The Professional Army's Dead Souls

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Jan. 1 was supposed to have been a defining moment for the armed forces. By this date, a federal program to switch a portion of the conscripted armed forces to professional contract duty was supposed to have been completed.

The plan, which was initiated in 2003, emerged as a compromise between the Kremlin and the military's top brass. During the second Chechen war, President Vladimir Putin was convinced that a conscript army was a completely ineffective mechanism for defending the country. It is not surprising, however, that the generals fought against building up a professional army of volunteers. Instead of implementing sweeping military reforms, a "compromise solution" was reached: It was decided that only a few dozen units of professional soldiers in constant battle-readiness would be formed to deal with any future regional conflicts such as the one in Chechnya. According to the generals' argument, these professional units would be able to respond quickly to regional conflicts without having to also call up reservists. At the same time, we were told that this compromise plan was instrumental in reducing the mandatory service for conscripts from two years to one, which was popular with the people.

If what the military officials claim is true about the success of the new professional units, it might be possible to congratulate the armed forces on even the most modest steps taken toward building a new and improved army. Unfortunately, the federal program is riddled with serious problems.

The Defense Ministry has lobbied the Kremlin a few times during the program's implementation for reductions in the numerical goals. Initial plans called for 144,000 sergeants and soldiers to switch to contract duty. That number later slid down to 133,000 and finally to 121,000. Now the top brass are reporting only 100,000 soldiers on contract duty. At the same time, Colonel General Vasily Smirnov, who is responsible for the organization and mobilization of the military, has said 20 percent of all sergeant and soldier positions needed for the new professional units remain "vacant."

The larger problem, however, is not so much the inadequate number of professional contract soldiers, but the terribly low quality of their services. By reading between the lines of the overblown official reports, we get a picture of the true state of affairs. For example, referring to new units of contract soldiers, Colonel General Alexei Maslov, commander of the Ground Forces, acknowledged: "In some aspects, they are no better prepared than corresponding units of conscripts."

In reality, the Defense Ministry drew its contract workers not from the general population, which would have required a fundamental restructuring of the recruitment process, but from existing short-term service personnel. Moreover, many servicemen were forced into signing contracts through the use of deceit, fraud, psychological pressure and physical violence. It is obvious that military recruits who are tricked or forced into signing a contract will not become good professional soldiers. As a result, it has now become customary for professional soldiers to break their contracts by not returning to service after their first furlough. In private conversations, high-ranking military officials admit that during the past year they have managed to recruit only enough new soldiers to replace those who have deserted.

Furthermore, contract duty in the army is rife with corruption. Many commanders who conceal the number of deserters manage to keep their numbers on the books and pocket their salaries. In addition, some officers collude with gangsters to extort soldiers' salaries.

The Defense Ministry has essentially sabotaged the federal program for creating professional army units. The country's entire defense system is based on the concept of the mass mobilization of the army. Even though this type of army is incapable of responding to today's security threats, military officials pretend to still believe in the myth that the armed forces in their current form are well prepared to fight the new battles of the 21st century. This is why the plan to switch some units to contract duty was doomed to fail from the outset. Now military officials simply deceive the public about the successful completion of the program, and there is nothing left for Putin to do but go along with the farce by pretending to believe his generals. In the end, those units that are formally classified as "professional" contribute nothing to the military's battle readiness.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.