Streetwise Professor

August 8, 2011

A (Very) Few Good Men

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:14 pm

Harvard’s Dmitry Gorenburg (with whom I will be on a panel at this November’s Association for Slavic, East European, and Asian Studies meetings) has an interesting post about the Russian military manpower dilemma at his Russian Military Reform blog.

He posits that Russia has two alternatives to address its problem: (1) increase the use of contract personnel in lieu of draftees, or (2) reduce the size of the military.

In my view, option (1) is a non-starter.  Conscription isn’t working because of the serious demographic problem.  It’s bad now, but will be particularly acute in the next couple of years due to the birth implosion in the early years following the collapse of the USSR.  But that same demographic problem means that the potential pool of kontraktniki is small as well.  Indeed, the shortage of physically fit, reasonably intelligent young men will tend to elevate their wages, thereby making the cost of a predominately volunteer military prohibitively expensive.  This is especially true if Russia plunges ahead with its plan to spend huge sums on new hardware, rather than software.

In other words, changing the means by which Russia obtains soldiers cannot alter its basic constraint: the pronounced lack of men available to serve.  So option (2) is the only realistic one.  And, not surprisingly, one that the government seems singularly uninterested in pursuing.

And if the economic problems in the US and Europe persist, Russia’s budgetary constraints will become even more acute.  Note that oil fell about 4 percent today, and is currently well below the level needed to balance the Russian budget.  And to bring home the point that Russia is a high beta economy, the RTS index fell even more than the S&P and Dow.

My recent reading–Fuller’s Strategy and Power in Russia, 1600-1914–makes plain that manpower problems are a hardy perennial on the steppes.  A good portion of the book details how manpower and recruiting problems have long been a major constraint on Russian strategy.  Serfdom permitted the army to rely on long term–and I mean long term (25 year)–service terms.  This facilitated the development of an experienced soldiery, with great esprit and comradery.  Indeed, the soldiers were effectively dead to their families–who often held mock funerals when they went off to the army.  The army became their family.  The soldiers formed artels–cooperatives–that were their households for life.  Also, since the soldiers were effectively cut off from the wider society, they were largely immune to the social conflicts that rent Russian society.

But this system had its problems.  First, landowners had an incentive to pick the least fit, least intelligent, and least tractable serfs to go into the army.  Second, as the other armies of Europe moved to a system of conscription with short service terms, these countries could accumulate a large force of reserves that could be called up in the event of war.  Russia, in contrast, could not do that.   It tried to work around this, by releasing soldiers who had served for 15 years who could be called back during an emergency.  But these men were outcasts.  They could not return to their villages, where they were strangers and extra mouths to feed to boot.  So many became tramps and bandits–and hence lost to the army.

The problem with military recruitment–made painfully obvious in the Crimean War–was a major factor behind the abolition of serfdom in 1861.  But Russia’s vast distances and economic backwardness made it impossible to create a system that worked like the Prussian/German military.  Moreover, eliminating the long-term service system destroyed the tight bonds between soldiers that made them so formidable in the field.  And making the army more like society, the changes subjected the army to all the frictions, factions, and fissions that characterized Russian society at the time.

In brief: Russia has been looking for a solution to its military manpower problems since the early-19th century.  Back then, it didn’t have the demographic problems it has now.  Which means that it will be looking for solutions–and not finding them–for years to come.

I recommend Fuller’s book more broadly.  It does an excellent job at analyzing the interaction between state capacity, finance/economics, and strategy over the vast sweep of the Romanov dynasty.  I have a greater appreciation for the sources of Russian insecurity, especially post-1856, and especially, especially post-1905.  The analysis of how its pessimism about its strategic situation led to its decision to go to war in 1914, and more importantly, its decisions on how to go to war (by attacking Germany and Austria) is fascinating.

Fuller argues that Russia’s strategy was realistic and well-adapted to its capabilities in the 18th century, but this was no longer true starting with Nicholas I.  Whereas Fuller is highly complimentary of the sagacity of Russian leadership from Catherine II to Alexander I, he is scathing in his assessment of all the Tsars that followed, and their advisors.

Truth be told, I would say that the current leadership has much more in common with the latter lot than the former.

One last thing: today is the anniversary of the beginning of the Russo-Georgian War in 2008.  Which reinforces the last point.

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  1. I think you have the wrong link to the Fuller book as it’s to the same blog post as the first link.

    Both Russia and the US have the same problem, although the details are very different. Both have ambitions/commitments that are too large for their current resources. Ideally, both would temporarily retract those ambitions/commitments in order to revitalize themselves so they can go back once they are stronger. But neither wants to reduce their ambitions and thus are slowly eating away at the seed corn which should be saved for the next year’s planting.

