Is Shoigu reversing Serdyukov’s military reform?

In recent weeks, some analysts have started to argue that the military reform promulgated by Anatoly Serdiukov over the last four years is being systematically rolled back by his successor. Given the unremittingly hostile coverage of Serdyukov and the decisions he made during his tenure, this is not surprising. This perception is further strengthened by the rhetoric and stream of decisions emanating from the Russian Ministry of Defense itself. As one analyst recently noted, “[Defense Minister] Shoigu’s three-month tenure consists of little more than examining and questioning every decision made by Serdiukov.” If you listen to the statements coming out of the MOD and the vast majority of the commentary in the Russian press, you would certainly have the impression that every change that Serdiukov enacted during his years in office has either already been overturned or will be reversed in the near future.

I want to correct this impression. What we have right now is a situation with a number of potentially negative developments, but no real indications that the key aspects of the reform are about to be reversed. It is true enough that Shoigu has reversed a number of Serdyukov’s decisions. But (with the exception of defense procurement, which I’ll address separately) these changes have largely focused on relatively peripheral issues such as military education and medicine. In the education sphere, Shoigu has restored the old training system that has top officers in school for a total of eight years during their careers instead of Serdiukov’s Western-style system of one stint in a military academy followed by short courses to gain skills needed for specific positions. This is certainly a blow to modernization, and may well lead to an excessive number of graduates coming out of the military academies without positions available for them. This outcome could lead to pressure to increase the number of officers in active service, which would be a big blow to the reform effort. So it may be worth watching the number of students being admitted to the newly reformed academies in the next year or two. Similarly, the shift in control over military training from the military branches to the recently reformed Main Combat Training Directorate will leave the branch headquarters with little to do. Aleksandr Golts is concerned that they will start getting involved in commanding the troops, which used to be their bailiwick but is now under the Unified Strategic Commands. Again, a potentially negative development, but not one that has happened yet.

The one critical area where bad things have already happened is in military procurement. I’m of the school of thought that believes that one of the main reasons that Serdiukov was removed is that his policies were threatening the income streams of key players in the defense industry. It is therefore not at all surprising that one of the Shoigu-led MOD’s early acts was to essentially take imports of military technology from foreign sources off the table. As I’ve already written, this will ease pressure on domestic defense industry to improve quality of production while keeping prices from spiraling out of control. As a result, the procurement of a new generation of military equipment in the quantities needed for the military is likely to be imperiled.

Other than in procurement policy, the key structural elements of the reform remain untouched. These include the shift to a three-tiered organizational structure for the military with the brigade as the key unit, the establishment of unified strategic commands that are designed to enhance inter-service cooperation, the reduction in the number of officers, and the goal of shifting away from conscription to a primarily contract-based manning structure over time. As long as they remain in place, the Russian military will remain on track to be transformed away from the Soviet mobilization army to a more modern, more mobile, and more unified military force. According to Golts, all of these elements have recently been affirmed by the country’s top political leadership and by top officials at the MOD. Golts further argues that the new defense plan recently presented to the president by Shoigu and new Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov, if it’s as comprehensive and thorough as described in the media, could only have been prepared under the direction of Serdiukov and Makarov. There simply has not been enough time to prepare anything serious in the three months since Serdiukov was fired.

It’s certainly possible, as Golts and other commentators have indicated, that Shoigu will come under increasing pressure from the old-school career generals to repeal those aspects of the reform that are, to me anyway, the core of transforming the military into a 21st century fighting force. Golts argues that because Shoigu has been made an army general, he will not be able to withstand the pressure to do whatever the generals want. An alternative (and not contradictory) argument, also made recently by Golts, is that Shoigu is likely to accede to the generals’ desires because he does not expect to the stay at the MOD for long and will therefore do whatever the generals ask of him. These are both possibilities. And the indications for the future of military reform, given Shoigu’s initial actions, are certainly not positive. But I have not yet seen anything definitive that would cause me to assume that Shoigu is going to reverse the structural aspects of the reform. I would therefore urge caution in reading any analyses that argue that Russian military reform is dead.


