100,000 Jobless and Angry
- By Alexander Golts
- Oct. 21 2008 00:00
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When Anatoly Serdyukov was hired as defense minister in early 2007, most of my colleagues poked fun at him because he once worked in the furniture business. But I predicted that his experience as head of the Federal Tax Service would help him implement much-needed reforms in the armed forces.
Serdyukov seemed to confirm my faith in his abilities last week when he announced unprecedented personnel cutbacks that had been considered unfathomable. The number of officers will be reduced by almost two-thirds, from 355,000 to 150,000. In addition, the number of military units will be drastically reduced. For example, of 1,890 army units, only 172 will remain.
Serdyukov had to change a ludicrous situation in which there was one officer for every two soldiers. This is why he suggests reducing the number of colonels by almost two-thirds -- from 25,000 to 9,000 -- and the number of majors by three-fourths -- from 100,000 to 25,000. At the same time, the number of lieutenants should increase from 50,000 to 60,000.
But if you take a closer look at Serdyukov's plan, you will see several serious problems. The main target for job cuts is 117,000 majors and lieutenant colonels with 10 to 15 years of service. By law, once they are fired they are entitled to additional benefits, the most important of which are apartments. But it is by no means a given that Russia will be able to provide 117,000 apartments to those who lost their jobs. Nor is it clear if they will be able to find new jobs that match their qualifications. So far, Serdyukov has only mentioned the possibility of transferring them to civilian army specialist posts or, if this is not possible, of leaving the military altogether and taking up civilian professions. But it is far from certain that they would find comparable salaries and benefits in the civilian sector.
This could create a serious political problem. Imagine 100,000 jobless men in their 30s who are deeply embittered with the state. They could easily become a powerful anti-government force. It is important to remember that it was disgruntled and disenfranchised officers more than any other group in the Weimar Republic who paved the way for the rise of the Nazi party.
Until recently, the justification for maintaining bloated ranks of senior officers was the argument that a mass-mobilization army was needed to fight a huge enemy such as the United States or NATO. Thus, it would seem that cutting down the number of officers by two-thirds shows that Serdyukov is trying to put an end to Russia's military model based on mass-mobilization.
But there is one glaring contradiction. Simple math tells us that about 550,000 conscripts would have to serve in the "new" Russian army. This means the "permanent combat ready units" -- a central part of President Dmitry Medvedev's military doctrine that he unveiled during military exercises in Orenburg in late September -- would consist of draftees who now serve for only one year. They receive some kind of military training in special centers for the first six months, after which they serve for six months in permanent combat readiness units. One can only imagine the superb level of their "combat readiness" when half of their numbers change every six months.
For now, we can only say that if there is a plan to institute real reforms in the armed forces, that plan is still unclear. A major cutback in the number of officers is certainly a blow to the concept of a mass-mobilization army, but it falls short of openly rejecting this model -- one that has dominated Soviet and Russian military strategy for more than 70 years.
The largest hole in Serdyukov's so-called reform project is that lowering the personnel numbers by itself hardly means an increase in the quality and effectiveness of the military. The most likely outcome is that Russia could end up with an exact replica of the Soviet army in terms of its low quality, and the only difference would be that it is five times smaller in size.
Given the economic crisis, it is a complete mystery how the government will be able to fund its ambition military reforms, including a massive reorganization and absurd plans to build new aircraft carriers, a submarine fleet, fifth-generation military aircraft and a multibillion-dollar air and space defense system. It is hard to make any sense out of Russia's military planning when each new reform project is even more ridiculous than the last.
Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.