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#15 - JRL 7065
From: "Roger McDermott" <rmmcdermott@btinternet.com>
Subject: Putin's military Priorities
Date: Sun, 16 Feb 2003

(Vol.3 - Issue 1) Putin's military Priorities: Modernisation of the Armed


This text is an extract from the chapter written by Roger N. McDermott, in Russian Military Reform 1992-2002,

(Frank Cass: London) 2003.


Roger N. McDermott rmmcdermott@btinternet.com is an honorary senior research fellow, university of Kent at Canterbury (UK). He writes for Jane's Defence Weekly and Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, specialising in Russian and Central Asian defence and security. He is also the editor (with Anne C. Aldis)of Russian Military Reform 1992-2002, (Frank Cass: London) 2003.

Recent publications:

-Kazakhstan's Armed Forces: Reform or Decay? Conflict Studies Research Centre, RMA, Sandhurst, K33, June 2002.

-Split Loyalties: Central Asian Regional Brief, Jane's Defence Weekly, 16 October 2002.

-Border Security in Tajikistan: Countering the Narcotics Trade? Central Asia and the Caucasus (Sweden), 1 (19), 2003.

President Vladimir Putin presented himself at an early stage as both friend and protector of the Russian military. An advocate of a strong, centrally controlled state, Putin has sought to stamp his impression upon the military, though achieving this in practice has proven elusive. Clearly, Putin inherited a military in very bad condition, despite much discussion of military reform during the 1990s. The armed forces suffered as they competed with numerous security ministries for a share of the defence budget, often with conflicting interests, and the officer corps had largely lost its ethos. The reform process itself became a victim in the power struggle between the MoD and the General Staff. Russia's armed forces suffered from under-financing, outdated equipment, ill-discipline and low morale.

The conscription system itself is a major contributory factor in the decline of military discipline. This has long been recognised in Russia, yet Yeltsin's plan in 1996 to professionalize the army by 2000 failed miserably within two years. The armed forces have suffered due to the poor health of recruits and a culture of abuse (dedovshchina). In 1997, Nikita Chaldymov, serving on the presidential human rights commission, described the Russian military as 'inhuman'.

The General Staff has found it difficult to dispense with Soviet views of Russia's need to maintain a global war capability. It retains the vestiges of the Cold War in a continued belief in the necessity for mass mobilization forces based on conscription, and in its decade-long opposition to the legal right of young men to perform alternative, non-military service. Nevertheless, the army has experienced growing problems in securing the quality needed in military personnel from its call up. A number of factors indicate the collapsing nature of the conscription system. There is a severe crisis both in finding suitable recruits and in keeping them.


The reasons for seeking to overhaul the conscription system are both social and demographic. The quality and quantity of recruits deteriorate every year. This makes the twice-yearly draft a time for decrying the manning system. Demographic problems are anticipated to peak around 2008-10, and this is seen as an important undercurrent driving forward plans to abolish the current conscription system. The need for a professional army in Russia is predicated upon an anticipated deficit of between 30-40 per cent in recruitment by 2010. Demographic trends have, therefore, played a critical role in conditioning the political and military advocates in favour of professionalizing the armed forces.

Professionalizing the Armed Forces: a Panacea or Distant Dream?

In November 2000 Putin asked the Russian Security Council to examine plans to create a professional army. This is thought to have resulted from a series of Security Council meetings held in 2000, which suggested that Russia should no longer rely upon conscription. Defence Minister Pavel Grachev in May 1993 had envisaged the professionalization of the military taking place in three stages, culminating in raising the professional component to 50 per cent by 2000.

The presence of professional servicemen, serving under contract within the Russian armed forces is not new, as the first of these joined 1992, though their reputation to date has been poor. Indeed, the 201st Motor Rifle Division, based in Tajikistan, is almost entirely professional. Since the early 1990s the Russian government has conveyed mixed signals on the issue of professionalization. The Finance and Economic Development Ministries vetoed proposals put forward by the Defence Ministry for additional contract servicemen. Yeltsin's failed attempt in 1996 to reinvigorate the idea left it largely discredited. More importantly, there is little recognition or understanding within the Russian military of the character of a 'professional' army on western lines. This could take a longer time to redress.

Only the day before Putin's announcement in September 2000, Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov had dismissed speculation about the abolition of conscription, revealing the disunity within the security establishment and its natural reluctance to consider change. Putin initially chose to set the rather ambitious target of 'abolishing' conscription by 2010. A more realistic time-scale envisages the achievement of a professional army between 2010-2015. In any case, the transition will be gradual and experimental in its nature. A draft programme for placing the armed forces on a contract basis will be completed by 2004 - just before the next scheduled presidential elections.

Equally the cost of recruiting contract servicemen into units will be enormous. In short, an effective programme of professionalizing the army cannot be carried out successfully without proper funding. Putilin estimated that the cost of maintaining one contract motor rifle division would be 30 per cent more expensive than one manned by conscripts. In his view, professional servicemen would require a minimum monthly salary of R5,500 (around US$175).

