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Many commentators have expressed the belief that Russia is more dangerous now that their economy has collapsed because Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has his back against the wall and may react unpredictably. Perhaps. But I have one question for these prognosticators: with what soldiers will he react?
I ask this question because one of the great sources of Russia’s recent military revival has been the comprehensive military reforms begun in 2008, transforming the Russian military from a large and ponderous conscript army to a modern professional army, like those of the United States or United Kingdom. Because of these reforms, the number of soldiers in the Russian army has dropped to 300,000. For the first time ever, the Russian Army is smaller than its American counterpart.
Though smaller, it is much more capable than before. A large conscript army may be good for repelling a general invasion, but it a poor tool for fighting an expeditionary war such as an invasion of Ukraine. This is because long-serving professionals are more competent and motivated at warcraft than are two-year conscripts, something the US discovered in Vietnam. The proportion of conscripts in the Russian military is at an all-time low. In addition, the period of conscription has been reduced to one year from the traditional two.
This was all made possible by high oil revenues that paid for — among other things — the vastly increased personnel budget. When the US Army went professional after the Vietnam War, soldiers’ pay soared. A large portion of the Reagan era defence increases went towards soldiers’ pay, to induce higher-quality recruits and to keep them in the service longer (something you rarely hear from critics of President Reagan). How will Putin pay for all these professional troops now that oil price and the Rouble has tanked?
The only other option he has is more conscription, either by calling up more recruits every year, or by increasing their service period back up to two years (a soldier only really becomes effective after the first year). The problem is that military conscription is enormously unpopular in Russia across the social strata. This attitude has little to do with either Putin or patriotism: it’s a based on the incredibly bad conditions Russian conscripts face, both from the actual physical conditions as well as brutal hazing. There is no analog in Western militaries, so Westerners have a hard time comprehending this.
I know a number of people who served in the Soviet military and their stories were hair-raising. As a result, privileged young men buy their way out of service. Others enter into phony masters programs designed to run out the clock making them too old to serve once they “graduate.” Young men without connections or money simply go into hiding. There is no other single action that Vladimir Putin could take to make himself less popular than to increase conscription, and widespread civil disobedience — i.e. even more than at present — would follow.
Even before its current difficulties, Russia did not have enough professional troops to go around, given all of Putin’s adventures. As a result, you kept seeing the same elite units (e.g. 76th Airborne Division, 5th Spetznaz Brigade) in every conflict: Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine.
With the collapse of the Russian economy, the Russian military will have no choice but to shrink. There is no way to pay the current numbers of professional soldiers, and that is a good thing. The alternative, calling in more conscripts, would be explosively unpopular.
Couldn’t happen to a nicer beady-eyed KGB goon.