“Russia: Conscription Crisis Looming”

Op-Ed, International Relations and Security Network

March 30, 2011

Author: Simon Saradzhyan, Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

The conscription model of the Russian armed forces is unsustainable, and the country’s military planners will either have to recruit older men and cancel exemptions or recruit more professional soldiers in the future. The latter is preferable given that skilled rank-and-file will be needed to operate sophisticated weapons systems that the Russian military plans to acquire in the next decade.


"The Defense Ministry has fulfilled the call-up plan," deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Colonel General Vasily Smirnov declared at a press conference held in January to announce results of the past fall-winter conscription campaign.

But, while military planners have managed to fill the conscription quota in the past few years, this task will become increasingly difficult, forcing the General Staff and Defense Ministry, which plan conscription for the Russian armed forces and a number of other troops, to make difficult yet necessary choices.

A number's game

There will be 11.6 million men of conscription age, from 18 to 27 years, in Russia this year, according to the Federal Service of State Statistics' (FSSS) demographic forecast for 2011. Deducting those found to be unfit for service, as well as those enjoying the college education exemption and dodging the draft, calculations there would still be approximately 1.7 million men available for conscription in Russia as of 2011.

In theory this should be sufficient to satisfy the demand by the Defense Ministry and Russia's so-called 'power agencies' (other defense, law enforcement and security actors) for conscripts, totaling about 555,000 in 2010 according to personal calculations.

However, in reality most conscripts are drafted from the ranks of 18-year olds, and from those who have already left high school, but did not make it to college. Older potential recruits have is most cases already sought educational or health exemptions or other deferrals. In fact, 18-year olds account for 70 percent of those drafted in the Russian armed forces and other troops, according to calculations published in a 2007 issue of the Nezavisimoye Voyennoy Obozrenieby Vladimir Yevseyev, a senior researcher at the Russian Federation Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

The Defense Ministry needs to draft 660,000 conscripts for the agency to be able to complete the personnel reform process, which calls for its armed forces to total one million, including 100,000-120,000 professional soldiers and 220,000 officers, by 2012. If we add conscripts drafted to serve in troops of the other 'power agencies', which I would estimate at a total of some 80,000, then a total of 740,000 men would have to be drafted in 2011.

If 70 percent of these conscripts are 18-year olds, as has been the case in the past, some 518,000 males of this age would have to be conscripted in 2011.This means that nearly all of Russia's 570,000 healthy 18-year old males would need to be drafted for the armed forces to be able to stick to the existing recruitment model. But as noted above, a fair share of them would enroll in state colleges and would thus make them unavailable. As a result, there could be a shortage of young conscripts as early as this year.

Some of the 'power agencies' are already suffering from this shortage. For instance, the Interior Ministry's Interior Troops asked General Staff, which manages conscription for the Defense Ministry, Ministry of Emergency Situations and Federal Agency of Special Construction in addition to the Interior Troops, called for 27,000 conscripts to be drafted in the fall and winter of 2010, but only 18,500 joined the Interior Troops, a source quoted by Interfax said in January.

Moreover, Russian military recruiters are bound to encounter increasingly large holes in conscript lists as the Russian population both shrinks and ages. Only 855,865 will turn 18 in 2011 (1/3 is always considered unfit to serve), 34.5 percent less than in 2002, according to FSSS' 2011 forecast and results of the 2002 census (the results of the newest census are not yet in). And this decline is only going to accelerate, despite the government's efforts to stimulate birth rates through bonuses and other measures, say military experts and demographers.

The FSSS predicts that the population of Russia will continue to decrease at an accelerating rate. Russia's population will shrink by 24,000 in 2016, but by 2028 will see numbers decline by 325,000 per year in spite of the continuing influx of immigrants from neighboring countries, according to the service's medium forecastfor 2011-2023. Confluence of these negative trends requires Russian military planners to act to prevent future conscription shortages.

Fighting the odds

To prevent shortages, military planners can choose from options that include: The expansion of the conscript pool through the cancellation of existing draft exemptions or deferrals; the drafting of older males and extension of the maxim conscription age; and the increase in the numbers of contract soldiers in the Russian army. The final, and in some ways most drastic option is to reduce the personnel strength of the armed forces and other troops.

So far, the Defense Ministry seems to be leaning toward expanding the conscription pool through legal and regulatory amendments. In order to receive a larger number of conscripts, the Defense Ministry is lobbying to reduce the drafting capabilities of other 'power agencies' that have troops and rely on conscripts. This makes sense since the presence of conscript-manned units in such agencies, as the Federal Agency of Special Construction, increasingly looks like an obsolete vestige of a militarized Soviet past.

The ministry is also lobbying to extend the conscription age to 30 and to cancel a number of deferrals, including at least half the number of state college-issued deferrals. Such an approach could help prevent shortages if indeed the federal and regional authorities could enforce implementation, which may be difficult given that they target more senior men. And the commonly found aversion to military service will not change until troops eradicate violent hazing, from which dozens of conscripts get killed and maimed in Russia every year.

Ultimately, further expansion of the conscription pool, coupled with a planned reduction of the term of compulsory service from two to one years will not be a silver bullet.

Russia's conventional armed forces are seriously lagging behind their American and western allies that have undergone a military revolution to climb to a qualitatively new level by acquiring all-weather day/night weaponry and satellite navigation and targeting systems, for example. To catch up, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said in September 2010 that his agency planned to spend $613 billion on procurement in the next decade to boost the ratio of 'state- of-the-art' equipment in its arsenal from 10 percent in 2010 to 70 percent in 2020. However, the question is whether 18-year old conscripts, the absolute majority of whom do not have college degrees, will be able to operate or even support such state-of-the-art systems.

The evidently negative answer to this question should compel Russian military strategists to think about how they could draw in more professional soldiers to operate all the high-precision conventional weaponry, targeting and surveillance systems that they plan to acquire and to compensate for the relative shortage of troops on the ground in the world's largest country.

Despite claims by Russian generals that the armed forces cannot attract more professional soldiers due to lack of funds, the reality can and should be very different. Until key officer corps reforms in 2008, defense authorities managed to keep more than 350,000 officers on the payroll. Planned reductions in the officer corps, by approximately 130,000 officers, should free up enough money to hire an equal or larger number of additional professional soldiers to the rank-and-file. The defense ministry could even cut officer ranks further, leaving more than 200,000 officers in service. Indeed Russia has one of the highest officer-to-soldier ratios in the world with two officers for every seven soldiers, compared to a one-to-six ratio in the US Army and one-to-five in the US Navy.

Having already walked away from the mass mobilization model, the Russian military reformers now need to complete the transition to a conventional armed force that is sufficiently skilled to operate the modern weaponry needed to quickly and effectively react to military and security threats, such as local armed conflicts, mass incursions by insurgents or the implosion of a neighboring state. And what about deterrence in the case of (hypothetical) larger-scale wars? Russia continues to have more than enough nuclear weapons to prevent any country or alliance in the world from even seriously contemplating such a prospect.

For Academic Citation:

Saradzhyan, Simon. "Russia: Conscription Crisis Looming?." International Relations and Security Network, March 30, 2011.
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