Putin Against History
How His War Has Erased Russia’s Past—And Endangered Its Future
Russia is in the middle of an extraordinarily ambitious military modernization project. By 2020, the country plans to upgrade a significant percentage of its weaponry. Among the new equipment Russia’s armed forces will acquire: 600 aircraft; 1,100 helicopters; some 100 ships (including 24 submarines); 2,300 tanks; and 2,000 artillery pieces. The modernization will cost taxpayers an estimated 19 trillion rubles, or $283 billion. Russia’s military largesse, which accounted for 4.5 percent of Russian GDP last year, puts the country in third place in global defense expenditures, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (the United States and China rank first and second, respectively.)
The modernization project is impressive, but the Russian military has more to worry about than upgrading its equipment. Whereas the Soviet Union boasted an armed force of more than five million soldiers, Russia is now having trouble filling the ranks of an army one-fifth as big. It is not that Russia doesn’t have soldiers and officers: According to the latest data from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, it has 771,000 on active duty. But that is 150,000 soldiers—16 percent—short of the number the Russian armed forces need to operate efficiently, according to military experts. Russia is attempting to decrease its reliance on conscripted soldiers by increasing the number of professional soldiers, but making that switch is expensive. Given that slumping oil prices have caused the ruble to drop to its lowest level since February, many experts predict that Russia will not have the financial capability to abolish conscription until at least the 2020s.
That represents a major setback, given that conscription remains as problematic now as it was during Soviet times. Now, as then, many would-be-conscripts dread military service, and do everything from feigning illness to offering bribes in order to evade it. According to a 2010 estimate, half of young Russian men dodged the draft that year, whereas one-third of active conscripted soldiers suffered from genuine health problems and had to be dismissed.
To reduce its reliance on conscripts, Russia has plans to professionalize its armed forces, and according to Russia’s Defense Ministry, that plan is proceeding apace. In June, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu announced that Russia’s armed forces now have so many applicants for professional soldier posts that some have to be “held back.” General Mikhail Mizintsev, the head of Russia’s new government-run National Center for Defense, reported that Russia’s armed forces hired 70,000 contract soldiers last year, which he said marked the first time modern Russia has had more contract soldiers than conscripts. On its website, the Armed Forces General Staff notes that by January 1, 2017, the armed forces aim to have 425,000 professional soldiers within their ranks.
Whereas the Soviet Union boasted an armed force of more than five million soldiers, Russia is now having trouble filling the ranks of an army one-fifth as big.
That may be too ambitious a goal. In a sign that professional applications for the military have not materialized in as large a number as expected, Russia recently passed a law allowing Russian men to choose between one year of conscripted service or two years as a professional soldier. The hope, of course, is that reluctant conscripts will instead sign up as professional soldiers and eventually renew their contracts. (Since tsarist times, Russian conscripts have faced brutal—sometimes lethal—hazing, which explains the lengths to which young men go to evade the draft.)
But that is not a given. The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for information, but according to the IISS Military Balance, the Russian armed forces consisted of 845,000 servicemen and women in 2014. Given that this year’s number dropped to 771,000, a considerable number of professional soldiers appear to have left after fulfilling their initial contract.
The Russian army is also facing a demographic problem. Between 1990 and 1995, the period during which many of today’s potential soldiers were born, the birth rate was 10.8 children per 1,000 residents in Russia, compared with 11.3 children per 1,000 residents in Western Europe, according to United Nations statistics. During the same period, the death rate for men aged 15 to 50 was 221 per 1,000 in Russia and 69 per 1,000 in Western Europe. Between 2000 and 2005, the mortality rate for men aged 15 to 60 had reached 459 per 1,000 in Russia and 121 per 1,000 in Western Europe. Since then, premature mortality among Russian men has decreased somewhat, but life expectancy for a man in Russia today is 60 years (compared to 73 years for Western Europeans). Alexandre Sidorenko, a social policy expert and former UN official specializing in the former Soviet republics, blames the high mortality rates on heavy drinking and “the Russian-style macho attitude of not going for medical checkups.”
Russia’s healthcare reform, enacted by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2011 and designed to modernize the 30 percent of Russia’s medical institutions that had been deemed hazardous or underperforming, has not managed to make a dent in the country’s mortality rates. On the contrary, during the first quarter of this year, mortality rose by 5.2 percent compared to the same period last year, according to Rosstat, Russia’s statistics agency. The male mortality rate has increased: it rose by 23 percent between 1990 and 2013, largely due to drinking and chronic disease.
All this doesn’t necessarily mean that Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov will find himself short of capable soldiers to dispatch to assorted hotspots. “There’s a conscious effort to fill particularly important units, including submarine units and Special Forces, with professional soldiers,” says Jörgen Elfving, a Russian armed forces expert at the Swedish Defense College. “It’s ground force units with broader tasks that are suffering.” These units, especially the infantry and the artillery, can operate using conscripts, but a lack of experienced non-commissioned officers—the category many professional soldiers are promoted to after serving for two-to-three years—complicates the task. It also forces commanders to use fewer, and less experienced, soldiers. More complications will arise as weapons are modernized, as soldiers will need to learn how to operate new, much more sophisticated ones.
The Russian armed forces consisted of 845,000 servicemen and women in 2014. Given that this year’s number dropped to 771,000, a considerable number of professional soldiers appear to have left after fulfilling their initial contract.
In part, these problems are the direct results of Russia’s latest attempt at armed forces reform. Following the Georgian war in 2008, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyokov embarked on an ambitious and much-needed reform labeled New Look, which aimed to cull Russia’s half-million-strong officer corps through layoffs and by reducing officer training academies. (Serdyokov correctly viewed the armed forces too top-heavy.) “It was a laudable effort, but it meant that for several years the higher education institutions stopped taking in new cadets altogether,” says Pavel Baev, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. “So now there aren’t enough young officers.” According to Baev, there’s a particular shortage of lieutenants, the lowest officer rank. “If there aren’t enough sergeants and lieutenants, who will train the conscripts?”
And another problem persists: Although Russia’s armed forces are modernizing their barracks, some date back to Soviet times, and were never intended to last this long. This summer, barracks in the city of Omsk collapsed, killing 23 soldiers. Inflation makes a soldier’s pay less competitive, too.
Still, Russia has cause for optimism. Russia’s 771,000 force is more than any other European country can muster. “Russia may not reach its goal of a fully professional, modernized army by 2020, as the government had planned,” reflects Elfving. “But even at its current capacity, Russia is an intimidating power.” Russia's adversaries can't bank on a Russia weakened by (partially) failed armed forces reform. Despite numerous unsuccessful attempts at such reform throughout history, Russia has remained a formidable force. Of course, what conscripts think is a different matter.