Assessing Russia’s Military Reforms: A Bridge Too Far?


2012-11-25 By Richard Weitz

The fate of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov’s controversial reforms, designed 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, remains in doubt.

The reforms have succeeded in destroying the old structure by depriving thousands of officers of their jobs and disbanding or realigning almost every unit and command element.

But it is unclear whether they have created a more effective structure in its place.

Mixed Results

As of now, the reforms have so far achieved mixed results.

The Russian armed forces, except for the country’s nuclear forces, no longer look like a shrunken version of the Soviet Red Army. They seem capable of fulfilling the peacetime missions assigned to them by current Russian Military Doctrine: fighting terrorism and maritime piracy, maintaining public order, managing domestic and foreign humanitarian emergencies, protecting Russian citizens and interests abroad, and contributing to internationally authorized peacekeeping missions. General combat readiness has probably increased due to the elimination of the cadre units and their replacement by high-readiness units.

The transformation of the unit structure from divisions to brigades has been criticized for having insufficient command, reconnaissance and logistics components. The costs and ability of civilian support personnel to provide military services have also been questioned. In the end, though, the fighting effectiveness of the new Russian military cannot be demonstrated in the absence of a major war, which thankfully has not occurred.

Thanks to the recent restructuring, the number of staff layers and staff members has decreased while wages have risen for most of the remaining military personnel. Salaries are now paid regularly and on time and many of their non-military chores are now undertaken by civilian contractors. Catering and other services have improved, but housing shortages persist and were cited as one reason for Serdyukov’s dismissal.

The new command structure of having almost all Army, Air Defense, and Navy units subordinated to one of four large operational-strategic commands (Western, Southern, Central and Eastern) has replaced the old system of 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. But 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.

Opposition to Reform

Opposition within the military to the reforms has been widespread.

Alienated officers and experts denounced Serdyukov’s lack of combat command experience, his refusal to listen to military advice, and his enthusiasm for applying foreign templates to the Russian military enterprise.

Another irritation was Serdyukov’s policy of appointing young women civilian specialists he had worked with in the tax ministry to senior MOD positions—such as heading the Ministry’s education, finance, and legal departments, whose rank was equivalent to two- and three-star generals. The critics denounced this so-called “women battalion” as “ladies with lapdogs.”

Some officers opposed the reforms because they believed their personal conditions would worsen. Tens of thousands of officers have been forced out since 2008 and the number of coveted active-duty general officer posts has been cut almost in half to 610. Only those officers with less than ten years’ service automatically receive state-financed retraining for other employment as well as severance pay; those who have served longer are promised only an apartment or a pension or both, which some discharged personnel doubt will materialize.

In general, many officers seemed confused by the purpose of the reforms, which were introduced through ad hoc initiatives rather than as publicly comprehensive strategic plan.

The individual reform initiatives seemed logical, but the overall framework was nebulous. The MOD was never able to publish a white paper describing Russia’s military reforms and their underlying logic and goals.

In part, this opaque approach may have been a deliberate tactic to decrease resistance by concealing the full extent of the reform program, but the resulting confusion led many officers to wonder whether their civilian leaders really had a well-thought out plan or were just experimenting through trial-and-error techniques.

A Bridge to Nowhere? A Bridge Too Far?

The fear is that, just as Yegor Gaidar managed to wreck the old Soviet economy without creating an effective replacement, so Serdyukov would destroy Russia’s Soviet-legacy military without establishing an acceptable defense structure in its place.

The Russian military reforms are clearly incomplete. Maybe they are simply incomplete and the strategic equivalent to bridge to far Credit Image; Bigstock 

In addition, the general uncertainty compounds the main concern of many officers. Analysts complained that the reforms have been proceeding too rapidly, with insufficient development and planning, while officers seemed upset about the unpredictability of the entire reform process, not knowing whether they could remain in the service as a career.

Rather than reducing corruption, the reforms may simply have redirected it.

Whereas previously senior officers would misappropriate public military assets for their own use (such as by ordering conscripts to work on their houses) or contractors would charge elevated prices in opaque military procurement and construction deals in return for kickbacks, more recently the MOD’s newly empowered civilian overseers have been exploiting complex privatization and other schemes.

