The Mistral sale: No reason to panic

The recent news that the French government has agreed to sell one or more of its Mistral amphibious assault ships to Russia has led to virtual panic in some quarters. The cold warriors who have never quite gotten over the view that the Soviet Union Russia is hell-bent on threatening the rest of the world seem to believe that Russia will use these ships to attack (or at least threaten to attack) any neighboring states that dare to oppose it.  Here’s a typical statement (from Vlad Socor):

NATO is being tested, with “its future at stake,” not so much in Afghanistan as the line recently went, but rather in Brussels itself and in the Alliance’s most influential capitals. The latest among these tests –one that the Alliance seems only determined to side-step– is over the proposed French naval modernization program for Russia. The program envisages selling one French Mistral-class warship –a state-of-the art, offensive power-projection capability– to Russia and licensing the construction of three or four ships of the same class in Russia, potentially usable in the Baltic and Black Sea.

And a little later in the same article:

Georgia remains a prime target of opportunity for Russia in the Black Sea basin at present. A Mistral-class ship would enable Russia to threaten amphibious and helicopter landings on Georgia’s sea coast, with far greater speed and effectiveness than those of Russia’s existing capabilities. Russia’s naval command publicly alluded to the Mistral’s potential use against Georgia when starting the talks with France for the sale. Paris has ignored Georgian officials’ appeals (EDM, September 18, November 2, December 2, 2009). Meanwhile, Georgia is an all-but disarmed country and (as a thwarted NATO aspirant) is not covered by any external security guarantees.

There is a widespread assumption that these ships would be used in either the Black or Baltic Seas. This allows the writer to claim that the ships will increase the threat Russia poses to Georgia or the Baltic States. Most of this speculation is based on a single comment by Admiral Vysotsky, the Commander in Chief of the Russian Navy, about Russia being able to win the 2008 war with Georgia more quickly if it had the Mistral. He most likely said this in order to increase the navy’s chances of getting more procurement funding. The Russian navy would play a minor role in any conflict in the region (except with Turkey, god forbid). A future conflict with Georgia, just like the previous one, would primarily involve ground forces, with air force cover to the extent it’s still capable of that. The Navy would have a small role, with or without the Mistral — just enough to justify continued funding.

Furthermore, I very much doubt that the Mistral ship(s) will be based in the Black Sea or the Baltic. All of the Russian reports I’ve seen on this assume that these ships will go to the two big fleets (Northern and Pacific). I share this belief, in part because of prestige factors — the Black Sea Fleet is a bit of a backwater, despite all the politics that swirl around it. The Baltic Fleet even more so. The Russian navy is not going to put its most modern (and one of its largest) ships in a backwater. Second, basing in the Black Sea will be tricky. The agreement with Ukraine prevents Russia from placing new ships in Sevastopol. It’s possible, of course, that Yanukovich will agree to allow this to happen, but I think he will seek to avoid needlessly antagonizing the anti-Russian part of the Ukrainian population and will not do this. This means that a Mistral-class ship would have to be based at Novorossiisk. This presents various logistical challenges — there isn’t very much space there now and the base expansion is not ready yet and won’t be for several more years. So even if Russia wanted to place a new Mistral-class ship in the Black Sea, it would be difficult for it to do so in the short term. And more than one is simply out of the question.

A second concern for the cold warriors is that the Mistral would significantly increase the Russian Navy’s force projection capability. This is also based on the Vysotsky comment — the part about how with this ship, Russian troops could have gotten to Georgia more quickly. But Russia has plenty of domestically built amphibs — some of which were used in August 2008. The main constraint then (as Vysotsky noted) was the speed of the ships vs the distance from their bases in Sevastopol and Novorossiisk to the conflict area. By the time they got to Georgia, all that was left to do was to mop up. Is the Mistral that much faster than their existing ships? Its top speed is 18.8 knots. Ropuchas and Alligators can go 16-18 knots. So the talk about Russian troops being able to get to Georgia faster on the Mistral is just talk. They just don’t need the Mistral for the purpose of troop transport.

