Small Wars Journal

Putin’s Problematic Conscription and Possible Ramifications

Thu, 07/21/2022 - 10:47am

Putin’s Problematic Conscription and Possible Ramifications

By Connor L. Mitchell

February 24, 2022 marked the date in which Russian foreign affairs nullified their own prior diplomatic legitimacy on the international stage. Vladimir Putin’s “Special Military Operation,” a façade for an illegal invasion of a sovereign country, dramatically reversed Russia’s prior claims that any suggestion of a Russian military excursion into Ukraine was “Western Propaganda.”

            In addition to the destruction of Russian diplomacy, the Russian invasion of Ukraine marked a strategic uniquity within international military affairs: the use of conscripts in offensive operations. Globally, while the practice of mandatory military service is still in use, many countries that practice conscription tend to do so if near a probable aggressor state. For instance, South Korea, Taiwan, Israel, and Finland all maintain laws that require military service among the male population. But states who utilize mandatory service typically focus on internal defense, which reflects the defensive nature of hypothetical conflict should their country be drawn into war with an expansionist neighbor. Therefore, the peculiarity of Russia’s mandatory military service is that its conscript force is being used to wage offensive warfare.

            The armed forces of the Russian Federation, and their reliance on conscripts, is an increasingly unsustainable position for continued offensives in Ukraine. The defeat of conscripts offensively in warfare has historically led to regime change. To mitigate the threat of regime change, The Russian leadership, whether knowingly or not, has placed problematic methods for conscription that ultimately alienate ethnic minorities and those impoverished to uphold ethnic Russian support for Kremlin regime and their illegal invasion of Ukraine.  

            Russian conscripts, who are told by their government that their service will not be in Ukraine, are finding themselves increasingly deliberately misinformed and lied to in order to circumvent the Russian government’s public stance. Ultimately, Russian conscripts are indeed being deployed in Ukraine despite the misinformation published by the Kremlin. In fact, Russian conscription has been expanded to include fighting aged men in the occupied Donbass territories of Ukraine.  

            The Russian military currently finds itself in a historical congruence with the Argentinian military of the 1982 Falklands War. Scholar Ronald Schepel contends that “the Argentinean forces were physically unprepared for war. The structure of the Argentinean armed forces relied on draft conscripts for one year. A time frame of one year was too short to train men to meet the professional skills of the British forces.” Nevertheless, this approach has come under scrutiny by political scientist Alejandro L. Corbacho. Regardless of the actual performance of the Argentinian conscripts, their use in the Falklands War shifted conscription from the military realm into the political realm. The unfortunate and inevitable truth in any armed conflict is that people will die, regardless of nationality, uniform, or time spent training, and the Argentinian conscripts were killed, wounded, maimed, and even abused by their superior officers all to be defeated by the British military over a small island in the South Atlantic. The Argentinian military defeat in the Falklands War translated to political defeat for the Argentine military junta who ran the country from 1976. Prior to the beginning of the Falklands War, the Argentine military junta fought the “Dirty War” which saw right-wing death squads roaming the country and summarily executing dissidents and opponents to the total rule of the junta. Although the junta violently cracked down on opposition elements within Argentina, the members of the junta inevitably ostracized parts of Argentinian society that supported the junta or were indifferent to their rule by using conscripts from these indifferent groups in their botched defense of the islands. The number of dead and wounded Argentinian conscripts increased animosity between the junta and members of Argentinian society that were untouched by the Dirty War. Eventually, those opposed to the junta were so widespread that the country was forced to democratize, leading to a free election for president in 1983.  

            While this Argentinian anecdote provides an optimistic outlook for Russia and its autocratic leadership, the Russian Federation has further complications along ethnic lines. Despite Soviet and Russian propaganda, a RAND report from 1983 disclosed that racism in the Soviet military was widespread and rampant, elaborating that non-Russian, non-Slavic individuals were the targets of violence by their Russian and Slavic counterparts in the military. The historic fraternal violence within the Russian military continues to this day in the form of “Dedovshchina,” “Hazing” in Russian. In fact, Russian military hazing and abuse is so harsh that it directly led to a twenty-year-old conscript gunning down eight compatriots in 2019 after a particularly savage hazing episode.

Institutional violence and abuse within the military may be specific to the training of the Russian armed forces, yet the Russian military deliberately targets ethnic minorities for contract extensions for further military time. In fact, many ethnic Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tatars, Ossetians, Kyrgyz, and Chechens have been forced to fight in Ukraine at disproportionate numbers to ethnic Russian Slavs. By utilizing conscripts and contract soldiers from regions like Dagestan in the Caucasus or Buryatia in Siberia, alongside seeking Libyan and Syrian mercenaries, the Russian government is sparing the ethnic Russian population from the actual cost of Putin’s irredentist ideals. For example, an April 26 article written by Adam Charles Lenton reveals that out of the deflated official Russian casualty figures, “There was not a single officially reported death from Moscow, a city of at least 13 million people, while 93 deaths come from Dagestan alone. Buryatia has the next largest number of fatalities, at 52.” Lenton’s article includes a table that displays the top ten regions of the Russian Federation who had suffered the most Killed-In-Action in proportion to 100,000 people native to the region. The table reveals that a majority of soldiers killed for Putin’s invasion are indeed not ethnically Russian and come from rather impoverished non-Slavic regions, a conclusion that the BBC Russian Service coincided with.

Sanctions, however, can bypass the Kremlin’s insular protection of ethnic Russians from the death and destruction of war. In response to the first wave of international sanctions and condemnation when Russia’s invasion began, Russians with the means to, fled by the hundreds of thousands. The emigration of Russians continues as the war drags on. Many of the ethnic Russians who fled Putin’s regime made up an educated class of intellectuals, thus resulting in the creation of a “Brain Drain” by which those who remain within the Russian Federation are lower-class individuals who lack higher education. This Brain Drain can help better understand the seemingly large support of Putin’s aggression, as those remaining in Russia are more susceptible to the propagandized state media.

Ultimately, the Russian military began recruitment drives in ethnic Russian regions, which signals that the armed forces are having issues with manpower and reserves. The Kremlin even called for volunteer battalions from each of their “Federal Subjects” thereby calling upon everyone, including previously spared ethnic Russians, to contribute to the war effort. This move reveals that the Russian invasion in Ukraine is not sustainable as weapons from the West make their way into Ukrainian hands and continue to chip away at the Russian soldiery. The inevitability of dead Russian conscripts will not bode well for the Kremlin’s top autocrat. Historically, Russian military defeats have typically resulted in popular challenges to the ruling Russian class. In fact, vast reforms, societal change, and civil war, followed the Russian defeats in the Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War, and the First World War respectively. As such, Russian conscription practices are setting up a problematic domestic environment that the Kremlin cannot sustain in the long term.       

About the Author(s)

Connor Mitchell is a recent graduate of American University's College of Arts and Sciences with an M.A. in History. He received a Political Science degree from American University's School of Public Affairs in 2021. His research focuses include the strategic and tactical history of the Cold War including the Korean and Vietnam Wars in addition to the doctrinal history of the Army and Navy. He has previously interned at the US Army War College and the American Battlefield Trus