Impressions from Moscow

At the end of May, I spent a week in Moscow doing some research on various topics. Although it wasn’t the central focus of my interviews, I took the opportunity to discuss the state of the Russian military with several scholars and journalists. What follows is a brief summary of my impressions from these conversations.

Shoigu is not reversing Serdyukov’s reform. With only one exception, all of my interlocutors agreed that Shoigu is maintaining the main thrust of Serdyukov’s reform efforts. He has canceled the decisions that were most upsetting to the senior generals, but kept all the central aspects of the reform. One example: Restoring the Tamanskaia and Kantemirovskaia divisions pleased the traditionalists, but the newly rechristened divisions are unlikely to ever reach actual division staffing levels. Instead, levels are likely to reach 6-7,000 people, higher than the 3,800 assigned to brigades but nowhere near the 13-14,000 personnel assigned to a traditional Russian military division. It’s possible that additional divisions will be introduced, but no more than 1-2 per military district, as there are simply not enough personnel in the military to staff all the brigades, let alone restore the old divisions. Similarly, Shoigu’s decision to wear a military uniform was designed to make the old guard of the military more comfortable, as part of a campaign to repair relations between the country’s civilian leadership and senior generals. He is reported to wear civilian clothing at all times except when he is meeting with the generals. For obvious reasons, Shoigu has been very keen to distance himself from anything related to Serdyukov and the criminal case that was the ostensible reason for Serdyukov’s dismissal. But much of this is at the level of perceptions and symbolism, rather than actual policy change.

In fact, many of Shoigu’s changes have to be described as largely positive for the Russian military. The introduction of sudden alert drills has demonstrated the lack of preparedness in some units, but is likely to lead to an increase in readiness in the long term. Restoring the position of warrant officer (praporshchik or michman) for technical positions is another needed course correction, though most of the staff in question did not actually leave the military when their positions were eliminated, instead continuing to serve as sergeants. Another important change that has largely gone unnoticed by most commentators has to do with promotions within the military. Serdyukov handled all promotions himself, and approvals came quite slowly. This caused resentment among the officer corps. Shoigu has decentralized and accelerated the process.

Clearly, there are many problems with the military. The rearmament plans incorporated in the current State Armament Program are a fiction and have no chance of being implemented at anywhere near the promised levels. Corruption remains endemic, both at the MOD and in defense industry. And perhaps most seriously, the military seems to have no solution for its manpower crisis. Demographic factors have sharply limited the pool of potential conscripts, while the military remains largely unable to make itself attractive enough to recruit a sizable pool of professional contract soldiers.

But these real concerns should not blind us to the progress that has been made under Serdyukov, nor to the possibility of continued progress under Shoigu. It may well happen that the pessimists turn out to be right and that Shoigu ends up dismantling the positive changes made under Serdyukov. But we should remember that everything Serdyukov did in transforming the military was done at Putin’s behest. It’s quite likely that priorities have changed and that shaking up the military has now taken a back seat to ensuring stability in a period where the regime is no longer nearly as popular as it once was. That can quite nicely explain the sacrifice of Serdyukov. But on the same count, the military can be satisfied by the combination of going after Serdyukov and the symbolic acts taken so far. Stability and a docile military does not require the dismantling of the entirety of Serdyukov’s reform, especially since some aspects of it are now firmly entrenched. Their reversal would lead to greater instability within the military than leaving things alone.

 

 

Russian Military reform moves beyond Soviet legacy

Here’s an Oxford Analytica brief I wrote a few months ago. This was originally published November 19, 2012. There have been a number of new developments since then, but this is still worth reading for my perspective of what worked, what didn’t, and what challenges Shoigu will be facing in the near future…

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SUBJECT:Key accomplishments of Russia’s military reform and its mid-term prospects.

SIGNIFICANCE:Russia’s defence industry remains in a fairly decrepit state, plagued by outdated equipment, lack of experienced personnel, inefficient production processes and extensive corruption. Government efforts to revive the industry through restructuring and targeted investment have produced few improvements, creating instead a large number of unwieldy government-controlled monopolies.

ANALYSIS: Impacts

  • A mobile and well-equipped military will enable Russia to become a more efficient player in local and regional conflicts.
  • The higher budget allocations could translate into higher salaries for the military, raising the prestige of military service.
  • The defence industry’s difficulties in manufacturing ultramodern equipment will hinder the efforts to improve Russian military capabilities.
  • Recent personnel changes in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) provide an opportunity to assess the state of the Russian military after four years of reforms and the issues that it is facing at the start of the incoming defence minister’s tenure.

Russia’s most successful defence minister?

One of the greatest successes of former Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was the radical military reform that he launched in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s war with Georgia in August 2008.

