On Friday May 27th, the Valdai military section had the opportunity to meet with General Andrei Tretyak, the Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the Defense Ministry. We were originally scheduled to meet with Defense Minister Anatoly Serdiukov and Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov, but neither was available when the time came. General Tretyak spoke about the achievements and remaining goals of the military reform, and then answered questions from the group.
General Tretyak’s statement
General Tretyak began with a discussion of the reasons why the reform was started three years ago. At that point, he argued, the Russian military was a shard of the Soviet army, not adapted to the new conditions that it faced. If the government had waited any longer, it would have been even more difficult to carry out all the necessary reforms. In terms of equipment, the army had less than 5 percent modern technology, and troops were scattered around the whole country at 22,000 sites. Russia’s military doctrine was designed for a big war, not for the types of conflicts Russia was actually likely to face in the coming years. The military suffered from poor social conditions, low salaries, a lack of housing, and low prestige in society.
The general then turned to what has been accomplished so far to address these problems. In 2009-2010, the military created combat ready troops that can be ready to fight in one day. Before, it took weeks or months. He argued that although the army is now more compact, all the troops can be ready in hours. The four unified strategic commands control all the forces on their territory except airborne, space and nuclear forces, in both peacetime and wartime. Each command now has 2-3 strategic directions that it focuses on. This reform has thus reduced reaction time and increased the army’s combat potential. Brigades’ readiness and control coefficients are much higher now, even though their forces are less numerous than when they were divisions.
At the end of his talk, General Tretyak addressed what he saw as the five main tasks remaining for the reform effort:
- Creating a single supply system. He noted that while this is difficult to establish, the MOD understands that the old division between armaments and supply is outdated so they’re starting to create a single supply chain. Though they face some difficulties, he argued that there has been progress.
- Improvements in combat training. There was a 30 percent increase in the number of exercises from 2009 to 2010, though more progress needs to be made in performance quality.
- Establishing a new basing system. The military is building 184 modern military bases with full amenities for the soldiers, their families and civilian support staff. As part of this task, they are outsourcing for basic tasks such as cleaning and cooking in order to free soldiers for military training. Though it is more expensive than the old system, they believe it’s worth the extra expense.
- Re-equipment and weapons modernization. This is the most difficult task. The government has allocated 20 trillion rubles to accomplish this task over the next ten years. He mentioned the two frequently noted targets – 30 percent modern equipment by 2016 and 70 percent by 2020. He went on to note that they don’t just mean physically new equipment; the equipment has to be truly modern — they want to have the best of each type of equipment. He noted that the MOD had already developed requirements for these weapons.
- Developing a new educational system for the military. The first step was shrinking the number of military educational institutions from 64 to 16. Now they are setting up a system of continuous professional military education. They’re also working on solving the start-up problems for preparing sergeants; General Tretyak believes that they will have fully qualified new sergeants in 1-2 years. At the same time, they will start paying more money to military pensioners and will solve the housing problem retired officers.
Discussion with General Tretyak
The general made it clear that he was open to a discussion with the Valdai Club participants and did not want the meeting to turn into a press conference. There were a number of key themes covered during the discussion.
Manpower and training
The most important of these was the question of manpower and training. One participant noted that there has been a lot of zig-zagging on introducing contract soldiers since the first discussions took place in the late 1990s. At the time, it was expected that the low salaries paid in the civilian economy would allow the military to hire high quality specialists. But as the economy improved over the last decade, military salaries quickly became inadequate for this purpose. The military was still able to get contract soldiers through various means, but these were people who didn’t fit the military’s needs because they were underqualified. So the MOD decided to move away from contracts and return to using conscripts as the core of the force. But when the length of conscript service was reduced to one year, the military quickly realized that it could no longer fill certain specialties with conscripts because of the extensive training required for these positions. He argued that these positions will have to be filled with contract soldiers.
I find that this sentiment is typical of Russian views of the purpose of hiring professional soldiers. The predominant idea is to hire qualified, well-educated specialists, rather than ‘green’ recruits. No one thinks along the lines of the US model, which involves bringing in untrained 18 year olds and turning them into qualified specialists through the military education system, with the goal of having a significant percentage of these soldiers choose to pursue a career in the military. Qualified specialists are those retained, rather than recruited. This seems to me to be a much better model for the Russian military to follow, as long as it can get its retention rates up by following through on plans to improve salaries and living conditions for professional soldiers.
Another participants asked General Tretyak about progress with the new education program for sergeants. The general responded by mentioning that the new system follows foreign models. In the old Russian system, the sergeants had fairly narrow training and didn’t know as much as junior officers. So they couldn’t replace them in training enlisted soldiers. Now the goal is to have sergeants who will dedicate their lives to the military and will have wider knowledge. The first graduates of the sergeant training center will enter the military next year.
The general also noted that the MOD is considering the possibility of foreign military training for Russian officers. If carried out, this would be an interesting shift. In the past, the only officers sent for courses abroad were those about to leave the service, as such training was not considered conducive to further promotion in the service. If officers are actually sent to foreign courses and then promoted, this would mark a significant mentality shift among the military leadership.
Finally, the general also addressed the future of conscription. Ne noted that everyone, including the children of elites, should be required to serve in the military. He pointed to Belarus as a model in this regard, arguing that in Belarus everyone wants to serve because serving in the military is patriotic, prestigious, and has a positive effect on future career prospects. This is the goal the Russian government has in mind as it goes about gradually eliminating exemptions to service.
