Review of Bettina Renz’s new book on Russia’s Military Revival

I wrote the following book review for Oxford’s CCW Russia Brief, Issue 3. These Russia briefs from Oxford’s changing character of war program feature some of the top experts and are worth reading cover to cover. The most recent issue also includes articles by Richard Connolly, Michael Kofman, Nazrin Mehdiyeva, and Andrew Monaghan.


It can be reasonably argued that over the last decade, the Russian government has had no higher priority than restoring its military as a potent force that can both strike fear into its adversaries and be capable of being used to achieve state goals in an armed conflict. In Russia’s Military Revival, Bettina Renz sets out to explain the reasons for this focus on rebuilding its military. In doing so, she moves well beyond the common narratives that focus on improvements on hardware and training or, less commonly, on strategy and doctrine. Although an overview of all of those things is provided, the real focus is on the purpose of the revival, rather than its technical details or the means with which Russia is planning to fight.

In writing the book, Renz seeks to correct three misguided assumptions about the “timing, purpose, and scope” of Russia’s drive to rearm: 1) the idea that the drive to rearm signals a “paradigm shift” in Russian policy, 2) the notion that rearmament is being driven by “an expansionist and aggressive foreign policy”, and 3) the view that “Russian military capabilities now rival those of the West” (p. 11). The book is devoted to disproving these assumptions. In doing so, Renz shows that since Russia became an independent country in 1991, its government has consistently sought to maintain, use, and whenever possible strengthen the military instrument of its power. She also shows that despite significant improvements in capabilities in recent years, the Russian military remains far weaker than those of the West and Russia’s military power is not sufficient to “guarantee victory in all cases” or even to “create substantial new opportunities for the achievement of objectives that were not achievable before” (p. 12).

Renz focuses the first chapter of the book on countering the idea that Russia is pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. She argues instead that Russia’s foreign policy has four main drivers: great power status, sovereignty, imperial legacy, and multilateralism. Most critically, Russian foreign policy is driven by an effort to restore its great power status and to have that status recognized by the international community and by the leading powers in the international system. This recognition is necessary for Russia to achieve its second goal, of having a right to sovereignty in its decision-making. Russian understandings of sovereignty differ somewhat from those common in the West. Most importantly, “The Kremlin believes that its sovereignty to conduct internal affairs without outside interference can only be preserved if it can also pursue an independent foreign policy abroad” (p. 34). This linkage of the internal and external components of sovereignty, together with the fear that its adversaries are infringing on its sovereignty through regime change efforts, has resulted in a belief that a strong military is needed to secure Russian sovereignty. The belief that a sphere of influence is a sign of being a great power, together with an understanding of sovereignty as pertaining to great powers but not necessarily to smaller states, encourages Russian political elites to pursue the legacy of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union by seeking to dominate its former territories in the “near abroad,” though generally without asserting direct territorial control. Finally, the Russian leadership sees the solution to problems in the international sphere in great-power multilateralism, a sort of renewed version of the 19th century Concert of Europe wherein the great powers work together to ensure international peace and security.

It is Russia’s perceived inability to convince other major powers, and especially the United States, of the benefits of this type of international system that has led its leaders to focus increasingly on ensuring their country’s security through unilateral means, including through the revival of its military and security forces, expansion of their use domestically and especially abroad, and the development and refinement of non-military and quasi-military means designed to achieve Russian foreign policy goals. The rest of the book is devoted to describing these developments, beginning with chapters on the reform and strengthening of the Russian military and on militarized components of other Russian government agencies.

No book is perfect, and these two chapters are arguably the weakest part of this one. The chapter on military reform begins promisingly, with a discussion of the origins of the reform effort, and generally seeks to contextualize the strengths and weaknesses of the reform effort. In doing so, unfortunately, Renz tends to overstate the constraints on Russia’s ability to carry out the reform and to strengthen its military. While this is not the place for a full discussion of these issues, I would note that the Russian military has in the last five years largely solved its manpower problem through a combination of decreased deferments for conscripts and improvements in recruitment of professional soldiers. Recruitment should become even easier in the coming decade due to an increase in the number of draft eligible young men in the population.

