BACKGROUND: On September 17, at a meeting with the public board of the Ministry of Defense, Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the Russian armed forces would drastically cut the number of army conscripts. Shoigu declined to announce the exact figures, but promised the cuts would be measured in “tens of thousands.” Despite the government's repeated promises of transition to a professional army, the Russian army is still based on a military conscription service that is mandatory for men aged 18 and older. Approximately 300,000 conscripts are drafted every year in two rounds, in spring and fall. The unpopularity of military service and the country's negative demographic trend result in a chronic understaffing of Russian military units. Over 200,000 potential conscripts evade military service through various loopholes. The modern Russian army has only 82 percent or about 800,000 of the military servicemen it needs, and the deficient number of conscripts is projected to plague the army in 2014 and the years to come. Hence, Russian strategists plan to increase the number of contracted soldiers, although financial constraints prevent the complete transition to a professional army any time soon.
As the Russian military faces steep challenges in finding enough servicemen, it leaves the reserves of the conscripts in the North Caucasus largely untapped. According to military planners, Chechnya alone can potentially provide 80,000 conscripts. According to some estimates, an additional 40,000 men could be drafted in Dagestan during a single military conscription campaign. Nevertheless, the military does not plan to draft any conscripts from Chechnya and the draft plan for Dagestan this fall is only 179 people. The conscripts from Dagestan will primarily be ethnic Russians, while ethnic Dagestanis will serve in the forces of the Ministry for Emergency Situations, which are not part of the Ministry of Defense. In comparison, until the government started to impose limits in 2009, Dagestan supplied 15,000-20,000 conscripts every year. The North Caucasians are also on average much more willing than ethnic Russians to join the army. This is partly an effect of the region's relative poverty and of the local traditional military culture. Thus, while many ethnic Russians seek to evade conscription, North Caucasians look for ways to be drafted to the army.
Limitations on the military draft from the North Caucasus started in Chechnya. The two wars that pitted Chechens against Russians made military draft among ethnic Chechens to the Russian army all but impossible. Some Chechens were still drafted, but they served in units under Ramzan Kadyrov’s control or the Russia's Interior Ministry in Chechnya. In the 2000s, the Russian command attempted to draft Chechens to the Russian military several times to demonstrate that the hostilities in Chechnya were over, but all these attempts failed. In 2009, the policy of rejecting Chechen conscripts was unexpectedly expanded to other republics of the North Caucasus, most profoundly to Dagestan and Ingushetia, and later to North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygea.
IMPLICATIONS: There are different reasons for the cease of military recruitment in the North Caucasus. Since the region is rife with insurgency-related violence, the Russian government is concerned about the effects of military instruction provided to soldiers from the North Caucasus. After receiving military training in the Russian army, the conscripts might defect to the insurgents and fight the Russian army using skills they have acquired from the army itself. However, the restrictions were imposed not only on Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria, which all feature persistent insurgency movements, but also on relatively quiet regions such as North Ossetia. Another important explanation for the Russian government’s reluctance to draft young North Caucasians is the widespread hazing problem in the Russian army. Ethnic Russians and North Caucasians constantly clash in the army and hazing scandals regularly shook the military until draft from the North Caucasus was constrained.
Russian and previously Soviet military draft was based on the extraterritorial principle, so that conscripts from different ethnic groups and locations would mix. For many young men, this was their first opportunity to learn about other ethnic groups through personal interaction. However, the political and military battles in the country appear to have changed the Russian army's status as a “melting pot.” Some sources in the Russian military point out that the problem is not only about the insurgency warfare and hazing problems in the army.
According to a source in the Ministry of Defense, quoted by Nezavisimaya Gazeta on October 2, multiethnic military units where North Caucasians would serve alongside people from central Russia (i.e. ethnic Russians) have fallen out of favor with the Russian military command. The Ministry of Defense official claims that “This rule [to exclusion of North Caucasians] is tacitly enforced not only in the lower level military units, but also at the level of the central command of the Ministry of Defense, where there are almost no officers from Dagestan and Chechnya ... Monoethnic, primarily Slavic military units, is a road to nowhere. This gives the [North] Caucasians a reason to regard such units in their homeland as occupation forces.” Nezavisimaya Gazeta's source in the military preferred to remain anonymous, which in itself indicates how unpopular such inclusive views have become in the Russian army.
Polls repeatedly show that the dislike for North Caucasians among ethnic Russians exceeds anti-Semitism and dislike for other ethnic groups. The de facto exclusion of North Caucasians from military service further contributes to fragmentation between ethnic groups in Russia and ultimately of the country itself. Even if the ethnic groups in question cause many hazing incidents, the inability of the officer corps to tackle the problem of creating a unified army indicates that the Russian state is largely unwilling or unable to integrate non-Russians. The new policy will have broad consequences in the North Caucasus and will increasingly alienate the Russian military forces from the local population, with the risk of the civil conflict in the region increasingly resembling an old-fashioned colonial war between the Russian central state and the ethnically divergent periphery.
CONCLUSIONS: The Russian government's imposition of constraints on drafting conscripts to the military from the North Caucasus will likely reduce Moscow's ability to retain control over restive region. The Russian state's internal crisis appears to preclude it from accommodating the interests of ethnic non-Russians and successfully co-opting their elites. This trend is contributing to a widening gap between ethnic Russians and North Caucasians as both groups have fewer real life opportunities to engage in various interactions. The decision to limit military draft among North Caucasians is also consistent with the general rise of Russian nationalism in ethnically Russian regions and is part of the general tendency to separate the North Caucasus from Russia, but retain control over it. This approach strikingly resembles an attempt to turn the region into de-facto colony of Russia.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.