The Russian military’s manpower problem

The greatest failures of Russian military reform over the last two years have been in the realm of manpower and staffing. Policy in this area has been wildly inconsistent and has shown no sign of either prior planning or strategic thinking during the reform process. I’ll focus here on just one aspect — the continuing debate over whether the Russian military should be staffed primarily through conscription or by recruiting professional soldiers to serve under contract. I’ll leave aside (at least for now) the equally problematic questions of reductions in the number of officers, education and training, and housing allocation.

(All of these related questions, and many others, are addressed in an excellent pamphlet by Rod Thornton, recently published by the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute and entitled “Military Modernization and the Russian Ground Forces.” I urge everyone interested in Russian military reform to read this piece — it’s one of the most balanced and informative English-language reviews of the reform I’ve read.)

While the military leadership continues to go back and forth on the question of conscription versus professionalization, it has been largely ignoring the simple fact that there simply aren’t enough 18 year olds in Russia to staff the military at current levels given the current one year term for conscription. The math is quite straightforward. The military wants to have 1 million men in uniform, of whom 150,000 were to be officers and another 150-170 thousand contract soldiers. The number of officers was recently raised to 220,000. This left a need for somewhere between 610 and 700 thousand conscripts per year. Presently, there are 700,000 men reaching the age of 18, of whom only about 400,000 are currently considered draft eligible because of various deferments and health exemptions. Furthermore, the severe drop in the birth rate in the 1990s means that within the next two years, the number of 18 year olds will decline by a further 40%, leaving less than 300,000 draft eligible 18-year olds. So the military will be facing a gap of at least 300,000 (and more likely closer to 400,000) soldiers every year for the foreseeable future unless something is changed.

The military has tried to address this problem by reducing deferments. This has not proved very effective, with only 20 percent of university graduates entering the military. At the same time, more and more young people are leaving the country for education and work, in part in order to avoid having to serve in the military. Another option that has been discussed is to increase the length of conscript service to either 18 months or two years. This is a politically unpopular measure that cannot be undertaken before the 2012 elections and may prove to be difficult to enact even then. It will most likely lead to at least some level of popular protest. My guess is that while there’s certainly some chance that the length of conscription could be increased one or two years from now, it’s fairly unlikely. Furthermore, if it happens, it will signal the rollback of military reform and the victory of the old guard over the reformers.

So that leaves two possible options for dealing with the manpower crisis within the reform paradigm. The first is to greatly increase the number of contract soldiers serving in the military. This has been the stated goal of the reformers over the last two years. But so far they have little to show for their efforts. In their recent Carnegie Moscow Center working paper on the military reform, Aleksei Arbatov and Vladimir Dvorkin point out that over the last 15 years, Russia has actually regressed in its ability to attract professional soldiers. In 1995, the Russian military had 380,000 contract soldiers and NCOs in service. Because of a combination of financial problems and resistance by senior generals, by 2003 this figure had shrunk to 135,000. Subsequent programs to increase the number of contract soldiers to 400,000 failed due to a combination of sabotage by the military bureaucracy, mistakes in implementation, and continuing problems with low pay and lack of prestige for serving in the military. Arbatov and Dvorkin note that only 107,000 contract soldiers are left at this point. This has not prevented the military from promoting new plans to increase the number of contract soldiers to 425,000 in the next few years.

The second option is to reduce the size of the military to a more manageable number. None of the arguments made in favor of maintaining an army of 1 million soldiers make sense. They are usually based on factors such as the country’s size or the length of its borders, rather than on an analysis of the realistic military threats that Russia might face in the foreseeable future. Arbatov and Dvorkin argue that the actual reasons for maintaining the size have to do with efforts by senior generals to preserve the current conscription system. I would add the factor of prestige — the generals want to be seen as leading a powerful military and in the old school world that many of them inhabit, a powerful military is a numerically large military.

Arbatov and Dvorkin propose reducing the size of the military to 800,000. They show that such a size would be sufficient to deal with potential military threats.  They believe that Russia could then have a fully professional military comprised of 220,000 officers and 680,000 580,000 professional soldiers. While this may be a laudable goal down the road, I just can’t imagine how the Russian government could succeed in recruiting such a large number of contract soldiers. A more likely scenario is to continue to combine professional and conscript soldiers, at least for the short term. If we assume that the military can continue to draft around 300,000 conscripts a year for one year of service, the required number of professional soldiers would drop to 380,000 280,000. This is still a reach, but at least somewhat more manageable as long as the government follows through on its promises to increase salaries and improve working conditions in the military.

