Russian military having serious problems retaining contract soldiers, new data show

His former commanders left this Russian soldier's corpse in the Ukrainian soil near Luhansk, at a site of the Russo-Ukrainian war in the Donbas, Ukraine (Image: RadioSvoboda.org)

His former commanders left this Russian soldier's corpse in the Ukrainian soil near Luhansk, at a site of the Russo-Ukrainian war in the Donbas, Ukraine (Image: RadioSvoboda.org) 

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Vladimir Putin said this week that he remains committed to moving to an all-volunteer military, even though budgetary stringencies have slowed the process. But figures from the military itself show that Moscow faces an even more serious task, given demographic problems and the army’s inability to get contract soldiers to sign on for new tours.

In his commentary in Yezhednevny zhurnal, Russian military expert Aleksandr Golts says that Putin’s words contradicted the statements of his generals earlier this month at the start of the fall draft. Many of them said they wanted the draft to continue forever, even though the Kremlin leader wants to do away with it.

Although if Putin is as committed and certain as he says, the military commentator continues, that raise the question as to why he not long ago signed a law prohibiting those who manage to avoid military service “without respectable causes” to serve in the government until after ten years have elapsed.

Putin is quite right that the transition to an all-volunteer military has slowed, but his words do not convey just how serious the problem may be. That is suggested by a report of Col.Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev to the social council of the defense ministry. His words were truly “sensational,” Golts says.

The general said that this year the number of contract service personnel equaled 354,000, a number that, if true, means that the number of such soldiers has in fact declined, given that at the end of 2016, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu reported that there were already 384,000 contractor soldiers in uniform.

If Mizintsev’s numbers are correct, the journalist said, that means that the transition to a contract army has stalled at the level of 2015, the “only explanation” for which is that “approximately the same number of [contract soldiers] left the service” as joined it in the last two years.

Having served their original three-year term, “they have not begun to conclude new contracts,” something that means that the conditions of service are “not as attractive as the propagandists of the military agency describes them.” Pay hasn’t risen for five years, inflation has cut into that, and not all of the contractors are happy to be sent to “secret” wars.

“The secret burials of those who have been killed, the shameful explanations” about the war in Ukraine, and “the cynical refusal to acknowledge the country’s own soldiers who have been taken prisoner all have a negative impact on the attitudes of many toward service,” Golts says.

But such a state suggests an even bigger problem. If the number of contractors hasn’t increased over the last two years, then Shoygu’s claim that Moscow was able to cut the number of draftees this fall by 18,000 from a year earlier because of the increased number of contract soldiers is meaningless, Golts says.

What that cutback actually reflects, the military analyst continues, is the demographic bottleneck Russia now faces. Those being drafted this year were born in 1999, “when the number of births was the very lowest for all of post-Soviet history.” But there will be no quick turnaround: the number of births in each of the next seven years weren’t much better.

(“But there is no bad news without good,” he continues. Shoygu said that “only 13,000 draftees” will be sent to force structures other than the army. Most of these will go to the Russian Guard. But the other siloviki forces are “learning to live without draftees.” The emergency services ministry has been doing so for two years already.)

And looming behind all these figures is yet another the Kremlin is certain to be concerned about. If one adds up the total number of draftees, contract soldiers and officers in the army, one gets a total of 850,000. That is 160,000 less than Putin has confirmed in a recent decree.

Such a shortfall “inevitably will lead to a decline in military readiness,” Golts says. But the numbers may be less important in reality than as confirmation of the Kremlin’s belief that “only a million-man army corresponds to the status of a great power.” The only way to get to that number quickly, however, is to call up reserves.

And to avoid doing that, military commanders are certainly telling their civilian superiors, will require keeping the draft in place for far more years ahead than Putin and his team have suggested. Thus, “ambitions are harming the transition to a contract army no less than budget reductions.”

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Edited by: A. N.

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