When it comes to manning within the Russian Armed Forces, Vladimir Putin is contradicting his own generals, and he has even begun to contradict himself. On October 24, the Russian president met with youth team members of WorldSkills Russia, who won several medals at this year’s international vocational education and skills excellence competition, in Abu Dhabi. Putin was asked if the state could provide Russian young people with “alternative” service, which on the one hand would allow them to continue training in their respective working professions, but on the other hand would still count toward completion of military service. Putin unexpectedly answered, “We have to keep in mind that we are gradually moving away from the draft,” while lamenting that budget constraints have been slowing the transition away from conscription. Nonetheless, he promised that the government will continue working on it (RIA Novosti, October 24). However, earlier that month, as the autumn draft season began, multiple Russian generals went on the record claiming compulsory military service would be maintained in Russia indefinitely (Ekho Moskvy, October 7). President Putin recently even signed a law that prohibits those who avoided military service without a valid reason from being hired for a government job for ten years. If he truly intends to dispense with the draft soon, it looks senseless to impose a penalty for those trying to avoid it now. Some observers qualified Putin’s statement as a populist overture ahead of the election campaign (Kommersant, October 26). Many also recalled how he hinted at the possibility of abandoning conscription on the eve of elections in 2012. Putin was even compared with Boris Yeltsin, who also promised to cancel conscription before the 1996 elections.
Still, the president’s recent remarks highlighted a genuine observable slowdown in the Armed Forces’ transition to a fully volunteer force. Indeed, while speaking at a meeting of the Public Council under the Ministry of Defense, Colonel General Michael Mizintsev mentioned a sensational figure: according to him, this year the number of Russian contract soldiers (kontraktniki) amounted to 354,000 (Mil.ru October 20). This means that the number of professional service members in positions of privates and sergeants has not been growing but is, in fact, shrinking, despite victorious reports to the contrary by the defense ministry. At the end of 2016, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that there were already 384,000 kontraktniki in the military (Mil.ru December 23, 2016). And according to the Plan of Activities of the Defense Ministry for 2013–2020, there should be 425,000 contract soldiers under arms in 2017 (Mil.ru, accessed November 8). True figures are incredibly difficult to independently verify. However, Mizintsev, as the chief of Russia’s National Defense Management Center, is reportedly privy, in real time, to all possible data on the status of the Armed Forces, which adds credence to his cited lower number of contract soldiers.
If so, the process of transition to contract service is frozen at the level of 2015. The question is, where did the 90,000 or so men who, according to the defense ministry, signed a contract with the military in 2016 and 2017, disappear to? The most logical explanation is that this many military personnel retired in the last two years. After completing their contractual three-year service term, they apparently did not sign a new one. This means that the conditions of service must not be as attractive as described by the military propagandists. Military wages, which were raised sharply in 2012, did not grow during the last five years. And inflation reduced military benefits dramatically. Moreover, Russia is engaged in non-conventional conflicts, such as the “secret” war in Ukraine’s Donbas. The covert burials of the dead and cynical refusals by the government to recognize its soldiers who were captured are all likely turning many troops away from the service.
But if the number of contract soldiers has been stagnant for the past two years, this undermines the official claims about manning in the Armed Forces. In early October, Defense Minister Shoigu explained that the substantial reduction in the size of the autumn draft (Russia plans to call up 134,000 young men, which is 18,000 fewer than a year ago) is due to the fact that more and more positions are being filled by kontraktniki (Mil.ru, October 6). The real reason for these draft reductions, however, is Russia’s continued demographic decline. The military is currently drawing on a cohort of Russian youths born in 1999, the year when the country’s birth rate was the lowest over the entire post-Soviet history. The number of boys born that year was about 600,000. The next seven years will be little better. And this makes filling units one of the most serious problems for the Russian Armed Forces.
But there is, apparently, a silver lining to this story. Shoigu also said that only 13,000 conscripts called up in the autumn 2017 draft will be sent to other “power” ministries. Apparently, most of these recruits will serve out their obligatory term with the Rosgvardia (National Guard). The rest of the country’s power ministries (excluding the regular Armed Forces) will have to make do without any conscripts. The Ministry for Emergency Situations abandoned accepting draftees two years ago; the border guards—even earlier. Even the Rosgvardia plans to move to all contract service by 2025.
But the Ministry of Defense continues to cling to the draft despite the fact that Putin would like (at least rhetorically) to abolish it. The answer is concealed in the apparent numbers of personnel serving in the Armed Forces. With 250,000 conscripts, 354,000 kontraktniki, 220,000 thousand officers and 30,000 cadets of military academies, the total number of Russian military men at arms equals about 850,000. But the president’s last decree set the number of troops in the Armed Forces at 1.013 million (TASS, March 29). Because of the demographic situation, it is physically impossible to achieve this goal. The gap of 160,000 troops between the nominal and real numbers will inevitably lead to decreased combat readiness. The only way to resolve this problem, thus, seems to be to boost reserve numbers with individuals who completed military service earlier. This is the reason to maintain the draft. Thus, the Kremlin’s great imperial ambitions—which equate a million-man army with the status of a global great power—harm plans to move from conscription to a full-volunteer army no less than the budget cuts.