Further discussion of Vostok-2010

Raymond Finch published the following response to my Vostok-2010 post on Johnson’s Russia List. For those readers who don’t read JRL, here’s the comment and my response.

After watching much of the TV coverage on the Vostok 2010 war-games, I would respectfully disagree with Dr. Gorenburg that “the Russian military has a clear vision of the kind of army they would like to build and that they are making progress in achieving that vision.” (“Vostok-2010: Another step forward for the Russian military,” DJL #138).  From my analysis, manning, training, and equipping the armed forces remain a muddle.  Similar to the detailed and highly publicized military parade to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War, the Vostok 2010 exercises were choreographed to remind the Russian people of both the country’s military prowess (highly questionable) and their dear leader’s concern to defend against external threats (equally dubious).  At another level, the scenes of river-crossing tanks, exploding rockets, and mid-air refueling were just so much ammunition to justify further defense expenditures. The closer you study the various scenes of this pokazyka, the more they appeared to be merely sophisticated PR exercises for the various branches to show off their product-lines (and hopefully claim a larger share of the defense appropriation pie).  Most Russians likely shake their head in disbelief at this Soviet-era thinking, and how these stage-managed field exercises do little to address the real threats that Russia confronts today (Islamic radicalism, endemic corruption, collapsing infrastructure, frightening demographics, etc…).  These exercises may indeed be a ‘step forward for the Russian military,’ yet the direction of this step is anything but clear.

Ray Finch argues that the exercise was just a show and therefore cannot indicate that the Russian military has a clear vision of the kind of army they would like to build. I don’t disagree that there are elements of show in this exercise, as there are in all large-scale military exercises, regardless of what country is conducting them. I have said as much in past articles. But I disagree with the statement that the exercise is nothing more than that. This exercise, unlike most other major Russian exercises of the recent past, actually sought to address many of the real potential conflicts that Russia might face in the near future — including low intensity warfare. Of course there were some big show pieces, but the goal, if you read the discussion of the exercises in the media (both government and independent) was to focus on maneuverability, logistics, and command structure much more than on the big showy set pieces of the past. Obviously, TV coverage of the war games has other purposes, primarily PR-related. But one should not confused what’s shown on TV for public consumption with the actual purposes being served by the exercise. To conclude, I would reiterate that the Russian military leadership has a clear vision of the kind of military they would like to have. That doesn’t mean that they know exactly how they will achieve that vision. There are many issues, especially related to personnel and equipment, on which the Russian leadership is not at all clear how to get from here to there. But I still believe that Vostok-2010 was a step, however small, in the right direction, as are the various reform moves that have been made over the last 20 months.

Reconfiguring Supply and Logistics in the Russian Military

The reconfiguration of the Russian military’s supply and logistics system was the third major innovation tested during the recent Vostok-2010 exercise. (The first two–improvements in force projection and changes in the command structure–were discussed in my previous post.) The essence of this reform, initially announced only a short time before the exercise, was the merger of the Rear Services of the Armed Forces and the Armaments Department of the General Staff. As previously organized, the Rear Services was comprised of departments for medicine, transportation, fuel, food, clothing, leisure,  personnel, etc. In other words, it included all logistical support components except armament. As a result, there were frequent situations where one department that needed to transport equipment to the troops had to coordinate with a different department that would actually provide the transport. General Makarov noted that not infrequently, this resulted in situations where needed equipment could not be delivered to the armed forces in a timely manner.

The recent reform created the position of Deputy Minister of Defense for Logistical Support, filled by General Dmitry Bulgakov, the most recent commander of Rear Services. He is in charge of all logistical support, including the provision of weapons and equipment. The Railroad Troops, which were previously a separate branch of the armed forces, will be reorganized and put under General Bulgakov’s command as well. The Armaments Department remains under the leadership of General Vladimir Popovkin, but will now be responsible solely for carrying out the State Armaments Program and interacting with the defense industrial complex.

The idea of this reform is to create two branches in the direction of the military, one involved in military planning per se while the second focuses on infrastructure and logistics. The idea is that soldiers in permanent readiness units will spend all of their time working on their actual military duties, without having to spend time on logistical issues such as cooking and doing laundry for the unit. This second branch will consist of 10 logistics brigades — one for each army.

