Russia may soon be recruiting volunteers from other former Soviet republics to serve in its military as part of a bid to switch from a mostly conscription to a volunteer army. But liberal politicians leading the call for an end to the draft are skeptical of the plan.
Moscow, 8 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Is a Russian version of the famed French Foreign Legion in the offing?
The answer may be yes, if the Russian Defense Ministry goes ahead with plans to recruit non-Russian citizens to serve in its military.
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov says the scheme, which would extend only to citizens of other former Soviet countries, is part of a drive to switch from a conscription army to a force drawn mostly from volunteers.
As an incentive, recruits would be granted Russian citizenship after three years of service.
Boris Nadezhdin is head of the liberal Union of Right Forces Party (SPS) in the Russian Duma. The party is spearheading a public call to transform the military into a paid professional organization. He says Ivanov's plan makes sense only if it is part of efforts to make the switch.
"If this takes place in the framework of a transition to a professional army where volunteers serve by contract, then I approve of it," he said. But if the Defense Ministry "is trying to draft not only Russian boys, but also [those] from [other] CIS countries, then I don't approve of it."
Ivanov announced the intentions in a newspaper interview last week ("Komsololsaka Pravda," 2 April). He said the carrot of Russian citizenship would improve the quality of the fighting force. "You're motivated to serve better than a Russian citizen, because one blunder -- and you're fired," he said.
Russia would hardly be alone in recruiting foreigners to serve in its military. France is perhaps best known for that, with its French Foreign Legion, comprised of almost 6,000 soldiers from over 130 countries. There are also 3,500 Nepalese Gurkhas serving in the British Army.
The United States meanwhile has around 31,000 foreign nationals currently serving in its military forces. Many enlist as a way of gaining citizenship.
Sergei Kazyonnov, of Moscow's Institute for National Security and Strategic Studies, says the plan makes sense because tens of millions of Russian speakers still live in former Soviet states, while Russian military units based in other CIS countries -- such as the 201st army division in Tajikistan -- already recruit soldiers from local populations.
"Representatives of CIS countries today already serve [in the Russian military], including as officers and soldiers in antiterrorist operations, in the North Caucasus, in Central Asia. That is already taking place. So, in essence, Ivanov is partly building up something that already exists."
Ivanov said foreign recruits would be integrated into units staffed with mostly Russian soldiers to avoid "ethnic" antagonisms.
The military says it already has around 130,000 volunteer soldiers, whose average pay is about $150 a month. That may well be enough to attract citizens of former Soviet states with median incomes even lower than Russia's, where the average wage is around $100 a month.
Currently, around 400,000 young Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 are drafted each year to serve in one of the branches of the armed services.
But the decaying army is finding it increasingly difficult to fill its annual draft quotas. The military says approximately 30,000 avoid the draft each year while as many as half of Russia's young men may be disqualified due to bad health or problems with alcohol or drugs.
The well-off, meanwhile, often avoid the draft through influence, bribery, and other means.
Conditions in the military are abysmal: first-year draftees are routinely beaten and sometimes killed by officers and second-year "veterans." The dreaded practice of hazing is called "dedovshchina," derived from the word for elder. Desertions are common. The military puts the number of desertions at 2,500 to 3,000 each year.
Despite resistance from the military's top staff, the government says it wants to create a voluntary professional army from the current 1.1 million-strong armed forces. In November 2001, Defense Minister Ivanov announced a large-scale transformation of the military that would phase out conscription by 2010.
The government launched a volunteer pilot project last September for an airborne division in the region of Pskov, west of Moscow.
In the next planned stage of reform, set to begin next year and last to 2007, the military aims to hire another 170,000 contract soldiers -- a move Ivanov says would cost a minimum of 100 billion rubles ($3.3 billion).
SPS co-head Irina Khakamada, however, remains highly skeptical of the military's intentions, and says attracting foreigners to serve in the Russian military would only detract from reform.
"Under current conditions, when the military is essentially putting the brakes on the reform, trying to sideline the principle of volunteerism, I think the measure is absolutely ineffective. It would just close gaps in a poorly outfitted and ineffective army."
In this election year, SPS has pasted billboards around the capital proclaiming: "A professional army is a strong army!"
The party says the first step of the reform should be taken as soon as possible and would cost 20 billion to 30 billion rubles, less than one-tenth of the country's annual defense budget.
But military experts are doubtful that Moscow is capable of carrying out the conversion at all, saying creating a voluntary army requires complicated and expensive reforms.
Kazyonnov says the military has so far spent around $100 million in Pskov simply for the provision of a minimal amount of new housing.
SPS's Nadezhdin says that kind of reasoning is simply an excuse for antireform officers to pocket federal money.
"If -- under the name of military reform -- we take a large amount of budget money and convert it into buildings, housing, and so on, that's one thing. But if we measure the cost of the reforms in terms of actually sustaining the military and increasing salaries, that's another."
But Kazyonnov says some estimates put the figure for the first stage of reform -- not including the provision of new military hardware or housing -- as high as 15 times higher than the SPS's figure.
He also questions the effectiveness of volunteers under current conditions, saying contract soldiers serving in the North Caucasus have not shown themselves to be better-disciplined or more battle-ready than draftees.
Kazyonnov says the ultimate direction of reform should be guided by a number of factors, including whether the military would share the costs of its future operations by cooperating with other countries' forces in coalitions.
He says the military's problems cannot be solved by taking one step alone, such as creating a professional army.
"Under the current conditions -- the financing of the army -- we spend around 40 times less than America on defense. So I don't see the possibility of either having enough financial and other resources or the ability to make the reforms -- of switching to a contract-basis -- functional." But Kazyonnov added, "I do see enough risks."
Not least important for the future of a possible contract army partly staffed by foreign recruits, he says, is the war in Chechnya: "If we allow ourselves to be drawn into regional conflicts like in Chechnya, no one will join the army."