Streetwise Professor

May 16, 2010

Failed Military Reform, Modernization, and Russian Foreign Policy

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:29 am

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 ?????????, 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 ???????????? 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 ?????????, 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.

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  1. Ok, we get it. The Russian military is in a bad way. Most everyone, probably including Putin, agrees with you. So what needs to be done to get things going in the right direction?

    You suggest that the Russian military ought to abandon the supposedly anachronistic mass conscription-based model and follow the US example with a more “modern” volunteer-based model. Unfortunately, such a switch by the Russia would actually exacerbate the root cause of the current problem confronting the modernization of the Russian military. Namely, a volunteer-based model would simply guarantee that new recruits would be primarily drawn from the bottom half of Russia’s socio-economic citizenry. Why is such a result a problem?

    To find the reason, you need look no further than the American military. The problem is that when a country’s military is staffed disproportionately with young men and women from certain segments of society that also lack much political clout then the politicians in that country are bound to do dumb things and make bad decisions as it concerns the military.

    In the case of America, our politicians send off our hard working honest young men and women to fight in questionable wars while their own children and grandchildren attend Lalapalooza concerts and “study” away their time in our universities. In the case of Russia, its politicians let the barbaric hazing of young soldiers go without any serious corrective actions and the graft and corruption go unpunished. There is much to be admired and copied in the American military. However, its method of attracting new recruits is not one of them.

    What both the Russian and American militaries need is a return to a society-wide conscription model at age 18 for both young men and women. With almost no exemptions. Every single young person should spend four years in service to their country. As you point out, a modern military requires many different types of knowledge and skills; so not every single recruit need be train to be on the front lines.

    Were Russia’s politicians’ children subject to such abysmal conditions as are today’s recruits, then you can bet your bottom Ruble that heads would spin and the system would change dramatically.

    Comment by Timmy — May 16, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

  2. Another measure which Russia should consider is the reduction in the size of its active duty military. Take a look at the following page on Wikipedia:

    Assuming that these numbers are relatively accurate, the statistic that immediately jumps out at me is the comparison between the US and Russia in Active Duty Troops per 1,000 Capita. The United States is at 4.8/1,000 (1,473,900 active duty troops total out of total population of 310,000,000) while Russia is at 7.3/1,000 (1,037,000 active duty troops total out of total population of 141,000,000).

    If one were to bring the ratio for Russia down to America’s 4.8 per 1,000 then that would mean there should be 676,800 active duty troops in Russia. However, why stop at 4.8 per 1,000 Capita? If there is one thing that America’s experience in Iraq has taught us, it’s that troops are primarily needed when one wants/needs to occupy a country. The actual attack requires lots of sophisticated and expensive hardware but not actually that many boots on the ground. Additionally, the defense of Russia, which is still a global superpower with regard to nuclear weapons, would not require that many active duty troops. Tactical nukes are way more valuable than an extra 500,000 troops, plus a hell of a lot easier to manage.

    Thus, Russia (and America for that matter) doesn’t need a huge standing army. I would say that 550,000 would be more than enough for Russia. That would put Russia at approximately 4.0 active duty troops per 1,000 Capita, which is where Italy, Spain, France, and the United Kingdom stand too.

    550,000 active duty troops is a number that Russia could reasonable expect to fill with the conscription on all men and women aged 18.

    Comment by Timmy — May 16, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

  3. @Timmy–RE the US military. Nice summary of the Daily Kos/Charlie Rangel talking points, and hence utterly unconvincing and wrong. WRT “certain segments of society” I presume you are not referring to rural and small town whites, especially those of Scotch-Irish ancestry, who are definitely over-represented among combat soldiers and Marines. (As are Hispanics. Blacks represent a smaller fraction of combat arms than of the population at large, even though overall they represent a larger fraction of the military than the population. They tend to view the military as more of a vocational field, and select support specialities. Even in Viet Nam, contrary to popular belief, blacks were not over-represented in the infantry or Marines, and in fact represented a smaller proportion of a casualties/deaths slightly below their proportion of the population.)

    The data are also contrary to your hypothesis that the volunteer US military is a refuge of the socially marginalized. Here are a couple of links worth a look: and especially .

    We’ve fought wars with conscript armies, and with volunteer armies, so it is not evident that the means of manning the armed forces has that much of an effect on the likelihood of going to war, contrary to your/DK’s/CR’s hypothesis. Moreover, under the Post-Kos-Rangel hypothesis, sensitivity about casualties, and hence casualty rates and total casualty numbers, should be higher with a volunteer military than a conscript one. That hypothesis is decisively rejected by the data.

