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Russian Army - Overview

Despite its position as the second service in the armed forces hierarchy, the Ground Forces were the most politically influential Soviet service. Senior Ground Forces officers held all important posts within the Ministry of Defense as well as the General Staff. Even after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and encouraged the policy of arms control and international co­operation, the dominant role and the overwhelming strength of the military did not significantly change. Although Secretary General Gorbachev himself proclaimed during the 27th Party Congress in 1986 a concept of " reasonable sufficiency", in 1988 the Soviet army still maintained more than 200 divisions and more than 50,000 main battle tanks. In 1989 the Ground Forces had 2 million men, organized into four combat arms and three supporting services.

By 1996 the ground forces included in their armaments some 19,000 main battle tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces, 600 surface-to-surface missiles with nuclear capability, and about 2,600 attack and transport helicopters. At that time the Ground Forces of the Russian Federation were estimated to number approximately 670,000 officers and enlisted personnel. Of that number, about 170,000 were contract volunteer enlistees and warrant officers, and about 210,000 were conscripts. Presumably, the remaining 290,000 were commissioned officers, suggesting that some 43 percent of ground forces personnel were officers. This extraordinarily high percentage reflected both the Soviet and Russian tradition of giving little authority to the enlisted ranks, as well as the vestiges of the much larger military cadre inherited from the Soviet army. Much of this bulge is made up of senior field-grade officers and generals who no longer are needed in a smaller military but who are too young to retire. In the mid-1990s, this situation was one of the most difficult personnel problems facing the ground forces command.

The issue of gradually replacing Russia's ineffectual conscription system with a volunteer force has brought heated discussion in the defense establishment. The semiannual draft, which has set about 200,000 as its regular quota, has been an abysmal failure in the post-Soviet era because of evasion and desertion. During evaluation of an initial, experimental contract plan, in May 1996 Yeltsin unexpectedly proposed the filling of all personnel slots in the armed forces with contract personnel by 2000. In 1996 some units already were more than half staffed by contract personnel, and an estimated 300,000 individuals, about 20 percent of the total nominal active force, were serving under contract. At that time, more than half of new contractees were women.

Military service became particularly unpopular in Russia in the mid-1990s. Under conditions of intense political and social uncertainty, the traditional appeal to Russian patriotism no longer resonated among Russia's youth. The percentage of draft-age youth who entered the armed forces dropped from 32 percent in 1994 to 20 percent in 1995. The Law on Military Service stipulates twenty-one grounds for draft exemption, but in many cases eligible individuals simply refuse to report; in July 1996, a report in the daily Pravda referred to a "daily boycott of the draft." In the first half of 1995, about 3,000 conscripts deserted, and in all of 1995 between 50,000 and 70,000 inductees refused to report. According to a 1996 Russian report, such personnel deficiencies meant that only about ten of Russia's sixty-nine ground forces divisions were prepared for combat.

The two most compelling reasons for the failure of conscription are the unfavorable living conditions and pay of soldiers (less than US$1 per month at 1995 exchange rates) and the well-publicized and extremely unpopular Chechnya operation. The Russian tradition of hazing in the ranks, which became more violent and was much more widely reported in the 1990s, also has contributed to society's antipathy toward military service.

On 07 April 1995 the Duma passed a bill which altered the Law on Military Service in Russia. Changes extended the length of required military service from 18 months to 2 years from 01 October 1995 and act retroactively for those drafted in 1993-1994. Only about 19,000 of the approximately 230,000 troops scheduled for discharge in December 1994 were released on time. The bill also introduced universal conscription of young men graduating from institutes of higher learning.

By 1997 the total strength of the ground forces was at an all time low of 400,000 men and officers. Regulations for conscription provided easy loopholes to escape it to over 70 per cent of the eligible age group. In 1996, only 13 per cent of the eligible age group were conscripted, the majority proving themselves "unfit" to serve and the rest successfully prolonging student deferral, or bribing their way out. The deferment allowed to students also meant that only those with minuscule career chances who serve. As of the late 1990s a quarter of draftees had not completed secondary education, and a fifth had a criminal record.

At the outset of the Chechen campaign in December 1994, the Russian Army had no money and little support. The army had not conducted a regiment or division-scale field training exercise in over two years and most battalions were lucky to conduct field training once a year. Most battalions were manned at 55% or less. The Russian Army invaded Chechnya with a rag-tag collection of various units, without an adequate support base. When the Chechens stood their ground, the state to which the Russian Army had sunk became apparent to the world.

To the extent that the Chechnya conflict of 1994-96 was a fair test of combat capability, Russia's armed forces were far from fighting form, even by their own evaluation. As they received pessimistic assessments of the current and future situation, Russian policy makers faced a complex of other adjustments.

According to the resolutions of the Security Council meeting of 11 August 2000, the major reform measures of the general purpose forces will be accomplished by 2006. By that time these forces will have over 800,000 servicemen, for a total reduction of 400,000 troops [possibly as soon as 2003]. The army would lose 180,000 men.

Sources and Resources

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