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Special Issue, 2019


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Armed Forces

Towards a Professional Army

Anton Lavrov

Russia has been struggling with abolishing the draft in favor of a fully professional army since the mid-1990s. By then, ordinary Russians had come to loathe conscription because of the unpopular wars in Chechnya and other hot spots, poor conditions of service, and pervasive bullying. The Russian political and military leadership has repeatedly promised a transition to an army manned only by professional soldiers, and numerous attempts to effect such a transition have indeed been undertaken. None of them has been fully implemented. Up until 2015, conscripts continued to outnumber professional soldiers in the Russian forces.

There is also a lot of uncertainty as to the government’s plans for the army. In April 2015 Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said that “eventually”, the Russian army would become fully professional. As recently as 2013, however, the minister insisted that such a transition was impossible. Under plans unveiled by the MoD for the 2020 horizon, conscription is to be retained. There is no doubt that by “eventually” the minister means “not until 2025”, or perhaps even later.

Nevertheless, in recent years the government has been implementing a reform in this area that is arguably more radical and well-thought-out than all the previous attempts. The MoD is pressing ahead with programs – adopted under the previous minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov – that involve a drastic increase in the number of soldiers serving under contract. Tangible results have already been achieved; they will have a long-term effect on the fighting ability of the Russian armed forces.

The government says that the main goal of the latest attempts at a transition towards professional army service is to make the Russian forces more capable. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to ignore the demographic reasons for these changes. The Russian military leadership has been forced to face the fact that retaining the current conscription-based system is physically impossible.

A catastrophic fall in the birth rate in the early and mid-1990s has led to a sharp decrease in the number of young Russian males available for the draft. In the early 2004, Russia had 12.5 million citizens aged 15-19; half of them were males. By 2014, however, that number had collapsed to fewer than 7 million. There is a similar situation in the 10-14 year old age group. For the next 10 years at the very least, the MoD will be facing a severe shortage of young males suitable for conscription service, even though the size of the army itself has been reduced to 1 million servicemen.

Table 1. Russian draft in 2008-2015, thousand people


Spring draft

Autumn draft


































Source: compiled by the author.

To compensate for the reduction in the length of conscription service to 12 months in 2008, the MoD had to call up more conscripts in 2009-2010. During that period, more than 550,000 young Russian males were drafted for army service every year. The Russian mobilization system was working at the limit of its capacity to achieve those numbers ; several years down the line they became completely impossible for demographic reasons. The government had to call up many categories of young males that were previously eligible for deferment or deemed unsuitable for medical reasons. By the autumn of 2011, the transition to a 12-month term of service had been completed, and the number of conscripts drafted every year had stabilized at about 300,000 men. This figure, however, is still very high, given that fewer than 700,000 Russian males reach the age of conscription every year these days.

Meanwhile, efforts to improve the conditions of service undertaken as part of the “New Look” reform of the Russian armed forces, the reduction of the conscription term from 24 months to 12, and a successful campaign against bullying have improved the perceptions of army service among ordinary Russians, including young males. As a result, conscription targets were met in recent years without resorting to unduly harsh measures.

Conscription in Chechnya was resumed in the autumn of 2014 after a 20-year pause. The first draft campaign in the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sebastopol was conducted on a trial basis in the spring of 2015. A total of 776 men were drafted on the Crimean peninsula. All of them were assigned to serve in Crimea itself, mainly with the Black Sea Fleet units. The Crimean conscription target for the autumn of 2015, however, is four or five times that number (which is in line with the per-capita targets for an average Russian province), and starting from the spring of 2016, Crimean conscripts will be assigned to units stationed elsewhere.

There does not seem to be any major problems with draft-dodging in Russia these days. In 2014, some 6,000 people who received a conscription summons failed to report for duty. A somewhat larger number of young Russian men evade the draft by means of avoiding any contact with the conscription offices, dodging the summons (which they have to sign for in person), and going into hiding either in Russia itself or abroad. In 2014, there were a total of 210,000 such potential conscripts between the ages of 18 and 27. The annual number of young males who evade the draft by such means, however, is only about 20,000, and the figure is falling every year. Stepping up the efforts to drag these people, by hook or crook, to the conscription offices will not yield an appreciably greater number of conscripts. There is nothing that can be done to increase the available pool of young Russian males.

Drafting 300,000-350,000 men every year is not enough to man a 1-million-strong army. As a result, even though the Russian forces are now supposed to be in a state of “permanent combat readiness”, they were manned to less than 80 per cent of their nominal strength in 2010-2012 – in other words, their actual numerical strength was below 800,000.

For several years the MoD had to tolerate a chronic undermanning of the Russian forces, aiming to achieve a gradual improvement by hiring more professional soldiers. In view of the previous unsuccessful experience, it adopted new approaches to recruiting and retaining personnel serving under contract. Apart from simply increasing their pay, the ministry has made a huge effort to improve the conditions of service by building more housing, developing the social infrastructure of military compounds, and offering various social benefits.

Russian servicemen now have a clear system of bonuses for length of service, as well as such long-term advantages as subsidized mortgages. These measures have provided an incentive for personnel to extend their contracts once the initial term has expired; this is exactly what is required if Russia is to build a truly professional army. In 2007 only 20 per cent of professional soldiers extended their contract after the expiration of the initial term. In 2014, however, the reverse was true; signing up for a second or third term of service has become the rule rather than the exception. The overall number of professionals serving in the Russian forces is therefore growing steadily, thanks to better retention.

Table 2. Number of professional soldiers in the Russian armed forces, thousand people


Professional servicemen










352 (target)

Source: compiled by the author.