Similarly, while economic problems and international sanctions have created difficulties for the production of new weapons over the last five years, Russia has largely weathered the storm without suffering an economic collapse and has found alternative sources, both domestic and foreign, for components that it used to import from European states. Finally, Russian military planners have impressed in how they have worked around the constraints imposed by defence industry gaps and financial limitations. For example, the Russian Navy has dealt with the shipbuilding industry’s inability to provide it with new large ships in a timely manner by developing a strategy that focuses on the installation of small numbers of highly effective cruise missiles on a large number of relatively small ships. These ships can then be used to deter attack by threatening the adversary from the relative safety of enclosed seas where the ships can be protected by shore-based defence systems. This is not to negate the author’s larger point that Western analysts face the risk of overstating Russian military prowess, simply to highlight that it is very difficult to achieve precision in the balance between overstatement and understatement.

The chapter on Russia’s “second army” – the various agencies and ministries other than the Ministry of Defence that have armed formations under their command – suffers from a very different flaw. It falls into the descriptive trap, wherein the author spends numerous pages describing the various agencies and the forces they control, but without explaining their purpose. The reader would have been better served had the chapter cut out much of this description in favour of a more detailed set of explanations of how these agencies promote the themes that connect Russian military revival and Russian foreign policy, as spelled out in the rest of the book.

The last two chapters return to the book’s core strengths, discussing situations in which Russia has used its military forces and developments in Russian military thought in the post-Soviet period. In both chapters, as in the book as a whole, the dominant theme is continuity. Renz shows that Russia’s recent use of military power abroad comes from largely the same foreign policy sources as its actions in the 1990s. Similarly, she shows that the concept of warfighting that has been labelled hybrid warfare in the West has largely grown out of existing concepts, both in Russia/the Soviet Union and in the West, that have been extended based on new developments in technology and military thinking in recent years. The key point, though, is that these concepts do not provide a fool-proof winning formula for Russian aggression in the near abroad or elsewhere in the world.

Overall, Russia’s Military Revival makes a convincing argument that Russia is not a ‘revanchist’ state that, “enabled by better military capabilities, is seeking to forcefully expand the country’s influence in the CIS region and to confront the West in a bid for domination” (p. 157). Instead, the key takeaway from this well-written and cogently argued book is that Russian foreign policy goals have been largely consistent since the early 1990s, but that the change in Russia’s relative power vis-à-vis its main competitors in the international sphere has resulted in the changes in foreign policy behaviour that we have observed over the last decade.

 

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The Russian Military under Sergei Shoigu: Will the Reform Continue?

Here is a new policy memo, just published on the PONARS Eurasia website. It can be seen here in pdf format.

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In the five years of Anatoly Serdyukov’s tenure as defense minister, the Russian military underwent one of the most significant reforms of any period since the formation of the modern Soviet Army during and immediately after World War II. As part of this reform, the military shed most of its Soviet legacy in areas such as organizational structure and manpower. The transformation, however, alienated the officer corps, with most senior generals agitating for Serdyukov’s dismissal throughout his tenure. Although his eventual removal in November 2012 had more to do with corruption scandals and the interests of senior government figures with defense industry ties, the dismissal led many critics to hope that new Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu would reverse the Serdyukov reform.

In this memo, I briefly examine the achievements of the Serdyukov reform and the challenges he bequeathed to Shoigu, before focusing on the decisions made by Shoigu in the first months of his tenure and their potential impact on the development of the Russian military over the next several years. Continue reading

Impressions from Moscow

At the end of May, I spent a week in Moscow doing some research on various topics. Although it wasn’t the central focus of my interviews, I took the opportunity to discuss the state of the Russian military with several scholars and journalists. What follows is a brief summary of my impressions from these conversations.