There are three potential reasons for the purchase: 1) As a helo platform, 2) as a command ship (if they get some advanced electronics as part of the deal), 3) as means of rebuilding the domestic shipbuilding industry (if they get to build the other 3 under license). These are obviously not mutually exclusive. I have discussed reasons 2 and 3 before (here and here). Galrahn has an excellent discussion of reason 1. Basically, he argues, helicopters are a key part of Russian naval doctrine. They need new helicopter carriers and may be concerned that their domestic shipbuilding industry is not currently capable of building such a ship on its own. So they buy one from the French to improve this core capability and hope to also get a license to build more domestically so they can revive their shipbuilding industry.

The last thing they want is to be dependent on foreign purchases for the long term. The Russian military’s culture is based on self-sufficiency. The admission that they have to buy a major ship from abroad, and from a NATO member no less, is deeply traumatic for top commanders and therefore something they hope to avoid having to do in the future. To say that this deal will open the floodgates to future NATO arms sales to Russia fundamentally misunderstands this point. Though from my point of view, the more NATO sells arms to Russia the better. Ideally, NATO would also buy certain kinds of arms from Russia. They still make really good machine guns, for example. If NATO states and Russia develop a relationship where they sell equipment to each other, they are much less likely to view each other with hostility and distrust. And this can only help increase stability in Europe.

So, to summarize, the Mistral is likely to be based in the Pacific and/or Northern Fleets, where it is very unlikely to be a threat to Georgia or the Baltic States. Its purpose will not be to transport troops for amphibious landings, but to carry helicopters and/or to serve as a command center for naval task forces. And Russian leaders hope to use the newly established relationship with the French to revive their domestic shipbuilding, so they don’t have to buy ships from abroad in the future.

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The Russian Black Sea Fleet after the Georgia War

Back in December 2008, I wrote a short essay discussing the role of the Russian Navy in the Georgia War. Given some of the misinformation circulating about the conflict, I thought it might be useful to repost it here. It originally appeared as a PONARS Eurasia policy memo.

Black Sea Fleet Activity in the August War
Russian ships left their bases in Sevastopol and Novorossisk and sailed for the Georgian coast on August 9, the day after hostilities began in the region. A total of 13 ships were involved in the operation, including the Slava-class cruiser Moskva, the Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivyi, several Grisha-class corvettes (Suzdalets, Aleksandrovsk, Muromets, and possibly Kasimov), the Nanuchka-class missile ship Mirazh, two patrol craft, three amphibious landing craft (two Ropucha-class,Tsesar Kunikov and Yamal, and one Alligator-class, Saratov), two mine warfare ships (Admiral Zhelezniakov and Turbinist), the transport ship General Riabikov, and the tugboat Epron.

This list includes the bulk of Black Sea Fleet (BSF) deployment-capable ships. The only major combatants not involved were the Kara-class cruiser Kerch and two Krivak-class frigates. The Kerch is currently undergoing sea trials after a decade-long period of repair and is therefore not yet ready for active service. The guided-missile frigate (FFG) Ladnyi was preparing for participation in operation Active Endeavor, though it subsequently returned to the Black Sea and shadowed U.S. and NATO ships that entered the region in late August. The FFG Pytlivyi is currently undergoing repairs. This deployment should thus be considered to demonstrate more or less the maximum possible capability of the BSF at the present time.

The stated goal of BSF ships deployed in this conflict was to provide naval support for Russian ground forces in the region and to be prepared to transport refugees out of the conflict zone. These goals were consistent with the Russian government’s initial argument that it was conducting a support operation for its peacekeeping contingent in South Ossetia, which had been attacked by Georgian forces on August 8.

As the nature of the Russian military operation changed, first to focus on driving Georgian forces out of the disputed areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and then on destroying Georgian military capabilities altogether, the role of the BSF changed as well. Amphibious landing craft, accompanied by escort ships and patrol craft, were sent out of the Russian Navy’s Novorossiisk base with naval infantry troops onboard. Some of these troops helped to secure the Abkhazian port of Ochamchira against the possibility of a Georgian invasion, while others secured the Georgian port city Poti.

As they approached the Russia-Abkhazia maritime border on August 9, some of the Russian ships encountered Georgian patrol boats, which were assumed to have hostile intent after they failed to respond to radio warnings to turn away. While sources are not consistent, it seems most likely that the Russian ships involved included the two amphibious ships Tsezar Kunikov and Saratov, accompanied by the corvette Suzdalets and the patrol ship Mirazh. It appears likely that the Russian ships sank at least one and possibly two of the Georgian patrol boats. The shots were fired by one of the two accompanying ships, most likely the Mirazh. After the initial encounter, the remaining Georgian ships fled and were later sunk at pier in Poti by Russian military forces.

