A guide to becoming an admiral in the Russian Navy

New analytical article up at War on the Rocks, co-authored with Kasey Stricklin. Here’s a preview of the introduction.


It is widely acknowledged that general and flag officers are important actors. Senior uniformed leaders are, of course, crucial in determining the trajectory of a country’s military development and in some cases even of its foreign policy. Yet, with vanishingly few exceptions, even those Americans who closely track national and international security focus little on the generals and admirals of other nations’ militaries. In the case of Russia, the U.S. national security community has an almost comical obsession with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, and his eponymous (but largely fictional) doctrine. But that’s where it ends.

American national security analysts and practitioners would be well advised to follow who is rising to the senior ranks of the Russian military. Over the decades, these leaders have been important in shaping the trajectory of a foe that was once America’s most formidable and remains, arguably, its most troublesome. From the decision to avoid developing aircraft carriers in favor of cruisers and submarines during the Cold War to the debate over the primacy of ground forces or strategic rocket forces in the post-Soviet period, Soviet and Russian generals and admirals have played critical roles. Understanding the background and preferences of those who are likely to be the next set of leaders of the Russian armed forces thus can give analysts a better idea of how it will develop over the next two decades.

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In May 2019, Vladimir Putin announced a transition in the senior leadership of the Russian Navy. Adm. Vladimir Korolev, having served as commander in chief of the Russian Navy for three years, retired and was replaced by Adm. Nikolay Yevmenov, who had served as commander of the Northern Fleet since 2016. Vice Adm. Aleksandr Moiseyev moved from his command of the Black Sea Fleet to replace Yevmenov at the Northern Fleet and Vice Adm. Igor Osipov was appointed as the new head of the Black Sea Fleet. Some commentators were surprised by the appointment, including one analyst who suggested that Moiseyev seemed a stronger candidate on paper. Now is therefore an opportune time to examine the career factors that lead to the selection of Russian naval leaders and to make some predictions about who is likely to rise to the highest positions in the Russian Navy in the coming years.

Our analysis of career trajectories of senior Russian naval officers highlights the career mileposts that increase the likelihood of promotion to the senior-most positions in the Russian Navy. These mileposts also help to explain why Yevmenov was appointed to head the service ahead of Moiseyev. In fact, our initial research, completed in early 2018, highlighted Yevmenov as the most likely candidate to succeed Korolev as commander in chief.

How to Reach the Highest Ranks in the Russian Navy

To develop our findings, we put together a database of Russian Navy flag officers who were active between 2005 and 2016. For this part of the analysis, we examined the career trajectories of 199 officers who had already retired at the rank of rear admiral or higher. Fifteen officers reached the rank of admiral (including two who made admiral of the fleet), 48 officers retired at the rank of vice admiral, and 136 officers retired as rear admirals.


Read the rest here.

More details on Baltic Fleet shakeup

In the last 24 hours, more information has come out on yesterday’s purge of the Baltic Fleet command structure. First of all, the size of the purge is unprecedented, with around 50 high ranking officers being removed, including squadron and brigade commanders. Second, it is highly unusual for removals of top military officials (or of any senior officials in present-day Russia) to be public and openly for cause, rather than officially being described as being for health reasons or because the individual(s) were ready to retire.

Clearly, for the purge to be so large and so open, the misconduct in the Baltic Fleet had to be very serious and very widespread. Yulia Nikitina and Irina Tumakova from Fontanka.ru have published a long article documenting the faults attributed to the fleet’s now-former leadership. The condition of the fleet under Viktor Kravchuk had supposedly declined when compared to how it was under his predecessors, who received much less financing than he did in the last four years.

Nikitina and Tumakova discuss unconfirmed rumors about a collision between the recently completed Krasnodar diesel submarine and a Polish vessel (variously described as either an intelligence collection ship or Poland’s single remaining Kilo submarine). They also mention the poor state of housing for Baltic Fleet officers and obvious failures during recent exercises, such as when a submarine that was towed out to sea started to emit smoke rather than submerging and had to be returned to pier for repairs.

But if that was the extent of the problems, the leadership change is unlikely to have been so broad or so public. The most likely cause for the way this purge has been carried out is corruption. As Nikitina and Tumakova note, back in 2012 Kravchuk was tasked with creating the Kaliningrad defense region, a large  joint military grouping that is to combine naval, aviation, and ground forces units under the command of the Baltic Fleet commander. At that time, Kravchuk was given command of strike aviation, air defense units, Iskander units (when located in Kaliningrad) and four infantry brigades that make up the 11th army corps.

The establishment of the 11th Army Corps required the construction of barracks, housing, and other facilities. The money that was allocated to these tasks was spent elsewhere or embezzled and the command proved to be unprepared to take in the additional troops. Furthermore, Kravchuk was known to have close ties with criminal “authorities” in Kaliningrad, including the “Amber baron” Viktor Bogdan, who, in addition to cornering the amber trade in the region seems to have also been involved in stealing diesel fuel from Baltic Fleet ships.

In other words, the Baltic Fleet purge appears to be a signal to other Russian military commanders (including mid-level ones) that corruption that has a negative effect on combat readiness will not be tolerated and will result in punishment far more severe than the usual honorable retirement given to senior officials who misbehave.

 

Baltic Fleet commanders fired

Today, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the commander (Vice Admiral Viktor Kravchuk) and chief of staff (Rear Admiral Sergei Popov) of the Baltic Fleet were both fired for cause, as were several other unnamed senior officials at the fleet. This was the largest mass replacement of senior naval officials in the Russian Navy since the Soviet period. The official statement indicated that the removal was the result of serious shortcomings in the officers’ work that were revealed in a month-long review of the fleet’s performance that concluded on June 10. The official notice highlighted “serious shortcomings in organizing combat training, daily activities of their units, poor care of their subordinates as well as misrepresenting the real situation in their reports.”

Although Kravchuk has his defenders, it appears that his removal  was the result of real shortcomings, although combined with external factors that made his removal relatively easy to carry out. Ilya Kramnik and Konstantin Bogdanov have done some very interesting reporting on this subject. They argue that these shortcomings include the unsatisfactory performance of Baltic Fleet minesweepers during exercises that took place in August 2015, combined with a low level of combat readiness among the fleet’s newest ships. The fleet’s four Project 20380 Steregushchiy class corvettes have not deployed to the Mediterranean Sea or Indian Ocean a single time in the nine years since the first of the ships was commissioned into the fleet. Furthermore, the ships have had more than their share of accidents and fires.

In addition to questions about the fleet’s combat readiness, the commanders were also criticized for inadequate living conditions for personnel stationed at the fleet’s bases. The commanders were given until this spring to correct the problems in both areas, and today’s announcement shows that the recently completed review found them still wanting.

Kravchuk’s enforced departure was smoothed by the replacement last winter of the Commander of the Russian Navy, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, who was removed in November 2015 officially because of health concerns. Chirkov, who had been Kravchuk’s patron in the navy for many years, was rumored to have also been removed due to complaints about inadequate readiness in some units — in his case naval infantry and support ships. These problems had come to a head because of increased requirements related to the Syrian Express operation for supplying Syrian and then Russian troops in Syria with military equipment.

Kramnik and Bogdanov note that although problems at the Baltic Fleet may have been particularly noticeable, they do not differ that much from problems evident in Russia’s other fleets. The reason that the leadership of the Baltic Fleet was chosen may be more a factor of the fleet’s relative lack of importance in present-day Russian operations. Therefore, today’s announcement may also serve as a warning to the commanders of the other fleets that they need to improve their work or face similar consequences.

 

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.