When asked about their motives for joining the army, most of the professional soldiers say they want to improve their financial situation and eventually buy their own home.

After a series of increases in soldiers’ pay, professional service in the Russian forces has become an attractive career option, especially in the poorer Russian provinces and in the rural areas. In 2014, a private in the Russian army received 17,400 roubles a month during their first term of service. That was well below the average Russian wage of 32,500 roubles at the time – but soldiers’ pay rises rapidly in line with their length of service, especially if they are promoted to higher ranks. For example, the basic pay received by a junior sergeant who has served for three years is roughly in line with the average Russian wage. There are also various bonuses on top of the basic salary. Basic pay itself can also be much higher than the minimum level across the MoD, depending on conditions and the location of service. For example, professional soldiers serving in Chechnya earn a minimum of 40,000 roubles before bonuses.

The crisis in the Russian economy that began in 2014 has made professional military service even more attractive. According to Defense Minister Shoygu, the 2014 target for recruiting professional soldiers was met in September. There have even been reports of candidates bribing recruitment officers.

In 2011-2014 the greatest proportion of professional soldiers was to be found in the Rapid Reaction Forces units, including the Airborne Troops (VDV) and the marines, as well as in the GRU Spetsnaz, the Strategic Missile Troops, and the Navy. By mid-2015, more than 50 per cent of the soldiers and sergeants serving in the VDV were professionals serving under contract. There are 10 VDV battalions manned only by professional soldiers; these are being kept in a state of constant combat readiness, able to deploy within 24 hours. Another 10 second-tier battalions are ready for deployment within 72 hours. The reconnaissance battalions of VDV divisions and brigades are also manned by professional soldiers. For now, however, there are no plans for making the entire VDV service (let alone other branches of the armed forces) fully professional. One of the three battalions in each VDV regiment will be manned by conscripts.

In late 2014 there were a total of 295,000 professional soldiers serving under contract in the Russian armed forces. In April 2015 it was announced that the figure had reached 300,000. In 2014 alone the net increase was 75,000. As a result, the number of professionals serving under contract has surpassed the number of conscripts (276,000) for the first time in modern Russian history.

Thanks to the rise in the number of professional soldiers, the Russian forces were manned to 82 per cent of their nominal strength in late 2013; the figure had risen to 90.5 per cent by late 2014, and the target for 2015 is 95 per cent. We expect that 100 per cent will be achieved in 2017, by which time the number of professionals serving in the Russian forces will have reached 425,000. By 2020 the figure will plateau at 500,000, with two professional soldiers for every conscript. To achieve that goal, at least 250,000 men will have to be drafted every year, which is only slightly below the current figure. It is expected that by 2020, conscripts will be trained only for basic military roles, such as rifleman or mortar man.

By 2016, all the specialist vacancies in the Russian forces – such as drivers and technicians in the combat and support units – will be manned only by professional soldiers. By 2017 the same will apply to vacancies that involve operating complex and expensive weapons and machinery.

The MoD hopes that this approach will provide the armed forces with specialists capable of operating complex hardware, while at the same time training a large and combat-ready military reserve.

The practice of breaking up the draft into summer and autumn campaigns has existed since Soviet times. The reasons for it include the size of the country and the complexity of calling up hundreds of thousands of young men for military service. The spring campaign lasts from April 1 to July 15; the autumn campaign from October 1 to December 31. The system dates back to Soviet times, when the length of conscription service was two or more years. It was retained, however, after the length of service was reduced to 12 months. As a result, half of all the conscripts (privates as well as sergeants) were discharged and replaced with new ones every six months. That had a negative impact on keeping units manned by conscripts well-trained and ready for combat.

The situation should improve after the expected transition to a fully professional sergeant corps manned only by soldiers serving under contract. That transition should be completed before the year’s end. It should have a major positive effect on the fighting ability of the Russian forces.

The “New Look” reform has done little to resolve the problem of creating a high-quality military reserve. Fewer conscripts drafted in recent years also means fewer reservists. There is also an increasingly pressing need for reservists who are not only well-trained but can also be deployed at short notice, and who can operate complex modern hardware without lengthy training courses.

An experiment to create just such a force of reservists was initiated in 2013. It boiled down to signing a “reservist’s contract” with some of the professional soldiers and sergeants who were leaving the service and had valuable military skills. These reservists undertook to attend regular and intensive training courses, and to report for military duty at short notice if the need arises. In return, they were to receive a certain sum of money from the MoD every month, and a larger one-off bonus for each regular training course they took.

For all the obvious advantages of such a system, the experiment has not been taken any further because of the MoD’s budgetary constraints. In 2015 the Russian president issued a decree ordering the creation of a very similar “professional reserve”. The program is also experimental, and will involve only a few thousand reservists. Even with guaranteed financing, this program cannot create a numerous high-readiness military reserve – but it can become the prototype of such a reserve to be created at some point in the future.

Manning the Russian forces with professional soldiers as well as conscripts has some obvious disadvantages. No-one doubts that a fully professional army would be more capable; only a few of the most conservative Russian generals deny that. But the government has two very good reasons not to abolish the draft for the time being. The first is financial; Russia simply cannot afford a fully professional army. The second is the unresolved problem of training a sufficiently large military reserve to be used in the event of a hypothetical “big war”, i.e. a large conventional military conflict, which still remains a possibility for such a huge country as Russia. Keeping the draft allows the MoD to have a professional army core as well as several million reservists who have been given basic military training during their conscription service.

The Russian army will therefore still have a large conscript component over the coming years – but the role of that component will change. Conscripts will account for only a quarter of the total numerical strength of the Russian armed forces. They will no longer be the backbone of the army; that role will now be played by professional soldiers serving under contract.

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