We can make some suppositions about Russian naval command and control based on published reports about this battle. First, all available reports indicate that after potentially hostile ships were detected by radar on the Mirazh, the ship’s captain contacted Vice-Admiral Meniaylo, the commander of the naval group based on the Tsesar Kunikov, who gave the orders to fire warning shots and then to attack the opposing ships when they did not change course. Once the opposing ships did change course, the Russian ships ceased to attack because “there were no orders to destroy all targets.”

None of the reports show any indication that the fleet’s actions in combat had to be approved by commanders at fleet headquarters or in Moscow. This is somewhat surprising given the Russian military’s tendency toward centralization of authority. In normal situations, ship commanders in the Russian navy are given little control over decisionmaking. There are two possible explanations. The more likely one is that ship commanders are given authority to take whatever action is necessary to defend their ships if they believe they are in imminent danger. Another possibility is that the naval group commander did contact Moscow and received clearance to fire on the Georgian navy ships prior to ordering the attack. This is less likely, given the relatively short timeframe between the ships’ detection and the order to fire.

Overall, the BSF naval group’s actions during the Georgia conflict provide additional support for the supposition that Russian navy ships operate with a relatively low threshold for weapons use, and ship commanders are authorized to take action on their own if they perceive an imminent threat to their ship. In situations where an imminent threat does not exist, virtually all major decisions are taken by the naval group commander, rather than the commanders of specific ships in the group. Only if the ship is operating alone does the ship commander have the authority to make major operational decisions.

Black Sea Fleet Capabilities and Performance
The Georgia war in and of itself does not allow us to say much about the capabilities of the BSF, as the Fleet was not seriously tested by the Georgian navy, which consisted solely of a few patrol craft and two small missile ships, which were most likely not actually armed with missiles at the time of the conflict. Furthermore, with the one exception discussed above, most of the Georgian navy sailors and officers abandoned their ships in port rather than engage the Russian navy or withdraw to the south. As a result, most Georgian navy ships were destroyed by the Russian military at pier in Poti. While the Russian navy is no longer one of the most powerful in the world, it was clear before the conflict that it could easily handle threats from an adversary at this level of capabilities. Having said that, BSF ships that participated in the conflict acquitted themselves fairly well, according to all observers. The navy clearly had a plan of action designed for the possibility of a conflict with Georgia, and this plan was implemented quickly and efficiently. A large percentage of the Fleet’s ships were able to get underway within 24 hours of the start of hostilities. Several hundred naval infantry soldiers were placed on amphibious landing ships and deployed to Abkhazia, with missile ships and corvettes acting as escorts. These escorts successfully eliminated potential threats to the landing ships. Overall, the BSF’s participation in the Georgia war showed that it is quite capable of playing a role in combat should it be called upon to do so in the future.

At the same time, the August events have not changed my overall assessment of the state and capabilities of the BSF. The Black Sea Fleet currently includes 28 operational ships and submarines with an average age of 25 years, though these are mostly smaller craft. There are six 1st class surface ships (four operational), two diesel submarines (one operational), seven Ropucha and Alligator amphibious landing craft (six operational), two relatively new Bora-class missile hovercraft, and 15 operational 3rd class ships, including small anti-submarine warfare (ASW) ships (Grisha), small missile ships, and minesweepers. Of the larger ships, only the Moskva and the Smetlivyi can be considered fully operational, though recent reports indicate that both of the Kara-class cruisers will soon rejoin the fleet. The Kerch has recently emerged from overhaul and is undergoing sea trials, though some reports indicate that it still has difficulty operating in deep water environments. Following reports in June that the Ochakov, which has been in overhaul since 2000, has recently completed repairs and would become the Black Sea Fleet’s new flagship, the ship was removed from drydock and the BSF announced that it would be scrapped in the near future.

Only four first-class combat ships have deployed outside the Black Sea in the last ten years. One of these (the Pytlivyi) is currently being overhauled. Even if all of the overhauls were completed successfully, the BSF would only have six large combat ships for the foreseeable future. As independent Russian military observers have noted, the entire fleet is much weaker than the assemblage of random NATO ships sent to the Black Sea in August-September 2008 in the aftermath of the Georgia war. Russian anti-ship weaponry is mostly outdated and would be unlikely to penetrate NATO’s Aegis defense systems. At the same time, the guidance systems for Russian anti-ship missiles would be unlikely to survive a conflict with NATO.

