Next-Generation Fighters: Youth Military-Patriotic Upbringing Bolsters the Russian Military’s Manning and Mobilization Potential

This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.

On July 27, a few weeks after the recent package of amendments to the Russian Constitution was signed into law, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament approved a corresponding set of amendments to Russia’s education law. The legislation clarifies the definitions of core concepts to better align with Russia’s newly amended constitution. Placing a greater focus on “upbringing” as a responsibility of the educational system, the amendments stipulate that educational institutions should form in students “a sense of patriotism and civic consciousness, respect for the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland and the achievements of the heroes of the Fatherland.”

While the emphasis on a patriotic upbringing comes as little surprise — the activities of Russia’s Yunarmiya (youth army) organization and the expansion of voluntary cadet classes in public schools have been widely reported in recent years — the amendments represent a further codification of a yearslong trend toward greater militarization of Russia’s youth. As educational programs are required to be in compliance with the amended legislation no later than September 1, 2021, programming and curriculum in line with the government’s program of “military-patriotic upbringing” is now legally mandated for the first time across Russia’s public school system.

State-sponsored programs to foster patriotism are certainly not unique to Russia. The way in which Russia’s military-patriotic policy is codified, the level of effort and investment dedicated, and the scale at which related programs are implemented, however, are noteworthy. Russia’s policy on military-patriotic upbringing is a truly whole-of-government effort, involving an array of government agencies — federal, regional, and local — and non-government organizations. The core concepts of this policy are enshrined in Russia’s national security documents, its implementation is mandated by law, and it is backed by numerous well-funded federal programs.

While Russia’s military-patriotic education initiatives clearly serve a number of domestic political purposes, this set of policies also underpins Russia’s military power. By providing a means to instill positive views of the armed forces and military service in its citizens from the earliest ages, these programs, if successful, will bolster Moscow’s ability to generate and sustain a large military force into the future. Russia has been clear that maintaining a large force and ensuring its ability to execute mass mobilization is a core component of its national defense strategy. As such, ensuring every child is subject to military-patriotic upbringing from the earliest ages may prove an effective strategy to expand the pool of civic-minded and military-oriented citizens willing to engage in conscript service, enter the armed forces as professional servicemembers, or mobilize in the event of a large-scale war.

Programs to mold the youth into preferred modes of citizenship featured throughout Russia’s Soviet and Tsarist past, but the modern incarnation was given new life beginning in the early 2000s. Russia committed in 2001 to adopting a series of five-year programs on military-patriotic upbringing, which it defined as “a systematic and purposeful activity of government bodies and organizations to establish a high patriotic consciousness among citizens” supported by efforts to develop individuals “able to successfully fulfill civil duties in peacetime and wartime.” The initiative accelerated following President Putin’s return to the presidency for a third term, when he named military-patriotic education as a top priority in his 2012 May Decrees. As detailed in a 2018 Crisis Group study on patriotic mobilization in Russia, the program mandate has grown in complexity over time and its priorities have evolved to take on a greater focus on youth military and military-sporting activities. When the 2016-2020 program on military-patriotic education was adopted, the federal budget allocated had grown to 1.68 billion rubles (about $23 million at the time), representing a 100 percent increase over funding allocated to such programs in the 2015 federal budget. At the regional level, spending exceeds the federal equivalent, with the average total budget for associated regional programs estimated at 900 million rubles (roughly $15 million) in 2017.

Patriotic education initiatives across the Russian Federation are guided by the four-year federal program, but coordination occurs throughout levels of government, from federal to local. The most recent program named multiple ministries as co-executors, including the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Culture, and Agency for Youth Affairs. The program additionally called on more than 30 federal agencies to establish internal coordinating bodies for work related to patriotic upbringing. Ground-level implementation of curriculum and programming is carried out both independently and with government funding by a range of government and non-government entities—including the military, public schools, and clubs—which often offer training to children and teens in military discipline, military-sporting events, weapons handling, and martial arts.