General Andrei Nikolayev, Chairman of the Defence Committee of the Duma, agreed with Putilin's sober assessment of the problems in professionalizing the military. The question of the infrastructure must be answered. 'You cannot drive contract servicemen into dilapidated barracks,' Nikolayev said. It is equally important to address the ethos of contract servicemen, which he suggested be with the defence of the country in mind, not financial gain. Implementing these reforms will necessitate a gradual approach, in Nikolayev's view, allowing time to change the psychology of contract servicemen. Nikolayev has been an outspoken opponent of the unrealistic approach taken towards military reform by both the MoD and the General Staff. He is convinced that the main avenues of reform ought to be changes in manning principles and the rearmament of troops with modern weaponry. In practice, he complained, these are substituted by cuts in personnel.

In February 2002 the General Staff finished drafting a blueprint for transferring the army and navy to contract service; after some minor revisions it was belatedly submitted to President Putin in July 2002. That process is expected to culminate in December 2003 in a federal programme which Putin can endorse before the presidential elections in 2004. But by the summer of 2002, the time-scale had not only slowed down but was taking account of economic reality. Even Putin acknowledged that the reform can only occur gradually, and within the confines of further growth in the Russian economy.

The 76th Airborne Division at Pskov will serve as an important case study, to ascertain the most suitable infrastructure changes needed to support a professional army. The experiment began on 1 September 2002 and is expected to end in summer 2003; the government will then evaluate its results with a view to costing the implementation of contract service throughout the armed forces. It will necessitate increasing monthly allowances, building improved barracks and providing apartment blocks for contract servicemen. It is estimated that the experiment may cost between 2-2.5 billion rubles; housing alone will involve spending at least 1.5 billion rubles.

Financial obstacles impede military reform in general and professionalizing the armed forces in particular. According to Major General Valeriy Astanin, Deputy Chief of the Armed Forces Main Organizational-Mobilization Directorate, the cost of rapidly cancelling conscript service could reach 'hundreds of billions (of rubles) which neither the army nor the country has, and so the transition to a contract army may stretch out'. In fact, Astanin believes that the cost of professionalization could necessitate doubling the defence budget. Opponents of professionalization may encourage the development of the 76th Division as a show case example of progress within the armed forces: however, one requiring expenditure that would make further professionalizing economically unrealistic.

Time-scale for Reform and Addressing Social Conditions

Anatoliy Kvashnin, Chief of the General Staff, recognises the task of modernising the Russian armed forces will take some time; he has suggested this period may be longer than ten years. Looking beyond this, he suggested that the armed forces in future should be radically different and comparable with those of other developed nations. Kvashnin has admitted that the level of combat readiness has declined in the past decade. Further reduction of the size of the armed forces is expected to achieve a level of one million men, which in Kvashnin's view will be the size of the contract army.

Moreover, Kvashnin does not necessarily envisage the complete abolition of conscription. The reformed armed forces could combine professional and conscripted servicemen. Professional soldiers, in his opinion, would be sent to 'hot spots'. Nonetheless, Kvashnin's assessment of 'adequate pay' and a 'range of social benefits', as the means of securing better quality recruits, appears somewhat simplistic. Raising the income of contract servicemen serving in Tajikistan in the 201st Division did not result in an improvement in the quality of recruits, or solve the manning problems within the division. In order to attract quality recruits fundamental changes must be made in the public perception of the armed forces, raising the prestige of military service. Achieving this will demand more than substantially raising salaries and privileges to servicemen, it will necessitate a long term sustained government policy directed at the education of the young, making military service more acceptable to them. A professional ethos, however, cannot be purchased; if this aspect of professionalizing the armed forces is overlooked, Russia will risk achieving little more than state approved mercenaries.

The Future Russian Soldier

If there is any tangible progress in Russian military reform within the past decade it is in so far as the dreaming approach that denoted the reform policies of Yeltsin has given way to a more rational and sensible one. Putin has achieved much in terms of securing a tighter grip on the armed forces. The president is keen to achieve the political dividend which would surely follow linking his name with a radical transformation of the Russian armed forces. His is a far from reactionary policy, under consideration since well before November 2000, when he first instructed the Russian Security Council to examine the manpower issue in detail. The belief in the successful professionalization of the armed forces may yet entail levels of self-deception akin to Prince Potemkin's villages. If the absence of financial backing remains a feature of the political landscape within Russia, then the reforms will fail. Similarly, if professionalizing the armed forces is viewed as a cure to all ills of Russia's military, its failure will be inevitable.

Military reform must, however, become more systemic and less piecemeal in order to succeed. Putin appears to be following such an approach. He must also overcome the huge financial hurdles involved in such a costly and ambitious programme. The Russian economy is the real focus of Putin's presidency. Military reform must be coupled to the progress of the economy, or rooted in economic reality: this is clearly apprehended by Putin, unlike his predecessor. And yet the end result will not guarantee successful reform. Reducing financial waste, corruption and improving economic accountability within the armed forces will be as critical challenges as professionalization in shaping the parameters of military reform in the next decade. Transforming the condition of the military as a whole will be a gradual process: Putin appreciates there is no rapid solution. However, the start-stop structural tinkering approach to reform that has failed to deliver progress in the past decade has so far been eschewed by President Putin as he pursues more realistic plans.

Copyright 2001 PSAN -"Insight"

All rights reserved

The article is not for citation or quotation without consent of the author.

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