    Russia faces no immediate military threat. They could easily reduce the size of the army and enact reforms and then build it up. But a much smaller army means both reduced prestige and an obvious inability to project power into their near abroad. That would reduce Russian influence and might encourage more elements to “defect” from its sphere of influence like Georgia did. Unfortunately for them, it sounds like they are running down their army. As the years go by, their relative capabilities will continue to diminish. I think eventually China will supplant Russia as the dominant power in Central Asia because eventually the Chinese will better be able to project power there than the Russians (of course, having a more dynamic economy helps too). Bold reforms now might delay the paramountcy of China in the long term or even avoid it altogether. The window of opportunity isn’t very long for Russia to do so.

    With the US, it is not the military per se, but the overall size of the federal government. It simply can’t maintain its current peacetime welfare state as well as fight various wars and project power into the Middle East and South Asia. To be honest, either alone is probably too big. The US needs to scale back both the domestic commitments and scale backs it geopolitical power to reduce its debt burden. It would mean accepting there are limits to US power, but paradoxically it would best preserve it in the long term. The US does not need to be the decisive power in ever region of the globe. Europe is basically secure and does not US assets to keep it safe; the debates in NATO on military reform mostly have to do with expeditionary capability, not self defense (the Baltics are major exception). The US can safely devolve responsibility in South Asia to India. US enemies in the Middle East are probably at an all time low with major problems of their own. Although continuing efforts against terrorists are needed, the US has accomplished its major objectives. In the Pacific, the US has several strong allies and many potential smaller powers who feel threatened by China. A modest force here is all that is needed to maintain security credibility. A temporary withdrawl from commitments to get the US financial house in order could be on the scope of 10 years. Unfortunately, the fools in both political parties seem incapable of giving any long term thought to US ends and means.

    Comment by Chris Durnell — August 9, 2011 @ 11:20 am

  2. Sorry Chris–I’ll fix. Speed kills. Just gave a quick scan to your extensive comment (work calls) and I think I agree. I’ll read more carefully this evening and respond more fully. Thanks for taking the time to post that.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 9, 2011 @ 11:42 am

  3. Link fixed.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 9, 2011 @ 11:47 am

  4. “A modest force here is all that is needed to maintain security credibility. A temporary withdrawl from commitments to get the US financial house in order could be on the scope of 10 years. Unfortunately, the fools in both political parties seem incapable of giving any long term thought to US ends and means.” This is exactly what Senor Equis has been advocating.

    Comment by Mr. X — August 10, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

  5. […] Professor reflects upon the future of Russian defence from a piece by Russian Military Reform blog, and concludes that the […]

    Pingback by Russia: Much to defend but too few men · Global Voices — August 11, 2011 @ 3:36 am

  6. […] Professor reflects upon the future of Russian defence from a piece by Russian Military Reform blog, and concludes that the […]

    Pingback by Official Russia | Russia: Much to defend but too few men — August 11, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

  7. There’s no particular reason that a modern military, in an age when machines and computers do much of the hard work for us, need be comprised only of men. That’s still pretty much a given for the army, but many of the jobs in the air force and navy can be done by women, as they are in other miitary forces. This better than doubles the demographic pool available. An unconsidered factor in a non-conscript (contract) military is Russia’s relatively low unemployment rate. Wages for military service are fairly high in Canada, and attracting recruits is still hard work. Wages in Russia would have to be competitive with private-sector counterparts, but many working women are poorly paid and adding them to the recruiting pool for non-army employment (radar/radio operators, cryptologists, signals, mechanics, administration, stores and accounting) just makes sense. Women already form part of the Russian military, but many more jobs could be opened up. It’d be expensive at first, but maintaining the conscript system just isn’t going to fit with future reforms, so the plunge must be undertaken sometime. New members of an expanded military that makes decent pay will also contribute as consumers. It’s achievable with sufficient political will and commitment.

    Comment by Mark — August 12, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

  8. But what you’re forgetting, Mark, is that Russia doesn’t make sense and Russia HATES women. One woman is murdered by her husband every 40 minutes. No woman holds any position of real power anywhere in the country. Starovoitova, Politikovskaya and Estemirova were all murdered. And Russia also hates soldiers. The brutality of its dedovshchina practices are well documented. So putting women into the Russian military is putting them into a sausage grinder.

    You would do better to call for Russia’s dictators to speak out more in defense of women’s rights and to appoint more women to positions of high office. Until Russia learns to think less barbarically about women, comments like yours will sound like nothing but the insane ravings of a madman.

    Comment by La Russophobe — August 13, 2011 @ 10:58 am

  9. Morale in Russia’s military has collapsed.

    The reasons are obvious.

    Comment by La Russophobe — August 13, 2011 @ 11:03 am

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