The firing of Anatoly Serdyukov

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was fired this morning. The ostensible reason had to do with the corruption scandal that recently engulfed Oboronservis. But we all know that no one in the top echelons of the Russian government gets fired for corruption, unless there’s some other reason for their removal. The subtext here is that Serdyukov had made an enemy of Viktor Zubkov, the powerful former Prime Minister and current chair of Gazprom’s board, and also Serdyukov’s father-in-law and former patron.

The corruption scandal focused on Yevgenia Vasilyeva, the former head of the MOD’s property department. Various sources have indicated that when her apartment was raided as part of the corruption probe at 6am on Oct 25, Serdyukov was there. Furthermore, Vasilyeva’s apartment was in the same building as Serdyukov’s. The building had been requisitioned several years ago to serve as the reception hall for the Defense Ministry but then converted to private apartments for the two of them. It seems that the two of them had been having an affair for some time.

I don’t know why this long-standing situation became intolerable recently. It may be, as implied by today’s New York Times report, that Zubkov only recently became aware of the situation, after Serdyukov and his wife separated. Or it may be that it took time for Zubkov to receive a green light from Putin to launch the attack. In any case, we know that only five months ago, Serdyukov had wanted to leave his position and had to be personally persuaded by Putin to stay on. So whatever happened to change the situation has happened over the summer or fall.

Another interesting aspect of the situation is that two weeks passed between the raid on Vasilyeva’s apartment and Serdyukov’s removal. Initially, it seemed to me that the raid was meant as a signal to Serdyukov to sort out his personal life and that he was not in danger of removal. If he had meant to remove Serdyukov, Putin could have done so without the raid or (if he wanted Serdyukov humiliated) could have done so immediately after the raid. The delay implies either that Serdyukov was unable to come to terms with Zubkov and therefore had to be jettisoned by the ruling clan or that Zubkov was determined to have Serdyukov out despite Putin’s initial reluctance and needed the two weeks to prevail. (The latter point of view is well-expressed by Aleksandr Golts.)

Putin has appointed Sergei Shoigu, the long-standing head of the Emergencies Ministry who had been serving as Moscow Oblast governor for the last few months. This move has implications for both the military and the Russian political system at large. For the political system, it means that Putin has few people left he can trust. Serdyukov was long seen as irreplaceable precisely because there were so few people who combined his qualities of effective managerial ability and personal loyalty to Putin. Shoigu is one such person, which is probably why he was brought in as Serdyukov’s replacement even though he had only recently been appointed to run Moscow Oblast.

The burning question, though, is what happens to the military in general and the reform effort in particular with Shoigu as Defense Minister. Shoigu is in some ways like Sergei Ivanov was — someone with vast experience in the security services, but little connection the military itself. By all accounts, he did an incredible job establishing and running the Emergencies Ministry. If he can combine his managerial abilities with a manner that is less brusque than Serdyukov’s, he might succeed in maintaining momentum on the reform agenda without alienating the officer corps. Of course, this will depend on a continued reaffirmation of support for reform by Putin, but that seems in little doubt given the extent to which Putin is invested in the reform’s success. This will be especially needed to counter those officers who may be emboldened by Serdyukov’s removal and may seek to roll back some of the reform’s achievements.

Shoigu has a reputation as an honest and relatively uncorrupt official. He may end up being far more effective at eliminating entrenched corruption at the MOD than Serdyukov (who seems to have simply had his own people take over the most profitable schemes). We may get an early signal of the future of the reform effort if Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov retires (as expected) in December. If Makarov is replaced by someone who is seen as a strong supporter of reform, then Serdyukov’s reform plan is likely to continue. If he is replaced by a member of the old guard, that may be a sign that the achievements of the last four years are about to be rolled back. Of course, Makarov’s reappointment, though unlikely, would also be a signal that reform remains on track.

