Crimea Taught Us a Lesson, But Not How the Russian Military Fights

I have started a new collaboration with War on the Rocks. I’ll be writing for them once a month or so. Here’s the first piece, on Crimea and the Russian military.


With the rapid operation that resulted in the annexation of Crimea earlier this year, the Russian military returned to the collective consciousness of the American public. Many commentators were impressed with the “little green men’s” professional demeanor and shiny new equipment. In some cases, this impression was undeservedly expanded to apply to the rest of the Russian military. In this context, it is important to discuss what the Crimean operation does and does not tell us about the capabilities of the Russian military.

The first clear lesson from the Crimean operation is that the Russian military understands how to carry out operations with a minimal use of force. This observation may initially seem banal or trivial, but we should keep in mind how Russian troops acted in previous operations in Chechnya and even to some extent in Georgia. Subtlety was not a strong suit in these operations, nor did it seem to be particularly encouraged by the political leadership. Instead, the goal seemed to be to use overwhelming force without much regard for civilian casualties. By contrast, the entire operation in Crimea was conducted with virtually no bloodshed or violence. There were three keys to this success:

Diversionary tactics

The Swedish analyst Johan Norberg was perhaps the first to highlight the significance of the major military exercise that was held on Ukraine’s eastern border in late February. While the Ukrainian government, as well as Western analysts and intelligence agencies, were distracted by the large-scale publicly announced mobilization in Russia’s Western military district, forces from the Southern military district and from airborne and Special Forces units located elsewhere in Russia were quietly transferred to Sevastopol.

You can read the rest of the article at War on the Rocks.

Russian Politics and Law, September 2013 Table of Contents: Ukrainian Right-Wing Extremism

I’ve fallen behind in posting tables of contents from Russian Politics and Law. Here’s the September 2013 issue, which presciently enough was devoted to Ukrainian right wing extremism.

Volume 51 Number 5 / September-October 2013 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the web site.

Starting Post-Soviet Ukrainian Right-Wing Extremism Studies from Scratch: Guest Editor’s Introduction pp. 3 – 10
Andreas Umland
Ukrainian Integral Nationalism in Quest of a “Special Path” (1920s-1930s) pp. 11 – 32
Oleksandr Zaitsev
Ultraright Party Politics in Post-Soviet Ukraine and the Puzzle of the Electoral Marginalism of Ukrainian Ultranationalists in 1994-2009 pp. 33 – 58
Andreas Umland and Anton Shekhovtsov
Right-Wing Extremism on the Rise in Ukraine pp. 59 – 74
Viacheslav Likhachev
Social-Nationalists in the Ukrainian Parliament: How They Got There and What We Can Expect of Them pp. 75 – 85
Viacheslav Likhachev
A Typical Variety of European Right-Wing Radicalism? pp. 86 – 95
Andreas Umland

New POPC Sochi Olympics issue available for free

ME Sharpe has made the entire Problems of Post-Communism Sochi Olympics special issue available for free online through February 28, 2014.

The issue includes an introduction by guest editors Richard Arnold and Andrew Foxall and features articles by Sufian Zhemukhov and Robert W. Orttung on the Russian government’s management of security for the games; Bo Petersson on Putin’s high-stakes Great Power play in Sochi; and Natalia Gronskaya and Andrey Makarychev on the Olympics and the discourse of sovereign power in Putin’s Russia. There is also an article on rural inequality in Russia by Stephen Wegren.

You can access the individual articles below or view the entire issue.

Problems of Post-Communism

Vol. 61, No. 1 | January-February 2014

Richard Arnold and Andrew Foxall

Munich Syndrome

Sufian Zhemukhov and Robert W. Orttung

Still Embodying the Myth?

Bo Petersson

The 2014 Sochi Olympics and “Sovereign Power”

Natalia Gronskaya and Andrey Makarychev

Rural Inequality in Post-Soviet Russia

Stephen K. Wegren

Russian Politics and Law, May 2013 Table of Contents

Volume 51 Number 3 / May-June 2013 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the web site.

This issue contains:

Migration Policy in Russia: Editor’s Introduction  p. 3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Central Asian Migration: Practices, Local Communities, Transnationalism  p. 6
Sergei Abashin
Integrating Immigrants in an Economic Crisis: (European and Russian Experience)  p. 21
Iana Strel’tsova
Migrants in Russian Cities  p. 48
Ol’ga Vendina
Ethnic and Migration Policy in the 2000s Viewed in the Context of Relations Between the Federal Center and the Regions  p. 66
Vladimir Mukomel’
Russia Needs a New Migration Policy  p. 80
Sergei Riazantsev
Meet the Migrants  p. 89
Andrei Molchanov

Eastern command exercises completed

A week ago, the Russian military completed the largest spot check exercise it has conducted since 1991. The MOD has put out some information on the scale and units involved. The slides were helpfully reproduced by Ruslan Pukhov in his blog.  They are done in the usual Russian style — it’s all about how many planes flew, how many tons of equipment were moved, etc. Nevertheless, there are some interesting tidbits. Here are some highlights.

