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.


6 thoughts on “Is Shoigu reversing Serdyukov’s military reform?

  1. Very good overview, and I agree with author that it is too early to draw ‘big’ conclusions. Also I agree on point that conflicts of interest regarding military-industry’s ‘development’ most likely drive the process.

  2. Agree. Don’t think Shoigu will reverse reforms, as like his predecessor, he will follow Kremlin orders. I think the more important question is the fallout from the growing anti-western/American rhetoric which serves as the basis for these reforms. At some point, the words may translate into reality.

    General Shoigu gave an interesting interview to Komsomolskaya Pravda yesterday. No great revelations, but some of the reader comments are instructive.

  3. I think it is pretty natural for anyone taking over such an important post… especially when the person who previously held the post left under suspicion of serious misconduct, that the work of the previous post holder is scrutinised and assessed.

    The reforms were largely unprecedented and there were no obvious cures for the problems that were guaranteed to work instantly if at all, so it is important to look a Serdyakovs work and also its early results and determine what was working AND giving the intended results, what was working but not giving the intended results and what wasn’t working at all.

    This is nothing to do with finding evidence of corruption, this is about a captain taking over command of a ship with the express goal of getting it all ship shape as soon as possible.

    Regarding foreign technology I rather suspect that most of that technology can be gained much more cheaply through espionage or simply hiring western experts with the knowledge. Licence production is expensive and generally results in production rights for items that are not leading edge as shown by contracts to make Israeli UAVs. That is not to say they are bad or even not worth it, but the high cost could simply be invested in Russian companies to produce something Russia can truly own and would not be well known to foreign governments.

    Consolidation of industry that maintains internal competition like UAC with MIG and Sukhoi and other former aircraft design bureaus maintained as entities competing for work means that there remains competition but also a strength and rhobustness that will protect them against international western companies that could otherwise squash them or buy them out. It also reduces wasted effort and allows a more efficient use of resources.

    Russia is investing a lot of money on new technology, and given time and that money Russia will catch up in areas it is behind, and perhaps improve in areas it is already ahead, but expecting all of Russias military equipment to be state of the art is simply unrealistic. Even the US has some rubbish in service, and Russia certainly cannot afford to outspend the US… even the US can’t afford it.

    The critical thing for the Russian military should not be wonder toys, but force multipliers that make existing equipment and forces more powerful, effective, useful. High mobility, solid C4IR, heavy, accurate fire power where and when needed with a disciplined and well trained force.

    It is not going to happen in 5 or 10 years, but it should be the goal they are constantly moving towards.

  4. I agree with Dmitry’s assessment, and especially his statement that the essential element of the reform, getting off the mobilization model and creating what the MOD calls “permanent readiness” forces (i.e., fully manned units in peacetime, and thus fewer forces) is still intact. The “old generals,” like Gareev, really would like to preserve that old system. The fact that the “new defense plan recently presented to the President and Shoigu” had to have been prepared before Shoigu took over has to mean that Shoigu and his new associates must have reviewed it and found it unobjectionable. Execution of it all is still going to be a big problem, though.

    I disagree with Ray Finch’s comment that, “the growing anti-western/American rhetoric…serves as the basis for these reforms.” I’ve seen no evidence of that at all in any aspect of the reforms and the discussions in Russia about them. The essence of the reforms, and especially the switch in ground forces to brigade-level units and in the navy to smaller ships, and even the reemphasis on air defense, is that of defense of Russian territory, both on land and from the sea. The ground forces’ dispositions are especially to counter instability both internally (North Caucasus) and in the surrounding weak countries to the south and east.

    Putin’s “anti-Americanism” in the defense sphere (leaving aside our efforts to create a democracy of our liking within Russia or the Magnitsky Act) is directed at the U.S. groups intent on creating “a global missile defense system,” which can only be directed at Russia and on the American tendency to intervene militarily in countries to effect regime change. (He may not have fully recognized that most Americans now are rather disillusioned by an intervention strategy by our catastrophes in Iraq and Afghanistan). I suppose one could think that the Russian ground forces and air defense territorial defenses are to counter such an American intervention, but the way the units are to be dispersed across the vast Russian territory belies that notion.

    • Good points, but the average Russian probably wants to know why the country should spend trillions of rubles over the next decade on reforming the military. The rationale (an aggressive West/America) not only justifies this expense but also provides considerable legitimacy for the current Kremlin occupants. (I won’t address the wisdom of going forward with the Maginot-BMD plans or some of the other brilliant interventions over the past decade. You’re correct, one could make a good case for an aggressive America). Mine is not a solitary analysis, but is shared by many (both those who believe it to be true and those who recognize this as a ‘blue-baiting’ stratagem). Consider perusing some of the Russian blogs below or the comments of P. Felgenhauer from today’s mail.

      Aggressive Nationalism and Anti-Americanism Are the Kremlin’s New Ideological Pillars

      This week, speaking at a meeting of Russia’s top security officials—the so called “extended collegium” of the Federal Security Service or FSB—Alexander Bortnikov, the FSB chief, announced: “Geopolitical pressure on Russia, coming from the United States and its allies who still consider our nation one of their main rivals on the world arena, increased in 2012,” while the FSB worked to boost Russia’s standing in the world. The FSB (Federalnaya Sluzba Bezopasnosti) is the main successor organization of the Soviet KGB, and its powers have been drastically increased after Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 (Interfax, February 14).