Potential military threats and security concerns
General Tretyak noted that according to the MOD’s current assessment, Russia’s doesn’t currently face any military threats, though it does have some significant security concerns, such as the possibility of a renewed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, since Russia has relations with both sides. In a discussion on the situation in Karabakh, General Tretyak agreed with a participant’s assessment that the possibility of conflict in that region is high, but argued that it is gradually decreasing as a result of Russian efforts to reduce tension in the region. He disagreed with the suggestion that Russia’s relationship with Armenia is eroding and made clear that Russia will carry out its promises to that country. No one should see Russia’s refusal to intervene in Kyrgyzstan last summer as a precedent for Karabakh, as that was a very different situation.
General Tretyak also noted that Russia remains concerned about the security of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and about the threat of terrorism in the Caucasus. In the Western direction, he mentioned the existence of some territorial disputes with the Baltic states, but made it clear that these are being worked out diplomatically. In the southern direction, he noted that Kazakhstan is a close ally but reiterated the Russian fear that stability in Central Asia is likely to decline because of the possibility of North Africa-type mass protests events occurring there. He also felt that what he saw as the inevitable US withdrawal from the region will have a negative effect on stability.
In this context, the CSTO may come to play a more important role in the region. General Tretyak pointed out that CSTO reforms are continuing. The major Russian military exercises in the summer and early fall will include CSTO states. The Russian military has looked at the issues that arose in conjunction with the Kyrgyzstan crisis and know how to act if a similar situation arises in the future; according to General Tretyak, there are no disagreements on this with Russia’s CSTO partners. The general further noted that the forces assigned to the CSTO are the best prepared of Russia’s forces, because Russia wants to increase the organization’s military effectiveness. General Tretyak reiterated the Russian position that it would like NATO to recognize the legitimacy of the CSTO and establish cooperation with it.
The general then turned to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has significant political influence in Central Asia. The military component is primarily based on the Chinese and Russian militaries. The organization has continuing plans to organize SCO military exercises. Both CSTO and SCO will inevitably increase their role in the region after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
General Tretyak noted that China is Russia’s ally. At the same time, Russia is looking carefully at the development of the Chinese military, even as it helps it develop further. For now, they do not see any threat to Russia from Chinese military development. He further noted that no final decision has been made on where the Mistral ships being purchased from France will be based, though the Pacific is certainly a priority for Russia.
On the question of tactical weapons, and their connection to the CFE treaty and missile defense, General Tretyak argued that future warfare will not be frontal, but will focus on deep penetration. Russia is open for discussions on tactical weapons, but only under conditions of equality. For now, an understanding on this issue has not been reached. Russia wants to include all the nuclear states (UK, France, China) in the discussion, not just the US. On missile defense, he noted that there may have been a positive turn at the presidential meeting in Deauxville and considered it possible that an agreement could be reached this year.
The Russian military’s organizational structure
As the discussion turned to the structure and armament of the Russian military, one participant wondered how the organizational structure of the military be identical in all four Unified Strategic Commands, given the different natures of the threats and security concerns faced by Russia in different parts of the world?
General Tretyak responded that a unified command structure doesn’t mean that one size fits all. Russia has heavy, medium and light brigades. Heavy brigades use tracked vehicles, medium ones use heavily armored wheeled vehicles, while light brigades use lightly armored wheeled vehicles. Some USCs will have more of one kind of brigade or another, and each brigade will in itself be modular and adaptable for different circumstances. Units on the Kuril Islands are organized differently, because these are islands with very different defense requirements. And Russia is in the process of forming separate Arctic brigades, with differences in armament because of the different environment and climate conditions in the far north.
One participant asked why airborne troops are still directly under the command of the general staff. General Tretyak responded that airborne troops can be used anywhere, so they can’t be subordinated to a particular geographic regional command.
On the topic of armament, the general contradicted statements made at the Valdai club panel two days before that R&D spending was set to decreases significantly in the new State Armaments Program. He said that 32-34 percent of SAP funding would go to R&D, including spending on long term development projects. He argued that the main priorities for rearmament are the nuclear forces, the navy, and the air force, because strategic deterrence is the highest priority for the military and these are the forces that carry out those tasks.
Finally, on the question of the extent of military cooperation with foreign states on information warfare issues, General Tretyak pointed out that for now there’s little technological cooperation with other states and Russia would like to have more. He pointed to the positive experience of cooperation with Israel on UAVs, arguing that Russia really needed their assistance when that was set up. (The unstated implication, it seemed to me, is that such help is no longer needed. In other words, he seemed to be saying that Russia can now build its own UAVs. I haven’t seen any proof of this so far…)
Overall, I had a very positive impression of General Tretyak and of the overall tone of the conversation. The general seems to be part of a cohort of top military officials who are open to learning from a wide range of experience, including the best practices of Western militaries. He also gave the impression of being very much open to dialogue with foreign officers and analysts. There was none of the lecturing tone that used to be the standard mode of communication between Russian generals and their foreign interlocutors. What we had was two hours of open discussion between one of the top Russian military officials and a combined group of foreign and Russian military experts and journalists. I left the discussion with a very positive view of the possibilities for the future development of the Russian military and for cooperation between it and Western military forces.
Of course, there are other cohorts in the Russian military, who continue to resist reform and close contact with the West. For now, the pro-engagement forces are in ascendance. Hopefully that will remain the case for the foreseeable future.
UPDATE: I added a sentence in the first paragraph to note that the meeting with General Tretyak occurred instead of a previously scheduled meeting with the Defense Minister and the Chief of the General Staff, both of whom were said to be unavailable.
I should also note that although the meeting was held under Chatham House Rules, which allow for the content of a discussion to be cited without attribution to a particular speaker, the Defense Ministry’s press and information service and the Russian press agency RIA-Novosti (which sponsored the event) both identified General Tretyak as the speaker in question. I follow their lead in identifying him but not the other participants in the discussion.