A strategy for military reform

In early 2011, the Russian Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR) released a massive report entitled “Discovering the Future: Strategy-2012.” The idea is to develop an agenda for Russia’s development during the next presidential term. The section on security issues and the military was authored by Alexander Golts and Mikhail Krasnov. Golts appears to be the lead author of the part on the military. In this report, he first goes through the reasons for the likely failure of the reform effort. This consists of a few fairly familiar points that I will simply list in bullet point form:

  • The current conscription system is not equipped to deal with the sharp decrease in the number of 18 year olds that is coming in the next 2-3 years.
  • Conscripts do not have the training (and often also lack the abilities) to work in a modern, technologically sophisticated army.
  • Junior officers are unable to improve their qualifications because they are increasingly having to spend all their time training new conscripts. This will hinder the introduction of modern equipment into the Russian military.
  • The military’s structural reform is incomplete, with unified strategic commands not much changed from the old military districts.
  • The organization of Russian defense industry is completely ineffective. As a result, the State Armaments Program will fail.

In other words, these are the usual complaints with the system. What I find far more interesting is Golts’ proposal for how to make military reform successful. I’ll address his main points in a bit more detail.

First, Golts argues that the president should announce that the military will transition to an all volunteer force by 2018. Given previous failures in this regard, this will require a high level of transparency, as well as a guarantee of adequate funding. Golts sets the level at no less than 3.5% of GDP, with a significant percentage of that funding set aside by law for military reform goals. The military would shrink to 400-500 thousand.

Recruitment would have to increase significantly to compensate for the end of conscription. In order for this to happen, conditions for soldiers serving in the military would have to improve. Golts suggests something like a Russian GI Bill, with the government giving assistance for receiving an education after the end of the soldier’s service or providing credits to help in starting a business. Most importantly, contract soldiers would have to receive a salary that would be greater than the Russian average.

Golts believes that the military education system would also have to be significantly revamped, with the establishment of several dozen training centers that would focus on training sergeants in disciplines such as administration, psychology and pedagogy. In other words, the goal would be to train leaders who could become, in effect, junior commanders. By training several thousand such sergeants each year, by 2017 the military could have its core of 50-60 thousand professional sergeants who could be counted on to maintain discipline in the barracks and would ensure that volunteer soldiers are trained in professional ethics and how to act morally. This is vital because it is likely that for the first several years after the end of conscription, most volunteers will be far from the best examples of the younger generation.

The education of officers would also have to change. Cadets would receive a high level education in the sciences and humanities. The former would allow them to understand how to use advanced weapons and military technology, while the latter would allow them to understand their place in a rapidly changing world. Promotions would be based on merit and the system would have to be fully transparent, something like the up or out system used in the United States.

Golts then turns to the structure of the military’s top organizations. He advocates transforming the Ministry of Defense into an agency staffed primarily by civilians whose job would be to translate the policies developed by the country’s civilian leadership into the language of military orders. They would also be responsible for orders of weapons and equipment and for budgeting and other financial matters. Military operations would be based on orders that would go directly from the Minister of Defense to the four Unified Strategic Commands. The General Staff would have no direct role in operations. Instead, it would focus on strategic planning and would provide policy recommendations to the Minister of Defense and Russia’s political leaders on the nature of military threats facing the country and how to counter them.

National defense would depend not on the number of soldiers in uniform, but on a combination of threat detection by spy satellites, the ability to mobilize rapid response forces, and the use of modern long-range precision-guided weaponry. Necessary equipment could be stored at bases near areas where conflicts might be more likely, such as the Caucasus, Central Asia, or the Far East. This type of military would be designed primarily to fight in local or regional conflicts. Nuclear weapons and participation in global missile defense would ensure Russian security from larger threats.

The military-industrial complex would be reformed as well. Rather than funding the full range of military procurement, as in the current SAP, the Russian government would focus on a few priority projects in the area of high tech, such as command and control, communications, and intelligence systems.

Such a fundamental reform of the Russian military would include the establishment of a functioning system of civilian oversight through the State Duma, the press, and a system of independent analytical institutes. This would also require changes in budget and secrecy laws in order to allow the release of much more detailed budget information to the public.

This is a very good plan, obviously modeled in large part on the American military. But unfortunately, it is also very much pie in the sky, as far as the Russian military is concerned. While Serdiukov & co have taken on the generals on many issues, a reform this wide-ranging would be opposed not just by the generals but also by the country’s civilian leaders. Despite Medvedev’s occasional statements on modernization, these leaders are not really all that interested in the greater openness and transparency that are a fundamental part of Golts’ plan. They also would likely be less than happy about the reduction in opportunities for corruption that would have to come with any plan for greater financial openness.

So we are far more likely to be left with Golts’ other option — muddling through, with a few minor improvements and cosmetic changes that do not do much to make the Russian military more prepared for the conflicts of the 21st century than it is today.

