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…


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SIGNIFICANCE:Russia’s defence industry remains in a fairly decrepit state, plagued by outdated equipment, lack of experienced personnel, inefficient production processes and extensive corruption.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.


  • 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 Russian Navy’s role in the Mediterranean

The Russian Navy has just concluded its largest exercise in the Mediterranean in many years. The ships involved represented all three of Russia’s European fleets and included the missile cruiser Moskva, the  Udaloy-class destroyers Marshal Shaposhnikov and Severomorsk, the Yaroslav Mudriy and Smetliviy frigates, six large landing craft (the Kaliningrad, Novocherkassk, Alexandr Shabalin, Saratov, Nikolai Filchenkov, Azov), two submarines (one nuclear and one diesel-powered) and various support vessels. The total number of ships involved was over 20. In addition to the ships, the exercise included at least 20 aircraft. The exercise is being overseen by two senior MOD officials, deputy chief of the General Staff Aleksandr Postnikov and deputy Chief of the Navy Staff Leonid Sukhanov.

The timing and location of the exercise, as well as the heavy representation of amphibious ships, have raised questions about the Russian Navy’s goals in the Mediterranean. To my mind, this is another case of the Russian military trying to kill many birds with one stone. During the second half of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy had a virtually constant presence in the Mediterranean. Its squadron had a number of simultaneous tasks — ensuring the security of critical sea lanes to the Black Sea, deterring the United States Navy, ensuring continued access to the Suez canal for Soviet shipping, and engaging existing and potential allies in North Africa and the Middle East were probably the most significant of these.  The Russian military has long sought to restore its presence in the region and has in the last 5-6 years taken numerous opportunities to send ships to the region to engage in exercises and conduct port visits. This exercise, first and foremost, is simply an expansion of this effort.

Second, the exercise is designed to prepare the navy for possible future operations in Syria. Discussions about the possibility of the Russian fleet seeking to have a deterrent effect on potential US or NATO intervention efforts in the Syrian civil war seem to me rather misguided. The assembled Russian forces are no match for the NATO forces that would be assembled in the region in the event of an intervention. The Soviet navy was always exceedingly cautious to only get involved in conflicts (even just with show of force operations) only in circumstances where the balance of forces was favorable. While those days were a long time ago, the current leaders of the navy were trained in that tradition and are unlikely to get involved in adventures of this type. Furthermore, the composition of the task force indicates that the navy wants to be prepared for a potential evacuation scenario. Such an evacuation may be focused on Russian citizens living in Syria, or (less likely) it may be part of a bid to rescue defeated Alawite leaders from their coastal stronghold down the road. The presence of a large number of surface combatants may be an indication that the navy wants to be prepared to undertake such an evacuation even in circumstances where its ships may come under fire from hostile forces (presumably the victorious Syrian rebels).

The final goal, for the navy, is just to increase preparedness. The Northern Fleet likes to send its ships to exercise in the Med during the winter months. The weather is nicer, allowing for more complicated maneuvers. Official reports indicate that the exercise covers a wide range of naval operations, including counter-piracy and convoy operations, ship defense from small boat attacks, coordination with both naval and long-range aviation, ASW, opposed amphibious landing, and search and rescue. The navy has conducted exercises in the Med pretty much annually since 2008. The fact that this is the largest is in part a reaction to the geopolitical circumstances in the region and in part an indication that the Russian navy is gradually gaining confidence and increasing its capabilities.