It is said that Russian parents start thinking of ways to get male children out of required military service before they are even born. Can Moscow change the system without weakening defense?
MOSCOW — Last year President Vladimir Putin promised to find a way to allow university students to avoid being drafted into the military that wouldn't compromise the strength of Russia's armed forces.
Russian men are well-known for looking for ways to avoid conscription in the army. Ironically, perhaps, receiving training at a university military preparation department is a near-guarantee that a young man will not be summoned for bonafide military service.
As only 7% of Russian universities currently have military prep departments, Putin has now proposed making such departments accessible to everyone studying in an institution of higher learning. The goal is to create a powerful reserve force, limit corruption in universities with the sought-after military departments, and free students and employers from an irrational draft system.
The new law, which passed at the beginning of July, will make military education accessible to all students, shorten the amount of time needed to get an officer’s rank and expand the base amount of training that students will need in order to be part of the reserve, not the draft.
One of the law’s co-authors, Duma deputy Vladimir Gutenev, said the thorny questions to resolve were the length of service required of the students, as well as whether or not it would be possible to summon the reservists into service in peacetime (which was outlawed in 2008).
There is also concern about the financial implications of the changes in the law, which will involve hiring an additional 4,500 military instructors. The budgetary concerns come as the army is already planning to spend an additional $677 billion on military equipment before 2020.
Israeli v. Russian pilots
Gutenev says Russia is following Israel’s example, where reservist service is an extension of the required military service, and both men and women are called in for a month of training every year for several years after their initial service is completed.
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The Karakal Battalion during its first winter training session, held in an open area in Southern Israel. Photo: Matanya.
The effectiveness of the Israeli reserves is well-known. According to military sources, a retired Israeli F-15 pilot can easily work full-time as a dentist, join the army to bomb terrorist bases and be home for dinner. Indeed, the Israeli reservists are often more skilled than full-time professional Russian pilots.
Still, applying Israel's system is hardly guaranteed to work for Russia. Their army is united, whereas our army resembles an old-style passenger train: The officers ride in first class; second class is for volunteer soldiers, where the conditions are more or less acceptable; third class is for conscripts, and the standards are low.
Military departments at universities are like cargo trains — which is to say they are totally separate from the passenger trains.
This separation of classes comes from a desire to solve an insolvable dilemma. The U.S. has it easy: Americans have a large territory, but also lots of money ($500,000 per soldier). China is also lucky: It also has a large territory, but the population is poor and willing to pay bribes just to be accepted into the army ($66,000 per soldier). Russia, the largest country in the world territory-wise, has a military budget that works out to just $73,000 per soldier.
Conscripts are a relatively cheap resource. Last year, when Ukraine transitioned to a volunteer army, the local journalists worked out the amount spent to feed a soldier for a day — about $3.50. In Russia, we spend about $6 per day to feed our soldiers. For comparison, the chimpanzee in Kiev’s Zoo, which weighs about the same as the average soldier, has a daily food budget of $8.30.
It’s not surprising that the people who end up in the Russian military are those with nothing to lose. It’s also not an accident that the army is often compared with prison, with both harsh conditions and questionable morals.
“Serious sociological research has shown that when a family finds out it is having a baby boy, they start thinking about how to prevent him from serving in the army, as soon as they have the ultrasound results — before he is even born,” write Aleksandr Auzan, the dean of the economics department at Moscow State University in his book, The Economics of Everything.
In order to end up in the “separate” army, Russia high school students and their parents act in economically irrational ways: They spend money on bribes and study at private universities that will give students four to six year conscription deferrals, but don’t allow the students to get a good education. There are ads around Moscow from the Moscow Technology Institute that tell young men that they should love biology, math and physics because “girls dig it.” It would be much more effective to scare them with soldiers’ boots.
Up until now, there has been a much greater demand for institutions that have military departments — regardless of the quality of the education students receive. “It’s no secret that the problem of getting into college and pseudo colleges is linked to the problems with the army, to getting a deferral,” said Vladimir Mai, rector of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration during a meeting with Sergey Shoygu, Russia’s Defense Minister. “The solution we are talking about would practically eliminate the problem.”
Though it wouldn't happen immediately, the competition for spots at military departments is expected to eventually disappear completely. When it does, it will reduce young men’s fear of being conscripted, which ultimately will allow high school students to act more rationally in their choices. If it works, it would be a major benefit for the entire Russian economy.