Conscription and Military Reform

I returned from a brief vacation to find out that this blog had been recommended on The Monkey Cage and Lawyers, Guns and Money. Thanks to Josh and Robert!

More substantively, I wanted to respond to the following comment made by Matt on Lawyers, Guns, and Money:

This isn’t bad but leaves out two huge factors that have slowed Russian military reform and might well derail this, too.  You can’t understand the situation if you leave these factors out and that they are not mentioned at all makes me a bit worried about the author’s take.  First, the huge swaths of poorly trained conscripts do not just sit around and get abused by older troops and the like (though they do that, too.)  They form private work-forces for officers, especially high-ranking ones.  These troops build dachas for officers, but are also hired out to private people as workers.  The officers get the money and the troops essentially none of it- they are just ordered to do the work.  (I have very close personal experience of this.)  So, reducing the number of poorly trained draftees would put a big, personal, financial crimp on many officers, a serious reason why they have opposed reduction.  Knowing this and taking account of it is essential for understanding the situation there.  Secondly, when an officer retires he has, traditionally, be guaranteed housing.  The move to vastly reduce the officer corp has, for 15 or more years, floundered on this fact, as there are not enough buildings, especially where people will live, to put all the officers who will supposedly be forcefully retired, and the government has been afraid of what would happen if they are not passified somhow.  With the (government sponsored) increase in nationalism over the last 10+ years, large groups of angery, militarily trained men are not something one wants, and the government has been smart enough to know this.  Again, if you don’t take this into account you can’t understand the situation.  If anything I’d suggest that these factors are as important or even more important than those considered in the article for understanding the failings so far of military reform in Russia, and why we should not assume they will work this time, either.

Matt raises two important points. On the question of conscripts acting as private work-forces for senior officers, this is has absolutely been a huge problem. But it is also one of the reasons the civilian leadership of the country has decided to press ahead with the reform. The list of top officers who have been removed from their positions for resisting reform in the last year is extensive, and I’m sure that their opposition to end corrupt practices such as this one played a role in their removal. For whatever reasons, Putin and co. have decided to tackle military corruption and are refusing to succumb to the full court press against reform. The length of service for conscripts has already been reduced, and the number of conscripts will decline in comming years due to demographic factors. Regardless of what the officers want, this makes the transition to a professional (or almost entirely professional) military essential for Russia.

One other thought on conscripts: the elimination of a number of exemptions means that conscription will no longer only target Russian of the lowest status. And that (together with the drop to 1 year of service) may spell the end of the brutal hazing that has been endemic in Russia for decades.

On the question of housing: this is a very serious problem, and one I did not address in my initial post due to space constraints in the original memo. It needs to be addressed in some detail and with reference to materials that I don’t have on hand right now, so I will have a separate post on this issue in the next week or so.