The political officer – “zampolit” – will return to the Russian military by the end of the year. That was announced last week in Izvestia. The zampolits will have a range of tasks related to morale and political homogenization of the units.
The step is not surprising. Russia has long worked to tighten the control with the soldiers’ exposure to unfavorable viewpoints. Back in February, they introduced strict guidelines about access to social media, and in May they restricted telephone use to high-ranking officers. In July, president Putin ordered the formation of a military-political directorate in the Defense Ministry to boost morale. The step to reintroduce political officers is an initiative by the new political directorate, which is set to be fully up and running before 1 December 2018.
I have a few thoughts about this. I think we shouldn’t overestimate the significance of this particular step of reintroducing zampolits. I also think that the long-term effects will be harmful for the Russian military. But before I get to that, I will quickly summarize what the zampolits are supposed to do.
They will be quite high-ranking officers who will report directly to the commander. Each regiment, battalion, company, echelon, garrison, and major warship1 will have a one. They will be responsible for the patriotic spirit among the soldiers and their support for the security politics of the government. The zampolits must keep close attention to the moral, political, and psychological conditions in the unit and report to the commander if there is reason for concern. They will arrange political sessions, curate news bulletins, and explain the president’s recent decisions to the soldiers.
At the smaller unit levels, the zampolit will be closer to the soldiers. He must know the political and military qualities of all officers and non-commissioned officers. He will also participate in the selection of personnel for different units, where he is responsible for the evaluation of psychological compatibility, religiosity, and attitudes toward the service. At the company level, the zampolit will be responsible for the organization of politically acceptable leisure activities and the adherence to good discipline. This does not limit itself to matters of politics, but also discipline and good behavior in general. Finally, the zampolit is the person who listens to wishes that the soldiers may bring forward, and he helps them maintain communications with their families (no doubt properly censored).
Frankly, all this sounds terrible. The picture of a thoroughly brainwashed Russian military force comes to mind easily. But in reality, it is not a big step. Many of these functions exist already in the Russian military, and the zampolits will not be new persons in the structure. Rather, it is a restructuring of the work already conducted by so-called “commanders on educational work”. There is a significant new political angle to the work, where the old job description focused on discipline in general and mental fitness for battle. But Russian soldiers are used to having commanders around who pry into their personal matters, and it’s not like political conviction didn’t matter before.
So really, this is another evolutionary step where the screw is tightened just a little. For example, the old “educators” were supposed to take into account the national and religious considerations of the individual soldier, but now the unifying political message takes precedence. Aleksandr Kanshin, an employee at the Defense Ministry, explaines to Izvestia that this step is necessary:
“In modern conditions of global information war, you have to double down on this work. There is an external reason, which is the need to resist information campaigns. And there is an internal reason. Our country is multinational and multiconfessional, but the military must be one organism. People who have different viewpoints, different religions, different background, must be united through the political education.”
Obviously, the political message today is not communism like in the Soviet Union. But the idea behind the zampolits seems very similar to the work of the political commissars of the communist era. It will help ensure the longevity of Putin’s ideological message.
In the long run, this development is harmful for the Russian military. Enforcement of cognitive homogeneity is not a point in any textbook about innovation. In general, the future calls for soldiers that are capable of independent thought, and that requires regular practice of independent thinking. So at some point, this trend toward mental stagnation among common soldiers will backfire. It will lead to more mistakes in the field, and it will make it altogether more difficult for Russia to achieve its military objectives. But it will be done by soldiers who are deeply convinced.
- Russian navy ships are divided into four ranks depending on size. There will be zampolits on ships of the first rank, which means a ship where the commanding officer has rank of captain 1st rank (OF-5). ↩