    You are also mistaken if you believe that conscript armies are more likely to be representative of the population at large. Hardly. The well-to-do always find ways to avoid the most onerous service. (And if you understand Coase, you would understand that this is a predictable result.)

    Even Russia refutes your hypothesis. Russia has always relied on conscription, but it is clearly true that today’s conscript army is “primarily drawn from the bottom half of Russia’s socio-economic citizenry.” Probably more like the bottom 25 percent. Or lower. That is, a volunteer military is far more representative of its country than a conscript army is of its country.

    It’s kind of funny, in a way, to hear a self-identified liberal sound like General Westmoreland in his debate with Milton Friedman.

    Re your second comment, I had looked at the same stats, and was thinking of including them in the post. Russia’s military manpower represents a far larger portion of its eligible population than in the US. Indeed, the statistics are even more lopsided because (a) women represent a far larger portion of the US military than the Russian, so the Russian military is an even bigger fraction of the male military age population, and (b) this is exacerbated by demographic differences (1000 US persons selected at random has a quite different makeup than 1000 Russian, with fewer men in Russia of prime military age due to differences in death rates and birth cohorts). And Russia also has paramilitary forces that are almost as large as those in the US.

    So I would agree that the Russian military needs to shrink dramatically to be sustainable economically and demographically. But that’s fundamentally the point of my post. There are elements in Russia, particularly in the military, who refuse to acknowledge that. The revanchists dreaming of a return to Russian military dominance refuse to acknowledge that. I don’t think Putin really acknowledges that.

    My whole point about the leaked FM document is that it is plausible that the authors of that document, who are likely echoing in good bureaucratic fashion what Medvedev wants to hear, do understand that. They understand that the current Russian military is not sustainable. The dreams of empire are just that. As a result, goals and strategies have to be adapted to reflect reality.

    But this sets up a conflict between those who concede the realities and who want to change Russian policy accordingly, and those who do not. And again, that’s a point of my post: the battle over the structure of the military is just another struggle over the future of Russia. It is a microcosm of the conflict between those who look backwards and those who look forward. Ironically, the hidebound types like Smirnov are probably doing the more progressive elements a favor by demonstrating the utter bankruptcy of the current system.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 16, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

  4. Actually, Russian ground forces have been downsizing for some time, and will continue to do so, plus they’re eliminating layers of command by going from the division/regiment structure to combined arms brigades.

    It’s old news, really.

    Comment by rkka — May 16, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

  5. Russia should concentrate its energies on developing the RMA, researching new military technologies like railguns and battle lasers, and building up its WMD stockpiles and production capacities. I agree with SWP that the million-strong army is outdated, and there are moves to reducing its size. In particular the top-heavy officer corps is being cut by more than half. 400-600k will do just fine.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — May 16, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

  6. “Thus, Russia (and America for that matter) doesn’t need a huge standing army. I would say that 550,000 would be more than enough for Russia.” It would be enough for America to secure our borders (i.e. send our special forces into Mexico if need to be to take out the worst of the drug lords) and maintain a rapid reaction force ready to kick the ass of any non-superpoer adversary if we didn’t need to occupy Iraq and weren’t trying in vain to bring democracy to the Hindu Kush, to quote Pat Buchanan.

    When SWP talks about empire and Russian dreams of such – I kind of snicker. Which country has bombed and occupied three countries in the last fifteen years (Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo)? Because we all know here that Russia could have conquered all of Georgia with not a lot of trouble, though occupying that country permanently would have become distasteful and possibly bloody (here’s looking at you Max Boot, with your war porn fantasizing about Georgians fighting to the death like Afghans with Stingers and Javelins). The road to Tblisi was open and the Russian army didn’t take it. No amount of self-congratulation on the part of the Bush Administration officials can obscure the fact that putting U.S. Coast Guard and Navy ships in Batumi harbor didn’t change anything on land, nor did the flyovers of C-17s carrying the Georgian troops back from Iraq.

    Comment by Mr. X — May 17, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

  7. Craig, the Russian defense policy is –SIMPLE, Attack us and you ger nuked. They have stated that if Japan tried to retake the 4 southern most islands in the Kuriles ,Tokyo would be nuked. If German tanks cross the Polish/ Byelorussian border then Berlin would get nuked. We certainly would not go to war with Russia to defend either country. And I don’t believe either country is crazy enough to try to enter Russian territory. If the Poles tried something foolish, all Russia needs to do is saddle up some Cossacks.