Golts on prospects for the Russian military

Last week I was in Russia for a conference. While there, I got a chance to meet with Aleksandr Golts, one of the most reliable Russian experts on the Russian military. Here are some thoughts on our discussion.

Manpower and the Demographic Problem

Golts noted that the greatest problem facing the Russian military is the lack of 18 year olds for conscription. Between now and 2020-2025, the cohort of 18 year olds eligible for conscription will consist of no more than 600-650,000 men per year. Meanwhile, 700-750,000 are needed to fully staff the desired million man army. And various deferments and exemptions will inevitably reduce those numbers even further. There are few good options for maintaining a conscript-based military, especially since an increase of the term of service to 18 months is politically unpalatable and could not possibly be adopted until after the 2012 elections. By that point, it might be too late to avert a collapse of the military’s manpower system. (Golts was skeptical of the need for that many people to serve in the Russian military, but that’s a separate issue.)

He argued that contract soldiers are better than conscripts anyway, because the military does not have to spend as many resources to train them, even if they only end up staying for a single term of 3-5 years.  The implication is that Golts supports the initiative to increase the number of contract soldiers to 425,000, announced at the March 18 military collegium meeting (which was the date of my interview with Golts). The idea is that this effort will succeed where previous ones have failed because of the concurrent increase in salaries for soldiers and officers.

Golts pointed out that the recent decision to partially reverse the cuts in the number of officers had two sources. First, the military had not been able to build apartments  for all the retiring officers. Second, the regime had been scared by last fall’s protest meetings that were organized by the VDV veterans. In the run-up to next year’s elections, it didn’t want to have to deal with 200,000 articulate and well-trained 30-40 year old men who had good cause to hate the regime.


Golts was highly pessimistic about plans for rejuvenating Russian military industry, arguing that the military industrial complex (OPK) is actually regressing. Furthermore, it is not a complex at all, as the leading enterprises lack subcontractors to provide basic parts for final assembly. In the Soviet period, these parts used to be provided by civilian factories, who used to lose money on their manufacture. Now that there’s no Gosplan to force them to provide these components, this part of the process has broken down. Instead, the components are manufactured at the final assembly plant, but the process is slow and the product is of poor quality. Problems with the production of basic components has caused numerous defects in sophisticated weapons systems, including the Bulava SLBMs.

There are also significant problems with staffing. In the Soviet period, military industry used to be the best place to work, but now because of lower salaries and a lack of prestige it is much less attractive than the civilian sector.

(I should note that other analysts in Moscow — including those from CAST — disagreed with this assessment of the cause of problems in Russia’s defense industry, arguing that it’s in better condition than Golts believes and that supply chains for the more advanced enterprises continue to function.)

At the same time, for 15-20 years, there was no R&D work being done. With the exception of the fifth generation fighter plane and the Bulava, all of the plans for new weapons systems being used even now are no more than modifications of Soviet-era plans developed in the 1980s.

There are also problems with the OPK’s organization. As part of Russia’s overall recentralization under Putin, the Soviet-era sectoral ministries were largely restored as holding companies (United Shipbuilding, United Aircraft, Rostekhnologii). Many of the constituent units of these companies are disfunctional — the more effective units are used to keep the effectively bankrupt ones afloat. For example, Rostekhnologii controls 570 companies, a quarter of which are bankrupt.

Golts argues that because of all these problems, Russian OPK actually reached its maximum construction capacity back in 2005. Since then, increased financing has just led to higher prices for new state orders. Rather than attempting to reform itself, the industry is focused on coming up with new ways to absorb the vast increase in financing earmarked in GPV 2020.

Prognosis for the future

One of the main problems with the GPV, according to Golts, is that there is no prioritization — the military wants some of everything. At the same time, the Mistral deal was designed to be a wake-up call to the OPK — to make it clear to them that the military will no longer be satisfied with the old ways of doing business with defense industry. That doesn’t mean that OPK reform is inevitable; everything depends on how long Putin and his team will continue to support Serdiukov.

Unlike military reform, reform of the defense industry is likely to result in the exacerbation of undercover battles over the division of profits and resources. The leaders did not know the scope of the military’s problems when they charged Serdiukov with pursuing the reform. Now the likelihood is increasing that changes in the structure of the defense sector will affect the stability of the entire political system, because OPK reform will inevitably affect the distribution of control over lucrative rents among members of the inner circle. Previous aspects of military reform either didn’t affect rent payments or could be used to restructure rent flows away from generals and toward members of the inner circle.

