Russian Military Reform and the Ukraine War


2014-12-23 By Richard Weitz

In its newly published book, Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine (East View Press, October 2014; by Vasiliy Kashin, Sergey Denisentsev, et al; edited by Colby Howard and Ruslan Pukhov), the experts at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), Moscow’s premier nongovernmental defense organization, provide us with great insights regarding the state of the Russian military reform effort.

In his two chapters on Russian military reform before and after the 2008 Georgian War, Mikhail Barabanov nicely summarizes and augments CAST’s earlier analysis of the topic.

Barabanov describes the Russian military as continually struggling to adopt to the post-Soviet conditions of decreased budgets, fewer administrative controls (facilitating draft dodging), and unending local engagements while refusing to abandon the Soviet mass mobilization model–a deadly combination that made it difficult to optimize the Russian military to win its local wars.

Russia lacks the money or manpower to create another army of high readiness combat forces that would coexist with the large mass army of skeleton cadre units based on a mobilization of millions of reservists in wartime.

The attempt to build two armies has created severe command, control, logistical, and other challenges.

For example, orders still followed a convoluted transmission process from the General Staff, to the military districts, to the headquarters of the various armies, to the divisions and below.

In addition, despite military plans for at least partial mobilization for the wars in Chechnya, the Russian government never could call out the reservists for the kinds of local counterinsurgencies and police actions that Moscow was fighting due to popular opposition against such callouts and the inferior quality of the poorly trained reservists.

February 22, 2012. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, during a visit to the Taman Kalinin Motorized Rifle Brigade of the October Revolution Banner and the Red Banner. Putin was shown military equipment, special weapons, small arms and knives, communication equipment and equipment for special forces soldiers. (RIA Novosti/Aleksey Nikolskyi)
February 22, 2012. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, during a visit to the Taman Kalinin Motorized Rifle Brigade of the October Revolution Banner and the Red Banner. Putin was shown military equipment, special weapons, small arms and knives, communication equipment and equipment for special forces soldiers. (RIA Novosti/Aleksey Nikolskyi) 

Although Russia had a large number of active duty soldiers, their limited training and equipment made them unsuited for even low-level operations.

Whenever it had to organize a combat force for sustained operations, the Ministry had to create an ad hoc task force by stripping the armed forces of their best units and sending them to the hotspot, leaving the rest of the force even more undermanned and underequipped.

The collapse of the Russian military industrial complex, moreover, resulted in the Russian army’s struggling to maintain Soviet-era systems while newly produced systems often went first to foreign buyers who could pay hard currency.

Although the defense budget began to increase in the mid-2000s with the growth in government oil and gas revenue,

Russia’s improving economic conditions also made it difficult for the Ministry of Defense to hire and retain long-term professional soldiers on contract who, if they were any good, could earn more money and enjoy a higher quality of life in the civilian world.

The government kept on having to delay plans to eliminate conscription, raise combat readiness throughout the force, or adopt a restructured arrangement based on regional commands. The increased funding, when it was not diverted by corruption or wasted by mismanagement, also was dispersed too widely among different units to have much of an impact.

It was only under Anatoly Serdyukov, who became defense minister in February 2007, that the Russian armed forces fully escaped their counterproductive fixation with being able to deploy a multi-million man army to win another world war, a force construct that resulted in the military’s having a large number of undermanned and poorly equipped conscripts.

Russian special forces stacking for a breach. Credit: Army Photos.Net
Russian special forces stacking for a breach. Credit: Army Photos.Net 

Although no military expert, Serdyukov was a good manager and clever enough to empower a team of reformers, including General Nikolai Makarov, the new chief of the general staff, who, as CAST had earlier recommended, adopted a “New Look” (Novy Oblik) program that largely abandoned plans for mass mobilization and instead concentrated on developing a smaller, more professionally manned and managed force of mobile brigades that could rapidly respond to immediate contingencies, such as occurred in the Crimea.

The military’s poor performance in the 2008 war with Georgia prompted the Kremlin to support Serdyukov as he sought to achieve a radical and rapid transformation of almost every element of the Russian armed forces from the fall of 2008 to early 2012:

  • Reducing the Russian Armed Forces to 1 million active duty personnel by 2012 while increasing the proportion of long-term professionals through large pay raises other benefits
  • Eliminating undermanned army cadre units and consolidating the active duty units as well as their facilities and reservists into a small number of high-readiness army brigades with better equipment and more exercises and training
  • Sharply cutting the officer corps by eliminating more than 100,000 officer billets while restructuring the officer corps by decreasing the number of generals and other senior officers while increasing the number of lower-level officer billets, thereby creating a more pyriamid-like structure
  • Consolidating military training and education by combining some 65 military schools into 10 “systemic” training centers
  • Reorganizing and reducing other central military command bodies, including the Defense Ministry, the General Staff, and the individual commands of the various military branches
  • Amalgamating the former six military districts into four regionally based ones that control almost all forces in their territories and function as Joint Strategic Commands during wartime
  • Reducing the number of noncombat personnel by outsourcing logistical and other non-combat support functions to civilian commercial enterprises overseen
  • Reorganize the Air Force and Air Defense Service (their new organizational units became respectively airbases and aerospace brigades), while creating new commands for Cyber, Aerospace Defense, and the new Special Operations Forces

According to Barabanov, the bold, rapid, and comprehensive scope of these changes prevented opponents from organizing a successful campaign to undermine them, as they had done with some earlier reform initiatives.