Shoigu is not reversing Serdyukov’s reform. With only one exception, all of my interlocutors agreed that Shoigu is maintaining the main thrust of Serdyukov’s reform efforts. He has canceled the decisions that were most upsetting to the senior generals, but kept all the central aspects of the reform. One example: Restoring the Tamanskaia and Kantemirovskaia divisions pleased the traditionalists, but the newly rechristened divisions are unlikely to ever reach actual division staffing levels. Instead, levels are likely to reach 6-7,000 people, higher than the 3,800 assigned to brigades but nowhere near the 13-14,000 personnel assigned to a traditional Russian military division. It’s possible that additional divisions will be introduced, but no more than 1-2 per military district, as there are simply not enough personnel in the military to staff all the brigades, let alone restore the old divisions. Similarly, Shoigu’s decision to wear a military uniform was designed to make the old guard of the military more comfortable, as part of a campaign to repair relations between the country’s civilian leadership and senior generals. He is reported to wear civilian clothing at all times except when he is meeting with the generals. For obvious reasons, Shoigu has been very keen to distance himself from anything related to Serdyukov and the criminal case that was the ostensible reason for Serdyukov’s dismissal. But much of this is at the level of perceptions and symbolism, rather than actual policy change.

In fact, many of Shoigu’s changes have to be described as largely positive for the Russian military. The introduction of sudden alert drills has demonstrated the lack of preparedness in some units, but is likely to lead to an increase in readiness in the long term. Restoring the position of warrant officer (praporshchik or michman) for technical positions is another needed course correction, though most of the staff in question did not actually leave the military when their positions were eliminated, instead continuing to serve as sergeants. Another important change that has largely gone unnoticed by most commentators has to do with promotions within the military. Serdyukov handled all promotions himself, and approvals came quite slowly. This caused resentment among the officer corps. Shoigu has decentralized and accelerated the process.

Clearly, there are many problems with the military. The rearmament plans incorporated in the current State Armament Program are a fiction and have no chance of being implemented at anywhere near the promised levels. Corruption remains endemic, both at the MOD and in defense industry. And perhaps most seriously, the military seems to have no solution for its manpower crisis. Demographic factors have sharply limited the pool of potential conscripts, while the military remains largely unable to make itself attractive enough to recruit a sizable pool of professional contract soldiers.

But these real concerns should not blind us to the progress that has been made under Serdyukov, nor to the possibility of continued progress under Shoigu. It may well happen that the pessimists turn out to be right and that Shoigu ends up dismantling the positive changes made under Serdyukov. But we should remember that everything Serdyukov did in transforming the military was done at Putin’s behest. It’s quite likely that priorities have changed and that shaking up the military has now taken a back seat to ensuring stability in a period where the regime is no longer nearly as popular as it once was. That can quite nicely explain the sacrifice of Serdyukov. But on the same count, the military can be satisfied by the combination of going after Serdyukov and the symbolic acts taken so far. Stability and a docile military does not require the dismantling of the entirety of Serdyukov’s reform, especially since some aspects of it are now firmly entrenched. Their reversal would lead to greater instability within the military than leaving things alone.

 

 

Russian Military reform moves beyond Soviet legacy

Here’s an Oxford Analytica brief I wrote a few months ago. This was originally published November 19, 2012. There have been a number of new developments since then, but this is still worth reading for my perspective of what worked, what didn’t, and what challenges Shoigu will be facing in the near future…

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SUBJECT:Key accomplishments of Russia’s military reform and its mid-term prospects.

SIGNIFICANCE:Russia’s defence industry remains in a fairly decrepit state, plagued by outdated equipment, lack of experienced personnel, inefficient production processes and extensive corruption. Government efforts to revive the industry through restructuring and targeted investment have produced few improvements, creating instead a large number of unwieldy government-controlled monopolies.

