In last week’s NVO, Mikhail Bogoslovskii argues for solving the Russian military’s manpower problems by introducing conscription of women. There are currently around 10-15 countries in the world that conscript women into the military, out of around 90 that have some kind of conscription. The most prominent of these is Israel, where women serve for 21 months.
Bogoslovskii bases his argument on notions of equality and fairness, noting that conscription is essentially a tax on the poorest and least socially connected young men in Russian society. The costs of this tax, he argues, include the feminization of higher education and therefore the entire education system, as many men who serve in the military and then go straight to the working world would otherwise attend university. (I’ll skip over the sexist generalizations about how this damages Russia by depriving it of the “brainier” male part of society. ) He cites research that having a son conscripted into the military lowers a family’s income by 15 percent, without taking into account the decrease in earning potential through work experience (or education) not gained during that year.
Bogoslovskii then focuses on some of the positive aspects of having women serve in the military. He notes that though they are on average physically weaker than men, they have higher stamina. He makes various other arguments, often self-contradictory, about benefits women would derive from serving in the military. These boil down to women gaining experience and self-confidence from serving in the military.
But rather than focusing on Bogoslovskii’s arguments, I want to address the general question of whether this is a potential solution for the Russian military’s manpower problem and, if so, how this would impact the Russian military and Russian society. In terms of pure numbers, having women serve would certainly help solve the manpower problem. Right now, there are about 900,000 18 year old men in Russia. Of these, only around 300,000 are draft-eligible, given current regulations and exemptions. The Russian military at its current strength needs about 800-850,000 enlisted soldiers, including both conscripts and contract soldiers. There are currently around 200,000 contract soldiers in the military. If we assume that the number of draft-eligible 18-year old women in Russia would be approximately equal to the number of men, adding 300,000 women conscripts would pretty much solve the military’s manpower problem.
What would be the impact of such a solution? First of all, we should make clear that women already serve as contract soldiers. In fact, if Bogoslovskii’s data are right, they already comprise 50 percent of Russian contract soldiers. There are also a number of female officers, though in percentage terms, this is a pretty low number. Most Western military services have integrated women over the last several decades, and though the road was not always smooth, there are now many roadmaps on how to do this successfully. Many female Russian emigres (and their daughters) have been conscripted into the Israeli military, so Russian military leaders could use that experience as a model.
Clearly, such a step would be a huge cultural shift for the male-dominated world of the Russian military. But it might have a lot of positive consequences. First of all, I would imagine that such a step would decrease the ubiquitous problems with hazing. There have been a number of studies that have shown that the presence of women in a social group reduces intra-group aggression, and there seems to be no reason to think that the Russian military would be any different in this regard. Furthermore, problems with alcoholism may also decline, as Russian women on average drink less than men. While unit cohesion may initially be affected by the presence of women, in the long run, the decline of hazing should lead to improvements in this sphere as well.
Overall, while this would clearly be quite a radical step for the Russian government to take, it has the potential of both solving the manpower problem and improving the conditions for conscripts. It would certainly be easier politically than extending the length of conscription service back to 18 months or two years.