The Seeds of Russia's Military Collapse in Ukraine Were Planted by its Bungled Elimination of Conscription

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Ukrainian defence forces sign Ukrainian flags to residents in Kherson, southern Ukraine, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. The retaking of Kherson was one of Ukraine's biggest successes in the nearly nine months since Moscow's invasion.
Ukrainian defence forces sign Ukrainian flags to residents in Kherson, southern Ukraine, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. The retaking of Kherson was one of Ukraine's biggest successes in the nearly nine months since Moscow's invasion. (Bernat Armangue/AP Photo)

Larry Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a former assistant secretary of defense and retired Navy captain.

The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

In the spring of 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was invited to Moscow. As a former assistant secretary of defense who dealt with manpower issues in the 1980s, I was part of a four-person American delegation meeting with Russian military leaders to discuss why and how the United States transitioned successfully from a conscript or draft military to an all-volunteer force (AVF) after the war in Vietnam.

The advice I would give at that meeting, and the Russian failure to follow it, helped create the conditions that allowed Russia's forces to be overwhelmed by Ukrainian troops to the point of failure in its attempted conquest of its neighbor.

According to our military host at that 1992 meeting, the Russians were considering moving to an AVF because of the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the increasing unpopularity of conscription after their failure to achieve their objectives in Afghanistan.

I was fortunate to be joined on the trip by Professor Samuel Huntington, an international relations scholar and author of the classic work, "The Soldier and the State;" Jim Webb, who served as secretary of the Navy, was elected senator from Virginia and earned the Navy Cross and a Silver Star for heroism as a Marine officer in Vietnam; and retired Gen. Carl Vuono, Army chief of staff from 1987 to 1991 and a recipient of the Bronze Star with combat "V" for his service in Vietnam.

In addition to discussing our transition to the AVF, I also compared the inability of the Russian military in Afghanistan and U.S. military in Vietnam to achieve their nation's objectives even though both countries deployed significant numbers of troops and used massive amounts of firepower against smaller and less-equipped militaries. Over drinks at night, war veterans from both countries shared stories of their service in those wars. As just a naval flight officer in Vietnam, I could not match the heroic stories of Webb and Vuono, who had been involved in fierce ground combat.

In my formal presentation, I made six main observations. First, I pointed out that, even with a draft, many U.S. political and military elites, including several who became president, were able to avoid service in the war in Vietnam and paid no political price for it, even though the less fortunate or less well connected men who took their places sacrificed and suffered -- making up a block of the roughly 58,000 deaths, more than 150,000 wounded and 1,600 missing.

Second, trying to draft people to fight in an unnecessary and unpopular war of choice, as we did in Vietnam, would lead them to take other steps to avoid conscription, even if it meant leaving the country. For example, it is estimated that more than 200,000 men of draft age went abroad in the late '60s and early '70s to avoid serving in the war in Vietnam (most to Canada and Sweden).

Third, an AVF is a more effective military. The members not only want to serve, but they remain in the service longer than the draftees, most of whom served only two years compared to the volunteers who serve, on average, six years and receive more training than the draftees before their initial deployments.

Fourth, many military leaders will initially oppose ending the draft and relying on the marketplace. During my five years in the Pentagon handling personnel policy, many of them argued that it would not only raise personnel costs significantly but could lead to a mercenary ethos, with people joining for the money rather than serving or sacrificing for their country. Moreover, the transition is difficult. It took us about a decade, from the end of the draft, to develop the marketing skills necessary to attract and maintain qualified volunteers. Catch phrases from the U.S. military commercials evolved from "today's Army wants to join you," to "be all you can be."

Fifth, if a country pursues or engages in unnecessary or unwinnable wars of choice, it will have a difficult time attracting volunteers. Consequently, its leaders should be more careful about engaging in those conflicts, as President Ronald Reagan was by not attacking Iran after 241 US Marines were among those killed in Beirut in 1983.

Sixth, the United States' active-duty military force, while smaller than its conscript force because it is more expensive, is more capable and is backed up by a well-trained and organized reserve component that is ready to be deployed and carry out its mission effectively almost immediately. In other words, the United States has a Total Force of more than two million troops.

U.S. reserves are more capable because, for the most part, they are part of organized units that train at least 50 days per year and therefore are ready to carry out their missions as soon as they are activated. Many of them also routinely deploy around the globe for extended purposes.

When we left Moscow, I believed that I had made a good case for transitioning from a conscript force to an AVF, especially now that the Cold War was over. However, during the years following our visit, Russia went through a decade of economic and political turmoil, ending with the leadership transition from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin in 1999. It would have been difficult for the Russians to make the transition even if its military wanted to.

Moreover, the Russians not only maintained conscription but did not establish a Total Force. And they are paying the price for it. Their conscripted military is, for the most part, not fighting effectively in this war of choice in Ukraine, and its reserves do not belong to organized units and do not train. Consequently, when Putin conscripted the reserves, hundreds of thousands of these potential draftees fled the country, and those who were caught or did not leave were sent into battle with little or no training, even though many of them had been out of uniform for more than a decade. Many were quickly killed or wounded.

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