BACKGROUND: A recent announcement by Russia’s Ministry of Defense to draft some 500 conscripts from Chechnya and over 2,000 from Dagestan constitutes a complete reversal of Russia’s unwillingness to draft into military service residents of the North Caucasian republics, affected by the ongoing Islamist insurgency. The first and last large-scale military draft in Chechnya was conducted in 1992. The start of the First Chechen war in 1994 and a two-decade-long armed conflict that engulfed this republic prevented recruitment in Chechnya to the Russian army. A failed attempt to reintroduce the draft in Chechnya was made in 2001, in the midst of Russia’s second military campaign in Chechnya.
A small number of Chechen conscripts are annually recruited to serve in local Chechen military units attached to the Ministry of Interior, known as kadyrovtsy owing to their loyalty and direct subordination to Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. As reported by a representative of Chechnya’s central military recruitment office (voenkomat), 100 young men were drafted last year to serve in the Sever (North) battalion based in Chechnya. However, the draft starting on October 1 and continuing until the end of December is the first attempt to draft large numbers of Chechen conscripts.
In Dagestan – a hotbed of Islamist separatist insurgency in the North Caucasus – the compulsory military draft was never formally cancelled. A senior member of Dagestan’s military commissariat told the Caucasus Knot the claim that residents of Dagestan are not covered by the compulsory military draft is obnoxious and “far from reality.” Indeed, thousands of native Dagestanis were annually drafted into the Russian army since the breakup of the USSR. However, the growth of insurgency related violence in the mid-2000s, increasing chauvinist sentiments within the Russian army and a rise in cases of hazing involving Dagestani recruits, resulted in gradually reduced numbers of Dagestanis in the Russian army. By 2010, less than 500 draftees – a markedly low figure for a republic with a population of over 3 million – were recruited. Many of these recruits were either ethnic Russians or sons of Dagestan’s ruling elites.
Analysts have ascribed the unwillingness to draft North Caucasians into the Russian army to fears that military experience gained during military service might be used against Russian authorities if former soldiers decide to join insurgent ranks. Hazing and frequent violent confrontations between conscripts from the North Caucasus and ethnic Russians was also presented as a key reason. While the risk of supplying the insurgency with experienced soldiers is largely an assumption – the training in conventional combat provided by the Russian army would be of little use in insurgent guerilla warfare – hazing, insubordination and other problems connected with North Caucasian recruits are more likely reasons for the informal cancellation of compulsory draft in parts of the North Caucasus.
IMPLICATIONS: Analysts have suggested that the reintroduction of large-scale compulsory military draft to Chechnya and Dagestan is directly related to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and the decreasing numbers of ethnic Russian conscripts, largely owing to the low birth rates among Russians in the past two decades. Numerous reports have surfaced about Russia’s deployment of combatants from the North Caucasus in Eastern Ukraine. Chechens, but also natives of Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Dagestan are present among the pro-Russian separatists of Eastern Ukraine. However, reports of mass desertion, looting, and a lack of discipline among militants of North Caucasian origin put into question their military effectiveness. Their deployment failed to stop the Ukrainian army offensive in May 2014 and the ensuing takeover of separatist headquarters in Slovyansk, as well as the near collapse of pro-Russian forces in and around Donetsk.
Besides, it is unlikely that the total of 4,100 recruits from the North Caucasus to be drafted this year will significantly boost the numerical advantage of the Russian army, which annually recruits 300,000 men and is projected to draft over 154,000 conscripts from across the Russian Federation this fall. As stated by senior members of Chechnya’s military commissariat, Chechnya currently has about 80,000 men of conscription age, while the corresponding number in Dagestan is over 200,000, making this fall draft largely symbolic. Owing to high unemployment rates in the North Caucasus and popular perceptions of army service as prestigious and honorable, service in the Russian army is highly attractive and the numbers of young men willing to serve are significantly higher than those allocated by the quota.
While the recruitment of a limited number of North Caucasians is unlikely to boost the performance of Russian-controlled military units in Eastern Ukraine or help solve the problem of decreasing numbers of conscripts, it will likely exacerbate hazing and the lack of discipline in military units. The unofficial abolition of conscription in Dagestan in the 2000s was accompanied by Russian media reports of numerous cases of hazing, harassment, extortion, insubordination and other criminal activities conducted en masse by Dagestani natives serving in Russian army. In 2010, 100 Dagestani natives serving at a military base in Perm were accused of “terrorizing” the entire base, including its commanders. The colonel in charge of the base said soldiers from Dagestan formed “military sub-units” within the base and hazed fellow ethnic Russian soldiers – forcing them to perform all the “‘dirty” work and extorting money.
However, the issue of North Caucasians hazing ethnic Russians is engrained in contemporary problems of ethno-nationalism and chauvinism in Russian society. Inherent inter-ethnic and inter-cultural problems in the Russian army, which create and sustain an environment of mutual hatred between ethnic Russian and non-Slavic recruits reflect the general dislike and distrust between ethnic groups in Russian society. The results of a September 2014 public opinion poll conducted by Levada Center, showing that over 40 percent of its respondents felt animosity towards Caucasians. In this context, the marginalization and harassment of North Caucasian recruits – often resulting in the formation of “hazing” groups composed only of non-Slavic conscripts – in the Russian army is inevitable.
Furthermore, interviews carried out by the Caucasian Knot in Chechnya in late October on the issue of reintroduced conscription yielded mixed results. While some young people were eager to serve in the Russian army, older respondents were concerned that their sons might be hazed by ethnic Russian officers who previously served in Chechnya and have negative attitudes towards Caucasians. Many of the interviewed parents announced that they will do anything possible to prevent their sons from being drafted.
In this context, the benefits of reintroducing the draft in Chechnya, and doubling it in Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria, are questionable. Yet the draft may have a far more practical explanation than the need to employ North Caucasian fighters in Russia’s military theaters. The Russian parliament passed a federal law preventing male applicants without a military service record from applying for government jobs on January 1 2014. Given that the majority of North Caucasian males, particularly in Chechnya and Dagestan, were barred from serving in the army, they have become ineligible for government work. In total, over 7,300 residents of the North Caucasus are expected to be drafted this fall. This is figure exceeds the spring 2014 draft of 1,190 people.
CONCLUSIONS: The recent move by the Russian Ministry of Defense to allow small numbers of the region’s natives to serve in Russian army is not motivated by a need to boost the fighting capacity of the Russian army with “warlike highlanders” from the North Caucasus. Rather, it is dictated by a need to secure enough human resources to staff local government jobs. Given the lack of interest among Russian public servants to work in the North Caucasus – primarily owing to the lack of human security and salaries lower than in “mainland” Russia – it is crucial for Russian authorities in the North Caucasus to have a sufficient number of local residents eligible to take government jobs. However, the number of North Caucasian recruits to the Russian army will unlikely increase significantly beyond the current quota; the highly competitive and limited number of government jobs in the North Caucasus are distributed selectively to influential individuals from among local elites “loyal” to the Kremlin.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Huseyn Aliyev holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Post-Communist Civil Society and the Soviet Legacy (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming in 2015) and The Individual Disengagement of Avengers, Nationalists, and Jihadists, co-authored with Emil Souleimanov (Palgrave Pivot, 2014).
(Image Attribution: Kadyrovtsy3, via Wikimedia Commons)