ANALYSIS: Impacts

  • A mobile and well-equipped military will enable Russia to become a more efficient player in local and regional conflicts.
  • The higher budget allocations could translate into higher salaries for the military, raising the prestige of military service.
  • The defence industry’s difficulties in manufacturing ultramodern equipment will hinder the efforts to improve Russian military capabilities.
  • Recent personnel changes in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) provide an opportunity to assess the state of the Russian military after four years of reforms and the issues that it is facing at the start of the incoming defence minister’s tenure.

Russia’s most successful defence minister?

One of the greatest successes of former Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was the radical military reform that he launched in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s war with Georgia in August 2008.

More mobility

Working closely with Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov, who masterminded much of the reform, Serdyukov succeeded in dismantling the Soviet-era structure of the Russian military and replacing it with a structure more suited to 21st century warfare. He substituted the unwieldy divisions geared towards fighting large frontal wars with much more mobile and largely self-sufficient brigades.

Faster mobilisation

The reform also ended the Russian military’s dependence on mass mobilisation to fight its wars. During the post-Soviet period, many military units existed mostly on paper and were staffed by only a few officers in charge of warehouses filled with unusable weapons and equipment. It could take up to one year for most of these units to become combat-ready. Under Serdyukov, they were eliminated, and the military began a gradual transition to a structure based on fully staffed units that could mobilise in less than a week. Some of these units should be able to respond to a sudden conflict within 24 hours.

Better inter-service cooperation

The military also made great strides in becoming better coordinated in its operations. Under the previous command structure, inter-service cooperation on the battlefield required coordination from Moscow. This led to numerous incidents of miscommunication that resulted in losses to friendly fire and problems with essential combat requirements, such as the timely provision of air cover for advancing ground forces. The establishment of four regional unified strategic commands allowed local commanders to organise all military elements in their respective region, which greatly enhanced inter-service cooperation.

All of these organisational changes have been made in an effort to enable the Russian military to respond more quickly to unexpected local or regional conflicts. These are the only types of wars that the Russian military has been engaged in since the Afghanistan conflict of the 1980s. Military planners expect this to be the most common form of warfare in the foreseeable future as well.

Failed reforms

Although he did a great deal to rid the Russian military of its Soviet legacy, Serdyukov was far less successful in interpersonal matters: the minister’s lack of military experience and his hard-charging style, which earned him the nickname ‘Bulldozer’, alienated most of the senior and junior officers under his command.

Military continues to face housing crisis

Although military salaries were increased substantially during Serdyukov’s term, the MoD failed to fulfil its long-standing promise to provide its serving and retired officers with acceptable housing. Although the MoD asserted that large numbers of apartments were being constructed, many eventually turned out to be uninhabitable because of poor construction methods. At the same time, a rapid reduction in the number of serving officers resulted in yet more retired personnel on waiting lists for permanent housing.

Corruption remains rampant

Before Serdyukov became head of the MoD, the military was widely known as one of Russia’s most corrupt institutions, with senior officers accumulating large amounts of money by redirecting procurement and construction funding and using conscript labour for personal needs. The circumstances surrounding Serdyukov’s removal suggest that his goal of stamping out corruption in the military during his tenure was far from being achieved.

Challenges ahead

Shoigu, the new minister of defence, has maintained a relatively clean reputation throughout his tenure as minister for emergency situations and as the governor of the Moscow region. He also appears to have the support of senior officers, most of whom despised his predecessor. However, the military he has inherited is still facing a number of serious challenges.

Military remains small and untrained

The most pressing problem is the military’s lack of soldiers. A decline in childbirth in the early 1990s has resulted in a corresponding drop in the number of 18-year-old men available for conscription. At the same time, salary increases and improvements in living conditions have done little to encourage Russians to serve in the military as contract soldiers. As a result, the military is facing significant personnel shortages. Moreover, the military’s inability to attract a sufficient number of contract soldiers also affects its battlefield readiness: conscripts who serve for only a year before demobilisation do not have enough training to handle the modern weapons that the military hopes to acquire by 2020.

