An Army With No Troops

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The official Kremlin line is that President Vladimir Putin will hand the country over to Dmitry Medvedev in excellent condition. Upon closer examination, however, it turns out that the country's problems are approaching a crisis point in almost every area. This is because what the Kremlin calls modernization is nothing more than pumping petrodollars into ineffective and outdated institutions, without using those resources to improve or replace them.

Only a few days ago, the Defense Ministry announced that it had drafted a bill to extend the term of service for military officers by five years. Officials have painted the initiative in glowing terms, and it apparently provides officers with the chance to continue serving in order to earn higher rank. Officers themselves will make the decision whether to serve the extra five years.

In reality, however, the bill is only the latest attempt to mitigate the severe problem of insufficient number of personnel in the armed forces.

One of the main reasons for this crisis was the military's decision to cut the mandatory service term from two years to one, making it necessary for the Defense Ministry to call up twice the usual number of 300,000 recruits. But statistics indicate that only 843,000 young men will turn 18 in 2009. About half will enter college and receive deferments. In addition, a significant percentage will gain exemptions on medical grounds. As a result, Medvedev will be forced either to drastically reduce the size of the army or to cancel military deferments for college students, thereby crippling the existing educational system.

Anticipating the impending crisis, the military brass began calling college graduates to active service as privates. They accomplished this by liquidating military departments at almost 200 universities and institutes. These programs previously provided students with military training and conferred the rank of lieutenant, while exempting most, but not all, of them from mandatory service.

But if college military departments are shut down, the flow of officer-recruits will dry up as well. And last year Putin signed legislation ending the practice of calling up reserve officers for active duty. It would seem that closing an unusual institution for training officers in peacetime is a positive step in the right direction. After all, it has often been noted that such officers are of little practical benefit. They are incapable of teaching their subordinates anything useful and spend their time counting the days until their discharge.

This is why the Defense Ministry is doing everything it can to retain officers at their commands. But last year, the military added one year to the minimum period of service required to advance to the next rank. Prior to that, the top brass suggested granting company commanders the rank of major. And now we hear of their plan to extend the officers' terms of service by five years. There is an obvious reason for all of these measures -- they are trying every possible method to force officers to serve longer terms at the lowest rank of platoon or company commanders.

Were the Kremlin planning to have a small professional army, everything would be fine. High bonuses for accumulated time on the job could compensate for many years of service at low rank. But in Russia's mass-mobilization army, the ability to rise rapidly through the ranks is one of the main -- if not the only -- motivating factors for officers to continue serving. Considering the low salaries and poor conditions that military officers must endure, even the slightest delay at the bottom rung of the career ladder makes extended service pointless. There is no basis for believing that an officer who has earned the right to retire with a pension will choose to extend his service for as much as a single day. These half-baked proposals clearly will not solve the crisis of the insufficient number of officers in the armed forces.

The picture that emerges for the military in 2009 is not very optimistic. There will be no troops serving, nor will there be officers to command them.

When this crisis hits, the generals will throw themselves at the feet of the new commander in chief and say, "Dear, kind tsar! Nothing has worked -- not transferring a percentage of the draftees to contract service, nor switching to one year of mandatory service nor eliminating officer-recruits."

Maybe we should go back to the way it was before. That request just might be approved.

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