Category Archives: Conscription

Situation Normal, Pretty Much

Shoygu addresses the Collegium

At the MOD Collegium on March 20, Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu pretty much acted like there’s not reason for concern.

With pandemic set to sweep across Russia (everywhere else too), Mr. Shoygu outlined the MOD plan to manage coronavirus. Most of his publicized remarks still focused on the country’s military security and the “increased presence” of U.S. forces, ships, and planes on Russia’s borders.

Shoygu claimed no COVID-19 cases in the Russian Army. The MOD has stopped sending “military delegations” abroad and it won’t host foreign officers. He mentioned vague plans to keep Russian troops close to their garrisons.

Russia’s spring draft won’t be postponed. It will begin as normal on April 1 and end July 15. Conscripts will be tested for coronavirus before they go to their units, and “isolated” during their first two weeks there.

How about testing young men before they answer the summons at the military commissariat? The draft is good news for men being demobbed. Not so good for their replacements.

Recall the Russian Army is a place where barracks and units have been decimated by illness in the recent past. Sixty percent of disease there is respiratory (as is COVID-19). The MOD’s medical establishment is often corrupt and probably just average on its best day.

So much for health security . . . . The Collegium turned to the 2020 plan of activity for the Southern and Eastern Military Districts. After describing U.S. efforts to dominate Russia’s “south-west strategic direction” and the Black Sea, Shoygu said the Southern MD got 1,200 new and modernized weapons and equipment in 2019, and will get nearly three times that many in 2020.

The Defense Minister said the Southern MD will stand up a motorized rifle division and two “missile troops and artillery” brigades. Perhaps the Russians will upgrade one of the Stavropol-based 49th CAA brigades to division status. 

“Missile troops and artillery” is the formal name for the artillery branch of the Ground Troops. It seems likely one artillery brigade will be established at the district level and another for the 8th CAA. 

After detailing U.S. striving to control the Asia-Pacific region as well as Russia’s Sakhalin and Primorye “operational directions,” Shoygu indicated the Eastern MD got 1,300 major items of equipment in 2019, and will get 1,350 including 502 new ones (so 848 modernized) this year.

He said the Eastern MD will get motorized rifle and tank regiments (probably just one of each) in Primorye. They will likely round out the 5th CAA’s 127th MRD, created recently out of the 59th MRB.

127th MRD at Sergeyevka

127th MRD at Sergeyevka

Shoygu also said the Eastern MD will participate in nine international training events in 2020. The MOD also remains adamant that the 75th Victory Day celebration will go on no matter what. Not sure how that squares with health security. Sounds like mixed messaging by the MOD.

Lonely Lama

Russian media covering the armed forces still have moments. Take Ulan-Ude’s Buryaad UnenHat tip to bmpd for covering dambiev who in turn covered this Buryat piece.

Lonely Lama

Buryaad Unen told the story of the Russian military’s only Buddhist “chaplain” — Bair Batomunkuyev. Bair Lama has served six years as “assistant to the commander for work with religious servicemen” (troop priest) in Kyakhta’s 37th Independent Motorized Rifle Brigade.

He was a conscript repairing communications in a radar unit in Yakutia from 1988 to 1990. He wasn’t a very observant Buddhist as a youth although he went with his grandmother to pray at holy places and learned mantras from her.

While serving, he nearly froze to death in a snowstorm and is convinced he survived by thinking of his grandmother and repeating prayers she taught him. A search party rescued him.

He finished his military time and went to study at the Buddhist monastery in Ivolginsk, not far from Ulan-Ude. His grandmother was very happy.

In 2003-2004, Bair Lama answered a request from Kyakhta’s border guards detachment for “spiritual support.” In 2012, the MR brigade offered him a position.

He has met other “priests” working in his capacity, mainly Russian Orthodox of course. According to him, there are three Muslims serving as “assistant commanders for work with religious believers” but only one Buddhist. There are, he says, many Buddhist servicemen and they serve well. Buryat-tankers regularly win prizes in the annual Tank Biathalon, according to Bair.

Bair Lama says the situation in his formation is normal and orderly. He reports directly to the brigade commander, but also to the chief of the section for work with religious servicemen in the Eastern MD staff.

The interviewer asks Bair if the army contradicts his religious convictions given Buddhism’s principles of non-violence and compassion for all living things. He responds:

“The security of my family and relatives, our peoples and state is in the balance. As Napoleon Bonaparte said: ‘A people not wishing to feed its own army will soon have to feed a foreign one.'”

