Putin Boldly Defends Military Reform


by Richard Weitz

Perhaps the most original content in Vladimir Putin’s pre-election article on Russian defense policy is his comprehensive support for Russia’s controversial military reform program. Putin and other Russian leaders understand that, no matter how good the new weapons Russia is receiving, the Armed Forces need a newly reformed Russian officer class and other military professionals who can maintain and wield these weapons effectively.

The Russian military continues to suffer from embarrassing accidents and mishaps, which includes a series of unexplained warplane crashes. The Soviet Navy appears to have an even worst safety record. It repeatedly suffers from fires and other deadly accidents on its submarines. Russia could have experienced a nuclear catastrophe if reports that the K-84 Yekaterinburg Delta class nuclear submarine whose outer hull caught fire on December 29 while being repaired at a shipyard in the northwest Russian Murmansk Region had violated safety procedures and not removed nuclear warheads from their 16 Sineva  submarine-launched ballistic missiles before undergoing maintenance.  As things stand, Russia’s plans to modernize and enlarge its strategic submarine fleet will be further delayed.

Russian military cadets of the Russian Emergency Situations ministry march during the annual Victory Day parade at Red Square in Moscow, Saturday, May 9, 2009. Victory Day, marking the defeat of Nazi Germany, is Russia's most important secular holiday, and the parade reflected the Kremlin's efforts to revive the nation's armed forces and global clout.

An ambitious young politician, Dmitry Rogozin, the former Russian ambassador to NATO, has recently been appointed Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for restructuring the Russian military industrial complex. He will collaborate with another reformer, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who has sought to transform a traditional mass mobilization military created to fight another global war with the West into a force optimized to win local conflicts and counterinsurgencies.

Serdyukov’s surprise 2007 appointment as Russia’s first civilian Defense Minister reflected the Kremlin’s hope that, not having risen through the military-industrial complex, Serdykov would be more willing to tackle defense inefficiencies and corruption. Unfortunately, some bad practices have become so ingrained in Russia’s defense sector that they could take more than a decade to extirpate. The success of the reforms remains in doubt. The reforms have succeeded in destroying the old structure, which looked like a smaller version of the Soviet armed forces, by depriving as many as 200,000 officers of their jobs and disbanding nine of every ten Army units. But it is unclear whether they have created a more effective structure in its place.

For the past few years, Serduyokov has been leading the reform charge, with Russia’s political leaders largely staying in the background in the face of massive attacks on Serduykov for the unavoidable disruptions caused by the reforms. Now Putin has assumed a newly prominent role in defending the controversial reforms. He convincingly argues that the military reform process was unavoidable because Russia had no other choice. “Had we decided not to change anything, and limited ourselves to gradual and partial reforms,” he writes. “we could have sooner or later lost our military potential entirely. We could have lost the Armed Forces as a viable organism.”

Putin acknowledges that the reform process “was a very difficult process that affected tens of thousands of people. This inevitably involves mistakes, offenses and discontent. Public reaction was strong, including in the Army community itself.” He argues that only a comprehensive and far-reaching reform would work given the depth of Russia’s military problems. “We are changing an extremely complex institution that has accumulated lots of defects. All kinds of errors, excessive zeal on the part of certain officials, insufficient information and the lack of feedback channels, formal implementation of instructions – these are all real problems of the current reform.” Putin pledges to make some changes in the reform process but basically reaffirms the current course: “We must identify all these problems and adjust certain decisions, at the same time continuing the general policy of systemic reforms in the Armed Forces.”

Putin correctly recalls all the military reform achievements of his first decade in power. Combat readiness has increased (overall and with the advent of several permanent readiness units), salaries are now paid regularly and on time, social welfare has improved, and Putin claims that the popular prestige of the military has increased. Most of these achievements resulted from an increase in Russian military spending sustained by the government’s rising oil and gas revenues, which may not continue.

Putin claims that the Russian Armed Forces have reduced the size of their administrative structures by fifty percent in the context of focusing on combat missions and transitioning to the new system of having almost all Army, Aid Defense, and Navy units subordinated to one of four large operational-strategic commands (Western, Southern, Central and Eastern) that have absorbed the old Russian Military Districts. The Air Force has modernized its bases and restructured their basing network around seven large bases with modern infrastructure.  Meanwhile, the Armed Forces’ new branch, the Aerospace Defense Forces, became fully operational on December 1, 2011.

