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Recalcitrant conscripts are the weak link in the Russian army

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Hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing military conscription reveal a weak point in Russia‘s armor-an army that refuses to fight.

At the end of September, Vladimir Putin ordered the conscription of 300,000 young Russians men to fight in Ukrainian War. Since then, Russians have flocked to Georgia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia to avoid conscription. The Georgian capital, Tbilisi, had already reported the arrival of 40,000 Russians a few days after the mobilization. In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, the Russians are very visible. According to local sources, some Russian engineers have found work in the mines. Many young Russians also apply to universities to stay in the country as students. There are also Russians in the streets playing music or begging.

The fact that Ukraine, a country a fraction of the size of Russia, could resist a Russian invasion for so long has already raised doubts about the might of the Russian military. For the United States, this consideration goes back to the end of the Second World War and the Cold War. Currently, national security analysts consider Russia and China be the two greatest threats to the United States. As tensions with the two nations rise, comparisons of military strength are underway.

The United States ranks first in the world in firepower and Russia ranks second. However, Russia has a larger army with between 1 and 2.2 million soldiers while the United States has 1.4 million. The main difference between the two armies is that the US military is made up of professional soldiers who have volunteered and sworn to fight for their country. About 25 percent of Russian armed forces are conscripts drawn largely from ethnic minorities, non-Eastern Orthodox and poorer regions of Russia. These soldiers may not wish to kill or die for a government that has kept them as second-class citizens.

A U.S. Army recruit aims his rifle during urban warfare training at Fort Benning, Georgia, January 26, 2011. (Mathieu Rabechault/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia is much poorer than the United States in general and with unevenly distributed wealth, the majority of the population enjoys a standard of living comparable to that of a developing country. Ethnic minority and rural areas, where most soldiers are recruited, are by far the poorest. This inequality could provoke the resentment of the Muscovite elite who control the fate of the peasants.

In Soviet times, drafts were more egalitarian. All men would be conscripted for a limited time to receive basic military training. Thereafter, they would be periodically called, assembled, or activated for further training or action. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia began to build a hybrid system combining conscription and voluntary military service. This system is still in place today. Although the old guard was against having a well-paid professional army, Russia’s experience since World War II has shown conscripts to be ineffective in fighting a war. By 2015, the number of professional troops holding cantonments of warrant officers, non-commissioned officers or privates had reached 300,000, the highest in history to date (pdf). Within the army, professional contract units are separated from conscript units and there is little contact between them.

Russia, like the former Soviet Union, still requires students to undergo patriotic training so that even incoming conscripts have basic military training and first aid. Conscripts are sorted by physical, athletic, and linguistic abilities and then assigned to airborne, signal, or other suitable jobs. In 2013, Russia also formed a scientific unit in which highly qualified or intelligent recruits work in the fields of technology and research. This has implications for American cybersecurity.

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Russian army soldiers march during an action in support of soldiers involved in the military operation in Ukraine, at the Mamaev Kurgan, a World War II memorial in Volgograd, Russia, July 11, 2022. (Alexandr Kulikov/AP Photo)

Some of these units fighting in Ukraine today are made up of around 50% conscripts. In general, the massive conscription of troops for the Ukrainian war meets resistance and protests. Normally, Russia would recruit from rural areas, but the rural population is increasingly ethnically non-Russian and less likely to agree to fight for Putin. Violent protests broke out in the Muslim-majority republic of Dagestan against the project. More than 100 Dagestanis were arrested.

Ethnic and religious minorities are already subject to repression in Russia. Due to laws favoring the Russian/Slavic ethnic group and those who follow the Eastern Orthodox religion, 136 of the ethnic languages ​​are on the verge of extinction. The unequal distribution of wealth across the country has resulted in poverty for most Russians in rural areas and areas mainly inhabited by ethnic minorities. The regions from which the conscripts mainly come have high unemployment rates. In 2021, Ingushetia had an unemployment rate of 30.9%. The unemployment rate in the Republic of Dagestan was 15.1%, 15% in Tuva, 14.5% in Chechnya, 13.4% in North Ossetia-Alania, 12.3% in Karachay- Cherkess and 12% in Altai. Rates have not improved this year.

During its forced conscription of soldiers for the Ukrainian war, Russia particularly targeted the Mongols of Buryatia, as well as other ethnic minorities, to be sent to the front. The regions that suffered the most losses are the republics of Dagestan and Buryatia, Krasnodar Krai, Bashkortostan and Volgograd Oblast, which are also areas with a disproportionately high percentage of ethnic people. By some accountsup to 40% of the victims were non-Slavs.

The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Epoch Times.

Antonio Graffo

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Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D., Chinese economic analyst, has spent over 20 years in Asia, graduated from Shanghai Sport University, holds an MBA China from Shanghai Jiaotong University, currently studying national defense at the American Military University. He is the author of “Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion”.