Need for more modern equipment

The second major challenge facing the new defence minister is the implementation of a highly ambitious ten-year rearmament programme that is expected to modernise 70% of Russia’s weapons by 2020. Serdyukov and Makarov had made many enemies in the defence industry by insisting that the MoD would not pay inflated prices for substandard, domestically manufactured equipment. Shoigu, at least initially, appears poised to take a softer line with the industry. This may win him friends but is also likely to burden the military with outdated and overpriced weapons systems.

CONCLUSION: As Russia’s new defence minister, Sergei Shoigu faces several key challenges: he will need to modernise military equipment, raise the number of well-trained personnel and crack down on widespread corruption. Shoigu will have to walk a fine line between remaining on good terms with the military-industrial lobby and seeing through the reforms initiated by his predecessor.

Comment on military reform for Valdai

The Valdai Club asked me a couple of weeks ago to comment on the achievements of Russian military reform to date. Here’s what I said:

One of the main premises of Russia’s Military Reform involved eliminating the mass mobilization army and replacing it with one focused on permanent readiness, and getting rid of the units that just had officers and equipment but didn’t have any soldiers available for mass mobilization in times of war.

Another aspect involved the concerns about the coming demographic decline in the number of 18 year-old men available for the draft due to the decline in the birth rate after 1991. That led to a decision to increase the number of contract soldiers relative to the number of conscripts. That was the manpower side.

In terms of organization the main focus was on increasing efficiency, eliminating duplicate structures, generally making the organization more efficient, and decreasing the number of command layers, so that army units could react more quickly when an order was issued in Moscow.

Also, there was a recognition that the Russian military needed to shift from being prepared to fight NATO and Europe towards dealing with more local and regional conflicts.

The assessment of the results of the Reform depends on structural changes or personnel issues. The mostly completed Reform of the organizational structure has been very successful. It’s reformed. It’s been fulfilled. It seems to work well enough, and it is certainly more efficient than the old system.

On the manpower side, the jury is still out. In January of this year, the salaries of contract soldiers increased quite a bit, and so the question is whether that will be sufficient to attract enough people to serve. Everything that had been done up to that point had not really worked.

As for the modernization of equipment, that is just starting, and it will also take the longest, just because it takes a long time to build such amounts of equipment. So it’s really too early to tell.

It’s virtually impossible to achieve all the goals outlined in the State Armament Program, but I think it is possible to come close. A lot will depend on the ability of the Defense Ministry to reform the industry by, for example, streamlining a lot of these big holding companies. Some of them work very well, but there are enterprises that are inefficient, or don’t really do much and are almost bankrupt. A lot of those need to be shut down, but that would be a big change in how the defense industry operates. Whether they are able to do that is still an open question, as is the extent to which the military and the government can control this process.

And corruption is still one of the biggest stumbling blocks. There’s still so much money that gets wasted in various ways.

Valdai Club 1: Panel on Russian Military Reform

I spent last week in Moscow at the inaugural meeting of the Valdai Club’s military section. I will have a number of posts this week with my impressions of the meetings. I’ll start today with a brief summary of the overall schedule and a discussion of the first substantive panel, which was on developments in Russia’s military reform.

Altogether, there were three panels during the conference. In addition to the panel on military reform, the topics covered included cooperation on building a European missile defense system and possibilities for new alliances that could include Russia.

We also visited the base of the 5th Guards Independent Motor Rifle Brigade (former Tamanskaya Division) and the Don-2N multifunctional radar station. We were scheduled to meet with Defense Minister Serdyukov and Chief of the General Staff Makarov, but neither was available, so we met with Andrey Tretyak, the chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the Defense Ministry. We also had some off the record meeting with other MOD and defense industry officials.

Foreign participants included a number of specialists on military and security issues from the US, Turkey, France, Norway, Japan, Belarus, Germany, the UK, and Poland. Of course, there was also a large contingent of Russian analysts and journalists.

So with that overview out of the way, let me focus on the first panel, which took place on Wednesday, May 25. (Other descriptions of this panel may be found here and here.)

