The annual message of President Vladimir Putin to the Federal Assembly read last Thursday did not neglect issues of military buildup in Russia, like in the previous years. For the first time during two years of his presidency Putin clearly showed to the legislative authorities and society what he wanted to do in the area of defense. His speech about this was not long and, according to experts, rather incomplete, given the abundance of problems in the Armed Forces. However, the mere fact of the naming of continuation of the military reform as one of the indisputable priorities for the country by Putin shows his intention to understand the really vital tasks of the state.

Putin actually touched on two problems, which had been discussed by society over the last few months. Putin emphasized the need for transition to professional Armed Forces simultaneously with reduction of conscripts’ active service period and proposed that legislators work on creation of decent social conditions for servicemen and members of their families.

Representatives of the rightist parties and movements raised these very demands on the eve of the announcement of the presidential message. The rightists organized a number of rallies all over the country demanding accelerated transition to manning of the Armed Forces on the contract basis and reduction of the period of active service for conscripts. In his message Putin clearly indicated that he heard the calls of the rightists. As though agreeing with the critique of the Rightist Union, saying that the military leadership is hindering reform of the Armed Forces, Putin emphasized that “the reform is necessary for society, but first of all for the Armed Forces themselves.”

Meanwhile, Putin hinted that there would be no haste in transition to the professional Armed Forces advocated by the rightists. Explaining his position, Putin stated that “it is impossible to implement a new system of troops manning and reduction of the conscript service period in a single year.” Along with this, Putin hinted that the Kremlin would not remain idle. He referred to the experiment that the Defense Ministry would start in some military units in 2002. According to Putin, this experiment “should test by practice the whole mechanism of transition of Armed Forces manning to the voluntary principle.” The President added that “as a result of the experiment it would be clear how soon we would be able to transit to a reduced period of conscript service.” At any rate, Putin stressed that he agreed with the rightists about the possibility of transition of conscript service to a “significantly shortened period.”

Attempting to sound objective, Putin skillfully voiced the opinion of not only the rightist opposition, but also the opinion and views of the Defense Ministry and General Staff with regard to transition to professional Armed Forces. He said, “It is impossible to drag this reform out, but it is also impossible to fuss about. We will work gradually, taking into account both the financial capabilities of the country and the interests of national security of the state.”

Speaking about the stages of transition to professional Armed Forces, Putin hinted that he was not going to increase the level of military spending higher than the level set for 2002 (2.6% of GDP) and would focus on financial capabilities of the country. Along with this, Putin stated in his message that “during establishment of Armed Forces of the new type, mobile and compact, it is necessary to create decent social conditions for servicemen and members of their families. Those who dedicated years of their lives to serving the Motherland and decided to retire from the Armed Forces should not remain without attention too.”

Estimates indicate that real substantial raising of money allowances for servicemen, for instance, by 100%, will require increase of the military budget by one-third. If there is no significant growth of the country’s GDP, such increase will take place on account of sequestration of other articles of the budget. Although issues of Armed Forces manning and social guarantees for officers and warrant officers are important for the state, they are not the highest priorities. Experience of developed European countries shows that effectiveness of national defense only partially depends on the methods of troops manning and the level of money allowances of servicemen.

The issues of rearmament, designing of new kinds of armament and their introduction in the Armed Forces, as well as skills of the personnel have always been the most important issues for military development. The war in Chechnya showed that conscripts can act and act more efficiently than contract servicemen. At any rate, nothing was said in the presidential message to the Federal Assembly about this and many other aspects influencing military development in Russia.

It was no accident that, commenting on the presidential message, many top-ranking military officials focused only on these aspects. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov commented on the words of the President about the military reform and said that he did not doubt that transition to professional Armed Forces would require a few years.

“The schedules that I outlined will be followed,” emphasized Ivanov.

However, he reiterated that there were several attempts to transfer the Armed Forces to a professional basis which were made in Russia, but they, according to the minister, “were not fully mathematically calculated” and finally failed. To prevent another failure of such attempts, security agencies of the country will organize an experiment for transfer of troops to contract manning.

The minister also says that it is necessary to create conditions in which there is selection of people for contract service, and not “recruiting of those who are at hand.” Ivanov considers creation of conditions for keeping of contract servicemen in service to be another important aspect in transition to contract service. According to Ivanov, one of the most important incentives for a contract serviceman is an opportunity to receive prestigious civil education when the contract expires. Hence, the minister recalled the experience of the Soviet times, when youths who had served in the Armed Forces received privileges during enrollment in prestigious civil higher education institutions.

Meanwhile, speaking about the tasks of military development, the minister emphasized the need for creation of balance among the social status of servicemen, their money allowances and the technical condition of the Armed Forces; “In such circumstances, the situation will be improved now, even given the current level of financing,” stressed Ivanov.

Former Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeev objects to his optimism. Being a presidential advisor for strategic stability issues, Sergeev says that the military reform requires thorough consideration and a carefully calculated approach. Sergeev agreed with the presidential opinion about reduction of the period of active service for conscripts. However, according to him, there is also a need for a scientifically justified program of rearming of the Armed Forces. “With our nonchalant approach, especially towards reduction of the branches and kinds of Armed Forces, problems of their rearmament remained neglected,” said Sergeev. According to him, “we already had a few unsuccessful attempts to reform the Armed Forces, the failures of which have been related to organizational and financial errors.” Among the priorities of the reform Sergeev also named improvement of intelligence, communications, strategic nuclear forces, as well as Space Forces. However, the most important thing in all reorganizations is “a carefully judged, well-considered approach and economic justification,” emphasized Sergeev. He mentioned the need for profound upgrading of the already available kinds of airplanes and naval armament.

Putin spoke about the need to rearm the Armed Forces frequently. He often visits the Defense Ministry and consults generals about directions of military development in Russia. At any rate, it is very interesting that in a program document, which the presidential message undoubtedly represents, many problems of the military reform remained as though neglected by the head of the state. Against the background of revolutionary plans of economic reforms voiced in the message, military issues look rather down to earth, although Putin emphasized their importance. We will learn the real intentions of the President in the near future and will be able to judge how his words correspond to reality.