Furthermore, the ships in the fleet are relatively old, and their lifespan is likely to have been negatively impacted by poor maintenance during the financially difficult 1990s. The Moskva, the youngest of these ships, is 26 years old, while the Smetlivyi was commissioned almost 40 years ago. It is likely that most of these ships will have reached the end of their useful lifespans in the next 10-15 years. This implies that by the time BSF ships may need to be relocated from Sevastopol in 2017, some of them are likely to be no longer active.

Impact on Cooperative Activity
The naval campaign of the Georgia war did not have a significant impact on the course of the war, which was fought almost entirely by both sides’ ground forces. Nor did it affect the military balance in the Black Sea region to any great extent. But the use of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in combat has had a dramatic effect on political relations in the region and has led to a curtailing of the extensive program of naval cooperation between the Russian navy and NATO navies in both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Before the recent conflict, Russian admirals often touted cooper¬ation with foreign navies as a prime role of the Russian navy. They saw the participation of Russian naval ships in exercises and operations with foreign navies not only as a way to improve naval interoperability, but also as a means for improving interstate relations. According to them, multinational operations provided the Russian navy with opportunities to improve its skills and extend collaboration with neighboring navies, while also letting it show others that it can act as a responsible neighbor and is ready to direct multinational military operations in the region should the need arise. BSF ships participate in a number of multilateral annual naval exercises and operations, including BlackSeaFor, Black Sea Harmony, and Active Endeavor. Together, participation in these three programs accounted for about one third of BSF ship deploy¬ments during 1999-2007. BSF ships have also participated in bilateral exercises with the navies of Italy, Greece, Turkey, and other Mediterranean littoral states.

Russian participation in NATO’s Active Endeavor counter-terrorism operation in the Mediterranean provides an excellent example of the importance the Russian navy attaches to this type of activity and the active role it can play in such operations. While Active Endeavor has been an ongoing NATO operation since 2001, planning for Russian participation only got underway in 2004, with the first Russian ships participating in January 2006. The Russian navy attached particular importance to having at least a core group of officers develop sufficient English-language skills to be able to operate with the NATO group. As part of the operation, Russian ships routinely participate in joint exercises with NATO ships from a number of countries, including Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. These exercises have included Russian helicopters landing on board NATO ships, practicing boarding of suspicious vessels, and other tasks typical of counter-terrorism and counter-piracy operations. In addition to the practical training provided by participation in this operation, the Russian navy values the status provided by Russian participation in a NATO operation. This was made clear in a report published in the official Russian Navy journal after the conclusion of the Moskva’s participation in Active Endeavor in January 2006. The report noted that this was the first time ships from a state that was not a NATO member had participated in the operation and noted the historical importance of the presence of the NATO Secretary General on board the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

In retaliation for Russian action in the Georgia war, Russian ships were barred from participation in Active Endeavor, even though the Ladnyi had already arrived at the location of the operation off the coast of Turkey. Russian media reacted quite predictably, arguing that the operation was not so important and that Russian ships that had participated previously were exploited by being used as messenger ships rather than as full-fledged combatants. Nevertheless, as NATO and Russia slowly resume cooperative activities, it is likely that BSF ships will once again be invited to participate in Active Endeavor. In the long run, cooperative naval activities in the Black Sea are sufficiently institutionalized that they are likely to survive the current downturn in relations.

Future of the Russian Black Sea Fleet
In the aftermath of the Georgia war, the Russian government announced a significant expansion of its military activity, accompanied by a substantial increase in planned financing and a commitment to replace aging hardware. At the same time, the government announced a significant expansion of its worldwide naval presence, with plans for four year-end long distance naval task force deployments simultaneously for the first time in well over a decade. In addition to ongoing deployments by two Northern Fleet combat ships to the Mediterranean Sea and Venezuela, and by the Baltic Fleet escort ship Neustrashimyi to the Gulf of Aden, the Northern Fleet’s sole aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and accompanying ships have deployed for exercises in the Mediterranean with the Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva. Furthermore, the Pacific Fleet destroyer Admiral Vinogradov is sailing to the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea to make a series of port calls and conduct exercises with Peter the Great and Admiral Chabanenko as they return from Venezuela. The Russian navy will soon have as many as 8-10 major combat ships deployed at the same time. While this is the highest number of ships deployed simultaneously by the Russian navy since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we should not forget that the Russian navy has only approximately 18 major naval combatants capable of deploying outside their home base. This set of deployments may well represent the maximum simultaneous out of area deployment capability of the Russian navy at the present time.

