From Graduates to Grunts

Last week the Defense Ministry announced the end of an era: The ministry will all but do away with training civilian university students to become reserve officers, a practice that has existed for more than 50 years. At present, 229 Russian universities have military departments, but next September the overwhelming majority will not accept any new students for officer training. In three to five years, 199 of these departments will close down after the last students complete classes.

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Today, 170,000 civilian students are being trained as reserve officers. By 2010, only 10,000 to 12,000 will receive this kind of military education, and their status will be different. Students will sign contracts that will require them to serve three to five years in the ranks as officers after graduating. In effect, the remaining military departments in civilian universities will be transformed into substitute military academies, producing not reserve but regular career officers.

The Soviet military doctrine was based on plans to raise a large armed force in case of a major war. In wartime, regular peacetime divisions would have doubled in size, and additional reserve units would have been created. Within a month after the beginning of military operations, over 15 million reservists were supposed to be ready to join the peacetime army of 5 million. Former civilian university graduates who had received training and military ranks were to make up the bulk of the reserve officers.

I got my military rank at Moscow State University in 1975 and was called up for additional military training as a reserve officer several times before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the training of reservists more or less ended. In the Soviet era, some university-trained officers -- mostly electronics specialists -- were called up to serve two years as substitute lieutenants. Some of them later stayed in the ranks as career officers, but the vast majority of graduates never served, and university education helped them legally to avoid military service.

An officer who received regular military education in a military academy, however, was forced to serve his entire lifetime, more or less. Early retirement required ether serious health problems or repeated disgrace, so there was no need to call up thousands of university graduates as substitute officers in peacetime.

After 1991, Russian officers were granted the privilege to retire at will. Most Soviet-trained senior career officers continued to serve until they received a full pension and a free apartment from the state, while the majority of military academy graduates retired early to avoid the misery of a low-income military job. Today, we have some 100,000 colonels in active service and far fewer lieutenants in the ranks.

In the 1990s, around 15,000 university graduates were called up each year to serve for two years as lieutenants -- far more than in the Soviet era. But most of the civilian university-trained officers still avoided service, while the quality and motivation of the lieutenants who were forced to serve were appalling. Today, the Defense Ministry is forced to send civilian-trained officers to serve in the Marines and other elite units, which in effect makes these front-line divisions not combat-ready.

The termination of the reserve officer training program is intended to cut Defense Ministry expenditures, to end the practice of forced call-ups of unfit platoon commanders and to increase the number of available conscripts. According to existing legislation, university graduates who did not receive military training must serve one year as conscript soldiers. The Kremlin has promised to cut conscript service from two years to one by 2008. At more or less the same time, most university graduates will be available for the draft, which will partially compensate for the loss. Conscripts are called up in peacetime to be trained as reservists.

But who needs millions of badly trained reserve solders if there are no reserve officers to lead them? Why continue the draft then?

Wealthy and middle-class Russians currently pay bribes to draft officials to get a reprieve from the misery of conscript service for their sons, or they simply pay the universities. After 2008, when the announced reform is complete, the military will have a monopoly right to decide who serves, and corrupt officials could potentially boost their income from unwilling young men.

The current defense policy does not make any sense anymore, but Russia's generals seem intent on pretending that their mobilization plans are realistic. And many officials seem willing to be openly ludicrous as long as it helps them line their pockets with dodgers' bribes.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent military analyst based in Moscow.