November 24, 2015
Russia’s military intervention in Syria illustrates that in the minds of Kremlin planners, the primary criterion for great power status is military might. Further cruise missile strikes and bomber sorties continue to showcase the depth of Russian military modernization. However, if Russia wants to remain a modern military power, it needs to rethink and reform its approach to people. Military failures in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and to a lesser degree Georgia have clearly demonstrated the need to end conscription, but Russian authorities have serious societal hurdles to overcome before adopting a fully professional force. Their first two steps already involve strong efforts in image and indoctrination.

The concept of a professional, volunteer army is a dramatic change for Russia. Planners have set ambitious goals, with state media touting that professional soldiers finally outnumber conscripts and will number 352,000 by the years end. However, the current pace of operations in Ukraine and Syria is straining personnel, and the Kremlin is looking for ways to address its professional manpower. This has led to a reliance on rabble-rousing “volunteers” in Georgia and Ukraine, in addition to increasing conscription levels. However, many Russian men are desperately trying to avoid the draft. There remains today stigma against military service in Russia, with one in three conscripts finding medical excuses. Negative associations with military life have been constant for generations, especially in regard to dedovschina. This brutal hazing of young recruits has done nothing but made military life undesirable. As Bettina Renz of the International Institute for Strategic Studies pointed out in Russian Military Capabilities after 20 years of Reform, hazing practices were in large part responsible for the lackluster reforms of 2008, since not enough people volunteered to serve. In short, Russia needs to make serving more desirable, as current conscripts face a great deal of danger from within their own ranks.

In order to professionalize its force and create a long term pool of motivated applicants, the Kremlin is keen on improving its public image. A first step in changing the perception of military life is to glamorize it. This face lift of sorts has been particularly evident in the coverage of the intervention in Syria. This is being hammered home by on the ground war correspondents, highlighting the need for Russian intervention, not dissimilar in the US’s initial coverage for justifying the Iraq War.  State media is also attempting to show that life in the service is a career to aspire to. Curiously, Russian media is making the intervention at times seem like a fashion montage. Much of the coverage of the conflict has been focused on highlighting the conditions of troops and the gear they sport. The aura of modernization with the new found professionalization paints the Russian military in a much more favorable light than years past, or at least this is the hope of the Kremlin. Indeed, this sentiment is neatly summed up in the news from last month, with state media newscasters describing the weather as ideal for bombing runs.

In addition to addressing its image problem, Russia is moving beyond “volunteers” and conscripts to actually create well trained, motivated soldiers for use in future conflicts. This is being done through “patriotic camps”, a very recent example appearing in Belarus. Instead of giving volunteers and others a one-way ticket to conflict zones, Moscow is now training young Russians in firearms, fieldcraft, and the “Russian World” concept. Another camp of this nature in Ukraine was well documented by Vice News. One of the instructors stated that “some of the children who we used to teach are now serving the army of Russian Federation. We are proud of our former pupils. Their military careers make us feel we do not live for nothing, we have a continuing generation.” This evidence clearly demonstrates that the hope of these camps is to supplement the Russian military with motivated professional soldiers, by targeting the potential soldiers at a young age. Unsurprisingly, a program that promotes national values, based on the Soviet Young Pioneer program, is being created in Russia.

By finally focusing on shaping a younger generation with a Russian world view, and fostering in them a commitment to the Russian military and state, the Kremlin is creating the basis for a well-motivated professional force. This could be the foundation for completely eliminating conscription in Russia, leading to a professional military of Western quality. Indeed, as state media continues to beat the drums of war and glamorizing the military life, the connection between these patriotic camps and foreign policy objectives is clear. Russia wants to remain a strong military power, and needs professional, motivated soldiers to do so.

Blake Franko is a researcher on geo-strategic issues in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia.

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