More mobility

Working closely with Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov, who masterminded much of the reform, Serdyukov succeeded in dismantling the Soviet-era structure of the Russian military and replacing it with a structure more suited to 21st century warfare. He substituted the unwieldy divisions geared towards fighting large frontal wars with much more mobile and largely self-sufficient brigades.

Faster mobilisation

The reform also ended the Russian military’s dependence on mass mobilisation to fight its wars. During the post-Soviet period, many military units existed mostly on paper and were staffed by only a few officers in charge of warehouses filled with unusable weapons and equipment. It could take up to one year for most of these units to become combat-ready. Under Serdyukov, they were eliminated, and the military began a gradual transition to a structure based on fully staffed units that could mobilise in less than a week. Some of these units should be able to respond to a sudden conflict within 24 hours.

Better inter-service cooperation

The military also made great strides in becoming better coordinated in its operations. Under the previous command structure, inter-service cooperation on the battlefield required coordination from Moscow. This led to numerous incidents of miscommunication that resulted in losses to friendly fire and problems with essential combat requirements, such as the timely provision of air cover for advancing ground forces. The establishment of four regional unified strategic commands allowed local commanders to organise all military elements in their respective region, which greatly enhanced inter-service cooperation.

All of these organisational changes have been made in an effort to enable the Russian military to respond more quickly to unexpected local or regional conflicts. These are the only types of wars that the Russian military has been engaged in since the Afghanistan conflict of the 1980s. Military planners expect this to be the most common form of warfare in the foreseeable future as well.

Failed reforms

Although he did a great deal to rid the Russian military of its Soviet legacy, Serdyukov was far less successful in interpersonal matters: the minister’s lack of military experience and his hard-charging style, which earned him the nickname ‘Bulldozer’, alienated most of the senior and junior officers under his command.

Military continues to face housing crisis

Although military salaries were increased substantially during Serdyukov’s term, the MoD failed to fulfil its long-standing promise to provide its serving and retired officers with acceptable housing. Although the MoD asserted that large numbers of apartments were being constructed, many eventually turned out to be uninhabitable because of poor construction methods. At the same time, a rapid reduction in the number of serving officers resulted in yet more retired personnel on waiting lists for permanent housing.

Corruption remains rampant

Before Serdyukov became head of the MoD, the military was widely known as one of Russia’s most corrupt institutions, with senior officers accumulating large amounts of money by redirecting procurement and construction funding and using conscript labour for personal needs. The circumstances surrounding Serdyukov’s removal suggest that his goal of stamping out corruption in the military during his tenure was far from being achieved.

Challenges ahead

Shoigu, the new minister of defence, has maintained a relatively clean reputation throughout his tenure as minister for emergency situations and as the governor of the Moscow region. He also appears to have the support of senior officers, most of whom despised his predecessor. However, the military he has inherited is still facing a number of serious challenges.

Military remains small and untrained

The most pressing problem is the military’s lack of soldiers. A decline in childbirth in the early 1990s has resulted in a corresponding drop in the number of 18-year-old men available for conscription. At the same time, salary increases and improvements in living conditions have done little to encourage Russians to serve in the military as contract soldiers. As a result, the military is facing significant personnel shortages. Moreover, the military’s inability to attract a sufficient number of contract soldiers also affects its battlefield readiness: conscripts who serve for only a year before demobilisation do not have enough training to handle the modern weapons that the military hopes to acquire by 2020.

Need for more modern equipment

The second major challenge facing the new defence minister is the implementation of a highly ambitious ten-year rearmament programme that is expected to modernise 70% of Russia’s weapons by 2020. Serdyukov and Makarov had made many enemies in the defence industry by insisting that the MoD would not pay inflated prices for substandard, domestically manufactured equipment. Shoigu, at least initially, appears poised to take a softer line with the industry. This may win him friends but is also likely to burden the military with outdated and overpriced weapons systems.

CONCLUSION: As Russia’s new defence minister, Sergei Shoigu faces several key challenges: he will need to modernise military equipment, raise the number of well-trained personnel and crack down on widespread corruption. Shoigu will have to walk a fine line between remaining on good terms with the military-industrial lobby and seeing through the reforms initiated by his predecessor.

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.

 

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.

New attack on General Staff and military reform

It seems that opponents of Russian military reform have launched another effort to derail it. Over the last week, a number of articles in generally even handed newspapers such as Nezavisimaia Gazeta have focused on the continuing problems with the implementation of reform. What’s more, these articles have been quite direct in blaming General Makarov, the chief of the General Staff. Given his close ties to Anatolii Serdiukov, this seems to be a direct attack on the defense minister himself.

The key figure in these reports is Mikhail Babich, the deputy chairman of the State Duma’s committee on defense. He has done two interviews in recent days, one on the subject of the recent housecleaning in the military’s top ranks and another on the subject of the state of preparedness of troops in the Russian Far East and the Pacific Fleet.