      President Putin presented a keynote speech at the FSB “extended collegium,” denouncing as “unacceptable” any pressure on Russia and its allies, or “any direct or indirect meddling in our internal affairs.” Putin stressed that “no one receiving foreign money may speak on behalf of Russian society” and called on the FSB to strictly implement recently approved legislation “regulating the activities of nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] receiving foreign funding.” Putin called on the FSB to restrain from internal corruption and of involvement in “commercial disputes,” as well as not to hinder “investment projects.” Putin also demanded the FSB to speedily create a “joint national cyber warfare system.” The president asserted Russia’s right to “reintegrate the post-Soviet space” and rejected “foreign [Western] pressure to slow down the integration.” Putin demanded that the FSB defend the process of post-Soviet integration from hostile foreign pressure “in close cooperation with colleagues [secret services] from Belarus, Kazakhstan and other nations taking part in the integration process.” Putin announced that last month, FSB officers got a 40-percent pay increase, that 11,000 free apartments were handed out to loyal agents in 2012 and more bonuses will be in the offing (RIA Novosti, February 14). Last year nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding were ordered to register as “foreign agents,” and as of January 1, 2013, nongovernmental organizations that receive any support from the United States or employ any US citizens are outlawed and their assets must be confiscated (RIA Novosti, December 28, 2012).

      On the same day Putin addressed the FSB “extended collegium,” First Deputy Defense Minister and Chief of General Staff, Colonel-General Valery Gerasimov, speaking at a different conference in Moscow, announced: “Russia is effectively rearming to repel the threat of foreign invasion.” According to Gerasimov, the proportion of “modern armaments” has increased from 6 to 16 percent, from 2008 to 2013, as a result of military reform. By 2015, “new weapons” will make up 30 percent of total arms, and by 2020—70 percent. Deputy Defense Minister Colonel¬-General Oleg Ostapenko has been tasked with creating a system of departments and institutions “to develop military science and promote innovative technologies.” According to Gerasimov, speedy rearmament is essential, since by 2030 “foreign military threats to Russia will increase significantly.” The Russian military command assumes, according to Gerasimov, that leading world powers may go to war to gain access to oil, gas, other natural resources, to control consumer markets and gain “living space” or Lebensraum—an important component of Nazi ideology in Germany that still seems to be an important argument in defense planning in Moscow (RIA Novosti, February 14). The General Staff (the traditional center of national strategic defense planning in Russia) apparently believes that the abundance of oil, gas, other natural resources and an extended landmass, though mostly not particularly hospitable, make Russia extremely vulnerable to the envy of the world, which by 2030 may gravitate swarms of invading foreign armies from all directions.

      Last week, Putin unexpectedly attended and delivered a keynote speech at an inaugural congress of a self-styled “patriotic” organization, the “All-Russian parents’ resistance.” The chairman of the congress—firebrand revisionist demagogue Sergei Kurginyan (63)—before welcoming Putin’s address, spoke for almost an hour, denouncing the pro-democracy protest movement in Moscow and other covert US agents, the likes of which, according to him, destroyed the Soviet Union in 1991 and now are conspiring to destroy Russia. Both Putin and Kurginyan strongly supported banning Americans from adopting Russian children—a policy that became law last December (Kommersant, February 11). Putin’s appearance at the congress, seemingly hurriedly convened in downtown Moscow with logistical and organizational help from the Kremlin, clearly signals that extreme nationalistic and revisionist demagogues, who once strongly criticized Putin for being too economically liberal and pro-Western, are now considered close allies as the present regime is overtaken by a siege mentality is solidifying aggressive nationalism, post-Soviet “reintegration” and anti-Americanism as its ideological pillars. The notion that the Barack Obama administration is plotting regime change in the Kremlin or actually sees present day Russia as a serious foreign policy or ideological priority may sound awkward in Washington, but not so in Moscow.

      This week, Putin introduced legislation that will forbid government officials, parliamentarians, judges, top executives and board members of state-controlled corporations, banks and foundations and their close kin from having accounts in foreign banks or own any foreign stocks or other equity, including foreign Treasuries. All foreign real estate must be declared and the origins of its purchase disclosed. Only Russian diplomats and members of their families posted abroad will be exempt. Offenders that continue to keep foreign equity, bank accounts and real estate will be cleansed from their positions by the Russian security services. Newly appointed officials will have three months to ditch any foreign possessions. Putin demands absolute loyalty from his henchmen, since the draft legislation cites any foreign possessions as a “national security risk” (Kommersant, February 13).

      A leading deputy from the ruling United Russia party, chairman of the Duma ethics committee Vladimir Pekhtin, was accused by the anti-corruption campaigner and pro-democracy protest leader Alexei Navalny of owning real estate in Florida. Pekhtin denied the accusation, demanded an official investigation but, surprisingly, provisionally resigned his committee chairmanship before his name is cleared (Interfax, February 14). Senator and chairman of the Federation Council Foreign Relations Committee Mikhail Margelov was also accused of having real estate in Florida. He has denied this and has not yet resigned from his commission (ITAR-TASS, February 14). Succumbing to a siege mentality, Putin wants to “nationalize” his ruling elite to eliminate foreign (US) influences that may be used in a presumed regime-changing conspiracy. This is creating problems and panic, since corrupt Russian officials have been for decades taking money out of Russia to foreign havens.

      –Pavel Felgenhauer

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