Russian Promises of Higher Troop Pay May Create Problems for Military

  • The Kremlin has promised high pay to Russians who perform military service in Ukraine.
  • But there are already reports of Russian troops not getting paid on time or at all.
  • Anger over pay issues could worsen the already poor morale among Russian troops in Ukraine.

Hoping to mollify citizens thrown into a less than popular war, Russia has boosted pay for recent draftees. But this is creating other problems.

Not only are personnel costs devouring one-third of the defense budget, but in some cases, newly conscripted troops are being paid more than combat-experienced officers, including the ones training them.

“In all my military service, I have never seen ordinary soldiers get more than the officers who command them,” Yuri Netkachev, a retired lieutenant general, told Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

The 300,000 draftees called up last year in the “partial mobilization” announced by President Vladimir Putin have been promised monthly pay of up to 200,000 rubles, or $2,430 at current exchange rates. That’s bountiful compared to the 2,000 rubles, or $24, a month that conscripts earned in 2020 and the 62,000 rubles, or $757, a month paid to volunteer contract soldiers that year.

There are also signing bonuses for volunteers. (The Kremlin is promising cash for other accomplishments in Ukraine, like destroying enemy tanks.)

Russian military conscription soldiers troops Grozny Chechnya

Conscripts at a Russian military conscription office in Grozny in November 2014.

AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev

But an ordinary motorized infantry officer today will only receive a monthly minimum of 195,000 rubles, or about $2,370, with even a platoon commander only earning about 225,000 rubles, or $2,740, Ministry of Defense officials told Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

And officers receive their full pay only if they spend the entire month in enemy territory, said Andrey Poleshchuk, chairman of the All-Russian Trade Union of Military Personnel, according to the Russian outlet.

Netkachev said mobilized troops are being trained by officers who “as a rule” have combat experience. “But it turns out that these experienced warriors, who train ‘green soldiers’ called up from the civilians, to whom the state has already pocketed 200,000 rubles, receive several times less,” Netkachev said, according to a translation by the US Defense Department’s Foreign Military Studies Office.

The conscripts’ new salaries compare favorably with US military compensation. A US Army private earns a base pay of around $2,000 a month, while a newly minted second lieutenant gets almost $3,700, not counting any bonuses or allowances. And the cost of living in the US is far higher (though Russia’s economic outlook is dour).

Russian soldier military conscripts

A Russian soldier instructs conscripts at a recruiting station in the city of Tambov in June 2014.

Lev Vlasov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

On the other hand, life in the Russian military is no picnic. Barracks are decrepit, the food is poor, and hazing of new conscripts — the notorious “dedovshchina” — is brutal and sometimes deadly. There are also complaints that soldiers are not receiving the money they were promised. Even the families of Wagner Group mercenaries killed in action are not getting the promised compensation – unless they can show the body.

Nonetheless, military pay looks generous compared to the civilian sector, where the average monthly wage is 63,000 rubles, or $770. While almost a million Russians, especially the affluent and the educated, have fled abroad to avoid conscription, military life may seem attractive to those from poorer, rural areas like Siberia, which have seen high casualties in Ukraine, and to impoverished ethnic minorities. (The US military faces the opposite problem, with a tight civilian labor market driving a recruitment crisis.)

Not that the Kremlin is motivated by generosity. What was supposed to be a quick, easy invasion of Ukraine has become a bloody stalemate where poorly trained soldiers are sent into battle with tanks from the 1950s. Despite government propaganda and appeals to patriotism, many Russians feel apathetic at best about the war.

In the long run, the question is whether the Russian economy — already hurting from Western sanctions — can afford the weapons needed to replace the thousands of armored vehicles, artillery pieces, and other weapons lost in Ukraine while paying the 1.5 million troops that Moscow wants in uniform.

Russian army military recruitment conscription

Volunteers operate a mobile army recruitment spot in Moscow on April 13.

Vlad Karkov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

At present, personnel costs will devour at least 30% of planned defense spending, whereas previously the share of defense spending on military salaries wasn’t more than 12% to 15%, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

“If we take into account similar expenses for more than a million military personnel of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, then at least 1.5 trillion rubles [$18.2 billion] will be spent on the payment of monetary allowances per year,” the article said. “That is, almost every third ruble planned in the expenditure side of the budget for national defense in 2023.”

However, cutting military pay – or failing to pay salaries and bonuses – would be a risky move. Disputes over pay are a common cause of turmoil in the ranks. African militaries have seen mutinies over pay in recent years, and American veterans of World War I – the “Bonus Army” — marched on Washington in 1932 to demand money owed to them.

A coup by disgruntled Russian soldiers isn’t likely, but for an army facing low morale and heavy losses, appeasing conscripts with extra pay could backfire if the government doesn’t keep its promises.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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