“Absolute pacifism is not characteristic of Buddhism for a follower of Buddha’s Teaching will not remain a passive and passionless bystander of evil and violence, but actively opposes it with compassion for all living things. One of the manifestations of this principle closest to us in time is the participation of Buddhists in the Great Patriotic War. Not just lay Buddhists but even ordained monk-lamas who’d received a Buddhist education without reservation took up weapons and went to war. By the same token, Buddhist Teaching doesn’t impose restrictions on carrying out military service in peacetime. The weapon in itself is not terrible and the nature of the action (peaceful or wrathful by necessity) is not important, but the motivation (compassion toward living things), the essence (goodness) and the purpose of the action (the good of living things).”

How many Russian Federation citizens are Buddhist? Hard to say. Maybe as few as 700,000 or as many as 1.5 million. The Kremlin may not even have an accurate estimate.

The largest concentrations are in Buryatia, Tuva, and Kalmykia. Their combined populations are about 1.5 million. Obviously not all their residents are Buddhists, and, similarly, not all Buddhists in the Russian Federation live those regions.

The number 700,000 is likely an underestimate; 1.5 million might be correct or just somewhat inflated.

Recall that former defense minister Anatoliy Serdyukov started putting clergymen in MOD units to promote better order, discipline, and inter-ethnic accord. They were somewhat intended to replace deputy commanders for “socialization” work — old zampolits — that Serdyukov dismissed to shrink the officer corps.

The first Russian Orthodox priests became “assistant commanders for work with religious believers” in 2010. In 2017, the ROC reported there were 176 priests attached to military units with another 45 in the pipeline.

But only three mullahs? One lama? No rabbis?

From the outset the Russian MOD said clergy would be appointed, probably to brigades and divisions, on a proportional basis. That presupposed (probably unreasonably) comprehensive knowledge of the beliefs of Russian Federation soldiers as a group.

The numbers 3, 1, and 0 are clearly not proportional. In 2009, the MOD figured 90 percent of clergymen in the ranks would be Orthodox priests. But with 20 million Muslims living in the RF, Muslim troops are certainly underserved with just three mullahs in the ranks. The Eastern MD itself said 8 percent of its spring conscripts in 2016 were Muslim and 4 percent Buddhist.

But the MOD’s avoidance of mono-ethnic (and mono-religious) units and its extraterritoriality policy (not allowing draftees to serve in their home regions) have mixed conscripts from many areas and ensured that Russians (and Orthodox Christians) predominate in any military unit. Hence, if there’s any priest, he’s ROC.

Taking it further though, three mullahs and one lama tells us there may be, at least, three predominately Muslim units and one “Buddhist” (Buryat or Tuvan) unit in the RF Armed Forces.

Under Serdyukov, the MOD toyed with forming mono-ethnic units to end frequent conflict between Russian troops and soldiers from Dagestan. Perhaps some majority Muslim units were formed. Which ones are hard to say. But under Sergey Shoygu, the MOD definitely formed a majority Tuvan (likely majority Buddhist) formation — Kyzyl’s 55th Independent Motorized Rifle Brigade (Mountain), but it doesn’t have its own lama.

Bair Lama’s position tells us the 37th IMRB in Kyakhta is a majority Buryat, majority Buddhist formation. Kalmykia, though majority Buddhist, basically has no MOD units.

It seems safe to conclude the Russian MOD doesn’t have much intention to go further with mono-ethnic or mono-religious units, or to put more clergymen out among the troops except Orthodox priests.

Death of a Conscript

Authorities are investigating the murder of a 19-year-old Russian conscript in his motorized rifle regiment near Voronezh. The Western MD at first reported he died of a heart attack, but he was apparently beaten to death.

The regiment is a troubled unit where other servicemen have been murdered, died under suspicious circumstances, or committed suicide in recent years. 

Stepan Tsymbal

Last fall Stepan Tsymbal was called up to the army from his home near Korenovsk, Krasnodar territory. He was sent to military unit 91711 — the 252nd Motorized Rifle Regiment of the 3rd MRD in Boguchar, Voronezh region.

He served in the regiment’s material-support company, possibly as a cook. The regiment was deployed to a field encampment on the Pogonovo range for training in early February.

Tsymbal was found dead on February 10. The commanding officer informed his family the next morning. They were told his heart stopped. The Western MD initially and inexplicably reported no signs of violence on Tsymbal’s body. However, the death notice from his regiment even indicated he was the victim of a violent attack.