Barabanov offers a contradictory picture of the extent to which this reform campaign has persisted under Sergei Shoigu, former head of the paramilitary Ministry of Emergency Situations, who replaced Serdyukov as defense minister in 2013.

At times, he depicts Shoigu as continuing the main thrust of reforms while making cosmetic changes to downplay their most unpopular elements and support the general line of President Putin’s third term, which emphasizes stability above all: “Minister Shoigu’s time in office has been a period of ‘normalization’ and ‘stabilization’ in the Russian Armed Forces after tumultuous changes under Serdyukov.” For example, Shoigu has gone ahead with plans to hold many large-scale surprise (“”snap”) exercises and alerts, in which the military rapidly mobilizes units into a combat ready posture.

Elsewhere, however, Barabanov describes how the Ministry has reversed some key changes, such as rolling back the planned closing almost all the military’s training and education facilities, restoring the rank of warrant officer to compensate for the continued shortage of professional soldiers, scaling back reductions in headquarters, staff, returning to the old organizational names and sometimes the old organizational structures to the army and air forces, allowing unit manning levels to fall, and reversing some of the comprehensive outsourcing of almost all military supply and logistic functions that had occurred under Serdyukov, which fueled corruption.

Barabanov offers an equally mixed and contradictory assessment of the overall achievements of the reforms.

For instance, he writes that the fundamental decision to abandon the “old mobilization-centric setup of the Armed Forces has enabled Russia to turn its army into a highly capable and combat-ready force that is well suited to the challenges facing the country in the former Soviet territories.” In particular, “the Russian Army acquitted itself very well so far in the Ukrainian crisis. It proved to be a highly mobile and rapidly deployable force, with a high level of training and skill at every level, particularly in such elite units as spetsnaz, the paratroopers, and marines.”

Despite the improvements in Russia’s nuclear and conventional forces in recent years, the chapters by Aleksey Nikolsky and by Anton Lavrov on the Crimea operation show how it was primarily Russia’s elite Special Operations Forces (SOF) who spearheaded the Crimea operation.

They included the 16th Special Purpose Brigade, the 76th Airborne Assault Division, and the Black Sea Fleet’s 810th Marines Brigade.

Russian Special Forces preparing for security at Winter Olympics. Credit. Army Photos.Net
Russian Special Forces preparing for security at Winter Olympics. Credit. Army Photos.Net 

Termed by Russians the “polite people” and the West as “little green men,” these SOF soldiers without insignia collaborated with local paramilitary forces to paralyze the Ukrainian military’s 22,000 troops on the peninsula, whose combat capabilities arguably exceeded those of the lightly armed and outnumbered Russian SOF units for at least the first two weeks of the occupation, into surrendering the Crimea without a fight.

Although they are descendants of the Soviet Union’s special purpose forces (spetsnaz), the new Russian SOF service was only established in 2011, and not revealed by the Russian Ministry of Defense to foreign audiences until two years later.

Nikolsky provides helpful summaries of little-know Russian military documents that describe the key components and activities of the Russian SOF Command. He makes clear that it is not comparable to the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) since the SOF Command, which currently has the equivalent of two brigades, with the intention fo expanding this total over time, still excludes many of Russia’s special purpose forces. Nikolsky more comfortably compares it with the Army’s Delta Force and other direct action units.

Lavrov notes that, while the Russian military has made great strides in rehearing its ability to move and support large units thousands of kilometers away from their permanent bases, enabling Russia to defend its vast borders, Russia’s continued reliance on large numbers of conscripts means that at any time a large percentage of the force will still lack comprehensive training in strategic maneuvering and other combat capabilities and will therefore likely be excluded from the initial phase of any operation—as in the Ukraine war.

Barabanov correctly notes that the Russian armed forces, despite the apparent success of their elite forces in the Crimea, still need to strengthen their inter-service jointness; regularize the use of professionals and conscripts, such as by developing a stronger NCO corps; reform the military education system; complete the transition to a system of heavy, medium, and light brigades; further modernize command, control, and intelligence capabilities; reduce undermanning (the current forces is several hundred thousand troops short of its million-man goal); and create a viable reserve mobilization system for replenishing losses in limited conflicts.