It’s sad, but safe, to conclude that Russian politics has always been pretty violent. Always being the last several hundred years. And that violence has claimed its latest high-profile victim.
The many eulogies for Boris Nemtsov were eloquent and on-target for what they said about the man and about Russia today.
It was surprising, however, that they all (from what the present writer can tell) pretty much neglected Nemtsov’s role as a critical catalyst for serious reform of the Russian military. The part Nemtsov played was just one way he reflected hope for the emergence of a liberal, European Russia.
Whether in government in the 1990s or out in the 2000s, Nemtsov argued for making military reform a priority. He was the political face of criticism of President Vladimir Putin for failing to reform the armed forces. He had lots of knowledgeable help and supporters, but he was a politician who could make the case publicly and loudly.
In the early 2000s, Nemtsov and the SPS advocated reducing the compulsory military service term from two years (which the MOD thought barely sufficient) to just six months. He also called for slicing the army from more than 1 million to just 400,000.
Early and often, Nemtsov said the military should rely first and foremost on professional contract servicemen. He did this in rallies and marches back when they were permitted and could be arranged with relative ease. Former Defense Minister and Putin confidante Sergey Ivanov labeled Nemtsov’s call for an all-contractee army by 2007 “populist hodgepodge.”
But Nemtsov’s insistence was a major impetus behind the government’s 2003 contract service experiment in the 76th Airborne Division, and the 2004-2007 Federal Targeted Program to introduce contract service throughout the armed forces. In the latter, the MOD aimed to convert 200 divisions and regiments to full professional manning instead of conscripted soldiers.
Even Ivanov said, if the government’s program worked, conscription could be cut to one year. It didn’t. Nemtsov argued that the contract service program, as implemented, was underfunded. He also tried to tell Putin that the MOD generals could never be trusted to reform themselves.
What has happened since?
Civilian Anatoliy Serdyukov served almost six years as Defense Minister and imposed many military reforms on reluctant Russian generals.
One-year military conscription was phased in and became the norm in 2008.
Most importantly, professional contract service replaced conscription as the basis of Russia’s military manning policy. The armed forces have the goal of putting 425,000 volunteer enlisted in the ranks by recruiting 50,000 each year through 2017.
And the Russian Army has, generally speaking, become a safer place to serve.
Boris Nemtsov wasn’t solely responsible for these important changes, but he was a significant force pushing for them.
So it isn’t surprising Nemtsov was killed while urgently trying to awaken somnolent Russians — mothers and fathers — to the dangers of letting the Kremlin send its young men to fight, and possibly be injured or die, in eastern Ukraine.
Given the current suspects implicated in his murder, it is somewhat ironic that in 1996 Nemtsov was the catalyst for a petition which gained a million Russian signatures to end the war in Chechnya. No good deed goes unpunished.