One issue that will be critical for further reform but has not received sufficient attention in the domestic press is the extent to which cooperation with Western militaries is necessary for the success of Russian military reform. Serdiukov understand that he can’t really create a modern military with today’s officers. What is needed is a radical change in the military education system. To this end, he has created a working group to study foreign expertise on this issue. There is an effort underway to adopt Western models for operational planning for the Russian military. However, full adoption may have to wait for new generations of Russian officers.

Russian Politics and Law, May 2010 Table of Contents

Volume 48 Number 3 / May-June 2010 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the web site at

Dmitry Gorenburg: The Future of Russia’s Military: Editor’s Introduction p. 3

Aleksandr Golts: The Secret Reform p. 6

Leonid Fishman: Is It Possible to Reincorporate the Army into Society? p. 23

Andrei A. Kokoshin: Notes on the Creation of an “Innovative Russian Army” p. 35

Stanislav Kuvaldin: Armed Forces for a Modest Power p. 44

Urgent Problems and the Logic of Military Reform: Round Table at Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie p. 53

The Future of Russia’s Military: Editor’s Introduction

In October 2008 the Russian government suddenly announced a wide-ranging military reform. Most analysts assumed that the proposals were just talk and would remain on paper, either through bureaucratic stonewalling or through lack of financing for the reform effort. Now, eighteen months into the process, there are no doubts that the reform is for real and is virtually unstoppable. The articles in this issue address a range of issues dealing with the causes and consequences of the reform, including the decline of Russia’s military capabilities, the increasing disconnect between society and the military, the nature of the threats facing Russia, and the failure of previous reform efforts.

In “The Secret Reform,” Aleksandr Gol’ts explores the rationale underlying the military reform that began in the fall of 2008. While he complains about the secrecy that surrounded the initial implementation of the reform plans, he notes that the reform is necessary and appropriate given the condition of the Russian military. He notes that the main goal of the reform is the elimination of the Soviet mass mobilization army and its replacement by a professional army staff that is largely staffed by soldiers working on contract, rather than conscripts. Since Gol’ts’s article was published, this plan has run into problems due to the inadequate supply of soldiers willing to sign contracts. In order for recruitment to be successful, the military must become more attractive topotential soldiers.

Leonid Fishman takes up this issue in “Is It Possible to Reincorporate the Army into Society?” He traces the historical evolution of the relationship between the army and society. He shows that whereas in the past armies were used to train the population to become citizens, a modern army no longer plays such a role. Although Fishman does not make this point, the reason for this change has to do in large part with the advent of mass public education, with schools now being given the task of creating citizens. Fishman goes on to argue that the underlying cause of the poor performance of the Russian army is its failure to adapt to changes in the society around it. To reverse this process, he calls for the establishment of an army that is professional and based on providing the kind of training that soldiers leaving the army would find helpful in leading a successful civilian life. He believes that this is the only way to make the military attractive to ambitious young people who want to improve their position in society. The presence of such people in the military would, in turn, make it more capable in defending the country.

In “Notes on the Creation of an ‘Innovative Russian Army,’ ” written at the start of the Serdiukov reform program implementation, Andrei Kokoshin surveys the technical requirements of a modern army, focusing especially on the informational and analytical resources necessary for fighting a twenty first-century war. In this context, he discusses the priority needs of the Russian military, including an increased emphasis on special operations forces, the reform of military education, and the introduction of the advanced information technology into at least two or three experimental brigades in the ground forces. He argues that the fulfillment of these tasks will allow Russia to revitalize its military technology in the near future.

Stanislav Kuvaldin (“Armed Forces for a Modest Power”) revisits the Serdiukov reform a year after its introduction. He notes that despite the opposition of almost the entire set of military experts and most top generals, the government has succeeded in moving the reform forward. In fact, reform has reached the point of no return. If it is ultimately successful, it will create throughout Russia armed forces capable of winning local wars, which is a realistic task given the current security environment. At the same time, the military will have to give up its pretensions of challenging major powers such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or even China.

Finally, we include in this issue a roundtable discussion (“Urgent Problems and the Logic of Military Reform”) that discusses the political background behind the reforms, including the nature of the threats facing Russia, how the Russian military should be organized to best defend the country against these threats, and how the government is handling the reform effort. This roundtable, organized by Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie and held in early 2009, showed that a wide range of views still exists on the nature of the threats facing Russia and that these views are closely correlated with opinions on the wisdom of the military reform. Some experts still see NATO and the West as a primary threat and believe that the Serdiukov reform will destroy Russia’s capacity to defend itself against such a major adversary. Other experts argue that the cold war ended a long time ago and the main threats facing Russia come from local conflicts on its southern border. In this situation, a reform along the lines outlined by Serdiukov is necessary and will help create a future Russian military that can actually carry out its missions.

