Shapka or beret ?


Last December deputy defence minister Nicolay Pankov announced that the Russian army will give a choice to draftees to serve for one year as conscripts or sign a contract with the ministry of defence for two years. In a move to push the numbers of contract, or what some in Russian military establishment call “professional”, soldiers the ministry is resolving to a measure that basically re-establishes a soviet system of two year draft of its citizens.

One can blame the top brass’ stout resistance to change or geopolitical needs that dictate the course of the reform. However, what most Russian citizens wanted from its army and how they would like it to treat them is not going to happen. It is not a matter of choice to serve or not to. It is a matter of choosing between the lesser evil.

In 2008 the Russian army started a series of reforms that in their goal have a complete change of how the army is being seen by its citizens and from abroad. By 2020 it should be professionalised, with modern equipment, new chain of command and a proper “situational centre” for the top security ministers and generals to discuss issues of state’s imperative in a fancy “digitalised” atmosphere.

What can be said since six years have gone? The looks are getting there. The substance though is lacking.

The reform had its ups and down. From civilian defence minister, which supposed to be a good thing, to a corrupt defence minister. From shambles and wizardry with the air defence, space defence, rocket defence forces, to changing the officer education system, from aspiration to abolish draft and get to volunteer recruit system by 2020 to a bitter disappointment and the request from a new defence minister to forget about it.

So what is on the table? What the options are for Russian young men?

A conscript will have a choice, depending on his motivation, health and fitness levels, education and criminal record to choose to sign a contract and serve for two years, luckily in a location (branch of forces) of his own preference. The important aspect is that such recruits are in high demand and military units and station commanders have to achieve targets in recruiting contract soldiers.

The problem that killed all the good will and desire to get an all-volunteer army is that the supply doesn’t meet the demand.

The majority of young Russians turning up at a local careers office belong to the third and fourth category of professional fitness. Basically, it means that they are not fit for service in physically and mentally demanding forces (paratroopers, marines, submarines etc.) Nearly hundred per cent of contract soldiers are fit and healthy individuals who are in demand from the quality military bases commanded by quality officers.

The tough choice that recruit facing is: a perspective of serving in a professional, well equipped and supplied unit, actually doing some soldiering or operating sophisticated military hardware and getting paid, at a cost of serving for two years just like everyone had to not so long ago. The other option is to pull it out in one-year conscription in a god-forgotten place, with no pay and poor living conditions, shovelling snow else where in Russia.

The sadness of the situation is that for most, as statistics shows, it is not a matter of choice. Appalling fitness levels of Russian recruits have something to say about the demographic and healthcare situation in the country. For these young men there is no choice. They can only thank their fate for the years of service being slashed.

However, the reform proved to wobble and chaotically change its direction. One-year draft remains the answer to threats and geopolitical situation as Russian officials see it.  For now.


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