The Russian military will rely increasingly on volunteer soldiers and sharply reduce the number of draftees, President Dmitry Medvedev said Friday.
He said the conscripts' share will be brought down to 10-20 percent in the next five to seven years, with volunteers accounting for the rest. The pledge to reduce Russia's unpopular draft appears to be part of campaigning for Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, in which Medvedev leads the list of the ruling United Russia party, now that he has decided not to run for re-election so that Vladimir Putin can replace him as president.
Medvedev's statement also reflects demographical problems that have made it increasingly difficult for the military to get enough draftees. Due to a population decline, the number of Russian men eligible for the draft has dropped, and most avoid it by signing up for college, being excused for health reasons or simply paying bribes.
It wasn't immediately clear whether Medvedev was referring to the entire 1-million member military that includes about 220,000 officers, or was talking only about the enlisted men.
The military has been coy about the current exact number of volunteer soldiers and conscripts, but media reports put the number of volunteers among the enlisted men at about 100,000.
Medvedev's pledge followed a statement by Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, who acknowledged last week that the military was struggling to fill the ranks and was aiming to eventually form an all-volunteer army. He didn't mention a specific time frame.
The president's comment also marked a sharp change of course for the top military brass who previously insisted that Russia needs to maintain the highly unpopular draft because an all-volunteer military would be too costly.
Liberal politicians and military analysts have long urged the Kremlin to abolish the draft, which has been extremely unpopular due to the poor conditions and high crime rates within the ranks, particularly the vicious bullying of young conscripts by older soldiers.
The government already has launched a sweeping military reform intended to trim the military and turn it into a more modern force. It also has promised to more than double officers' wages starting Jan. 1 and similarly increase salaries for volunteer soldiers.