Yeltsin's new model army set to halve in size

End of conscription: For both France and Russia, decision to shift to a professional force means difficult decisions lie ahead
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The Independent Online
President Boris Yeltsin's pledge to abolish conscription by the year 2000, if fulfilled, would slash the Russian armed forces - currently said to total around 1.5 million - by over a half. This would place the country's military strength behind China, the US, India, North and South Korea and Vietnam and put it on a par with Iran and Turkey.

The move also raises enormous questions about the cost of a professional army.

Michael Orr, a senior analyst of the Conflict Studies Research Centre at Sandhurst, said: "They won't be able to recruit the number of people required. People do need to be forced into this. In the 1920s the Soviet Union had an army of half a million. They may have to do that again."

President Yeltsin's proposal, announced on Thursday, is certainly a vote- winner. It is also in keeping with a world-wide move back to small professional armies based on eighteenth-century models. France, the first state to introduce conscription, in 1793, recently announced it was ending national service, but there are serious doubts whether Russia could accomplish the move to an all-volunteer force in the same way.

Whereas Western states like the US, Britain and France have some hope of attracting the number and quality of recruits they need on a voluntary basis, Russia cannot afford to do so in the necessary numbers. Recruitment would require huge pay increases and investment in accommodation, because military personnel do not spend their lives in dormitories solely for the love of the job.

A modern system of conscription, similar to that used by other European powers, was introduced in Russia in 1874. It provided the massive Russian and Soviet armies which fought in the two world wars. Besides boosting the figures at minimum cost, conscription also acted as a "school of the nation"- a further expression of state control.

The 1.5-million figure is the highest estimate for the Russian armed forces, although many Western experts consider 1.2 million to be more realistic. There are between 200,000 and 300,000 officers - all joining as career professionals - 270,000 contract soldiers and NCOs, with the remainder made up by conscripts.

In some parts of the country, 60 per cent of 18-year-olds drafted fail to turn up. Overall, the figure is about 20 per cent and the army suffers most.

There are 13 Russian ministries drawing on the conscript pool. The Ministry of Defence stands at the back of the queue behind the Security Ministry (the former KGB), the Interior Ministry and even the Fire Brigade. The other ministries often offer better pay and conditions of service.

Russia undoubtedly wants to discard the huge and unwieldy conscript force it inherited from the Soviet Union and concentrate on an elite, hi-tech force. As reported in the Independent in February, the Russian army is focusing on its 50,000-strong airborne troops as the core of this new force.

In Afghanistan and Chechnya, the conscripts - who filled the mechanised infantry and tank units - proved incapable of meeting the demands placed on them. The Russian peace-keeping troops in Bosnia are all contract soldiers from the airborne forces and it was recently announced that heavy armoured units were being attached to the airborne troops, suggesting that a decision had been made to reinforce the only part of the army which had proved competent.

But even this elite core may be damaged if conscription is ended. Although normally preferable to people pressed into action, the quality of those volunteering to become contract soldiers is questionable.

Whereas conscription ensures the forces receive a cross-section of society - including bright young men who would become sergeants - those opting for a military career are often people in their thirties who have failed in civilian careers. It has been claimed that these include alcoholics, drug addicts and people with psychological problems.

There is a further paradox. The voluntary recruitment taking place is to some extent still dependent on the state's legal power to compel people to serve. The draft, which should provide about 200,000 recruits every six months to serve for two years, is also the prime reason why soldiers sign up as kontrakniki, receiving better pay and conditions.

Under Russian law the draft is compulsory, whereas legislation forcing kontrakniki to fulfil their contracts and stay beyond the statutory period of conscription is still passing through parliament.

Once the statutory term of service is over, therefore, contract soldiers can resign.