The Best or Worst of Both Worlds?
September 23, 2020
This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.
Thirty years after the Cold War ended, conscription is making a comeback in Europe. Sweden reinstated selective conscription in 2018, joining the rest of the Nordic nations. Lithuania returned to a military draft in 2015, following Baltic ally Estonia, which has maintained mandatory military service since independence in 1991. France has begun trialing a limited national service program for teenagers, and even Germany is rolling out a voluntary national service program next year.
For the prospective enemy of these new draftees, conscription never left. Since the fall of the USSR, Russia has continued to man its armed forces with conscripts. However, the days of mass mobilization and a behemoth draftee army are gone.
Since the commencement of the Serdyukov and Shoygu reforms in 2008, Russia has reduced its conscription term from 24 months to 12 and instituted the large-scale use of professional enlisted soldiers. Russia currently fields an active-duty military of just under 1 million men. Of this force, approximately 260,000 are conscripts and 410,000 are contract soldiers (kontraktniki). The shortened 12-month conscript term provides at most five months of utilization time for these servicemen. Conscripts remain about a quarter of the force even in elite commando (spetsnaz) units.
The reformed and revitalized Russian military is increasingly powerful and proficient, with small elements deployed in successful combat operations in Ukraine and Syria. However, Russia remains suspended between the large but limited mass army of its past and the expensive but proficient Western professional military model. Does this mixed manpower system give Russia the best or the worst of both worlds?
Conscript armies usually lack the long-service, professional noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps that is considered the bedrock of a modern Western military. Instead, junior officers and warrant officers fill most roles that NCOs perform in volunteer militaries. Since World War II, the USSR and now Russia have mostly done without NCOs in practice if not in name. As U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Odom noted of Soviet NCOs: “They found themselves formally in charge of stariki [second-year conscript] privates. In reality, the stariki were in charge. A new sergeant might have a ded [senior conscript] who was formally his subordinate. Yet he could hardly give orders to his ded.”
Almost all militaries will have some servicemembers wearing corporal or sergeant’s stripes: the question is whether these soldiers are given the authority and autonomy to be true small unit leaders. Properly trained and empowered NCOs enable a unit to react more quickly in a dynamic combat environment. NCOs are key to the doctrine of initiative and decentralized command that the U.S. Army calls “Mission Command.”
A functional NCO corps is also a prerequisite for conquering one of the Russian military’s most persistent problems: hazing. In the Red Army, brutal hazing – dedovshchina – was systemic. Originating in the gulags, dedovshchina’s rigid, seniority-based caste system came to dominate every aspect of conscript life. Senior soldiers subjugated, robbed, and brutalized junior draftees while officers looked the other way.
Hazing destroys two of the keys to military performance, cohesion and retention. One of the era’s samizdat memoirs, by a mid-1970s draftee named Kyril Podrabinek, was appropriately titled The Unfortunates. Podrabinek wrote that in his regiment, “if combat action began, one half of the company might shoot the other.” That never seems to have actually happened, but hazing almost certainly contributed to Russia’s defeat in Afghanistan. And despite considerable inducements, only about 1 percent of Soviet draftees reenlisted in the Red Army.
Dedovshchina intensified in the early post-Soviet period. Political officers (zampolit) were removed, and junior officers, who might at least be tempted to intervene in extreme cases of hazing, were focused on keeping their jobs, if not also moonlighting in another occupation just to survive. One report, quoted by the BBC in 2002, even alleged that senior soldiers were selling their juniors into prostitution. At least 15 soldiers died due to hazing in the first quarter of 2004, while the Russian Ministry of Defense’s own data listed suicide (much of it likely a result of hazing) as the cause of 40 percent of all military fatalities in 2006.
Halving the conscription term and the broader injection of money into the Russian military appears to have lessened the breadth and severity of dedovshchina. Meaningful data, though, is hard to come by. In 2015, President Putin signed a decree making information on military losses in peacetime a state secret. One Russian news website claims that in 2018 more than 1,100 Russian servicemembers were convicted of abuse of power and 372 for charges of violence toward their comrades. Anecdotal accounts also speak to the stubborn persistence of extreme hazing. In October 2019, a 20-year-old conscript gunned down eight of his fellow soldiers in the town of Gorny in Russia’s Far East, saying he had no choice after they had made his life “hell.”
