Putin Moves to Make Good on Yeltsin Pledge

MTDraftees being greeted by border guards at a welcoming ceremony in 1999. Putin's plan could see the draft scrapped by 2010.
In 1996, as young conscripts were dying in Chechnya, then President Boris Yeltsin ordered an end to the country's military draft.

But it never happened.

This week, a year after Yeltsin's proposal was supposed to take effect, President Vladimir Putin also backed a move to abolish the draft and build a professional army.

Unlike his predecessor, however, Putin and his administration are thinking long-term, analysts said.

"It's impossible to be radical, especially in such a matter like the security of the state," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said earlier this week. "To bring the army and navy up to strength in a professional form, you need a large amount of money, which we don't have."

Under Putin's proposal, Russia will start forming a professional army in 2004, after broader military reforms have been put in place, Ivanov said Wednesday.

A professional army composed entirely of paid volunteers will be defending the country by 2010, Kommersant quoted Defense Ministry officials as saying Thursday.

The latest proposal to scrap the draft is getting support from liberal parties such as Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, which have long pushed for the move. But it has also drawn fire from the military establishment and those who say the plan will come too late.

"The army will be filled by people who will see it as a source of income," General Leonid Ivashov, former head of the Defense Ministry's international affairs department, told ORT television. "This is a very light-hearted, temporary approach that seems to follow some political wind shifts, and it does not work."

"The promise of change is nothing," said Valeria Pantyukhina, press secretary of the Mother's Right Foundation, an organization that helps the families of soldiers and seamen killed on duty.

In the meantime, "up to a million will be drafted and many of those will die," she said.

The draft system is in tatters. Those who do turn up for duty are often physically unfit and uneducated. Those with money or influence escape the poor pay, brutal hazing and the threat of being sent to fight in conflict zones like Chechnya.

Just 12 percent of those eligible for the army or navy last spring would likely be conscripted, down from 24 percent in 2000 and 13 percent in 1999, according to Vladislav Putilin, deputy chief of the General Staff.

Yeltsin's proposal to stop conscription came during his 1996 election campaign in response to growing public dissatisfaction with the draft. His proposal ended up being postponed indefinitely due to lack of funding and fierce opposition from the military.

Putin, however, has made modernization of the armed forces a major long-term goal -- and the abolition of the draft is not his first priority. His government has approved a 15-year weapons program to upgrade or replace Soviet-designed military hardware. He says he also wants to increase pay and living standards for servicemen and has pushed plans to trim the armed forces by nearly one-third in the next three years.

"The present condition of the army doesn't suit anyone and least of all the Defense Ministry," Ivanov said. "There are a lot of problems, but it is useless to attempt to solve them all. Therefore, we have defined our priorities -- equipping the army with modern arms and providing social guarantees for servicemen."

Once the reforms have been completed, the military will be ready for professional soldiers, he said.

However, phasing in the soldiers will cost billions of rubles and take "several years," Ivanov said.

Many in the military think it's not worth it.

Some senior army officers say outright that they have been disappointed in the professional soldiers who currently serve in the army. Those officers and servicemen account for 150,000 of the total 1.2 million men in the armed forces.

Eighty percent of those recruited were fired before their contracts ended, said Lieutenant General Nikolai Staskov, because "their professional training and moral qualities were sharply unsatisfactory," Interfax reported.

Still, military analysts say the time is ripe to build a new kind of army because the number of draft-age recruits is shrinking.

"You can't have successful military reform with the draft," said Alexander Pikayev, a military expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center.