Two disastrous wars in Chechnya failed to convince Kremlin leaders to abolish Russia's archaic conscription system and move toward a professional military, but the harsh lessons of Sept. 11 and its aftermath may have finally forced a solution.
Last week, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, announced a sweeping blueprint for change, with a completely redesigned, highly trained, and well-paid volunteer Russian Army by 2010. That is a promise Russian leaders have been making - and breaking - for more than a decade, as the country's dysfunctional Soviet-era military continued inducting a quarter-million young men annually into a life marked by misery, malnutrition, violence, and brutal hazing.
"As it stands, our Army is a monster that swallows up boys and destroys their lives," says Valentina Melnikova, head of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. "An Army like this is incapable of defending the country. It poisons our society by taking young men and subjecting them to humiliation, corruption, violence, and crime."
Running for reelection five years ago, former President Boris Yeltsin pledged to end the draft by 2000. Upon regaining the Kremlin, he forgot his promise. But experts believe that Mr. Putin, who projects the image of an aggressive modernizer, is far more serious about forcing change. In any case, they say, Russia can no longer afford to keep pleasing an aging corps of conservative generals by exploiting the country's dwindling supply of youthful manpower.
"Reform of the Army cannot be neglected any longer," says Valentin Rudenko, an expert with the independent AVN-Interfax military news agency. "Russia's present armed forces are little more than an expensive bluff. They are incapable of seriously defending the country."
But reforming Russia's armed forces won't be easy. While a leaner and meaner professional force might be more effective and less costly in the long run, the plan is a political and financial nightmare in the short haul.
A Russian conscript currently earns just one ruble (about 3 cents) a day. A volunteer kontraktnik soldier - of which the 1.2-million strong Russian Army has 150,000 - costs 5,000 rubles ($167) per month, plus an 800-ruble ($27) daily bonus when serving in combat operations. Yet experts say the Russian Army has been disappointed with the quality and discipline of its present kontraktniki, whom it deploys mainly in Chechnya, and that the Kremlin understands that wages, housing, benefits, and training will have to be substantially improved if the military is ever to attract serious, career-minded youth.
"To bring the Army and Navy up to strength in a professional form, you need a large amount of money, which we don't have," Mr. Ivanov said. "But the present state of the military also suits no one."
A growing number of Russian youths are evading the draft by feigning illness, buying phony educational deferments, bribes, or going on the lam.
According to the Defense Ministry, just 12 percent of young men eligible for service last spring were actually inducted, down from 25 percent in 2000. Russia's plunging birth rate over the past 20 years has shrunk the pool of available manpower, while military conscription committees say 40 percent of those who do report for service are rejected for serious health problems.
"Our Army is just corroding, like a junked automobile," says Andrei Rodionov, an activist with the Anti-Militarist League, which counsels young men to evade the draft.
Experts say the Kremlin is serious this time, if only because the US-led war in Afghanistan has exposed the crushing deficiencies of Russia's military. "Our military brass were saying ... that the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan would produce no results. The sudden unraveling of the Taliban shocked them," says Alexander Goltz, a military expert with the weekly magazine Ezhenedelny Journal. "The ability of the US to wage remote-control warfare, to destroy its enemies without the costly effort of occupying territory, has been very eye-opening for our military leaders."
Ivan Saffranchuk, a military expert with the independent PIR Center for Policy Studies in Moscow, says the Army spends 80 percent of its budget on items unrelated to national defense. "The world is changing swiftly, becoming more dangerous, and our country can't live much longer with an Army that is incapable of performing the simplest military tasks."
Top military leaders have indicated opposition to the plan. In a professional military, "the Army will be filled with people who see it only as a source of income," retired General Leonid Ivashov told the state-run ORT TV. "This is a very lighthearted, temporary approach that seems to follow some political wind shifts, and it does not work."
But a poll conducted by the independent Center for Public Opinion Research last month found that 66 percent of Russians favor abolition of conscription. "There is the political will to do this now, the Kremlin wants it, and most parliamentary forces support the idea," says Mr. Rudenko. The plan's chief political weakness, critics say, is that it is slated be finalized only in 2004, following Mr. Putin's reelection.
"Our generals deceived the president and slipped him a scheme that won't be submitted for years," said Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Right Forces. "A program that runs until 2010, like this one, won't be implemented because Putin won't be president by that time."
But even some of the military's toughest opponents are optimistic. "In the past decade, our country has acquired new businesses, new banks, new laws on private property, and so it's obvious that we need a new military," says Ms. Melnikova. "This plan is realistic, and absolutely necessary."