Serdyukov’s removal may initially be taken as a victory for the anti-reform forces. But it may turn out that his “bulldozer” methods have done as much as they could. In that case, Shoigu could turn out to be exactly the right person for the job of solidifying the changes enacted over the last four years.

 

 

 

The million man army does not exist

For months, I’ve been arguing that the Russian military does not actually have the one million soldiers that it officially lists as serving in its ranks. A recent article by Aleksei Nikolskii in Vedomosti confirms my argument with official statistics.

Nikolskii cites an official report by Nikolai Pankov, the MOD State Secretary, to Defense Minister Anatoly Serdiukov. According to this document, in April 2012 the total number of people serving in the military included 160,100 officers, 189,700 contract soldiers, and 317,200 conscripts. In other words, 667,000 people. In addition, there are medical personnel, cadets, faculty at various military academies, and some other types of personnel that are not included in those statistics. But even adding those in, Nikolskii notes that according to a source in the MOD, the total number of military personnel would not exceed 800,000.

Back in December, I came up with some very similar calculations that led me to estimate a total strength of 750,000. As Nikolskii rightly points out, given Russia’s current demographic situation, there’s simply no way to maintain a million man army without increasing the number of contract soldiers to 500,000.  The current goal is to add 50,000 a year until they get to around 420,000 in 2017. I have my doubts on whether that’s an achievable target, but much will depend on whether the new higher salaries for military personnel prove sufficiently attractive. I haven’t seen any numbers on the number of new contract soldiers recruited since the higher pay rates went into effect at the beginning of January. It seems to me that if the effort had been highly successful, it would have led to a publicity effort. So the longer the military maintains its silence on the question of contract soldier recruitment in 2012, the more skeptical I get about the success of its effort.

In the meantime, I’m glad to see that more and more Russian experts are coming around to the position that the military should abandon the fiction that the Russian military has one million personnel and admit that 800,000 is a more realistic assessment of the current manning situation. The gap between the official position and reality, of course, implies that 20 percent of billets are currently vacant.

This does not bode well for the concept of fully manned permanent readiness brigades, which has been at the core of the Serdiukov reform. The concept is still a good one, of course, but it may be better for the Russian military to cut the number of brigades and keep the ones it has fully staffed than to operate with the fiction of fully staffed brigades, as it seems to be now.

 

 

New attack on General Staff and military reform

It seems that opponents of Russian military reform have launched another effort to derail it. Over the last week, a number of articles in generally even handed newspapers such as Nezavisimaia Gazeta have focused on the continuing problems with the implementation of reform. What’s more, these articles have been quite direct in blaming General Makarov, the chief of the General Staff. Given his close ties to Anatolii Serdiukov, this seems to be a direct attack on the defense minister himself.

The key figure in these reports is Mikhail Babich, the deputy chairman of the State Duma’s committee on defense. He has done two interviews in recent days, one on the subject of the recent housecleaning in the military’s top ranks and another on the subject of the state of preparedness of troops in the Russian Far East and the Pacific Fleet.

In mid-January, an MOD review commission found that the state of the Far Eastern Military District and the Pacific Fleet is poor. It didn’t help that on the last day of the review, a Su-27 fighter aircraft crashed in Khabarovsk during training. (The Air Force subsequently suspended all Su-27 flights until the cause of the crash is determined.) The goal of the review was to determine how prepared the region’s military forces were to work in the new command system implemented last year. While the final report of the review has not yet been issued, General Makarov publicly announced that the state of region’s armed forces was not satisfactory. Continue reading

More personnel changes

Interfax is reporting today that there has been a major reshuffle in the top ranks of the Russian military. Colonel-General Alexander Postnikov has replaced Vladimir Boldyrev as commander-in-chief of the ground forces. Postnikov was previously commander of the Siberian military district. Also, Lieutenant General Andrei Tret’iak has been appointed Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff, replacing Major General Sergei Surovikin, who was demoted to the position of Chief of Staff and first deputy commander of the Volga-Urals military district. Tret’iak previously held the position of Chief of Staff and first deputy commander of the Leningrad military district. Two new military district commander appointments  were also announced. Lieutenant General Alexander Galkin will commander the North Caucasus military district and Lieutenant General Vladimir Chirkin will command the Siberian military district.