Putin explains that the Soviet military experience in Afghanistan and other campaigns led the Russian Army to choose the brigade as its main combat unit, replacing the divisions and regiments previously favored by the Russian Army. He claims that , though the brigade is smaller than these units, it is considerably more maneuverable and “ has much more firepower and more support units – artillery, air defense, reconnaissance, communications, etc.”

Recruiting and retaining a sufficient number of soldiers remains a problem. The Soviet-era conscription system no longer works well. In theory, while Article 59 of the Russian Constitution and the federal law on military service require all young men to over the age of 18 to serve one year in the armed forces. They remain subject to conscription until the age of 27. In practice, many potential conscripts either dodge the draft or secure exemptions. These can include repeated educational deferments, passing high school Reserve Officers Training Corps courses, and health reasons. Bribing doctors is an easy way to exploit the latter option.

Russians would ideally like to follow the example of many NATO countries and abolish conscription, which presents the other problem of having soldiers serve too short a term to master sophisticated modern equipment. Instead, military reformers want a million man army consisting entirely of voluntary professional soldiers serving on renewable long-term contracts. But it costs more to recruit and retain volunteers than low-paid conscripts, and these budgetary and other complications have seen the military continually defer the date when conscription will end.

Now Putin’s article implies this mixed system will last another decade, with a combination of short-term conscripts and long-term professionals serving as non-commissioned sergeants, sergeant majors, and technicians in charge of operation of combat vehicles. “By 2017, out of one million servicemen in the Russian Army, 700,000 should be professionals – officers, graduates of military academies, sergeants and contract soldiers,” Putin writes. “By 2020, the number of conscripts will drop to 145,000.”

Putin defended the reduction in the term of conscription to one year, which many Russian analysts consider too short a time to adequately train the troops, by maintaining that the reforms have freed the conscripts from engaging in their previously distracting economic and maintenance activities. “Everything that distracts from combat training has been reduced to a minimum.”

Another means to improve Russian military recruitment and retention includes decreasing hazing and other hazards to troop morale by establishing a new military police, chaplains deployed with all military units, and by engaging  “civil, veterans’, religious and human rights organizations to help educate servicemen, protect their rights and interests and build a healthy moral environment in the army.”

Putin proposes creating a version of the GI Bill for Russian soldiers as a means to enhance their skills as well as, presumably, boost recruitment and retention. He wants the government to assist Russian soldiers acquire additional formal education through financial and other assistance.

This new entitlement would accompany the recently enacted large military pay rise. Starting on January 1, 2012, Putin notes, “military pay has almost tripled” for most soldiers, while pensions have increased by 60 percent . And these augmentations would complement the existing system of military benefits, which according to Putin include “access to general healthcare, health resort treatment, medical insurance, a decent pension and job opportunities after retirement.”

Noting the difficulties encountered by Russian veterans despite their service to the Russian state, Putin pledges further annual increases in military pensions, “at a rate of no less than two per cent above the inflation level,” and the introduction of a special education certificate that will give every retired service member an opportunity to attend courses at any Russian educational institution.

Putin acknowledged that providing all officers—as mandated by the Russian Constitution—with housing remains a problem but said that the issue was being corrected. “By 2014, we will solve the problem of service housing,” Putin writes. “These efforts will help to close the ‘eternal’ housing issue for Russian servicemen.” Putin also said that the Ministry of Defense would increase its level of support for military facilities and settlements that have been turned over to civilian local governments.

Putin affirmed Russia’s intention to consider following other countries and transition the Russian military reserves from a strategic force to an operational reserve. The members of military reserves will, “as it is the case in many countries, will have to undergo regular, not occasional – as is practiced now – training to be ready to join combat units at any time.” Noting that, “For the time being, we do not have any clear-cut concept of the national reserve of the Armed Forces, Putin says his government will draft such a concept and offer it for public discussion.

One worrisome sign is that Putin’s article repeats the “million man” Army myth. In his annual state of the nation address last December, President Dmitry Medvedev said that the number of officers and contract soldiers in the Russian military will remain at the same levels of last year, 220,000 officers and 180,000 contract soldiers, casting doubt on the announced plans to add 50,000 new contract soldiers each year. And combining the 300,000 or so conscripts now serving to these totals means that Russian military manpower is only 750,000, or 250,000 short of the officially cited million man force.

If Russian reformers can’t get their numbers right, then they will have the same problems as U.S. government auditors and American military reformers trying to trace the flow of Pentagon dollars.

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