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An Army of Dilettantes: Turning the Russian Army into a Professional Army of Contractors Will Be a Difficult (If Achievable) Task

Conscripts Boarding a Train with GearMilitary reforms aimed at creating an army with "a new face" have been implemented in Russia since 2008. Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), wrote in a book titled "Russia's New Army" that the current reforms "are the most important transformation of Russian military forces since the formation of the Red army following the Revolution of 1917." The prospect of a professional army was first seriously considered after the First Chechen War, but economic conditions at that time made the creation of an army of contractors impossible. Has the time now come for Russia to take its military forces to the next level?

The majority of military experts believe that the creation of a professional army (or at least a mixed army, where the majority of the soldiers are contractors) is not just a way to avoid problems with conscription, but is absolutely essential for preserving the fighting capacity of the Russian army. Military expert Alexandr Golts believes that Russia has no choice but to staff its military forces with professionals: "The demographic situation will be deteriorating in the coming years, and the fighting capacity of the current conscripts is almost nil," he said. The conscription model is rooted specifically in the Russian military culture that dates back some three centuries, and the current military reforms are practically destroying this system, Golts said. According to him, one of the main reasons behind the military officers' dissatisfaction with the reforms is the assumption that the age of large-scale continental wars is over, although many Russian army generals are still fighting World War II in their heads.

In the Soviet times, military service was seen as an important patriotic duty: a time for boys to become men. But today there is no massive propaganda machine in place to attract young men to serve in the army. The fact that Russia's conscription-based army is wrought with problems is no secret: military service is, to put it mildly, not very popular among the Russian youth. Valentina Melnikova from the Union of Soldiers Mothers estimates the number of young men who really want to serve in the Russian army at just 25 percent of the male population. The former Head of the Defense Ministry's Press Service and a military commentator for the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper Viktor Baranets told Radio Liberty in April: "The youth is well-informed about the standards in the army. They know that military practice is just fiction. Soldiers write us letters saying that they practice shooting just twice a year, and mostly work on construction sites."

The two main problems that conscripts face today are corruption and health issues. "The common practice is forced money collection from young conscripts who are unfit to serve in the army because of health issues," said Valentina Melnikova from the Union of Soldier Mothers. Officially, Russia adheres to very high international standards in terms of the health of its conscripts, so even a minor health problem can be reason enough for a young man to dodge the draft. However, officials from the Voenkomat (the military enlistment office) often tell the unknowing conscripts that they are practically fit enough to serve, but can be excused from serving for a certain sum of money. A new kind of business has also emerged in the past few years, Melnikova warned: "There are a lot of fake firms that promise something like: pay us $4,000, and you'll stay at home. A young man pays this money and he suddenly finds out that his documents are invalid. So he goes to serve to the army anyway, and sometimes people from this firm come to him and threaten him not to ask for his money back." Melnikova is convinced that the main problem in Russian army is not hazing, but medical conditions: "About 80 percent of soldiers complain about health conditions, bad medical facilities and so on."

Pukhov argues that the transition to a (semi-)professional army is one of the most difficult tasks of the military reforms, and that, in Russia's case this transition will take a very long time. Writing for Nezavisimaya Gazeta in July of last year, he noted three key issues: the lack of financial resources, as a professional army is much more expensive because qualified contractors will not serve for free; the training of contractors, since there has to be very effective discipline, also expensive and time-consuming; and the reservists, because Russia has to have at least a minimally trained force in reserve. Alexandr Sharavin, the director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis who advocates a mixed army with a small percentage of conscripts, agreed: "The Russian army has to keep a strong reservist force because of dangerous borders, primarily with China, and the potential infiltration of Islamists (especially the Taliban) into Central Asian countries."

On the other hand, Russia has nuclear weapons and China will probably think twice before starting a military offensive on Russia. Also, there is no sense to have three million soldiers in reserve in case of a war with China ­ it's still not enough to confront the Chinese army. But other experts, such as Anatoliy Ermolin, a veteran of the Vympel task force division, believe that Russia has to be prepared mainly for local conflicts, and because of its nuclear weapons arsenal there is practically no need to worry about large-scale wars.

As for the costs, a conscription army does not come cheap. Although the soldiers serve almost for free (they get 500 rubles ($17) per month), other costs (transport, equipment, healthcare, food) are astronomically high. Some soldiers currently serve as contractors, but their salaries are very low. The poor employment conditions currently offered to contractors have failed to attract the best and the brightest of Russian men. "No real educated expert with some specialization or high moral values, psychological or physical qualities will serve for 8,000 to 9,000 rubles ($266 to $300) per month," said Viktor Litovkin, a military expert from the Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie publication.

But Russia's Ministry of Defense is in favor of a mixed army. In April 2011, the Head of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov said that in the future, only 15 percent of the army will consist of conscripts. In any case, conscripts will continue to be needed in significant numbers until a reliable and robust (semi-)professional force is in place.

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