Stepan Tsymbal's death notice

According to Yuga.ru, the Investigative Department for the Voronezh garrison opened a murder investigation on February 11.

The military returned his body on February 13 but his family wasn’t allowed to view it completely. But they didn’t need to see much to see Stepan was beaten to death.

His stepfather Dmitriy told Yuga.ru:

“They didn’t show us the body fully. We saw his face a little. His mouth was all bloody, as if his teeth had been kicked in. It was also like he had no eyes, gauze was placed on them. And his entire face was wrapped [with gauze] and poured over with some kind of glue. In the temple area, we also saw a hematoma, a dent. And his hands were also very strange. Some kind of black like they hadn’t been washed.”

Dmitriy told the regional news agency that, in regular calls home, Stepan hadn’t complained about military service or mentioned any hazing or abuse.

His body came back without his documents, mobile phone, or the crucifix and glasses he wore, according to his stepfather.

His family said Stepan had no previous heart ailments. He passed through the normal  medical exams prior to entering the service and the doctors had found nothing to keep him out of the army, according to the Kuban edition of Komsomolskaya pravda.

According to KP-Kuban, Stepan’s other relatives said:

“His mouth was bloody, near the temple there was a dent and hematoma. It was like he didn’t have eyes, gauze was on them, and his entire face was simply wound with bandages poured over with some kind of glue. The impression is as if they tried to hide something.”

His hands were reportedly purple in color right up to the wrist.

KP-Kuban reported that it obtained part of an investigative report saying:

“They found Tsymbal in the dishwashing tent, on the floor. He was in a sitting position with legs and arms taped together and stretched out in front. And there was a plastic bag on his head, wrapped around his neck with adhesive tape.”

The news agency’s source said his head was beaten. There was a large abrasion on the back of the head, so it’s possible he died from a closed head injury.

Relatives said they’d heard a lot about his unit, and other guys who died there. So, they won’t let the case be hushed up and want the guilty to be found and punished to the extent of the law.

According to Lenta.ru, the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers says two servicemen have already been arrested on suspicion of involvement in his death while four others who found the body are being detained by base security.

It seems likely the law and order situation in Russia’s military has improved over the past five or six years since the armed forces have received greater funding and political attention. But the savage killing of Tsymbal shows it’s still not exactly safe for young Russians to serve in the army.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to gauge how frequently conscripts are dying today because the Kremlin and MOD have made a concerted effort to suppress bad news whenever possible. Their next step will be to lean on Tsymbal’s family or pay them off to stay quiet about what happened to him.

Today’s press said Tsymbal’s parents have created a petition addressed to the MOD, Main Military Prosecutor, and Main Military Investigative Directorate demanding punishment for the unit’s commander and the disbanding of the regiment.

Reports on the condition of the boy’s body have become more graphic and gruesome saying that half his face was gone. It certainly sounds like something more than a murder in the heat of the moment. It seems like someone was trying to send other soldiers a message.

See this old post covering Gazeta.ru’s reporting about this troubled regiment where Stepan Tsymbal served.

Officers reportedly often extorted money from conscripts for the “needs of the unit.” They also used soldiers from the material-support battalion as enforcers to keep other troops in line. The unit canteen was supposedly used as a “mobile trading post” for the financial benefit of officers. Perhaps something akin to this had some part in Tsymbal’s death. But there are likely plenty of men in the unit who know what led to this if they aren’t afraid to talk and are allowed to.

The case of Stepan Tsymbal might be galvanizing like that of Andrey Sychev. At least, it could take considerable effort for the Kremlin and military to quash it.

More on the Conscription Campaign

The Russian military press has published relatively little on this spring’s draft which is set to end in just a few days.  There are, however, data points worth examining against what was written here.

Northern Fleet draftees lined up with their paperwork in hand

Northern Fleet draftees lined up with paperwork in hand

On June 21, Mil.ru noted that Russia’s Western MD is getting 48,000 of this spring’s conscripts.  That’s a pretty enormous 34 percent of all draftees.

Mil.ru also reported the Black Sea Fleet has gotten 1,700 of 2,600 new men it’s expecting.

Russian Orthodox priest blesses Black Sea Fleet draftees

Russian Orthodox priest blesses Black Sea Fleet draftees

We already heard that the Baltic and Northern Fleets were getting 5,000 and 2,500 conscripts respectively, putting the Navy over 10,000 without counting the Pacific Fleet’s share.  If we guess the latter gets 3,000, this puts the Navy at 13,000 for the spring campaign.  That would be nine percent of all draftees, not the predicted six percent.  A similar number from last fall would make 26,000, and conscription would account for perhaps 19 percent of Navy manpower.  

