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The Russia Journal
November 30-December 6, 2001
Last stand for Russia’s outmoded generals
The president is likely to approve plans for a professional army


Russia’s generals once again had cause for worry last week, and not only because secretary general of the "aggressive" NATO bloc, Lord Robertson, was in Moscow for talks on closer relations with President Vladimir Putin. As if it weren’t enough for the generals to face the threat of losing their familiar enemy, they also had to confront an even greater menace – that of losing their familiar Army.

The president’s press service made the sudden announcement that Putin had approved a plan for the armed forces to phase out the conscript system and go professional. It was a sight indeed to see head of General Headquarters Anatoly Kvashnin stammering as he searched for a reply when asked to comment the decision. As for Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, he tried to assure journalists that it was too early to talk about the armed forces going professional, as they first of all had to be rearmed.

The defense bosses’ loss for words is understandable. They are entirely aware that not all the military reforms that have made their way to Putin’s desk of late come from the Defense Ministry. Putin wants to give Russia the image of being a civilized country, and having a conscript army in which draftees are little more than slaves is a serious obstacle to achieving this.

This is making it more and more difficult for the military top brass to sabotage genuine reform plans. Previously, only a handful of military specialists and human rights campaigners ignored by official authorities consistently called for an end to the draft, but now, the leaders of two political parties in the Duma have realized that the move to a professional army must be at the foundation of military reform.

SPS (Union of Right Forces) and Yabloko have both declared military reform one of their top priorities. What’s more, they are not just talking about it – both parties have drawn up serious proposals for actually implementing the reforms they call for. And there’s no excuse now for simply dismissing these proposals as the creation of incompetent people. SPS, for example, worked on its project with specialists from the Academy of Military Sciences led by academy president, Gen. Makhmut Gareyev, a former deputy head of General Headquarters. The team working on the project carefully studied the experience of all the world’s leading military powers, and concluded that, based on this experience, it is possible to move over to a professional army within six years.

SPS leader Boris Nemtsov showed a lot of determination and made sure that his party’s proposals went right to the top for examination. This in turn meant the Defense Ministry had to start getting its act together. Deputy head of General Headquarters Vyacheslav Putilin ended up admitting that the appearance of alternative proposals forced the generals to begin work on their own plans for transition to a professional army. They couldn’t report to Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov that the Army first had to be rearmed before going professional. Both Putin and Kasyanov, after all, know full well that this rearmament won’t happen any time in the coming years.

The Defense Ministry’s plan was to postpone the transition to a professional army for as long as it could, if not for good. According to the plan, the military bosses would spend the next two years putting together a state federal program to be financed as a separate item in the state budget. This program would evaluate what steps should be taken to implement the reform, and how much it would cost.

Real steps would begin no earlier than 2005, when one division – the Pskov paratroops division – would go professional on an experimental basis. Putilin said the experiment would be necessary so as to work out exactly what kind of infrastructure changes would be required for a professional army.

But the Russian generals are trying to make out that they have no experience with military units formed entirely on a contract basis. This isn’t the case – the 201st division stationed in Tajikistan has been entirely professional for the last few years. What the generals hope to do with their planned experiments is prove that the transition to a professional army will cost money the country simply doesn’t have.

The generals calculate that it would cost at least 500 million rubles to maintain just one division. Putilin said it’s not only a question of the wages the military would have to pay its sergeants and privates, indeed, three quarters of the money would go on "infrastructure changes." The generals insist that all contract soldiers would have to be given accommodation, for example. But following this approach, no budget-funded organization, be it the Health Ministry or Education Ministry, would ever have all the personnel it requires.

This isn’t the first time the generals have tried this kind of trick. But they can’t be sure it will help them this time. For one thing, as a consequence of a falling birthrate in the second half of the 1980s, Russia will run up against a "demographic trough" in the coming years that will mean there simply won’t be enough people to call up. This will leave Putin with the choice of either abolishing the various provisions that currently allow young men to defer their military service – and make himself unpopular – or speed up the transition to a professional army.

A stronger partnership with the West, meanwhile, will completely undermine the arguments of those who insist that Russia must prepare for global conflict and therefore needs a mass army. The generals may have had things their way for the last time.

(The writer is a correspondent for Yezhenedelny Zhurnal.)

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