I’ll try to have some more analysis later, but at first glance Surovkin’s demotion seems interesting in that it may signify that there is still resistance to reforms among top officers at the General Staff.

The New Model Army: Still Equipped with Soviet-era Weapons

A recent article in NVO again makes the point that Russia’s military reform effort has so far failed to come to terms with the Russian military’s lack of modern weapons and equipment. Back in March, Defense Minister Serdyukov noted that only 10 percent of the Russian military’s weaponry can be considered modern, which actually represents a signifcant decline from 2003.  The “new” weapons and equipment that are currently entering service in tiny quantities are based on Soviet designs and do not meet the demands of modern warfare.

Major weapons systems, such as the Iskander ballistic missile and the 2S19 Msta-S self-propelled howitzer, are equipped with inferior targeting and communications systems. The T-90A tank lacks an on-board computer control system. Some also believe that its armament is inadequate for modern warfare. Finally, Russian infantry combat vehicles and armored personnel carriers are inadequately armored. Attacks on these vehicles with modern artillery was the main cause of casualties among soldiers entering South Osetia during last year’s war with Georgia.

While military R&D was restarted during the Putin presidency, the results of these efforts are still some years away from entering production, much less entering service in the Russian military. New tanks, artillery, aircraft, ships are all projected to be ready to enter service in 3-5 years, and even then in very small quantities. Mass production is still as much as ten years away.

As Roger McDermott recently pointed out, the Russian military has made a decision to focus on reforming personnel before it gets to equipment. As I have argued previously, this was not just a smart decision, but the only feasible one if reform is to have any chance of succeeding. But this does not mean that modernization of equipment can be put off indefinitely.

If the Russian government wants to have an effective military in 5-10 years, it needs to prepare now by beginning the process of rebuilding its defense industrial complex. If it waits another few years, whatever expertise that exists in the field will disappear with the retirement of the remaining holdover Soviet-era engineers and managers. Recent steps to license the production of French naval assault ships may be an indicator that this process is now beginning. We shall have to wait to see if similar steps are taken for equipment for other services.

In the meantime, it remains clear that even if the transformation of military structure and personnel currently under way is completely successful, because of its obsolete equipment the Russian military will still be some way from becoming a fully effective warfighting force. It will certainly provide no real competition to NATO militaries.

Russian Military Reform and Russia’s Regional Dominance

In recent months, Roger McDermott has written some of the most incisive analyses of the Russian military. His analysis of the significance of the reorganization of the Russian General Staff was one of the first indicators that the military reform started by the Defense Ministry last October was something more than the usual empty talk we had come to expect. Subsequent analyses detailed the problems bedeviling Russia’s air force, the potential impact of last winter’s financial crisis on prospects for reform implementation, and the manpower crisis facing the military as a consequence of the reduction in the length of service for conscripts. In recent articles, McDermott has with great precision described the weakness of the Russian military, arguing that this weakness was one of the main factors that made Russia’s leaders finally realize that reform was absolutely necessary.

Given these analyses, I found McDermott’s most recent analysis somewhat surprising. Once again, he is right on in criticizing most analysts’ penchant for underestimating the objectives and progress of the reform program or dismissing it entirely. As he quite accurately states, “this is no public-relations campaign…. The Russian military is changing fast; few are able to perceive the sheer breathtaking scale of these changes…” And finally, the goal of the reform “is to produce mobile, permanent-readiness formations capable of intervention within a readily short period,” which will “enhance [Russia’s] capability to project power within its near abroad.”

