8 October 2020
Sergei Krivenko, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and co-ordinator of the “Citizen and Army” public initiative, in conversation with Igor Bukker, explains how coronavirus will affect the spring and autumn drafts, what grounds for deferment there are, and whether the Russian army can fully transition to a contract basis.
The Army is for the Healthy
How does the autumnal draft work in the context of coronavirus?
It has only just started, so it’s too early to draw meaningful conclusions. But we can look at the spring draft, during which the military took the epidemic into account. They delayed the start of the spring call-up by a month. By law, in Russia it begins on 1st April and continues until 15th July. But local military conscription commissions in each region can conscript at any time. The draft in spring of 2020 began at the beginning of May and continued until the middle of July, by which time they had the necessary number, having organised epidemiological measures.
In the military conscription commissions, they tried to reduce the load of call-ups – they made the schedule clearer and they disinfected. Reinforcements were placed into quarantine for two weeks and then integrated into the army. But the main danger is in the fact that conscription commissions call in many times more people than just those entering the army – young people need to be re-registered or given deferrals. In Moscow, 6,000 people join the army, but between 40-50,000 are called up. Young people coming to the recruitment office can catch COVID-19 and take it home to their families. There have been COVID-19 infections in the army, but as the military sphere has been quite closed for the past few years, there’s no objective information about this available.
So who isn’t getting called-up to the military in the spring and autumn drafts?
That’s not how it works here. There’s a law in Russia about military conscription, the main part of which was passed in 1998 when there were democratic groups of deputies in the Duma. It contains all grounds for deferral, the procedure of drafting, and a powerful instrument for the protection of conscripts’ rights. If a young person disagrees with the decision of the local conscription commission, he has the right to complain to a higher commision in the region or go to court. For that time, all conscriptions are suspended. There are three grounds for deferral: social, educational, and other, such as parental relations, for example. There has been a law about alternative civil service since 1994 – any young person has the right to civil rather than military service, for philosophical, pacifist or religious reasons.
What about young people who have had COVID-19?
There’s little information on this. Anyone who’s been ill is probably deferred – the army only conscripts those who are in good health. In Russia there’s a list of illnesses which cancel conscription. The standards for health are much higher for the army than for civil service.
Men with severe flat feet are not conscripted into the army. In civilian life, a man with flat feet lives his life. He can wear orthopaedic shoes and sit down on a bench when he is tired. But he is unfit for the army, because it puts a lot of physical stress on the feet.
Where can you go for advice if you have a question about the autumn draft?
There is a lot of information online: brochures on the rights of conscripts, a list of illnesses with comments. There are human rights organisations that provide free advice. There are lawyers and military legal centres that provide paid advice. There is the military prosecutor’s office, which oversees the military conscription centres and to where complaints should be addressed. And each region has a higher draft board.
The humanisation of military service
Are conscripts mostly serving in their own region now? Or are they serving in different places, as before?
They really did used to be sent all over the country. There was a military reform towards the end of 2008–2012, when Serdiukov was defence minister (many had mixed feelings about him). One of its essential features was the humanisation of military service:
- reducing the period of service from two years to one;
- deciding that a conscript should serve in his own region. But it is the military conscription centre that decides. So, a conscript from the Urals could also serve in Western Siberia;
- changing the nature of compulsory military service: now, contracts are used.
Soldiers are called up to acquire a specialism, personal skills. And the boys who continue their contracts are recruited. Compulsory military service is not the backbone of the army as it was in the Soviet Union. It has become secondary to contracts.
Little by little, the army is continuing to switch to a contract-based system. Every year, there are fewer young men conscripted into military service.
But it was recently reported that the Russian army is not yet in a position to switch to a contract system completely.
Experts have been debating this for twenty years already. According to a number of experts, the army could have switched a long time ago. It has the money; it just needs to do it. A federally-funded programme was approved in 2004 to switch to a contract-based system, then it was extended. The Ministry of Defence and other agencies were allocated additional funds by the government. But the Ministry of Defence was unable to switch to a contract-based system so quickly. Some agencies were able to. Border troops have switched completely to a contract-based system, but they are under the command of the FSB.
The Ministry of Defence is delaying the process. It failed to set up recruitment centres separate from compulsory conscription or work with contract soldiers in the early stages, so the draft became the main supply chain for contract soldiers, and the Ministry of Defence is unwilling to give that up.