On May 21, the Russian military indicated that 8,000 draftees were going to the RVSN.  That’s six percent of the spring cohort rather than the estimated eight.  About 26 percent of RVSN personnel might be conscripts.

The MOD website reported on May 7 that the VDV will take more than 6,000 draftees.  That gives the Russian airborne four percent of the current allocation of conscripts, about as predicted.  A roughly similar number in the fall would mean the VDV are 30 percent conscript-manned.

Mil.ru added:

“Few conscripts are fortunate enough to get to serve in VDV sub-units.  The competition for those wishing to serve in the VDV in some military commissariats reaches 30 men per spot.”

The VDV get to pick the best available young men:

“The main selection criteria for the VDV are excellent health and physical preparedness, a high level of neuropsychological stability, [and] positive social and moral characteristics.”

Million-Man Army

President Putin (photo RIA Novosti Sergey Guneyev)

President Putin (photo: RIA Novosti / Sergey Guneyev)

For some time, observers have talked about the Russian military as a force of roughly 1,000,000 soldiers.  But its legal ceiling was above one million, while its true personnel number was below that level. Now Moscow has, for the first time, a statutory limit of 1,000,000 uniformed personnel.

This week President Vladimir Putin decreed a manpower limit of 1,885,371 for Russia’s Ministry of Defense.  One million will be uniformed service personnel and the balance civilian employees.

RIA Novosti reported on the decree.  It replaces one from January 2008 specifying 2,019,269 with 1,134,800 in uniform.

In a largely overlooked December 2008 act, former president Dmitriy Medvedev decreed that the limit would be 1,884,829, including one million serving in uniform, from the beginning of 2016.

So Putin has authorized an additional 542 civilian workers for the Defense Ministry.

To round out this picture, Putin decreed a limit of 2,020,500 with 1,134,800 servicemen in 2005.

Putin’s latest decree is the new benchmark.  But who is that million?

There are about 300,000 draftees in the armed forces at present.  In late 2015, the military reported having 352,000 contractees.  It announced it would take only 31,000 volunteer soldiers in 2016, and claimed its formations and units were manned at 92 percent of authorized manpower.

If you take 300,000 + 352,000 and add in 220,000 officers and 50,000 warrants, it looks like armed forces of 922,000 or 92.2 percent of the current one million authorized.  Another 31,000 contractees this year would be 95 percent.

In late 2014, the Defense Ministry said 220,000 officers, 50,000 warrants, 425,000 contractees, and 300,000 conscripts was its goal by the end of 2017. That’s 99.5 percent of one million.  Some 42,000 contractees will have to be signed up in 2017.

Perhaps, just maybe, the days of undermanning at 766,055 servicemen on January 1, 2013 are behind the MOD.  However, there are problems with believing it.  Number one is the fact that no one talks about the rate of contractees leaving the armed services.  Retention may be as good, but it’s not 100 percent.  The addition of new volunteers isn’t a straight line up to 425,000.

Beyond whether contractees stay are more important (and more difficult to evaluate) issues of the quality of recruits, what they learn in training, and what they add to Russia’s combat capability.

P.S.  Also notable this week was Putin’s signing of a decree on MVD manning which increases its personnel by 64,000 to 1,067,876 (872,970 police officers).  This, and the MOD decree, are part of an apparent rewickering of the “power” ministries that began with the establishment of Putin’s National Guard.

Catalyst for Military Reform

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.

RIP 1959-2015

RIP 1959-2015

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.

A Year Does Not a Soldier Make

Krasnaya zvezda always has interesting Internet polling.  Yes, Internet.  Not a scientific opinion survey based on valid sampling and a mathematically acceptable margin of error.

We’re talking about Russia here.  We take what we can get.

KZ asked its readers whether the current year of conscript service is sufficient to make a real soldier.  Not surprisingly, 601 of more than 800 respondents said no, it isn’t.  Only 71 said unequivocally yes, it’s enough.

KZ's Results

KZ’s Results

Being the MOD’s daily paper, KZ’s readership is mostly those in the Russian armed forces, or those somehow interested in them.

The MOD wasn’t happy about the shift to the one-year draft several years ago. But it had no alternative facing the twin pressures of rising draft evasion and increasing violence and other abuse in military units.  At least 12-month conscription helped alleviate both of those problems if it didn’t do anything for the military’s readiness.

Hence, the great renewed stress on trying to sign up contract enlistees.