At the same time, McDermott spells out the challenges facing the reformed Russian military in the near future, including an “ailing defense industry” that is having immense trouble producing the new weapons the Russian military will need to replace its aged Soviet relics, difficulties in establishing a reformed military education system, and the length of time needed to create the “culture of promoting individual initiative embodied in the NCO concept.” I could add some other difficulties, including most critically the manpower crisis inherent in a plunging population of young adults, especially when combined with inadequate pay for the professional soldiers slated to replace the existing conscript force.

Given the excellent analysis throughout the piece and in McDermott’s previous work, I find his conclusions rather puzzling. The key paragraph in full states:

While any comment on the policy implications is premature, it is likely that the Russian conventional armed forces will emerge in the next few years as an unrivaled dominant force within the former Soviet space; capable of sudden, decisive intervention, with minimal damage to the country’s international credibility.

I’m not sure how this is possible, given all the problems he has spelled out above. The current transformation will certainly create a military that is more effective than the current one. But it will still lack modern communications equipment and other basic items such as night vision equipment both for tanks and for individual soldiers. It will take at least a decade to restore the air force to a fully functioning state. Without effective air cover, future interventions in the region may have some of the same problems that plagued the 58th army in the early stages of last summer’s war in Georgia. And as McDermott notes, it will take time for personnel to get used to the new command structure.

Now it may be that the Russian military will emerge as “an unrivaled dominant force” in its region, but if so, this will mostly be because of the weakness of its neighbors, not because of its own strength. What’s more, this is a position it already held before any reforms began, as shown by the ease with which it defeated the Georgian military last year. But other neighboring countries with relatively weak military forces may prove much harder to invade successfully, if the country is large enough or its forces choose to fight a guerrilla campaign. This is why Russia will not find it easy to invade countries such as Ukraine or Kazakhstan, even if its leaders may want to do so. As for Central Asia, China may have something to say about Russia becoming an unrivaled dominant force in that region.

I read the doctrine behind the Russian military reform as focused not on increasing Russia’s ability to invade other countries, but on make it more capable of rushing ready forces to potential areas of instability in the North Caucasus or elsewhere along its long land border.  Some may see this view as naive, especially in light of the new Russian law on military missions abroad. However, that law seems to me to be more of a prevenative warning to Georgia and Ukraine, rather than a signal that new military actions aimed at neighboring states are forthcoming.

I am also confused by McDermott’s statement that the military reform “will not contribute to improving interoperability with NATO forces for future peace support operations. ” It seems to me that an increase in mobility and readiness for the bulk of Russia’s military forces can only help interoperability. Furthermore, Russian forces haven’t done so badly working together with NATO and EU forces in recent years in the former Yugoslavia and in naval anti-piracy operations off the Somalian coast. The lack of political will (on both sides, to some extent) to engage in further cooperative operations of this type seems to be much more of a block to cooperation than a lack of military interoperability.

Finally, there is the question of international credibility. Even if McDermott is right in that Russia will soon be able to militarily dominate its neighbors, there is no way that it will be able to do so without grave repercussions to its standing in the international community. The international reaction to Russia’s response to last year’s Georgian attack on South Ossetia was quick and severe. One might say that there were few lasting consequences for Russia, but things might be very different if attacks on neighbors were a) unprovoked and/or b) came to be seen as part of pattern of belligerent action on Russia’s part.

Russia’s New Model Army: Radical Reform in the Russian Military

Last August, the Russian army undertook its first offensive action on foreign soil since the end of the Afghanistan war in 1989. After the initial outburst of patriotic fervor faded, the Russian military did not have long to bask in the glory of its first definitive military victory in many years. In early October, the civilian leadership of the Ministry of Defense announced a radical restructuring of the armed forces, one that, if enacted in full measure, would completely change the military’s structure and mission capabilities for the foreseeable future. More than nine months have passed since the initial outlines of this reform were announced. This memo will describe the reform’s main goals, the military’s reaction to it, and the extent to which it has been implemented. It concludes with a discussion of the likely trajectory of the reform process.

