is to Soviet concepts and dreams of Soviet military glory. Instead, it is doubling down on conscription. As Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov said earlier this year, “We intend to make an emphasis on conscription.” And two weeks ago, Chief of the Main Organizational-Mobilization Directorate (MOMD) of the General Staff, General-Colonel Vasiliy Smirnov, told the Federation Council Defense Committee announced several measures (some disclaimed by Makarov) to increase the yield of conscripts. Most notably, he announced plans to increase the age of eligibility for conscription to 30 (!) The military will also reduce deferments; reduce the number of schools whose students can receive exemptions from military service; and require some to serve in the middle of their post-secondary schooling.
But the math just doesn’t work. In coming years, Russia needs 600,000 to maintain its forces. Dwindling cohorts of young men mean that it will be impossible to find such numbers. There are too few to begin with, and many will evade service, others are too sickly to serve (or suffer from substance abuse problems). Those that end up serving are disproportionately physically or mentally unsuited.
What Smirnov proposes smacks of desperation. Medvedev puts a delusional gloss on it, saying that there are “’problems’ with drafting, but promised that conscript service will not be extended: ‘One year is enough to train a good quality specialist, soldier or sergeant.’” The last statement is risible. And even if it were true, what good is it if said specialist or sergeant leaves the military after that year?
And note the inherent contradiction between Medvedev’s vaunted modernization on the one hand, and the inability to move beyond a shambolic imitation of an anachronistic military structure on the other, especially when achieved by diverting unwilling young men from accumulating human capital into mindless military service. Russia’s schizophrenia is seldom shown in such sharp relief: a stated desire to transcend its history and move into the modern world, juxtaposed by an utter inability to escape the most retrograde practices of its past.
To be sure, Russia faces a terrible dilemma. Its territorial vastness demands a relatively large military, but its shrunken numbers makes that infeasible. Add to this a desire to restore a simulacrum of empire, and the gap between goals and means available to achieve them yawns, unbridgeable.
Perhaps this provides a clue to the just-leaked Russian Foreign Ministry document purporting to outline a more conciliatory Russian foreign policy. (There are many interpretations that can be placed on this–hopefully I’ll have time to explore the others in a bit; what follows is just one.) A less pugnacious policy would make sense to someone who recognizes that Russian military capability is low, and unlikely to improve any time soon. The attempt to perpetuate the past by sending press gangs after 30 year olds only illustrates the absurdity of the situation, and the incompatibility of maintaining the old military model with the desire to modernize. (Sending text messages announcing they’ve been drafted to men’s mobile phones, as has been proposed, is a particularly ironic perversion of the idea of modernization; using modern means to perpetuate an anachronistic system.) Such a policy reflects a more realistic attempt to match goals to the available capabilities.
But even if this interpretation is correct, whether this document matters in the slightest is another thing altogether. After all, this is a document addressed to Medvedev that echoes Medvedev’s thinking. Medvedev has gone off the reservation on other matters, e.g., his condemnation of Stalin. But it’s not Medvedev’s opinion that is decisive. It’s not even clear that it’s all that relevant. Putin’s opinion is what really matters, and he has not been an enthusiastic supporter of a modernization agenda (to put it mildly), and has been a proud proponent of Russian pugnacity and revanchism. Thus, Russia’s military conundrum, and its interaction with foreign policy more broadly is just another play in the broader game that will culminate in 2012.
In making my bets, I’d put my money on Putin (not out of sympathy, certainly, but out of realism). But in the end, he cannot by force of will overcome what the Soviets used to call the objective correlation of forces. The inherent contradictions (to resurrect another phrase) in Putin’s policy are too great. Meaning that his victory would be a Pyrrhic one, for him, and for Russia.