Putin’s stated reason for removing Serdyukov was to allow an investigation to proceed unhindered regarding whether Serdyukov and favored subordinates were exploiting the large-scale sale of MOD property to acquire valuable state property at unreasonably low prices.

This process was reminiscent of the worst abuses of the Yeltsin years, when the presidential administration would misuse privatization to reward favored entrepreneurs with ownership of Soviet-era corporations for a pittance.

The MOD’s plans to restructure the training and maintenance of Russia’s military reserve component remain unfulfilled. In his election article on military reform, Putin affirmed Russia’s intention to consider following other countries and transition the Russian military reserves from a strategic to an operational force. 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 said the government would draft such a concept and offer it for public discussion, which it has failed to do yet. The military education and training system has been reduced in size but not reformed.

The MOD has reversed course on the professionalization of the armed forces.

Shortly before retiring, Serdyukov confirmed that the MOD would have to retain conscription indefinitely since the government could not afford to employ only more-expensive professional soldiers serving under contract. Instead, the MOD will hire contractors for positions that require either special skills and training or a long-term service commitment, such as for members for the Navy, Strategic Missile Forces, and other military specialties requiring the skilled and highly readily professionals, but the Army will consist almost entirely of conscripted soldiers. The major exception is the newly restructured Russian noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps, which remains a work in progress.

The MOD’s plans for the number of NCOs and other professional contract soldiers they wanted to assist the regular officers have constantly changed. In the 1990s, the civilian economy was bad, so the military could recruit large numbers of good people at a modest cost. During the 2000s, Russia’s economy improved and serving under contract in the Russian military became less attractive than pursuing non-military employment options. The military decided to increase its benefits to contractors but only keep the best of them. But more recently the MOD reduced the duration of conscription to only 12 months.

Putin and others defended the reduction in the term of conscription to one year by maintaining that the reforms have freed the conscripts from engaging in their previously distracting economic and maintenance activities.

But many analysts consider one year insufficient to train military professionals and the MOD has decided to rely on contractors more for those branches of arms that require extensive technical skills. The government has promised them higher pay and other benefits as well as better education and training in return for enlisting over long-term contract periods. But the effectiveness of the new NCO corps remains unclear and the MOD’s ability to hire the more than 425,000 high-quality contractors remains questionable.

Only Partial Success

The reforms have only partially satisfied the aims of Russia’s new military doctrine, which stresses the need for enhanced capabilities for responding effectively to local conflicts.

The Army, in particular, continues to suffer from inadequate personnel training and poor communication infrastructure linking the country’s remote regions. This problem was demonstrated by the Georgian War and would be an important factor in hypothetical limited conflicts with neighboring states, such as with Japan and Turkey.

The poor quality of conscripts means that “combat-ready” mobile brigades in reality are capable of deploying only several tactical battalion groups—perhaps some 10,000 men—to a conflict zone. The Russian Army’s maneuverability is constrained by the lack of common equipment used by mobile brigades stored in various central storage bases. Ideally, after being transported by aircraft to their place of embarkation, troops should receive familiar equipment from a base not far from a destination point.

The Russian military continues to suffer from embarrassing accidents and mishaps, which includes a series of unexplained warplane crashes and the negligent storage of ammunition, which caused mass explosions in several Russian cities. The Russian 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 are accurate 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.

Finally, the challenge of reequipping the Russian military with more effective weapons that are equivalent to the latest Western systems remains unmet.

Comprehensive rearmament has only just begun and widespread shortages of modern equipment persist. Putin greeted the new Chief of Staff with the warning that the MOD needed to be less demanding of the Russian defense industry, implying a reduction in Sedyukov’s expensive practice of buying foreign weapons systems when the MOD could not find domestic equivalents of the same high quality.

Fundamentally, Russia’s military reforms have proceeded too far to recreate the old Soviet mass structure even if the reform effort halted tomorrow.

But where they will go now is anyone’s guess.

Some bad practices have become so ingrained in Russia’s defense sector that they could take more than a decade to extirpate. With the fall of the chief military reformer, the success of the reforms is in doubt. The reforms have succeeded in destroying the old structure, which looked like a smaller version of the Soviet armed forces, but they have not clearly created a more effective structure in its place.