A Radical Break

On October 14, 2008, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced that, over the next four years, the Russian military would undergo a radical restructuring. The main elements of the reform were to include the following:

  • A cut in the total number of military personnel from 1,130,000 to one million, including a cut in the total number of officers from 355,000 to just 150,000. The General Staff would be particularly affected, with 13,500 of its 22,000 personnel positions slated for elimination;
  • Remaining officers and contract soldiers will see a significant pay increase over the next four years. The hope is that this will help retain officers, aid in recruiting contract soldiers, and reduce incentives for corruption;
  • Henceforth, all military units will be considered permanent readiness units and be fully staffed with both officers and enlisted soldiers. The previous practice of maintaining numerous units staffed only by officers will be eliminated. Prior to the reform, only 17 percent of all units were fully staffed.
  • The existing 140,000 non-commissioned officers (NCOs) will be replaced by 85,000 professional sergeants trained over the next three years;
  • The four-tiered command structure will be replaced with a three-tiered structure, with the brigade serving as the basic unit;
  • The military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) will be cut in size and subordinated directly to the civilian defense minister (it was previously under the control of the chief of the general staff);
  • Numerous overlapping military institutes and medical facilities will be consolidated.

This reform was made possible, as Pavel Baev has described, by the removal of many top military commanders at General Staff headquarters, including Chief of the General Staff Yuri Baluyevsky in the summer and early fall of 2008. These commanders were replaced by generals sympathetic to Serdyukov’s reform agenda or beholden directly to the defense minister for their careers.

These reforms amount to the complete destruction of Russia’s mass-mobilization military, a legacy of the Soviet army. Such a change was completely anathema to the previous generation of Russian generals, who continued to believe that the Russian military had to be configured to protect the country from a massive invasion from either Europe or China. This perception explains the military leaders’ reluctance, for two decades, to dismantle key aspects of the old Soviet army and, most especially, its vast caches of outdated and unneeded weapons overseen by an equally vast number of officers with very little battlefield training and no combat experience. These officers and weapons are the remains of an army designed to fight NATO on the European plains and have served no functional purpose since the end of the Cold War.

However, this reality contradicts the culture and interests of Russia’s military elite, who were educated to regard the Soviet army as a world-class military that could match any adversary, including (and especially) the United States. For them, the transformation of the Russian military to a smaller and more mobile force, equipped to fight local and regional conflicts, primarily against insurgents and other irregular forces, is damaging to morale, prestige, and future funding. It was thus inevitable that they would resist these reform efforts at all costs.

Past reform efforts have foundered because they were opposed by the military’s top leadership. As president, Vladimir Putin understood that military reform could not succeed unless the power of the generals was taken away first. He did this gradually, putting civilians in charge of the Defense Ministry and then breaking the power of the General Staff. Once Baluyevsky and his immediate subordinates were replaced with Serdyukov’s supporters, the plan could proceed. But the intensity of resistance to reform among top generals was such that, even then, Serdyukov felt he could not announce the ultimate goal of the reform: the elimination of the mass mobilization army left over from the Soviet Union.

The Counterattack

Immediately after the announcement of the reform program and in the months that followed, traditionalist figures in the military and analytic community did their best to derail the reform. They were helped in this effort by the Defense Ministry’s poor handling of the rollout of the reform package. Rather than putting out a complete reform package, various aspects of the reform were announced piecemeal over a period of two months. These announcements usually did not take the form of official documents; reform measures were simply mentioned in speeches and interviews by top civilian and military officials such as Serdyukov and the new chief of the general staff, Nikolai Makarov. Many of the details mentioned in the various speeches contradicted each other, and the extent and sources of financing for the reform were left unclear.

