Russian Military Reform and Russia’s Regional Dominance

In recent months, Roger McDermott has written some of the most incisive analyses of the Russian military. His analysis of the significance of the reorganization of the Russian General Staff was one of the first indicators that the military reform started by the Defense Ministry last October was something more than the usual empty talk we had come to expect. Subsequent analyses detailed the problems bedeviling Russia’s air force, the potential impact of last winter’s financial crisis on prospects for reform implementation, and the manpower crisis facing the military as a consequence of the reduction in the length of service for conscripts. In recent articles, McDermott has with great precision described the weakness of the Russian military, arguing that this weakness was one of the main factors that made Russia’s leaders finally realize that reform was absolutely necessary.

Given these analyses, I found McDermott’s most recent analysis somewhat surprising. Once again, he is right on in criticizing most analysts’ penchant for underestimating the objectives and progress of the reform program or dismissing it entirely. As he quite accurately states, “this is no public-relations campaign…. The Russian military is changing fast; few are able to perceive the sheer breathtaking scale of these changes…” And finally, the goal of the reform “is to produce mobile, permanent-readiness formations capable of intervention within a readily short period,” which will “enhance [Russia’s] capability to project power within its near abroad.”

At the same time, McDermott spells out the challenges facing the reformed Russian military in the near future, including an “ailing defense industry” that is having immense trouble producing the new weapons the Russian military will need to replace its aged Soviet relics, difficulties in establishing a reformed military education system, and the length of time needed to create the “culture of promoting individual initiative embodied in the NCO concept.” I could add some other difficulties, including most critically the manpower crisis inherent in a plunging population of young adults, especially when combined with inadequate pay for the professional soldiers slated to replace the existing conscript force.

Given the excellent analysis throughout the piece and in McDermott’s previous work, I find his conclusions rather puzzling. The key paragraph in full states:

While any comment on the policy implications is premature, it is likely that the Russian conventional armed forces will emerge in the next few years as an unrivaled dominant force within the former Soviet space; capable of sudden, decisive intervention, with minimal damage to the country’s international credibility.

I’m not sure how this is possible, given all the problems he has spelled out above. The current transformation will certainly create a military that is more effective than the current one. But it will still lack modern communications equipment and other basic items such as night vision equipment both for tanks and for individual soldiers. It will take at least a decade to restore the air force to a fully functioning state. Without effective air cover, future interventions in the region may have some of the same problems that plagued the 58th army in the early stages of last summer’s war in Georgia. And as McDermott notes, it will take time for personnel to get used to the new command structure.

Now it may be that the Russian military will emerge as “an unrivaled dominant force” in its region, but if so, this will mostly be because of the weakness of its neighbors, not because of its own strength. What’s more, this is a position it already held before any reforms began, as shown by the ease with which it defeated the Georgian military last year. But other neighboring countries with relatively weak military forces may prove much harder to invade successfully, if the country is large enough or its forces choose to fight a guerrilla campaign. This is why Russia will not find it easy to invade countries such as Ukraine or Kazakhstan, even if its leaders may want to do so. As for Central Asia, China may have something to say about Russia becoming an unrivaled dominant force in that region.

I read the doctrine behind the Russian military reform as focused not on increasing Russia’s ability to invade other countries, but on make it more capable of rushing ready forces to potential areas of instability in the North Caucasus or elsewhere along its long land border.  Some may see this view as naive, especially in light of the new Russian law on military missions abroad. However, that law seems to me to be more of a prevenative warning to Georgia and Ukraine, rather than a signal that new military actions aimed at neighboring states are forthcoming.

I am also confused by McDermott’s statement that the military reform “will not contribute to improving interoperability with NATO forces for future peace support operations. ” It seems to me that an increase in mobility and readiness for the bulk of Russia’s military forces can only help interoperability. Furthermore, Russian forces haven’t done so badly working together with NATO and EU forces in recent years in the former Yugoslavia and in naval anti-piracy operations off the Somalian coast. The lack of political will (on both sides, to some extent) to engage in further cooperative operations of this type seems to be much more of a block to cooperation than a lack of military interoperability.

Finally, there is the question of international credibility. Even if McDermott is right in that Russia will soon be able to militarily dominate its neighbors, there is no way that it will be able to do so without grave repercussions to its standing in the international community. The international reaction to Russia’s response to last year’s Georgian attack on South Ossetia was quick and severe. One might say that there were few lasting consequences for Russia, but things might be very different if attacks on neighbors were a) unprovoked and/or b) came to be seen as part of pattern of belligerent action on Russia’s part.

One thought on “Russian Military Reform and Russia’s Regional Dominance

  1. Your commentary strikes me as well-balanced. I like the conditional tone of it — it is hard to know how and where and why they would use their reformed force.

    They have to reform the force; the good thing is coming off the massive mobilization model in anticipation of big wars, which have become more fantastic as the world matures, and to something leaner that fits what they can practically do, man, and equip. They don’t really think that NATO or China is going to invade them. But a leaner quick response force would be some deterrent to that in any case (they’re still talking about a million-person army, though retired Russian generals I know believe it has to get down to no more than 850,000 before they can get substantial re-equipment programs going. But I think they are going to end up with a force that is both manageable and that they can be proud of.

    “We” “Americans” always want to think that there’s some aggressive plan behind anybody else’s military reform. “We” always think some other country has some such plan, in part because we think we have to have some scenario as opposed to “just having the forces” because we think we are going to need to justify it to Congress that way. This is a peculiar problem for the U.S. since we don’t need much for the defense of the U.S. itself since it’s so hard for anyone to reach us across the two oceans. Mexico and Canada are two of the least defended countries with the leanest forces in the world. Russia is different — with its essentially undefendable borders, surrounded by lots of other countries, but also including all those wild people lurking in the mountains to the south.

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