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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An All-Volunteer Army?

President Boris Yeltsin has once again embarrassed those who might try to predict what he would might do on any given issue. Now that his state of the nation address is in the history books, it is amusing to recall predictions that a major part of it would be devoted to a detailed analysis of the prospects for military reform, as well as an equally detailed blueprint for the future, including fundamental changes in the armed forces' command and control systems.


You will recall that in reality Yeltsin limited himself to a mere enumeration of the major problems facing the armed forces -- problems that, to be blunt, cannot be considered state secrets in the wake of the army's performance in Chechnya. The goals that Yeltsin formulated for the coming year are extremely modest: the reorganization of the armed forces, "keeping in mind realistic possibilities for manning and financing the military"; increasing the centralization of command; and the "further elaboration of military doctrine." The subsequent announcement that basic reforms are essential and that the president would personally be in charge of them was likewise unsupported by a specific program.


In view of the fact that the problems of the armed forces are now the focus of public attention and many far-reaching political plans are being based on possible military reforms, many observers are clearly dissatisfied with Yeltsin's lack of resolution. They view the speech as a clear sign that the president is unwilling to undertake fundamental reforms. They have been asking: Why is the executive afraid to provide an outline for future reforms?


No one is opposed to having a professional, mobile, well-equipped army ready to intervene in any local conflict at a moment's notice. However, honestly speaking, it is unlikely that Russia has any realistic chance to effect such a reform any time soon.


One of the most talked-about issues is the transformation to an all-volunteer armed force. It is perfectly clear that the draft is one of the main brakes holding back the evolution of a modern army. Young people clearly do not want to serve, and this reluctance is felt throughout their entire term of service. Parents, for their part, do everything they can to avoid sending their sons to the army -- and their efforts are intensified whenever the country finds itself in a period of crisis. In addition, it is simply impossible to prepare soldiers in just a year and a half to use the kind of complex technology that is the core of modern armed forces.


On the other hand, the government is in no position to create the kinds of financial incentives necessary to get people to volunteer for the military. After all, even officers' salaries nowadays are barely above the poverty line. A company commander with 17 years of service earns less than $100 a month. This loss of prestige is a major reason why young people are not entering military academies like they used to. And many of those who graduate are quick to leave the military after their obligatory five years are up or even before their term expires. If this is the situation in the officer corps, one can easily imagine how bad things stand among the rank and file.


But it is not just a matter of money. The entire social sphere in the country is in crisis because of a lack of financing. Few educated, healthy young people are going to volunteer to serve a country that is not even in a position to provide basic social guarentees to them and their families. And given the current economy, the government will be unlikely to come up with sufficient financial incentives to draw the best candidates out of the private sector.


Moreover, Russia is at present undergoing a serious crisis of values. Our sense of nationhood has disappeared. As a result, people no longer feel any responsibility before the law or the government. Surely no one imagines that merely switching to a volunteer army is going to solve this crisis. No one is likely, even for good wages, to put himself in the line of fire for a state that he does not respect.


Some radical thinkers have an answer for this. They say that, yes, the country is not able to support a real army at the moment. That means that the size of the army must be determined by the country's means, rather than by its perceived needs or ambitions. The army would have to be massively downsized. Proponents of this view point to the experience of the reduction of the Red Army after the Civil War, when the army was reduced to less than half a million men.


This view, however, doesn't take into consideration that today the country's armed forces consist of much more than just the army. We are speaking of a whole military complex that at one time was ready to wage war in the west and in the east simultaneously, and that was supported by a massive infrastructure and considerable stockpiles of weapons. Experience shows that destroying those stockpiles is a long-term, labor-intensive project -- much more difficult than simply storing them. Russia also lacks the funds for this project.


In addition, I don't think there is a politician in Russia who is seriously willing to back such a reduction. After all, the Defense Ministry is already having considerable difficulties with the small cutbacks it is now trying to implement, for the simple reason that it does not have the funds to pay the requisite severance and pension benefits. The answer would seem to be to change those benefits, but no one in parliament is going to propose such a measure -- especially in an election year.


Judged soberly, the lack of real possibilities calls into question even the most basic elements of reform. Any meaningful reform would produce great dislocations and necessitate considerable purchases of modern equipment. The government can afford neither. We must face the fact that military reform cannot begin until economic reforms are virtually completed. In the meantime we must learn to live with the army that we've got.





Alexander Golz is a political commentator for Krasnaya Zvezda. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.