In mid-January, an MOD review commission found that the state of the Far Eastern Military District and the Pacific Fleet is poor. It didn’t help that on the last day of the review, a Su-27 fighter aircraft crashed in Khabarovsk during training. (The Air Force subsequently suspended all Su-27 flights until the cause of the crash is determined.) The goal of the review was to determine how prepared the region’s military forces were to work in the new command system implemented last year. While the final report of the review has not yet been issued, General Makarov publicly announced that the state of region’s armed forces was not satisfactory. Continue reading

Housecleaning at the Top

I have previously noted the extent to which Russian military reform was made possible by the removal of Yuri Baluyevsky, the previous chief of the General Staff, and a number of other top generals from key positions. Many other members of the military leadership resigned or were removed from their positions during the last year, in most cases because they opposed the reform. Elena Melnichuk and Vasilii Toropov have published some data on the extent to which the top staff of the Ministry of Defense have been replaced since Serdiukov’s appointment 2.5 years ago. According to their data, of the 50 top military commanders (including deputy ministers, heads of main directorates,  chief commanders, and chiefs of military districts) 44 have been replaced since February 2007.

The housecleaning began almost immediately, with the removals of Anatoly Mazurkevich, Chief of the Main Directorate for International Affairs, and Aleksey Moskovsky, Deputy Minister and Chief of Armament. By the end of 2007, the commanders of the Army, Air Force, and Navy had all been dismissed. All of these were accompanied by corresponding dismissals and transfers of their clients. The goal was to break the military high command’s resistance to radical changes in organizational structure and budgetary priorities. Through both statements at staff meetings and wide-ranging audits of various directorates, Serdiukov sought to spread the message that the widespread theft and corruption that his predecessor Sergey Ivanov could not stamp out would no longer be tolerated. As a clear sign of the seriousness of his anti-corruption effort, Serdiukov assigned the auditing tasks to people who had never worked in the military.

While Serdiukov rapidly cleaned house in the Ministry and in the services, he was not immediately able to break the power of the military General Staff. Although he sought to replace Baluyevsky virtually from the start of his tenure, Baluyevsky was strong enough to prevent his removal for well over a year, while frequently expressing opinions critical of Serdiukov’s positions. Eventually, it became clear that radical reform could not proceed while traditionalists such as Baluyevsky remained in positions of power in the General Staff, which in the structure of the Russian military was responsible for, among other things, strategic planning.  In June 2008, Baluyevsky was replaced with the much more pliable Nikolai Makarov, who has since taking the job shown himself to be a strong supporter of Serdiukov’s actions. Once this change had been made, all was ready for the implementation of radical reform, which began the following October.

Another round of dismissals and resignations followed in the wake of the commencement of reform, including in April 2009 the long-rumored departure of Deputy Defense Minister Liubov Kudelina, who had been brought in by Sergei Ivanov to run the ministry’s finances and had stayed on after his departure. According to one source, her departure was caused by her disapproval of the way some aspects of the reform were being conducted, though other sources have noted that Serdiukov had long wanted her gone, seeing her as a rival for financial control of the ministry.

Around the same time, another round of generals were also asked to retire, including Valerii Evtukhovich, the commander of the airborne troops, the commanders of the Moscow and Far Eastern military districts and, most significantly, Valentin Korabelnikov, the head of military intelligence (GRU). The latter was removed because he opposed the GRU’s reassignment from the General Staff to the Defense Ministry proper and efforts to remove special forces units from the GRU’s jurisdiction.

In the end, these firings, retirements, and resignations allowed the minister and his supporters in the Defense Ministry to create an unprecedented situation. All of the top military officers are now either fully in favor of the reform or, at the very least, silent about their opposition. The conflict between the ministry and the General Staff, which has been a constant part of the Russian military’s disfunction since the late 1990s, is no more; the general staff have been vanquished and no longer have any political clout. This has made both the rollout of the reform and its continued implementation despite trying political circumstances possible. Success will depend on keeping military bureaucrats from quietly sabotaging the effort and keeping the rank and file from openly expressing their fear and discontent.

Update on Shamanov

It seems that the saga of General Shamanov I wrote about in my last post has reached a quick and relatively quiet end. After a brief investigation, the defense minister announced that Shamanov had received a warning for conduct incompatible with his position (nepolnoe sluzhebnoe sootvetstvie).  Shamanov announced that he accepted the punishment. What this means once you get past the terminology is that there will be no consequences for Shamanov beyond the negative report in his personnel file (something he probably cares little about). He will remain in his position and will not be subject to a criminal probe.

It seems that Shamanov retains the support of  Serdiukov and/or his superiors. This may be because of a combination of his popularity in the military ranks and his role in planning and carrying out the military reform.