In the longer term, Arbatov and  Dvorkin make a convincing case for the value of a transition to a fully professional military. The expectation that the future Russian military will be equipped with more technologically advanced weapons means that there will not be enough time to train conscripts serving for one year to use this technology. Furthermore, hazing (dedovshchina) will continue to be a problem as long as young men continue to be inducted into the military against their will. Professionalization is the best way to solve this problem. Finally, professionalization will eliminate the corruption associated with the conscription system, including both systemic bribery used in avoiding the draft and the use of “free” conscript labor for private ends by senior officers. One article in NVO calculated the total value of bribes received during the annual call-up at 138 billion rubles.  Arbatov and Dvorkin point out that the only fully professional unit in the Russian military — the 201st motorized rifle division based in Tajikistan — has long shown itself to have a high level of readiness and no hazing and can serve as a model for every unit in the ground forces.

I agree that full professionalization is necessary. However, it seems to me that it will take at least 5 years (and perhaps 10) to get to the point where the Russian military can recruit enough contract soldiers to make such a transition feasible, and a stopgap solution is needed in the meantime. By improving pay and conditions in the military, the government can show that it is serious about its goal of recruiting and retaining professional soldiers. If contract soldiers are paid and treated well, a sizeable number will stay beyond their initial three year term. This will start to change the military’s image, making further recruitment of professional soldiers easier and allowing the government to eliminate conscription.

Update: Apparently, I can’t subtract very well. Thanks to a reader for pointing out the arithmetic problem above, now fixed.

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More than you ever wanted to know about the Mistral

Last week, I posted some commentary by LCDR Patrick Baker about the Mistral sale. I mentioned at the time that he had written a thesis on the deal. For those who want to delve deeply into the deal, his thesis has now been posted online by Brookings. They also have links to a summary of the talk he gave there and his powerpoint presentation.

Happy reading! If all goes well, I’ll be back next week with something substantive.

Why NATO won’t recognize the CSTO

RIA-Novosti’s asked me for a comment on the likelihood of NATO establishing relations with CSTO. The following comment was published today on the Valdai Club website.

We should keep in mind that NATO isn’t really an organization in the way that we think about organizations. It’s primarily a collection of countries, each with its own foreign policy. And because it has a consensus principle in its decision-making, NATO can only take an action if none of the member countries object to a proposal. NATO operates by the silence procedure, whereby if no country objects to the wording of what the Secretary General offers as the consensus as he has heard it, they are deemed to have consented. If they object to wording, the discussion is reopened until they are satisfied.

In terms of setting up relations with another collective security organization such as CSTO, as far as I know NATO has pretty much never had relations with another such organization. Even back in the Cold War days, when CENTO and SEATO (the Southeast Asian and Central Treaty Organizations) existed, NATO didn’t really interact with them on an organization to organization basis.

So there are some inherent structural limitations on what NATO can do in terms of working with CSTO. NATO is focused on interaction with individual countries rather than with organizations. That’s the first and most important factor in limiting the possibilities for NATO-CSTO cooperation. There may be a greater chance of having individual NATO member countries working with CSTO, perhaps by participating in CSTO exercises, rather than having NATO as a body doing it. That’s not really the way NATO works in general. Many events that are seen in Russia as NATO events aren’t necessarily NATO events at all. For example, western reports on the recent Sea Breeze exercise in the Black Sea are very careful to describe it as either a U.S.-Ukraine exercise in which other countries participated or as a Partnership for Peace exercise. But it’s never described as a NATO exercise. Whereas reporting in Russia or China describes it as a NATO exercise, even though that is not the way the NATO member countries themselves see it.

A second reason is that NATO right now is mostly focused on internal issues. Since the end of the Cold War twenty years ago, NATO has been looking for a new purpose. One path that has been considered is to protect people in neighboring states against mass killings of civilians in internal conflict. This was its role in Kosovo in 1999 and more recently in Libya. The NATO countries have also added a counter-terrorism mission that has brought tens of thousands of its member countries’ soldiers to Afghanistan over the last decade. But there is still a lot of internal debate among NATO members about what its long term focus should be.  So I think rather than trying to focus on relations with other such organizations, the NATO countries are mostly focused on working out how its members will continue to make use of the existing NATO structure and procedures. So that’s a second limitation.

The third limitation may be relevant just for the United States, but because of the consensus principle NATO could not establish formal ties with CSTO without the U.S. being part of that consensus. There are still some parts of the U.S. security establishment, not so much in the current administration, but still important people in Washington who see CSTO as a potential way for Russia to extend its dominance over other former Soviet republics. And they don’t want to do anything to legitimize that. Again, I don’t see this as a policy of the current administration at all, but it’s something it has to take into account when it deals with Congress and with public perceptions of U.S. foreign policy. And since NATO-CSTO relations aren’t a high priority, the administration is not going to expend much political capital on this issue. They’d rather pick their battles with Congress on relations with Russia somewhere else, such as missile defense or last year’s New START treaty ratification.

So, those are the three key reasons why the establishment of a formal NATO-CSTO relationship is very unlikely. However, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that some NATO member countries could work with CSTO on particular issues. It is less likely that the United States would do this than some of the European counties given the political constraints discussed above, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. It’s certainly more likely than some kind of NATO-CSTO partnership.