The exercise involved 160,000 personnel from all three military branches. Ground forces from all four Eastern district armies and the 41st army of the Central district were involved, including 9 infantry brigades, the 18th artillery division (based in the Southern Kurils), a tank brigade, 2 air assault brigades, a naval infantry brigade, 5 signal brigades, 2 artillery brigades, 2 rocket brigades, 1 MRLS brigade, 2 air defense brigades, 2 NBC defense brigades, 4 logistics brigades, and 2 equipment storage bases. 12,000 vehicles were activated.

The air force activated 130 aircraft and helicopters from four commands (Long Range Aviation, Military-Transport Aviation, 2nd Air and Air Defense Forces Command — Yekaterinburg, 3rd Air and Air Defense Forces Command — Khabarovsk). The specific air force units involved were the 6952nd LRA Base from Amur Oblast, the 6955th MTA Base from Tver, the 6980th aviation base from Chelyabinsk, and the 6983rd aviation base from Primorskii Krai.

Naval participation included 70 ships from the 36th surface ship division, 165th surface ship brigade, 10th and 25th submarine divisions, 19th submarine brigade, 100th assault ship brigade, 114th coastal defense ship brigade, and the 520th independent coastal missile-artillery brigade.

One infantry brigade arrived by sea, while 30 transport aircraft moved 8,500 personnel over 167 flights. 1000 reservists were involved, from Primorsky Krai. 45 field control centers were activated, most at the brigade level. 8 UAVs completed 22 flights. One of the 12 long range aviation planes failed to complete (or maybe to start?) its flight.

The overall assessment of these exercises from the military has been largely positive, though some areas did come in for criticism. Yuri Borisov noted that 3-4% of vehicles broke down during the exercise, either because of errors made by the  operators or because the equipment was old. This is not ideal, but is certainly a better statistic than in the bad old days a decade ago. Shoigu criticized the state of the communications system, noting that military communications are only 18% effective. It’s not clear what that number actually means, but it’s clearly not good. Marksmanship also came in for criticism, in part because of a lack of practice.  He was pleased with military transportation, highlighting in particular that railroad transportation functioned at almost double the allotted rate of travel (1000km/day vs 600km/day). He also noted that changes may be made to the structure of the air force, primarily by dividing up the air bases that were created a few years ago and and re-opening some of the military airports closed by Serdyukov.

UPDATE: Aleksei Nikolskii wrote to say that Shoigu’s statement on the communications systems being 18% effective referred to R&D efforts on C2 systems not producing results, rather than the systems’ effectiveness during the exercise itself.  He also notes that the actual number of troops involved was much lower. For each infantry brigade, only battalion-size tactical groups were mobilized, for other brigades, composite detachments were formed to represent each brigade. About 15,000 troops were moved by rail and aircraft (8,200 of these by air). Cooperation across military branches was problematic, with the naval infantry unit getting an unsatisfactory rating. The problems with firing accuracy were mostly among conscripts, who also were responsible for the lion’s share of technical problems with equipment.


MVMS-2013 naval salon prompts more reflections on the future of the Russian navy

There have been a number of interesting articles written on the future of the Russian Navy in conjunction with the naval salon in St. Petersburg earlier this month. I’ll try to summarize the interesting points without repeating material found in my earlier articles on this topic.

The most recent bit of news is that the Russian navy is planning to order an additional three Talwar class (project 11356) frigates, on top of the six already in the works. The idea is that these are relatively capable ships that can be built and outfitted very quickly (at a rate of one per year for the construction). Three are currently under construction and according to the most recent reports, two more are to be laid down this year. These are well armed ships, comparable to the Sovremennyi class destroyers in armament, though more versatile. Whereas the original plan had been to deploy all six to the Black Sea Fleet, the current plan is to station the first three there while the next three would go to the Baltic Fleet. As Prokhor Tebin points out, this makes absolutely no sense. The Baltic Fleet should be the Russian Navy’s lowest priority, focused primarily on testing new ships and training. Both the BSF and the Pacific Fleet are in much greater need of new ships of this type. But that sort of thing can be changed once the ships are actually ready for commissioning. The truly significant news is that three more such ships will be built in the near future and, unlike the more complicated Admiral Gorshkov class frigates, are likely to be put to use quite quickly.

