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Monday, March 17, 2008

The Chickens of Demography, Roosting in the Barracks

Paul Goble reports:

Russian defense officials are now scrambling to cope with that country’s worsening demographic situation, one that could, in the words of one prominent commentator, leave them with no good options in the military area and “an army with no troops” or officers. In an article in this week’s Moscow Times, Alexander Golts, the deputy editor of Yezhednevniy zhurnal, notes that the country’s top leadership is in denial on this point, routinely claiming that the country is “in excellent condition” and that the number of births is rising. On the one hand, in this and “in almost every area,” Russia’s problems as Vladimir Putin leaves office and Dmitry Medvedev assumes the presidency, “the country’s problems are a approaching a crisis point,” one that can’t be solved by throwing “petrodollars into ineffective and outdated institutions.” And on the other, the current small uptick in the number of births, one that is the product of the entrance of a larger number of women into prime child-bearing ages rather than a solution to the country’s low birthrate, does nothing to solve the problem of military staffing now and for the next 18 years at least.That is because the men and women who must fill the ranks and the officer corps over that period are already born, and there are simply not enough of them to maintain forces at the strength levels the Russian government prefers and shows no signs of changing voluntarily.

In his article, Golts describes what the defense ministry has been doing in response to this “crisis” both among ordinary soldiers, where demographic constraints have attracted the greatest notice, and in the officer corps, where these limitations may have an even greater impact. The number of young men reaching 18 in 2009, he points out, will be only 834,000, far fewer than in the past. Approximately half of them will enroll in higher educational institutions and be deferred and many others will be exempted from service on health grounds. That means, Golts argues, that the incoming president “will be forced either to drastically reduce the size of the army or to cancel military deferments for college students, thereby crippling the existing educational system,” infuriating students and parents and hurting the economy. (Moreover, the much ballyhooed shift to a more professional military with contract soldiers is not happening as quickly as many civilian policy makers had thought possible, a reflection of still relatively low salaries and even worse conditions among those at the bottom ranks of military service.)

In anticipation of this, the defense ministry has begun drafting college graduates, having reduced their opportunities to become reserve officers by cutting back on the number of military departments in some 200 higher schools and reducing financial aid to students in them. That stopgap measure may help fill the ranks for the next draft cycle or two but only at the cost to the military of reducing the number of admittedly poorly performing junior officers and to the broader society of an angry population and a reduction in the number of well-trained specialists for the economy.

With regard to the officer corps, the country’s political elite faces serious problems as well. This week, the defense ministry announced plans to extend the term of service for officers by five years, presenting it as an opportunity for commander to acquire and thus retire at higher ranks. But such PR fools no one. On the one hand, last year, Golts points out, the defense ministry added an additional year to the minimum time in service required for advancing to the next higher rank, thus, forcing “officers to serve longer terms at the lowest rank of platoon or company commanders.” That thus vitiates the meaning of this week’s announcement because “the ability to rise rapidly through the ranks is one of the main -- if not the only -- motivating factors for officers to continue serving.” Given the low salaries of Russian officers, “even the slightest delay at the bottom rung of the career ladder makes extended service pointless.” And consequently, Golts writes, “there is no basis for believing that an officer who has earned the right to retire with a pension will choose to extend his service for as much as a single day. These half-baked proposals clearly will not solve the crisis of the insufficient number of officers in the armed forces.”

“Were the Kremlin planning to have a small professional army,” Golts says, “everything would be fine.” But it isn’t and doesn’t show any sign of being willing to shift in that direction. Consequently, the armed services and thus the political elite are facing a real crisis, however upbeat everyone currently is trying to be. As that crisis deepens, Golts concludes, “the generals will throw themselves at the feet of the new commander in chief and say, "Dear, kind tsar! Nothing has worked -- not transferring a percentage of the draftees to contract service, nor switching to one year of mandatory service nor eliminating officer-recruits."

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