Where does the Russian Military Stand after a Year of Military Reform?

The first announcement of the impending military reform came on October 14, 2008. Most analysts assumed that the proposals were just talk and would remain on paper, either through bureaucratic stonewalling or through lack of financing for the reform effort. Now, a year into the process, there are no doubts that the reform is for real and is virtually unstoppable.

Causes for the Start of Reforms

Although the high command has been uncharacteristically silent on the thinking behind the reform, information on the reasons that the process was initiated has recently started dribbling out. Most interesting is the recent statement by Ruslan Pukhov, the director of Russia’s Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. He argues that the reform began at the beginning of Putin’s second term as president, when top people in the presidential administration began to ask why, despite the increase in financing for the military, its effectiveness continued to decline. They decided that something needed to be done with the lack of transparency in the military financial system, which fostered widespread corruption. They also decided that Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s handpicked Defense Minister, was failing at his task of reforming the military and that the job had to go to someone from outside the “force structures”, someone who would not “treat the military as a shrine at which one should pray but as a broken mechanism, which he has been tasked with fixing.”

But even with the appointment of Anatoly Serdiukov as Minister of Defense, it took several years to break the power of reform opponents and begin the process of radical reform. Last summer’s war with Georgia seems to have been the final straw. According to the same article in Profil, Nikolai Makarov (the chief of the General Staff) has spoken of the lack of pilots able to carry out missions in wartime and of his difficulty in finding top officers with sufficient battlefield experience to command troops during the conflict.

Serdiukov seems to have taken the tasking of “fixing the broken mechanism” very much to heart, in pushing through the reform plan without regard for the widespread opposition both in the military and among outside experts. In this, he seems to have the full support of both the president and the prime minister, as shown by his ability to prevent the financial crisis from derailing government financing for reform.

A New Kind of Army

Russian officials and analysts are gradually beginning to speak more openly about the changes in threat assessment that have accompanied the reform effort. As Pukhov stated, the political leadership finally recognized that the West, while not Russia’s friend, is also not Russia’s enemy, and Russia neither wants to nor is able to fight a war against it. Once they had recognized that neither the US nor Europe was truly a military threat to Russia, they had to give up the notion that Russia had to be prepared to fight a global conventional war and begin to transform the Russian military into a force able to fight local wars in the near abroad.

It has been difficult for the Russian leadership to announce this shift openly, because of the continued emphasis on anti-Western (and especially anti-American) propaganda as a way of distracting the population from domestic political and economic problems.  Events such as the recent Zapad-2009 military exercise in Belarus, which was designed to simulate the defense of Russia and Belarus from a large-scale invasion from the West, feed the continued perception that the Russian military views NATO and the West as a potential military threat. But given the structure of the newly reformed military, this is an illusion. The truth is that the Russian military of the future will not be capable of fighting a major war against NATO, but will have to depend upon its nuclear arsenal to deter against the possibility of such a conflict. Instead, the military will focus on improving its capabilities to fight against insurgencies and local adversaries — in other words the kinds of wars they have actually fought in the last 10-15 years.

This change in focus meant rejecting the mass mobilization army of the Soviet period and turning to a fully professional mobile army — one in which all units are fully staffed and where joint operations are the norm. To this end, once the transformation is complete, we should expect the complete elimination of conscription. While some reform opponents argue that this transition is going to destroy the army’s fighting potential, others argue that the damage from maintaining the current ineffective system would be greater than from any reform effort, as the current army is simply not able to fight.

Potential Roadblocks

While many generals are openly or secretly opposed to the reform, they no longer present a serious threat to the reform effort. The most outspoken opponents of the reform effort have been removed from their positions over the last two years. Those who remain in the ranks understand that they can only preserve their careers if they keep quiet.

There may be more of a challenge from rank and file soldiers and especially junior officers, who fear that the reform will cause them to lose their jobs and do not trust the government to provide them with the housing they are owed when they leave the service. In fact, the provision of housing for retirees has been slowed by a combination of the financial crisis and unrealistic targets for building and acquiring new apartments.

At the moment, official data from the Defense Ministry states that 90 thousand officers are owed housing. There was a plan to build somewhere between 45 and 60 thousand apartments during 2009-2010. But because of lack of financing, only slightly more than half of this target will be met in the alloted time frame. At the same time, the Finance Ministry has increased funding for military housing acquisition for 2010 from 81 billion rubles to 113 billion rubles, with the goal of providing all retiring officers with housing by the end of 2011. I would guess that there will be further slippage, but the target will be met within the next 3-4 years.

Junior officers are also unhappy with efforts by the Defense Ministry to avoid giving officers who are being laid off  the additional compensation that they would normally be owed.

What Comes Next

The structural reorganization part of the reform effort is now more or less complete. The new brigade structure is almost fully in place and will be completed by December 1. The following steps will be much less visible to the public, as officers and soldiers get used to working in the new command structure, while officers from eliminated units continue to be laid off gradually as housing and money for severance payments become available. We should also expect to see more exercises similar to this summer’s Kavkaz-2009 and Ladoga-2009, where the military learns how to function in a more coordinated and mobile environment.

In the longer term, as sergeants begin to graduate from training courses in 2011, and especially as the number of 18 year olds drops precipitously in 2012, we should expect an increased focus on hiring professional soldiers and the subsequent total elimination of conscription. To this end, salaries for professional soldiers and for junior officers will be raised by 2013 in order to make serving in the military more attractive and to increase retention.

New equipment remains the missing part of the puzzle. While purchases of some big ticket items (such as the Mistral) from abroad might fill gaps, the military will not be able to afford too many foreign purchases. The only hope for the military to receive modern equipment to go along with their modern force structure is for Russia to revive its defense industry, which will require significant investment on the part of the government. There have not really been outward signs that the government is planning to make such expenditures, but given how few leaks preceded the rollout of the organizational reform, this does not mean that such plans are not being made.