Despite talk of a substantial expansion of naval construction, including plans for a new class of aircraft carriers to be built in the next 15 years, the capabilities of the Russian navy in general and the Black Sea Fleet specifically are likely to decline for at least two decades. Grandiose plans for building aircraft carriers and other as yet unspecified combat ships are unlikely to come to fruition, partly as a result of the decline in Russia’s financial situation in the months after their announcement, and partly because the Russian military industrial complex is in poor condition and is not capable of building such large ships at the pace called for in the plans. Smaller ships will be built but will not be able to fully replace the capabilities possessed by the Black Sea Fleet’s aging cruisers and destroyers.

In the meantime, the extensive array of cooperative activities between Western navies and the BSF is likely to be maintained at more or less the level that existed prior to the war. There have not been any announcements about curtailing Russian participation in BlackSeaFor and Black Sea Harmony, and Russian participation in Active Endeavor is likely to be resumed sometime within the next two or three years.

Russia in the Black Sea

In his recent article in Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vladimir Socor makes the case that Russia poses a significant threat in the Black Sea region. In the aftermath of last year’s war with Georgia and given continued hostile rhetoric against Ukraine, there is certainly a case to be made for Russia posing a threat to at least some of its neighbors. But Socor argues that Russia poses a naval threat to the region, and this is certainly not the case in any way.

Most disturbingly, his discussion of the conduct and outcome of Russia’s war with Georgia in August 2008 is inaccurate or misleading on at least five major points.

1) First of all, he is wrong in stating that:

According to Russian media accounts from naval sources in the war’s aftermath, the Russian naval group moved slowly from Sevastopol in the direction of Georgia, four or five days before the August 8 assault.

Both the Russian media and independent observers in Sevastopol were quite clear that the Russian naval group left Sevastopol within 24 hours of the start of hostilities, not before they began. This was reported at the time in Vremia Novostei (August 11, 2008) and in a subsequent analysis (Flag Rodiny, October 3, 2008). Also, some of the ships headed to Novorossiisk, rather than directly toward Georgia.

2) As part of his argument for Russia’s naval threat in the region, Socor discusses the Russian attack on Georgian ships during the war, but fails to mention that the Georgian ships were heading directly for the Russian ships at the time of the confrontation, that they furthermore refused to respond to hails and warnings to turn back from the Russian ships, and only then were attacked by the Russian ships.

(My analysis of the naval deployment, the battle with Georgian ships, and the conflict’s impact on Black Sea naval security can be found here.)

On a side note, Socor neglects the fundamental fact that the war was started by Georgia. It is true that they were responding to provocations by Ossetian militias, but a frontal assault on a city is a major escalation from occasional firefights across a disputed border. Furthermore, Georgian troops attacked Russian peacekeepers stationed in the area. It doesn’t matter if the peacekeepers were there to serve as a trigger for Russian intervention. The fact that Georgian troops attacked them justified the subsequent Russian military response, although I believe that crossing the Ossetia-Georgia border was unjustified and likely in violation of international law.  Those who disagree might want to think about how the US would react if (for example) in 1999 or 2000 the Serbian army staged a deliberate military attack on Kosovo that targeted American peacekeepers in the area.

3) Socor argues that the naval operation was in violation of the 1997 basing treaty that gave Russia the right to occupy the Sevastopol naval base for 20 years. My understanding was that Russia had gone to some lengths to stay within the letter, if not the spirit, of the treaty (by sending ships to Novorossiisk before they went to Georgia). But I lack the legal expertise to follow all the intricacies of that treaty, so I will not argue that point. At the same time, analysts who are familiar with the terms of the treaty argued at the time that Ukrainian President Yushchenko’s decree “requiring the Russian Black Sea Fleet command to provide advanced notification to Ukrainian authorities in each case when its ships and personnel exit and re-enter Ukrainian territory” was not in accord with the 1997 treaty, which cannot be modified unilaterally. If this is the case, then Russia is perfectly within its rights to ignore the decree.

