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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For a Volunteer Military

As Pavel Felgenhauer writes in his column of May 23, it appears that the decree to professionalize the armed forces had received no previous detailed analysis or planning in the Defense Ministry. One could sympathize with the military defense staff's displeasure over it, if indeed the decree was issued to serve purely electoral aims. No country, let alone one in Russia's present economic and social position, could move from a service, with long standing traditions of career officers and conscript soldiers, to an all-professional body in only four years. To be done properly, it will take much longer.

Let us examine, however, the advantages to the Russian armed forces of such a gradual move and then suggest how it might be undertaken. It is wrong to argue that only officers would seek a career in defense of their country if volunteer service were instituted. When Felgenhauer attributes professional soldiers in the service of their country to "mercenaries," it is inaccurate as well as insulting. Mercenaries fight for money in the service of any paymaster; professional officers and soldiers in the service of their country are not mercenaries, whether well or badly paid. The issue is less about money than about honor and the defense of one's country and ideals.

One way to restore the social respect that the armed forces once had is to make clear that it is an honorable profession and one whose conditions demonstrate that it is held in esteem by the country's leaders. Regrettably, however, the conditions for conscripts in Russia have never been adequate, let alone attractive.

There are far too many examples of misuse of soldiers' time today. They are known to build dachas for officers, to sweep streets and to do other menial tasks when it is claimed that many units are undermanned. Because of the inefficiency of the agricultural system, troops regularly neglect military duties and essential training to get the harvest in.

The high incidence of dedovshchina, or bullying by soldiers with only a little more service than new recruits leads to despair and to a significant number of suicides and accidental deaths; it is too often tolerated by officers. At present, sergeants are only older by a year or two than the conscripts and are too immature to play the roles of their equivalents in the British, German or U.S. forces, whether in combat, training, in quarters or on ships.

Professional non-commissioned officers are on the spot all the time and are responsible for welfare, discipline and performance. They are almost in loco parentis to the young soldier; hence the English World War II song with the phrase "Kiss me good night, sergeant major!" They do not tolerate departures from military law; if they themselves disobey the law, or allow it to be disobeyed, soldiers are not afraid to use their rights of complaint. Bullying is rare with Western forces. It is a court martial offense that is severely punished.

Felgenhauer says rightly that there are no professional sergeants in Russia and asks who will train them? The answer surely is to attract the right sort of volunteer as a private soldier and for the officers to train him and to take selected soldiers up through the ranks, duty by duty.

Felgenhauer's remarks concerning social rejects seem more appropriate to today's Russian armies than to the British and American that he cites. Reports show that a high proportion of Russian conscripts have had a criminal record. Volunteer armies refuse such entrants. His further remarks about the need for ruthless sergeants in our armies suggest that he has acquired his data from watching too many bad Hollywood films.

The question of whether Russia could afford a volunteer force requires a long answer and much internal study. However a few facts might point the way to the future.

In the British armed forces there is, on average, one officer for every 5.5 soldiers. There are 160 officers of general's rank. The Russian army has some units with almost one officer to one soldier. The average seems to be 1:2. There are reported to be 3,000 officers of general's rank in the Russian forces of 1.5 million. Officers in the former communist forces often do duties performed elsewhere by others of lower rank. In the ex-communist armies, there is a general inflation of rank for the job. This adds to the cost of officer's pay and allowances.

A more efficient armed force would be smaller than that at present in Russia. Since it is admitted that there are no immediate large-scale threats to Russia, an even smaller armed force could be envisaged than at present and used to build up professional cadres from soldier to general. With good non-commissioned officers, it is possible to mix conscripts with professional soldiers. If social conditions can be created to allow the forces to concentrate on military duties, it would economize on manpower as well as raise the prestige and self esteem of the soldiers. The development of career non-commissioned officers, which is essential for combat effectiveness, morale and discipline would require early retirement of officers, especially senior ones, on a more rapid scale than at present. Plainly, this would be unpopular but is in the long-term interests of the Russian armed forces.

The basis exists to do the financial calculations and to cut one's coat according to one's cloth. Such radical changes must be well thought out, planned and introduced over a proper period. One problem has been that politicians have tended to react too hastily to unpleasant situations with dramatic gestures. This is why, historically, many good intentions in Russia have had disappointing results.

Alexander Kennaway, a retired Royal Naval officer, works at the Conflict Studies Research Centre, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. The comment, which he contributed to The Moscow Times, reflects his own views.