Several innovations for this second branch were tested in a special exercise that immediately preceded Vostok-2010. One of the more interesting changes was the introduction of outsourcing for such banal but vital activities as feeding the troops and doing their laundry. This is the model used by many NATO militaries. According to reports from the exercise, this initial experiment with outsourcing was a success, with higher quality and a greater variety of food than in the old system.

This system is already in place in 99 units, serving 141,000 personnel. The goal is to have a total of 180,000 personnel shifted to this model by September 1, with another 160,000 people added by the end of the year. The cost is estimated at 6.5 billion rubles per year. Permanent readiness units are being shifted first, in order to maximize their soldiers’ training time, though the plan is to have all units shifted to outsourcing for food by 2015, except for those based in remote locations.

There are still questions about how this model would work during deployments, as the system currently being introduced is designed primarily for use at military bases. The civilian contractors being hired are not currently capable of traveling with the military units. To serve soldiers’ needs while on deployment, the Russian army has introduced a mobile unit for food and cleaning service. This is essentially a set of ten trucks carrying 20-ton containers that can be set up in 2.5 hours to provide cooking, laundry, and shower facilities, as well as bathrooms and a mess hall. So far, only one such unit has been procured, though there is a plan to purchase 48 units by the end of this year, at a cost of 200 million rubles per unit. Given the shift to outsourcing for cooking and cleaning, it’s somewhat unclear who will staff these units once the shift is complete…

Vostok-2010: Another step forward for the Russian military

The recently concluded Vostok-2010 exercises showed that the Russian military is making progress in achieving its goals of major structural reform. This was the first major Russian military exercise in recent memory that did not involve a scenario consisting of a major frontal battle. As Alexandr Golts pointed out in his analysis, this sort of scenario is very convenient for public relations purposes, but does not contribute much to improving military preparedness. Instead, the exercises consisted of a number of smaller episodes, consistent with the announced scenario of fighting irregular armed formations, counter-terrorism and (for the Navy) anti-piracy operations. The exercises focused on mobility, with a particular emphasis on ensuring success in the logistical sphere. According to General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of the General Staff, the location of the exercise in Siberia and Russia’s Far East was selected specifically in order to make the transport of troops and their resupply relatively difficult, due to the large distances, sparse population, difficult climate, and poor state of transportation in the region.

Testing a Force Projection Capability

The exercises showed that the Russian military is capable of projecting force over long distances relatively quickly. For this purpose, a large number of bomber (SU-24) and fighter-bomber (SU-34) aircraft were sent directly from central Russia to the Far East on what was supposedly the longest non-stop flight for these types of planes. This was made possible through multiple in-flight refueling operations. Furthermore, an infantry brigade was sent from Ekaterinburg to Primorskii Krai, though it was transported without heavy weaponry, such as tanks and artillery, all of which it received from a local base upon arrival.  Golts notes that this was the first time in his memory that the Russian army had conducted such an operation.

It was carried out successfully and in the assigned time period, though Golts also points out that the weapons provided for the brigade had been selected in recent months especially for this purpose. Had this been a real emergency and the brigade forced to make do with randomly chosen stored equipment, they would have almost certainly faced severe problems due to mechanical failures. But this is a known problem for the Russian military, and one that is to be addressed over the coming decade through a rearmament program. The important takeaway from this exercise is that Russian military planners are seriously preparing for contingencies that require the rapid transfer of troops from one region to another. Golts is right in arguing that if this capability becomes widely developed, there will be no need for the military to maintain a million-man army in order to protect Russia’s gigantic territory. Instead, planners will simply need to make sure that they have well-maintained supply depots located in all likely zones of potential conflict and be prepared to send brigades to those regions in the event a conflict suddenly broke out.

Simplifying the Command Structure

The new simplified command structure was the second aspect of the reform that was tested by Vostok-2010. The replacement of divisions by brigades was the first step of this effort, and it was successfully completed last year and tested to some extent in last falls major exercises. The current exercises went further, examining the possibilities provided by the recently announced transition to a joint command system, where four geographically-based strategic operational commands (SOCs) control all of the troops on their territory, including ground forces, the air force, the navy, and assorted support staff. The goal is to reduce the levels of command from 13 to three. In the previous system, in addition to the command system “center-military district-army-division-regiment,” troops also received commands from their service headquarters and various central General Staff commands. The current system will consist of three levels — SOC – operational command – brigade. This reform will lead to the elimination of thousands of officer positions in various headquarters in Moscow and around the country. According to General Makarov, this transition will be completed in early 2011 and will mark the end of the military’s structural transformation.