Russia has been working to create a proper NCO system, but this remains a largely unrealized project. Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov cut 180,000 officers by 2010 in order to both reduce costs and free up space for NCOs. But without an effective NCO system in place, 70,000 were recommissioned the following year. Since 2009, a dedicated NCO academy at the Ryazan Higher Airborne School has put candidates through a 34-month course designed to produce enlisted leaders. But with just 2,000 graduates annually, this program is only slowly changing the culture of the Russian army.
Reserves and Mobilization
Like NCOs, an operational reserve remains a mostly unrealized goal of the 2008 reforms. Russia’s mass mobilization army died not long after the USSR. The focus since then has been on reforming and revitalizing the active-duty military, with a general bias for capability overcapacity and a prioritization of air and rocket forces over the army. Given the parlous state of the active-duty military until fairly recently, a functional reserve has resided firmly in the category of “nice to have.”
There are ample stores of weapons and vehicles to outfit reserve units; manpower and readiness are the impediments to a Russian operational reserve. Though there are over 900,000 recent veterans who could potentially be recalled to service, Russia can currently summon an active reserve force of just 4,000 to 5,000 troops. Fewer than 10 percent of conscripted soldiers carry out any refresher training in the five years after they end their active service. The Ministry of Defense admitted in 2015 that the whereabouts of ex-soldiers are not effectively tracked, making targeted mobilization impractical.
Two territorial defense battalions were formed in 2016 with the mission of protecting key infrastructure and thus freeing up more active-duty troops to fight. This force has only grown modestly in the years since its formation.
Money remains the firm constraint on the reserves. The Duma planned expenditures of just 279.4 million rubles ($3.7 million) in 2014, 288.3 million in 2015 and 324.9 million in 2016 for reserve mobilization exercises. President Putin has repeatedly tasked the military to prioritize reservist mobilization, issuing orders to that effect in 2013, 2014, and 2015. He appears to be making limited headway with his own generals.
This may be a result of skepticism about major land warfare within the upper echelons of the military and Ministry of Defense. Former Russian senior officials and analysts interviewed by the RAND Corporation in 2017 unanimously dismissed the idea of orienting the Russian military on fighting major land wars with peer competitors. The decade of reform and modernization has enabled the military to capably conduct limited expeditionary operations, while modernization at the other end of the spectrum has secured Russia’s strategic nuclear forces on land, in the air, and in naval bastions. Russia’s military leaders seem to think the prospect of a major conventional war with NATO is highly unlikely.
U.S. defense analysts and commentators have occasionally raised concerns about America’s inability to fight a long war. Yet without an operational reserve, Russia’s forces would actually be more brittle than NATO’s in a sustained conflict. Should Russia find itself in a major conventional war, it will fight with the military it has on hand. The Red Army’s “hordes” are long gone and the current manpower system has not yet fashioned a credible replacement.
The cost of manpower is also a key reason for the maintenance of conscription. The Russians rightly refer to their professional servicemen as “contract soldiers,” not the more idealistic “volunteers.” Those contracts require money. The average monthly military salary for a contract soldier is over 62,000 rubles (roughly $1,102). This is coupled with an attractive benefits and pension package. Conscripts, by comparison, receive a monthly stipend of no more than 2,000 rubles.
The money and human resources Russia spends to market its military and recruit contract soldiers is unknown but likely high. The U.S. Army, by comparison, has the equivalent of a brigade worth of high-performing NCOs and officers dedicated to meeting its recruiting goal (roughly double that of Russia’s annual contract soldier intake). Even with a partial conscription system, personnel accounted for the largest share of Russian defense spending from 2000 to 2016, making up 46 percent of all spending on average. In constant 2014 dollars, personnel costs rose from $4 billion in 2000 to $30 billion in 2013.