Russia’s future security over the next twenty to thirty years depends in large part on the ability of its government to successfully implement a program to modernize its military organization and equipment, while changing its personnel recruitment policies to match future demographic realities. The Serdiukov reform shows that, for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the government realizes the seriousness of the challenge and is prepared to act accordingly.

Russia’s new military doctrine: An exercise in public relations

Last Friday, the Kremlin finally published the long-awaited text of Russia’s new military doctrine. All in all, it’s a fairly innocuous document largely filled with empty generalities. Aleksandr Golts is probably right in arguing that this is the best that can be expected in a situation where clans of military bureaucrats are engaged in an ongoing conflict. He describes the document as fifteen pages “filled with breaking news that the Volga empties into the Caspian Sea.”

Nevertheless, there are some important points to be made regarding this document. The item that has received the most publicity, though, is something that did not make it into the final document. Despite Nikolai Patrushev’s prediction of several months ago, the doctrine does not include any statement about the preemptive use of nuclear weapons. The text reads “Russia retains the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use against it or (and) its allies of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, or in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons, if [such an attack] threatens the very existence of the state.” This is more or less taken verbatim from the previous edition of the military doctrine, which was adopted in 2000. Nikolai Sokov points out that if anything, the criteria for use of nuclear weapons are actually somewhat narrower, as the final clause  in the previous edition read “in situations critical for the national security of Russia.” The only other innovation in this regard is that the new text makes clear that all decisions on the use of nuclear weapons are made by the President of the Russian Federation.

Commentators inclined to treat anything done or said by Russian officials with suspicion argue that such a statement was excluded from the military doctrine to avoid increasing tension with the international community but is undoubtedly included in the unpublished and classified “Basic principles of state policy in the area of nuclear deterrence to 2020″ document, which was approved at the same time as the military doctrine and supposedly spells out the situations in which Russia would use nuclear weapons. Given that planners in both Russia and the United States still by and large subscribe to the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, there is little point to secret plans to use nuclear weapons — the whole point is to publicize a relatively explicit set of situations in which your side would use nuclear weapons in order to make sure that the other side does not cross those lines.

More believable commentators speculate that the absence of the clause on preemptive use of nuclear weapons is a sign that negotiations with the United States on a new START treaty are going well.

For me, the most striking passages in the  doctrine have to do with the listing of external threats facing Russia. Eleven such threats are listed, including some fairly generic ones such as the spread of international terrorism and the spread of ethnic and religious extremist groups in regions near Russian borders. But the first threat listed refers explicitly to NATO and its efforts both to extend its reach globally and to bring its military infrastructure close to Russia’s borders. The second threat listed refers to “efforts to destabilize the situation in specific countries and regions so as to undermine strategic stability,” clearly a veiled reference to Russian elites’ belief that the US was behind popular efforts to remove autocratic rulers in various former Soviet states in the last decade.

Because of these two sentences, the new doctrine is much more explicit than any previous official policy document in declaring that Russia considers NATO and its member states to be the most significant source of military danger to Russia. This makes for good domestic politics, but does little to address the real security issues facing Russia. Nor does it provide for a realistic set of guidelines for how to structure the Russian military in coming years. Clearly, Russian military planners are not planning  a military buildup on Russia’s western border. The actual threats will continue to emanate from the south in the near term, with a growing potential for tension with China sometime down the road.

Russian military planners know full well that NATO is not a threat and this was made clear today when French and Russian officials announced that they were going forward with the sale of France’s Mistral amphibious assault ship to Russia. It seems fairly unlikely that Russian officials would buy military technology from an enemy state, nor that such an enemy would agree to sell it.

It seems to me that the prominent mention of NATO in the list of threats is a sop to the military’s old guard, who have been defeated in the battle over the future direction of the Russian military through the elimination of the mass mobilization army and the forced retirement of most of the old guard generals. Listing NATO as a threat is seen as a relatively harmless way to keep them quiet while the current leadership presses ahead with both structural reforms and closer ties with foreign defense industry.

Thus, we can see that Russia’s new military doctrine is simply a public relations document both in terms of its statement on nuclear policy and its listing of the key foreign threats facing Russia. In this context, it is not surprising that the content of the rest of the document is so generic, as the only politically relevant parts of the document are those that serve a PR purpose. As far as Russia’s military and civilian leadership is concerned, the rest could be filled with complete gibberish.