The new system received a preliminary test in Vostok-2010, with a single SOC commanding troops from the Siberian and Far Eastern military districts, as well as the Pacific Fleet and assorted air force units, including those from other districts brought in specifically for this exercise. Initial reports indicate that the system performed according to expectations. At least, there have been no indications so far of problems with the command system during the exercises. Furthermore, whereas electronic command systems were present only for show during Zapad-2009 and the other major exercises last fall, this year for the first time such systems started to play a role (though still only limited) in the actual conduct of the exercise. These included (according to media reports about the exercise) videoconferencing equipment used in decision-making, computer modeling used in targeting anti-aircraft missile systems, and digital analytical systems.

Not a big deal for most armed forces, but certainly an advance for a military that is still not able to provide each soldier with his own analog radio, much less any kind of modern electronic communications system.

A Step in the Right Direction

One item that was noted repeatedly by generals discussing the conduct of the exercise was that conscripts who had only been in the service for 1-2 months exceeded all expectations of their performance. It was made clear that they did not do as well as contract soldiers or those conscripts who had been inducted last summer, but it was clear that the military leadership was trying to emphasize that the army could continue to function despite its problems with attracting a sufficient number of contract soldiers to fill the new brigades.

Overall, the Vostok-2010 exercise made it clear that the leadership of the Russian military has a clear vision of the kind of army they would like to build and that they are making progress in achieving that vision. One aspect of that vision is a significantly reformed logistics and supply system, a topic I will discuss in detail in my next post. Once this system is restructured and the new Strategic Operational Commands are stood up next year, we will likely see the end of the constant organizational changes that have marked the first two years of reform. The period of structural reorganization appears to be drawing to a close and the next steps are likely to be focused primarily on solving the manpower problem and endowing the newly restructured military with new weapons and equipment.

Russian Politics and Law, March 2010 Table of Contents

Volume 48 Number 2 / March-April 2010

Dmitry Gorenburg: The Structure of Regional Politics in Russia: Editor’s Introduction p. 3

Vladimir Gelman: The Dynamics of Subnational Authoritarianism (Russia in Comparative Perspective) p. 7

Rostislav F. Turovskii: Regional Political Regimes in Russia: Toward a Methodology of Analysis p. 27

Maksim Vas’kov: The Upper Echelon of the Russian North Caucasus: Regionally Specific Political and Sociocultural Characteristics p. 50

Galina Zvereva: What Will “We” Be Called Now?: Formulas of Collective Self-Identification in Contemporary Russia p. 68

The Structure of Regional Politics in Russia

This issue of Russian Politics and Law continues some themes that we introduced in previous issues. The bulk of the articles begin where the previous issue on center–periphery relations left off, focusing on the periphery side of that equation to analyze how politics is conducted in Russia’s regions under the current centralizing regime. This is an issue that has not received adequate attention in the literature, which has traditionally focused either exclusively on central politics or at most on relations between the center and the regions. Most Russian studies of regional politics have been purely empirical efforts to describe key political events in a particular region. The strength of this set of articles is the authors’ explicit focus on comparative and theoretically based analysis.

In “The Dynamics of Subnational Authoritarianism (Russia in Comparative Perspective),” Vladimir Gelman places Russian regional politics in a comparative perspective. He begins by establishing a typology of subnational authoritarian regimes, based on a review of cases from around the world. This typology is based on two key variables—the extent to which nationwide parties and the centralized state apparatus have influence at the regional and local levels. Variation in these two factors produces three potential kinds of subnational authoritarianism. If the central state is strong, the result is labeled centralized subnational authoritarianism of either the bureaucratic (weak party influence) or party (strong party influence) varieties. If the central state is weak but parties are influential, the combination leads to decentralized subnational authoritarianism. If neither is strong, then subnational authoritarianism cannot develop.

