By Nicholas McCarty
With a few exceptions, the military has rarely been seen as an attractive career for young Russians. Though Russia’s 12-month conscription laws certainly don’t match the 25-year bondage of 19th century tsarist armies, the draft has traditionally been avoided by most Russians since the army’s debacle in Afghanistan and the fall of the USSR. Yet this is beginning to change. Popular support for the Russian military (and conscription) has risen drastically in recent years. Since 2013 those calling the Russian military “completely trustworthy” has risen 43% to 69% in 2017. What is the cause of this? The answer lays in a combination of issues, ranging from cultural and political, but the less discussed aspect is the economic factor. Russia’s stagnating economy is making the guaranteed income and housing offered by the military significantly more attractive to Russia’s youth, fueling correlating expansion in private military companies (PMCs) and other paramilitary formations.
Economic trends have not been kind to the Russian Federation in recent years. After bumper years fueled by high oil and gas prices in the 2000s, Russian state budgets swelled and allowed expansions in both pensions and military budgets. But thanks to sanctions, declines in oil and natural gas prices, and unaddressed structural problems, Russia’s GDP contracted by nearly 3% from 2014-2015 and another .3% from 2015-2016. These decreases have hit the average Russian particularly hard, especially those outside of Moscow and Saint Petersburg (see Figure 2 for a visual look at internal migration of Russians, or here for in-depth numbers). Real wages declined by 9.3% in 2015, leading to rising poverty rates (up to 13.5% in 2016). Import substitution and the expansion of government services (along with reduced salaries and working hours) has negated the impact on nominal unemployment, but this only masks the real impact of the downturn on ordinary Russians.
According to the Levada Center, a large majority of Russians feel that they are in the midst of an economic crisis that will continue for at least another year (while 22% view the crisis as having “no end in sight”). These economic problems rank well above other issues, including the war in Ukraine, terrorism, and government transparency. It is these issues which have led young Russians to migrate (both internally and abroad), as well as look for alternative employment.
With these concerns in mind, the Russian government has set out on a deliberate policy designed to make military service more attractive. The components of this strategy range from the cultural to the economic. Even as the Russian state has been forced to shrink budgets in other areas, Russia has prioritized defense spending to either remain roughly the same or grow. In addition to clamping down on media stories depicting conscript hazing (the media firestorm around the issue peaked in 2013 but has since died down), the MoD has consistently raised salaries and other benefits by an average of 2.5-3 times since 2012, while military pensions have increased by 60-70%. This has raised the average salary of a contracted soldier (one who has stayed on past the initial first year of conscription) to 30,000 rubles per month, close to the 35,000 average wage for civilians and made more attractive by a multitude of bonuses and other benefits. Specialist soldiers stand to make even more (up to 73,000 rubles for senior NCOs), making the prospect of soldiering ever more enticing for a an increasingly poor Russian (and now migrant) population. These policies have had tangible effects, as recruitment levels finally begin to reach their nominal targets.
Russian private military companies (PMCs) offer even better packages for those who have been deployed. The Wagner Group, organized by Vladimir Uktin (a reservist officer of GRU Spetsnaz), employs over a thousand former Russian soldiers ranging in age from 21 to mid-50s. The group, which has been alleged to receive Kremlin funding (despite PMCs remaining technically illegal in Russia), reportedly offers its soldiers salaries ranging from 80,000 to 300,000 rubles per month as well as handsome insurance packages, well above the average Russian income. But these rewards have come with an added risk. Because they are not officially sanctioned by the MoD, the government may employ them in more dangerous situations without risk of political fallout. Men under PMCs have been used as “shock troops”, forming the first wave of assaults against ISIS positions in Syria while risking casualties or capture.
Russia watchers have noted for some years now the state’s careful cultivation of patriotic and pro-military propaganda, designed to restore public confidence in a defense complex that was once felt to be decayed beyond repair. These programs have ranged from military theme parks to the “militarization of the Russian consciousness” in Kaliningrad. The relatively easy seizure of Crimea has also contributed to better opinions of the military as well. But too often these watchers have left out the very real economic factors behind why Russians join the military. Regardless of propaganda, 41% of Russians now believe that service provides useful skills and experience, ranking well higher than patriotism. Beyond the skills, the above-mentioned reforms to the pay scales have made military service more attractive to the population at large. But research on the economic profile of Russian servicemen and women still remains sparse. If policymakers abroad want to understand the nature of the Russian armed forces now and for years to come, a greater appreciation for these factors must be considered.
Nicholas McCarty is a first year MA candidate in the Security Studies Program in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Concentrating on Russian and Eurasian security concerns, Nicholas wrote his undergraduate thesis on Soviet and Russian internal propaganda and memory while in Saint Petersburg, Russia. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2016.