Ilya Kramnik had an interesting summary of plans for the future that adds some information and analysis to what I’ve already discussed.  He mentions plans for a new attack submarine that is expected to become the mainstay of the fleet for the next several decades. This will be a smaller and cheaper submarine than the Yasen class. It will combine the usual missions of protecting Russian and tracking foreign SSBNs. In other words, if we thinking of the Yasen as the Russian Seawolf, then this new class will be the Virginia. Plans call for 20 such submarines to be built by the end of the 2020s, with construction of the first sub to start in the next 5-7 years.

So if all the submarine plans are carried out, by 2030 the Russian Navy will get a total of 35-36 new nuclear submarines, including 8 Boreis, 7-8 Yasens, and up to 20 of the new class. The total cost would be 1.5 trillion rubles at current prices, not including expenses for modernizing existing submarines. Personally, I think this is overly ambitious. Even if we assume that the design process will proceed without delays and construction and construction does start in 2018 or thereabouts, I highly doubt that the Russian shipbuilding industry is capable of building 20 new submarines in 10-12 years. I realize that the submarine-building sector is the healthiest part of the industry, but there is just no record even in the industry’s Soviet history of building two nuclear submarines of the same type per year. Even one would be ambitious, given recent history.  I suppose it would be possible if the Amur shipyard was pressed into service, though my understanding is that it is not building submarines any more. Even if it were, it would take a lot to get that shipyard up to speed.

In addition to the new destroyer that we discussed last week, new plans for surface ships include a littoral combat ship. The design of the LCS has not been finalized and fairly non-traditional options such as a catamaran or trimaran are supposedly on the table.  Industry representatives want to build 1-2 ships of the two best designs to test their capabilities and then select one for serial production. 35-40 such ships could be built for all four fleets, at a total cost of 250-280 billion rubles. Such pace of construction would be made possible by using multiple shipyards, including those in St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Komsomolsk-na-Amure, Zelenodolsk and possible Krasnoe Sormovo.

Discussions are still under way about the design of a potential new aircraft carrier.  Photos of a model that represents current thinking show a classical design, equipped with a ski jump and a catapult, and with an estimated length of 320 meters and 80,000 tons displacement. While discussions continue, the Admiral Kuznetsov will remain in service. Its modernization, originally scheduled to begin in 2012 will be postponed until the second half of this decade.

The main problem with all these plans is the continued weakness of the shipbuilding sector. In a separate article, Kramnik mentions the complexity of new equipment, including radars, control systems, hydroacoustics, and weapons.  He notes that this has led to delays in construction of the Admiral Gorshkov class frigates and the Yasen class submarines, among others. (I would also add the Lada class diesel submarines to this list.) There are also complications resulting from the merger of many disparate plants, in varying condition and with different ways of doing business, into the United Shipbuilding Corporation. This has resulted in various problems with finances and personnel that presently can only be resolved through “manual control.”

Igor Zakharov, the vice president of United Shipbuilding Corporation, argues that the way to solve the sector’s problems is to give the chief designer of any major shipbuilding project both personal responsibility before the client and the right to ensure that sub-contractors fulfill their obligations on time. He doesn’t spell out what mechanisms would be used to ensure the latter, but he does call for the introduction of arbitration mechanisms to resolve conflicts between industry and the MOD over issues such as pricing.

He also notes that Russian shipbuilding needs to adapt to the modern world, where hulls can last 50 years or more while electronics and armaments become outdated much more quickly. This requires ships to be built in a way that allows for easy modernization and replacement of weapons and equipment. Soviet ships, by contrast, did not consider the possibility of such updates, making their modernization in the new environment very costly and time consuming. New capital ships will be built in small series. Furthermore, rapid advances in electronics will require that even these series be divided into sub-series that will maintain unity of ship design while updating electronics and weaponry. Some systems and weapons can be used across ship classes. We are already seeing elements of these ideas in systems such as the multipurpose shipboard firing system (УКСК) and in the modular construction of the latest classes of Russian corvettes and frigates.

These are good ideas. The problem is the extent to which they are stymied by the conglomerate nature of United Shipbuilding and by the difficulty its personnel and business structures face in adapting to the new way of doing business. Over time, I imagine the shipbuilding industry will improve. But time is needed, while the navy is providing the industry with somewhat unrealistic timetables for the construction of new ships. The result will be more delays, though probably not as bad as in the recent past.

Russian MOD activity plan for 2013-2020 published

The Russian Ministry of Defense recently published its activity plan for the rest of the decade. Everyone who can read Russian should go look at the handy summary in table form. There’s a lot of information there. I’ll try to pick out some of the highlights here.

