Russia’s travails with military manpower issues continue without letup. Recall that the cancer of dedovshchina led the authorities to cut the term of conscripts from two years to one: since the second year conscripts were abusing the first years, it was concluded that the problem could be eliminated by reducing the term of service to a single year. At the time, I wrote that this would just create other problems, as it was delusional to think that soldiers serving a single year could form a credible fighting force. They would be leaving the service just about the time they had learned anything.
Well, it seems that the military is finding that out the hard way:
Communist Party Deputy, Admiral (retired) Vladimir Komoyedov, the former Commander of the Black Sea Fleet, complained it is impossible to train a competent specialist within three months, noting that foreign militaries take one to two years to achieve this. Moreover, Komoyedov said that appointing a young “vorobey” (sparrow) to sergeant posts is a “profanity to the country’s military organization.” The Chairman of the All-Russia Trade Union of Military Servicemen, Captain First Rank Oleg Shvedkov, concurs that three months is insufficient to train a qualified military specialist, especially for the navy.
As a result, some–including Shvedkov–believe that the government will have to restore the two year service term for conscripts.
Indeed, a new law under consideration in the Duma, and likely to be signed by Medvedev, seems to be increasing the term of service by stealth in order to avoid the embarrassment of reversing itself so soon after reducing the term:
It will strengthen measures against draft-dodging, and most significantly allow a delay of five months to discharge those drafted in the spring; meaning these would serve for almost 18 months. According to the head of the government apparatus, Vyacheslav Volodin, agreement in principle has been reached on the proposals and it is expected that President Dmitry Medvedev will sign it into law by April 1, 2011 (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 17).
Human rights groups seized upon a statement by General Smirnov that Russia has up to 200,000 draft-dodgers, and complained bitterly about his controversial assertion, which seemed aimed at deflecting criticism over the manning crisis. However, a critical commentary in Gazeta concluded that the authorities plan to increase the length of conscript service to 18 months (www.gazeta.ru, January 20). The semantic ingenuity involves extending the service of only those drafted in spring, since increasing the actual term of service would almost certainly signal the failure of the military reform. Nonetheless, if the law is passed and a portion of conscripts serve longer than others, the compromise implies that the trend is towards a rising term of service.
The efforts to create a professional military have also foundered.
The country is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. A choice between a barracks life that resembles Lord of the Flies and an army consisting of men who leave just when they learn the rudiments of soldiering. (Though it should be noted that the Lord of the Flies atmosphere survives: now it is just the soldiers who have served nine-twelve months brutalizing those just out of training camp. If they limited the term of service to two days, the second day men would abuse the first day men. A more fundamental change is required.)
The manpower crisis means that the Russian military is a hollow force:
These five VDV “immediate reaction” battalions are in effect Russia’s present expeditionary-capable combat force. According to the “New Russian Army” authors, if the Russian military becomes involved in an armed conflict that requires more than five battalions, it will be in trouble. It does not make much sense to spend billions of dollars to rearm the present Russian military if its manning crisis makes it a low-quality force. Conscript service must be increased, or the forming of contract all-volunteer units resumed, or both. But longer draft service would be unpopular and may create political problems, while additional kontraktniki require additional funding that may not be forthcoming. The present state of defense reform limbo may continue.
Five battalions. For a nation that spans nine time zones (or eleven, before last year).
But the military’s priorities are hardware first, software a distant second:
Highlighting the weaknesses of a high turnover among conscript personnel serving in a tank unit, for instance, where conscripts are currently discharged twice per year, Astanin questioned why the reformers had underestimated the importance of the manpower issue. In his view, the answer lies in the Soviet and Russian military tradition of first prioritizing equipment and weapons, technique and only then considering how to develop manpower to exploit such potential. Historically, this has lowered the effectiveness of new weapons systems and in the initial period of war resulted in increasing the number of Russian causalities (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 21).
It’s easier to buy shiny new stuff than change a fundamentally dysfunctional force. And so much more lucrative too.
All this to-ing and fro-ing represents a basic failure to come to grips with Russia’s demographic reality. The old military doctrines, the old military thinking, are not compatible with the demographic facts.
Russia’s vastness has not changed, but the old way of defending its enormous spaces are no longer feasible. There may be some possibility of nudging the demographic trajectory a little, but not by enough to alter the military reality. Russia will have to adjust its thinking–its doctrines, its strategy–to accommodate this reality.
One model comes to mind–the pre-WWI professional British military. A small, professional force responsible for securing a sprawling empire. Expeditionary in mindset. Small, mobile, cohesive. Made up of long-serving volunteers.
But how to get there is almost unfathomable. The cultural and historical roots of the British Army are diametrically opposed to those of the Russian one. Britain: a naval power, dominated by merchants and a free citizenry, deeply suspicious of standing armies. Russia: a continental power, autocratic, with a tight nexus between the military and governing elites.
So that ain’t happening. But the current system is unsustainable too. Which means that the Russian government and military will continue to rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking ship.