Cost, more than any other factor, likely explains the stalled growth in kontraktniki. After initially growing swiftly as a share of military manpower, contract soldier numbers have flatlined at around 400,000 for the past several years. A goal of 499,000 contract soldiers by 2020 was quietly extended and reduced to 475,600 by the end of 2025, according to TASS. The specter of service in Ukraine or Syria also may have dampened enthusiasm for enlisting, though tours in both theaters are short and casualties have been low.
Contrary to some facile analyses, demographics are not a major impediment to the maintenance and even growth of Russia’s military forces. Russia is currently only drafting about 5 percent of a year group, fewer men than in even the selective service systems of Norway and Sweden. Russia’s birth rate dropped precipitously in the 1990s but has slowly recovered since 2000. One Russian military expert predicts that Russia’s military manpower pool (ages 18 to 27) will slowly increase until 2033. Despite the catastrophic demographic impacts of the 1990s, Russia has already demonstrated the ability to slowly but steadily grow its armed forces. Rubles, not birth rates, are the key constraint going forward.
The Military and Society
Finally, Russian military leaders believe that maintaining even a limited conscription system provides one critical strategic advantage: it instills patriotism in the young and binds society to the military.
Due mainly to dedovshchina, conscription was widely hated in the USSR and avoided by any means possible. Deferments and outright bribes kept more and more men out of uniform as the Soviet system entered its final years. The situation only worsened in the 1990s. By 2001, 88 percent of eligible men had some form of deferment or exemption from military service.
Modernization, major pay increases, operational experience, and partial success in overcoming dedovshchina all contributed to a major shift in Russians’ view of their military. Though only about 1 in 20 eligible young men have to serve, there has been a crackdown on both deferments and on outright evasion of military service. Conscripts are not allowed to serve abroad, and contracted soldiers are not treated like cannon fodder. Both Russia’s society and military are far more casualty-conscious than they once were (though casualties among private military contractors such as the Wagner Group are a different matter). As a result of these reforms, the Russian military is now broadly embraced by Russian society, to an extent unprecedented in the past half century. The military is now one of the country’s most trusted institutions and a source of pride to most Russians.
This pride appears to have firmed up Russian support for conscription. In 2011, Russians polled by the independent Levada Center were roughly split on whether they favored continued conscription or a fully contracted military. By 2017, polling found that 58 percent of Russians support the preservation of conscription. Russia can look to its potential competitors and enemies to see the impact of conscription on a society’s will to fight. Finland, which embraces a concept of “total defense” and has had universal male conscription for its entire history, boasts by far the highest “will to fight” in Europe. Seventy-four percent of Finns told Gallup pollsters in 2015 that they would take up arms to defend their country. In Western Europe, where virtually all nations have consigned conscription to the history books, fewer than a third say they would fight for their country. In the United States, nearing 50 years since the end of conscription, the will to fight is under 50 percent and the propensity of young men to serve is just 18 percent, well under half of what it was in the 1980s.
There are certainly lingering personnel problems for the Russian military after the past decade’s shift to a majority-professional force. The continuing lack of a capable NCO corps and the inability to stand up a real operational reserve are foremost among these issues. The former inhibits tactical proficiency while the latter is an important indicator that Russia is not seriously preparing for a major war with NATO.
Nonetheless, Russia’s current manpower system is a net positive for the Russian military. Conscription saves a significant amount of money for a force with global ambitions and enormous borders to protect. It also provides a trained pool of veterans who could man a large reserve if such a system was suitably organized and funded. Most importantly, even a partial conscription system helps to bind the Russian people to their military and prevent a potentially destabilizing civil-military divide. Russia’s combination of conscripts and kontraktniki may not yet provide the best of both worlds—but it has the potential to do so.
Gil Barndollar is a Senior Fellow at Defense Priorities and at the Catholic University of America's Center for the Study of Statesmanship. He served as a U.S. Marine infantry officer from 2009 to 2016. The views expressed above are his alone.
CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).