As a result, reform opponents did not have to focus on the substance of the reform and were initially content to criticize the various inconsistencies of and secrecy surrounding the program. The majority of the substantive criticisms focused on fears that the government would not be able to provide officers forced to retire with the apartments that were legally guaranteed to them. This became a focus of reporting on the reform efforts, especially in the aftermath of the serious downturn in the Russian economy after the collapse of oil and stock prices in the late fall of 2008. Analysts repeatedly stated that given the country’s budget deficit, it seemed virtually impossible for the government to build or buy the tens of thousands of apartments necessary to fulfill the obligations to retiring officers.

At the same time, some critics argued that, if implemented, the planned reforms would destroy the Russian army as a functioning military force. They argued that only a mass mobilization army would be able to withstand an attack by China in the Russian Far East. In their analyses and interviews, these experts calculated the necessary size of the Russian military based on either the area of the Russian Federation or the length of its border. Given Russia’s size, this method allowed them to justify a numerically large army, though they never questioned why Russia would need to defend its land border with Kazakhstan or what role the military would play in protecting its vast interior land area.

Staying the Course

Despite this criticism, the Defense Ministry’s civilian leadership has pressed ahead with their reform plans. Furthermore, both President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have expressed their support for Serdyukov and his reform plans on several occasions in the last six months. In the first round of personnel cuts, several hundred generals and other senior officers were dismissed in the first months of 2009. The transition to a brigade-based structure commenced on schedule, with 46 of the 90 new brigades formed by the end of June. The rest are expected to be formed by December 1. This means that, as far as retaining the mass mobilization army is concerned, the point of no return has already been reached.

Serdyukov has continued to systematically remove opponents of the reform from their positions, including the heads of the medical service, the military housing agency, and the Navy’s chief of staff. The removal in April of Valentin Korabelnikov, the head of military intelligence, was particularly critical, as the GRU was traditionally independent of the Defense Ministry and was seen as the last bastion of opposition to Serdyukov’s reform program.

At the same time, Russia’s financial troubles have had an impact on the implementation of reforms. In April, the relocation of the naval headquarters from Moscow to St. Petersburg was postponed. The deadline for reducing the number of officers was extended from 2012 to 2016, giving the government more time to arrange for apartments and to finance pensions for thousands of retirees. The two-year program for professional sergeants, which had been planned to start in February, was delayed until September, likely because there was not enough time to recruit the requisite personnel or develop a training program in time for a February start. This delay will inevitably result in more time passing before the transition from NCOs to professional sergeants can be completed.

These delays, however, appear to be mere bumps in the road for the military reform juggernaut. After almost two decades of false starts and unfulfilled promises, the current iteration of military reforms seems destined to fundamentally change the Russian military.

The Future of the “New Model Army”

Given recent developments, it appears that, sometime in the next 3 to 5 years, Russia will have a more or less functional modern professional army, one that is able to fight effectively in the kinds of conflict in which Russia has actually engaged over the last twenty years. The new structure will allow the military to be more effective in fighting small wars on difficult terrain against adversaries that are likely to combine traditional military tactics with irregular warfare. This is the main, if unstated, goal of the reform. It is thus not surprising that the reforms have left the paratroopers largely untouched; they are a force that is already effective at the tasks for which the new military will be designed.

Largely missing from the discussion among either proponents or detractors of the reform effort has been the question of how to make this “new model army” more effective. While the elimination of the mass mobilization model and the move to professionalization are excellent first steps, there has been very little discussion of the extent to which the new Russian military will still be equipped with old Soviet weapons. The various rearmament programs promulgated by the government in the last ten years have all shared one feature: none has come close to even partial implementation.

Once the initial conflicts surrounding the personnel reforms are resolved, the Russian military will have to deal with the fact that the country’s military industrial complex is no longer capable of producing modern weaponry in the quantities necessary to reequip the Russian military in a timely manner. In the short term, it will have to shed its insistence on buying only domestic military hardware and make more purchases from abroad, such as the unmanned drone aircraft it recently purchased from Israel. In the long term, it will have to reform and modernize its defense industry, a project that may also require foreign assistance.