    Comment by Walt DuBlanica — May 17, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

  8. “Russian pugnacity and revanchism.”


    Like not being in the EU and telling Serbia that it can’t join that org. until it recognizes Kosovo’s independence. Never mind that several EU members don’t recognize Kosovo’s independence.

    Comment by Bugs — May 17, 2010 @ 10:53 pm

  9. six

    Comment by peter — May 18, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

  10. You forgot Bugs, even though the Prof thinks the EU is a utopian project doomed to failure, the 4th Reich still represents freedom from The Shadow aka the Evil Russian Empire which Russia’s neighbors choose ‘every time’. Talk about doublethink!

    Still, while I do think the EU is primarily a vehicle for the German political class (with the French fooling themselves into thinking they’re running the show) to achieve old aims by different means, I have to say I empathize with the German people who keep having to pay for it all. If I were a German I would become a Teaburger too, and say “NIEN!” to bailing out Greek bureaucrats who want to retire at 50.

    My prediction? Given the looming failure of the Euro if not the EU as a whole, and the well-documented links between the German corporate and political elite with Muscovy, Berlin doubles down. They solve the Ukraine-Russia bickering once and for all by inviting Russia AND Ukraine into the Union at the same time over the fierce objections of the other old core and New Europe members. Russian companies keep buying up Ukrainian assets but this time with German loans, as Berlin planned in the late 90s with their Drang Nach Osten. Russians in Latvia start suing under EU rules for discrimination against their language and culture. The Prof starts quoting hysterical Poles saying it’s the Second Molotov Ribbentropp/Rapallo Berlin-Moscow axis and UK Sun articles about how EU visa free travel means London will become Londongrad riddled with FSB plants. A few old Germans with money start buying more property in Konigsberg – er Kaliningrad. Etc etc etc.

    Not exactly a difficult prediction to make though, given Europe’s desperation for [non-Muslim, cough cough] labor, Russian elites love of all things German, and EU men’s love of Russian (but more likely to see an influx of Ukrainian) womanhood.

    Comment by Mr. X — May 18, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

  11. comment no. 10 = Gorby and Primakov’s dreams of a ‘Common European Home’ predicted by John Laughland in The Tainted Source (who now works for a pro-Russian think tank in Paris) come true. Isn’t it all ironic? The arch-euroskeptic Mr. Laughland Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Motherland, perhaps Prof Pirrong is next? 🙂

    Comment by Mr. X — May 18, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

  12. A number of thoughts to consider Mr. X.

    For now, the EU appears a bit over-extended with apprehension in its ranks. You made reference to a Tea Party view in Germany. One can find notable criticisms of that org. in some of its other member states.

    Regarding a recent Bandow National Interest article on Russo-Ukrainian relations, the Russians aren’t so ticked off at Yanuk for not going for the Russian proposed customs union, while the Ukrainian president openly favors full membership of his country in the EU.

    That latter occurrence isn’t likely anytime soon, with most Ukrainians preferring an EU like arrangement with Russia. Yanuk recently said that Russia is more responsive to Ukrainian concerns than the EU.

    Bulgaria and Romania continue to not have full EU membership rights like others states in that org. Besides Ukraine, there’re other nations seeking EU membership.

    Concerning the EU is this piece on its lack of patience with Saaki:

    As some others unrealistically fantasize:

    BTW, there’s openly frank criticism of Russia’s armed forces in Russia among people involved with that subject. This situation runs counter to the idea of a very delusional state.

    Comment by Bugs — May 18, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

  13. > BTW, there’s openly frank criticism of Russia’s armed forces in Russia among people involved with that subject. This situation runs counter to the idea of a very delusional state.

    In fact, this situation does not run counter to the idea at all. It merely shows that, apart from being delusional, that state is completely unaccountable, as no amount of competent criticism changes anything.

    Comment by Ivan — May 19, 2010 @ 12:59 am

  14. Another way of looking at it is that some will always find fault regardless.

    Among countries, is Russia alone in having such frank criticism about ongoing imperfections?

    Comment by Bugs — May 19, 2010 @ 5:49 am

  15. five

    Comment by peter — May 19, 2010 @ 9:30 am

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