Perhaps the most visible entity that has grown from Russia’s renewed efforts to foster military-patriotic upbringing is the Ministry of Defense-led “All-Russia Young Army National Military Patriotic Social Movement Association,” known as Yunarmiya (youth army) for short. Established in 2016, Yunarmiya has been described as a “hybrid version of the scouts and a reserve officers training program.” It implements initiatives via schools and youth groups across the country and also brings together under one banner a host of existing “pre-conscription” clubs and educational initiatives, allowing the Ministry of Defense to guide and standardize the work of a vast network of military youth organizations. Any 8-17-year-old Russian citizen or existing youth organization can become affiliated with Yunarmiya, which has administrative structures in all 85 territories of the Russian Federation as well as in Armenia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Transnistria, and Azerbaijan. Yunarmiya’s individual membership has expanded rapidly since its founding, with August 2020 membership at 718,000, up over 30 percent from the year before.

The significant state investment in and rapid expansion of programs to implement the military-patriotic education of the population illustrates the high priority Russia’s senior leaders place on these initiatives as a means to achieve strategic ends, not least in the military sphere. Russia’s military doctrine, in fact, articulates the need to improve the “military-patriotic education of citizens” as a means to build and develop the Armed Forces and other troops. Russian military leaders have continually reaffirmed Russia’s need to maintain a force of sufficient size to deter adversaries and, in the case of large-scale war, to engage in conflict with a peer competitor. In part, this requirement has driven Russia’s continued reliance on conscription to fill its ranks in addition to contract servicemen. As such, at the same time as it seeks to make military service attractive to potential recruits for contract service, Russia must also actively cultivate societal support for the military to ensure conscription remains a viable means to maintain its force size and that mass mobilization of the civilian population is achievable in the case of a large-scale conflict. The General Staff’s head of the main organization and mobilization department reaffirmed in 2019 Russia’s need to “accumulate a military-trained human resource for mobilization.” Analysis and interviews with experts on the Russian military conducted by RAND in 2017 indicate that Russia will continue to rely on this model for years to come. Russia’s whole-of-government approach to youth military-patriotic education reflects the Russian leadership’s understanding of the need to institutionalize strategies to satisfy these overlapping requirements in the long term.

The degree to which such efforts will succeed in bolstering core national security objectives remains to be seen, but if the rapid growth in membership of groups like Yunarmiya is an indicator, the revamped military-patriotic education complex may very well meet its objectives. Formally, the efficacy of the program is to be evaluated using fourteen metrics, including increases in the number of people called to serve in the Armed Forces and the number of Russians who are proud of their country. Surveys conducted by the Levada Center—the most reliable source of independent polling data in Russia—indicate positive trends for both of these measures. A June 2019 Levada poll demonstrated a record 60 percent of Russians believe every “real man” should serve in the Armed Forces, and another 24 percent acknowledge military service as a necessary debt owed to the government. Levada sociologists note that this response far exceeds the level of support for conscription recorded in all previous surveys since 1997 and has increased by 18 percentage points since just 2015. Separate surveys conducted in 2019 indicated the Armed Forces now ranks as the single most trusted institution among Russians, ahead of the president and security services. A similar pattern holds among young people, who name the Armed Forces as among the most trusted institutions in Russia, according to a recently released sociological study of the attitudes of Russian youth.

As the amended education law comes into force, making military-patriotic education initiatives mandatory across the entirety of Russia’s public school system, we can expect that key indicators of population support for the military and youth perceptions of military service will continue to trend upward or, at minimum, be sustained at historically high levels. Western audiences would do well to understand this phenomenon as an increasingly entrenched feature of Russian society that will contribute significantly to Russia’s future military power. With every child exposed from an early age to positive information and experiences of the military and military service, the government may well succeed in boosting the prestige of the Armed Forces, increasing the number of enlistees, decreasing the number of those shirking conscription, and ensuring Russia’s ability to achieve mass mobilization.

Hannah Alberts works with U.S. European Command, based in the United Kingdom. She holds master's degrees in global policy studies from the LBJ School of Public Affairs and in Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies from the University of Texas at Austin. The views, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

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).