Russia’s Conscription Conundrum

The Obstacles to Modernizing the Country’s Armed Forces

Putin delivers a speech at the opening of the Army-2015 international military forum in Kubinka, outside Moscow, Russia, June 2015.  Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

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.

Russian conscripts, dressed in military uniforms, line up at a recruiting station during a heavy snowfall in Stavropol in southern Russia, April 2011. Eduard Korniyenko / Reuters

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

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