In the second part of his article, Gelman applies this typology to the Russian case, arguing that over the last two decades Russia has swung from centralized party subnational authoritarianism to decentralized subnational authoritarianism and back again. The initial decentralization occurred as the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which weakened the central government and led to the transfer of various state powers to the regions. Gelman argues that the recentralization that occurred in the last decade was the result of a combination of the 1998 financial crisis, which demonstrated the need for Russia’s economic reintegration; the participation of most local elites on the losing side in the 1999 Duma elections, which weakened their political standing vis-à-vis the center; and the economic growth that took place during Putin’s presidency, which encouraged national corporations to push for the reduction of entry barriers to local markets. Gelman sees the newly reestablished centralized subnational authoritarianism as a fairly durable phenomenon that will break down only in the event of a nationwide democratization.

Rostislav Turovskii’s article, “Regional Political Regimes in Russia: Toward a Methodology of Analysis,” further develops the theoretical bases for a characterization of the political regimes found in Russia’s regions. Whereas Gelman situates his typology in Western literature on subnational political regimes, Turovskii begins with a review of previous Russian work on this subject. He then proposes his own three-dimensional model for the characterization of such regimes. The first dimension measures the regime’s formal institutional design and specifically whether the regime’s power structure is monopolistic or oligopolistic in character. The focus here is on formal institutional factors that determine the autonomy of regional leaders in relation to both federal representatives in the region and other local power centers.

The second dimension reflects the actual extent of regional leaders’ autonomy from the center, which in present-day Russia is at a relatively low level and does not vary much. The final dimension involves the regime’s level of democracy or authoritarianism. This involves an assessment of the extent to which opposition forces are able to influence regional politics and includes both open opponents of the regime and internal opposition within the governing elite. In conclusion, Turovskii argues that examining Russian regions according to these three dimensions is the best method for analyzing political life in Russia’s regions. He also makes a case for moving beyond rational choice approaches to the study of regional politics, arguing for the importance of institutional and ideological factors in determining political outcomes at the local level.

In “The Upper Echelon of the Russian North Caucasus: Regionally Specific Political and Sociocultural Characteristics,” an article written especially for this journal, Maksim Vas’kov takes a very different approach to studying regional governance. This article is an exercise in inductive reasoning, where the author uses the cases of the North Caucasus republics to examine the political and societal factors that push local leaders into certain governing strategies. He finds certain commonalities across the region, including that the combination of political influence and economic control ensures the preservation of members of the political elite in power. He finds that local elites largely lack adequate mechanisms to regulate conflicts both among rival factions within the elite and between the elite and its political opponents. This factor increases the regional leaders’ dependence on Moscow, with external arbitration often seen as the only way to solve disputes and prevent conflicts from becoming violent.

Vas’kov also finds a number of differences among the regional governors that affect how they govern, including their social background, extent of political experience in the Soviet and Yeltsin periods, generation to which they belong, and connection to regional political life prior to their appointment to the top position. These variables affect both the amount of political capital possessed by these leaders and the style with which they govern. Some try to balance among rival local clans, while others give all significant positions to members of one clan (usually their own). Some govern using the methods they learned in Soviet party schools, while others seek to adapt the methods they learned in running successful business enterprises prior to their entry into politics.

Overall, all three articles show the importance of combining the insight of theoretical thinking with a deep knowledge of empirical processes in the regions being studied.

Our final article, by Galina Zvereva, returns to the theme of one of our issues from 2009 on whether Russia can be considered a nation-state. In that issue, we presented four different views of how the ethnic and civic conceptions of Russia may be combined. In “What Will ‘We’ Be Called Now? Formulas of Collective Self-Identification in Contemporary Russia, Zvereva connects this intellectual debate to similar processes occurring in the political sphere. She discusses the trajectory of conceptions of the Russian nation in official government and ruling party documents from the early 1990s to the present day. She shows how efforts to create a multiethnic Russian national identity were balanced even within the ruling elite by opposing efforts to establish the Russian (russkii) ethnic group as the basis of Russian (rossiiskii) national identity. She concludes with a discussion of signs that the debate is gradually leading Russia’s leaders to a conception of national identity that in many ways resembles the Soviet conception of a Soviet multinational people (mnogonatsional’nyi sovetskii narod).