4) Socor condemns Russia for seeking that it “will try to prolong the stationing of its fleet beyond the 2017 deadline.” I’m not sure why this is a problem. Everyone knows that Russia would prefer to keep its fleet in Sevastopol. Furthermore, the 1997 treaty has a provision for a five-year extension. So why wouldn’t the Russian leadership press for a renewal. Given the political instability that has plagued Ukraine since the Orange revolution there is a decent chance that at some point in the next 5-6 years, there will be a Ukrainian government in place that will be on more friendly terms with Moscow and will sign such a renewal. Russia is hoping for such an outcome while also making contingency plans to remove the fleet to Novorossiisk (and perhaps other bases as well) if the renewal does not come through.

5) Finally, I should address the core of Socor’s argument that Russia’s recent activities have created a situation of maritime security weakness in the Black Sea. He complains that “the current situation in the Black Sea amounts to a Russian-Turkish naval condominium.” It seems to me that the Black Sea has been a Russian-Turkish condominium for decades, so I’m not sure what the difference is now.

Furthermore, I would argue that Russian behavior in the Black Sea is generally quite restrained, because its general goal is to work with the West, but only under conditions of respect and equality. This was shown by its resumption of cooperation with NATO in the aftermath of the Georgian war as soon as NATO was willing to do so.

In general, Russian foreign policy has two main drivers: the desire for respect in the international community and the desire for economic advantage. Everything it does can be derived from one or both of these overarching goals. In other words, Russia is fundamentally a status quo power in the international community and will not act to destabilize that community.

One final note for those who might disagree with my threat assessment above. Even if Socor is right that Russia seeks to destabilize the security situation in the region, the Black Sea Fleet is in no condition to threaten Turkey or NATO. This was clearly evident in the aftermath of the Georgia war, when the motley collection of whatever ships NATO countries happened to have nearby was clearly militarily superior to the entire Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Since Romania and Bulgaria are NATO members, the only countries that could potentially feel threatened by Russia are Ukraine and Georgia. Georgia has already been defeated. If Russia wanted to, it could conquer the entire country in a manner of weeks, though it would undoubtedly face a guerrilla campaign for years to come. That’s not in its interests and is not going to happen. Ukraine is currently being treated in Russia as enemy #1, but much depends on the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. In any case, the placement of a Russian navy base on Ukrainian territory actually makes a Russian attack on Ukraine much more difficult logistically and may well serve to stabilize the security situation in the region.

Changing the Military’s Decision-making Culture

The Russian military leadership seems to have finally caught on that the way it commands troops is not adequate for dealing with modern opponents. Historically, the Russian military is known for making even the most minor decisions at absurdly high levels. Field officers have traditionally been expected to clear battlefield decisions with commanders at headquarters, unless doing so would place them under immediate threat. Similarly, since soldiers were traditionally conscripts, they were expected to simply follow orders. Attempts to exhibit initiative were generally frowned upon (notwithstanding the acts of personal heroism from World War II which were glorified in Soviet ideology).

It seems that one of the lessons learned from the Georgia war is that this model is no longer an efficient way to conduct warfare (if it ever was). Top brass is now talking openly about developing a new model, where much more authority is delegated to field officers. As part of this change, training regimens at the military academies have been adjusted to emphasize practical training in the field over lectures on military theory.

Furthermore, the change in mentality is being tied to the recent restructuring of the North Caucasus military district. This restructuring brought the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla under the command of the district military commander. It appears that this change was caused, at least in part, by the recognition that the military’s command and control system functioned too slowly to be effective in combat situations. The hope is that by giving control over all military forces in the region to local commanders, decisions can be made more quickly in response to events on the ground.

This is a good start, but it would be naive to think that delegating authority to a regional commander could speed up decision-making on the ground during an actual conflict. In order to achieve that, the Russian military will need to continue on a path toward a fundamental transformation of its culture, where field commanders and even individual soldiers will be allowed, and perhaps even encouraged, to take initiative in combat, rather than passing the buck to higher-ups.

This would be a big change for the military, and it will take a long time to achieve. But recognizing the problem is a necessary first step on the road to its solution, and the military is taking some initial steps by modifying training programs and focusing its future on professional soldiers rather than conscripts. It will take some years, but it’s at least possible that the Russian army of the future will treat its soldiers as more than cannon fodder and give its field officers more authority to make decisions.