The first section covers personnel. Here we find out concrete plans for the number of contract soldiers per year. The numbers are as follows: 2013: 241,000; 2014: 295,000; 2015: 350,000; 2016: 400,000; 2017 and thereafter: 425,000. I assume each figure is for the end of the year specified, though this is not clearly indicated. Contract soldiers are broken out into several categories. Submariners and paratroopers are to be fully staffed this year; Sergeants, combat units, special purpose brigades, and naval infantry in 2014; reconnaissance and artillery specialists in the Airborne Troops in 2015;  various types of technical personnel in 2016, and positions tied to using complex and expensive weapons and equipment in 2017. Perhaps equally interesting are the goals for 2013 for those areas not fully staffed. Here we have sergeants and positions tied to using complex and expensive weapons and equipment at 75%, combat units and special purpose brigades at 60%, naval infantry at 40%, technical positions at 30%, and  reconnaissance and artillery specialists in the Airborne Troops at 25%. Furthermore, there’s yet another official admission that many military billets remain unfilled, with an announced target for filling all billets of 82% by the end of 2013 and 95-100% by the end of 2014.

The second section deal with modernization of armaments. Here it’s probably easiest to just reproduce the table, with the labels translated.

2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
submarines 47% 47% 51% 53% 59% 63% 67% 71%
surface ships 41% 42% 44% 47% 54% 59% 65% 71%
airplanes 23% 30% 37% 45% 55% 59% 67% 71%
helicopters 39% 54% 63% 71% 76% 79% 81% 85%
ground forces missile systems 27% 64%* 64% 82% 100% 100% 100% 100%
artillery 51% 52% 53% 55% 59% 67% 73% 79%
armored vehicles 20% 25% 37% 44% 56% 67% 75% 82%
multipurpose automobiles 40% 44% 48% 52% 56% 60% 65% 72%
Overall modernization 19% 26% 30% 41% 48% 59% 64% 70-      100%

* This is almost certainly a typo and should read 46%, given the overall progression of 18-19% improvement per year in ground forces missile systems.

The plan also has some information that sheds light on the extent to which existing weapons and equipment are in working order. Targets for 2013 by branch of the military are 65% for ground forces, 55% for the air force, and 56% for the navy. These can be taken as the highest bound of equipment in working order at the present time. The goal for 2020 is to reach 80-85% for each branch. There are target dates for the start of serial production of various major platforms. New tanks and armored vehicles are to enter production by the end of 2015, new aircraft (unclear which type, but probably the T-50), air defense systems and corvettes by 2016 and the new destroyer by 2018.

There’s also a whole section on new infrastructure, that indicates plans to improve residential facilities at 100 military bases per year in 2014-2016 and 50 per year thereafter. There are more specific plans listed, including for construction of cafeterias, parks, and sports halls. The plan calls for the construction of three new ranges in 2013-14 and the modernization of over 200 existing ranges by 2017.

The plan includes a very interesting section on improvements in control systems, with plans for the establishment of a national defense control center by December 2014, combat control center at branch headquarters in 2015, at military district headquarters in 2016, and at the unit (i.e. brigade or division) level in 2017.

Military education plans for 2013 include 70 students at the General Staff academy, 790 at the service academies, and 15,680 at the various military institutes and schools. Five new presidential cadet schools are to be established by 2016.

Military preparedness is also expected to increase, with the number of at-sea days per year for naval crews set to more than double — from 60 in 2013 to 125 in 2019 (after reaching 100 in 2016). Annual flight hours for air force pilots are also set to increase, though at a slower rate, from 100 in 2013 to 125 in 2020 for tactical aviation, from 110 in 2013 to 150 in 2018 for military transport aviation, from 70 in 2013 to 130 in 2020 in army aviation, and from 70 in 2013 to 120 in 2020 for naval aviation. Tank drivers are to go from 250km per year in 2013 to 500 in 2017, while armored vehicle drivers drive 350km  this year and 1000 by 2017. The number of annual parachute jumps for airborne  troops are to double, from 6 in 2013 to 12 in 2020. And modern uniforms are to be provided to all soldiers by 2016.

There’s also a section that details progress to be made on solving the housing question. The final 33,400 apartments for retired officers on the waiting list since before January 2012 are to be handed out this year. Another 19,800 apartments will be provided by the end of 2014 to those who joined the waiting list after that date. Starting in 2014, the plan is to provide one time payments to retiring officers in lieu of actual apartments. As for providing members of the active military with housing, progress is expected to be slower, with 100% fulfillment of the plan not reached until 2018.

I don’t think all of these targets in various fields will be met on time. But more importantly, the MOD has produced a public document that creates a set of metrics and expectations for progress over the next seven years. This is something that experts and Russian society can use to see how well the MOD is doing for years to come. It should serve this purpose much better than previous vague statements along the lines of “70 percent modern armaments by 2020″ or “we will solve the housing problem by year X.” At the same time, there will inevitably be pressure on MOD officials to fudge the numbers down the road to make sure the activity plan appears to be on track, regardless of the actual circumstances. Only time will tell whether this tendency will overwhelm the potential value of honest record keeping and public accounting for keeping the military reform process on track.