Staunton, October 8 – Faced with a rapidly declining draft-age cohort – there are today 44 percent fewer men in that group than seven years ago – the Russian defense ministry has concluded that trying to impose still more draconian penalties on those who seek to avoid service could be counterproductive and even dangerous.
Instead, the ministry is trying to make the draft as pleasant as possible, asking draftees where they would like to serve and providing them with various services and benefits that were not available to their elders. According to one Moscow commentator, this is designed to make the draft “almost a voluntary measure” (versia.ru/articles/2013/oct/07/pochti_dobrovolno).
According to Aleksandr Stepanov, who has written frequently on Russian military issues, the fall draft cycle which began October 1 was preceded by confusion in the ministry and high command over how it should be handled. First, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu suggested that there would not be a draft at all beginning next year, but that statement was retracted.
Then, there were reports that because of the declining size of the draft pool, the military wanted to end or at least severely restrict student exemptions, but after expressions of outrage by rights activists and business leaders who need the skills of such students, the ministry said that no such changes were being considered.
And finally just before October 1, the defense ministry announced the sudden retirement of Vasily Smirnov, who had headed the section of the general staff responsible for the draft since 2002. Officially, it was said he retired because of age. Rumors had it that he is ill. But it may be, Stepanov suggests, that he was the victim of in-fighting over how to handle the draft.
He appeared to believe that the best way to ensure a successful draft was to use measures even draconian ones to force Russians to meet their draft responsibilities, but others in the ministry, Stepanov says, had concluded that “a further tightening of the screws with regard to the draft would be dangerous.”
(In many ways, this sounds like the debate that swirled around US General Lewis Hershey who headed the American Selective Service System for decades before being forced out by those who objected to his approach and ultimately by the replacement in the US of the draft with an all-volunteer force.)
The back and forth in Moscow has been taking place as the demographic situation of the country has worsened. Since 2006, the number of draft-age males has declined by 44 percent, a trend that means the military must take a greater percentage of that cohort to meet its needs or cut the number of those to be drafted. Moreover, experts say, the situation will only get worse.
The general staff has eliminated most of the reasons for deferment, cutting them from 18 to five, and thus it does not have many more options to “tighten the screws.” Instead, it is seeking to meet its draft quotas by showing greater “humanity” – including requiring draft offices to ask draftees in which services they would like to serve and allowing them to remain in their own regions.
Moreover, the defense ministry has tried to show its humaneness in other ways. Men from flooded areas in the Far East have been deferred, parents are to be allowed to come with their children to the place of service, prosecutors are tracking the draft program more carefully, greater benefits are being offered to those who volunteer to become professionals, and so on.
There is even a program to allow young men to take their dogs with them. But the most controversial is likely to be a program to draft Central Asians who have acquired Russian citizenship, a program all the more likely to provoke criticism because Moscow is now drafting so few “people from the North Caucasus.”
Despite all this, the defense ministry expects that there will continue to be many young men who will try to avoid service. During the spring 2013 cycle, “more than 15,000” were charged with doing so, and the number who actually sought to avoid service illegally was likely far higher than that.
According to Valentina Melnikova, secretary of the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees of Russia, the departure of General Smirnov represents “the first real victory in the military reform of Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu.” But she is skeptical that even he will be able to control the local draft agencies. “It is long past time to change the system completely.”