Ruslan Pukhov — Reform of the Armed Forces

The panel was officially entitled “Reform of the Russian Armed Forces,” and featured three speakers. Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), began with an overview of the problems that forced the Russian government to begin the radical transformation of the armed forces. Continue reading

The Future of Russia’s Military: Editor’s Introduction

In October 2008 the Russian government suddenly announced a wide-ranging military reform. 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, eighteen months into the process, there are no doubts that the reform is for real and is virtually unstoppable. The articles in this issue address a range of issues dealing with the causes and consequences of the reform, including the decline of Russia’s military capabilities, the increasing disconnect between society and the military, the nature of the threats facing Russia, and the failure of previous reform efforts.

In “The Secret Reform,” Aleksandr Gol’ts explores the rationale underlying the military reform that began in the fall of 2008. While he complains about the secrecy that surrounded the initial implementation of the reform plans, he notes that the reform is necessary and appropriate given the condition of the Russian military. He notes that the main goal of the reform is the elimination of the Soviet mass mobilization army and its replacement by a professional army staff that is largely staffed by soldiers working on contract, rather than conscripts. Since Gol’ts’s article was published, this plan has run into problems due to the inadequate supply of soldiers willing to sign contracts. In order for recruitment to be successful, the military must become more attractive topotential soldiers.

Leonid Fishman takes up this issue in “Is It Possible to Reincorporate the Army into Society?” He traces the historical evolution of the relationship between the army and society. He shows that whereas in the past armies were used to train the population to become citizens, a modern army no longer plays such a role. Although Fishman does not make this point, the reason for this change has to do in large part with the advent of mass public education, with schools now being given the task of creating citizens. Fishman goes on to argue that the underlying cause of the poor performance of the Russian army is its failure to adapt to changes in the society around it. To reverse this process, he calls for the establishment of an army that is professional and based on providing the kind of training that soldiers leaving the army would find helpful in leading a successful civilian life. He believes that this is the only way to make the military attractive to ambitious young people who want to improve their position in society. The presence of such people in the military would, in turn, make it more capable in defending the country.

In “Notes on the Creation of an ‘Innovative Russian Army,’ ” written at the start of the Serdiukov reform program implementation, Andrei Kokoshin surveys the technical requirements of a modern army, focusing especially on the informational and analytical resources necessary for fighting a twenty first-century war. In this context, he discusses the priority needs of the Russian military, including an increased emphasis on special operations forces, the reform of military education, and the introduction of the advanced information technology into at least two or three experimental brigades in the ground forces. He argues that the fulfillment of these tasks will allow Russia to revitalize its military technology in the near future.

Stanislav Kuvaldin (“Armed Forces for a Modest Power”) revisits the Serdiukov reform a year after its introduction. He notes that despite the opposition of almost the entire set of military experts and most top generals, the government has succeeded in moving the reform forward. In fact, reform has reached the point of no return. If it is ultimately successful, it will create throughout Russia armed forces capable of winning local wars, which is a realistic task given the current security environment. At the same time, the military will have to give up its pretensions of challenging major powers such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or even China.

Finally, we include in this issue a roundtable discussion (“Urgent Problems and the Logic of Military Reform”) that discusses the political background behind the reforms, including the nature of the threats facing Russia, how the Russian military should be organized to best defend the country against these threats, and how the government is handling the reform effort. This roundtable, organized by Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie and held in early 2009, showed that a wide range of views still exists on the nature of the threats facing Russia and that these views are closely correlated with opinions on the wisdom of the military reform. Some experts still see NATO and the West as a primary threat and believe that the Serdiukov reform will destroy Russia’s capacity to defend itself against such a major adversary. Other experts argue that the cold war ended a long time ago and the main threats facing Russia come from local conflicts on its southern border. In this situation, a reform along the lines outlined by Serdiukov is necessary and will help create a future Russian military that can actually carry out its missions.

Russia’s future security over the next twenty to thirty years depends in large part on the ability of its government to successfully implement a program to modernize its military organization and equipment, while changing its personnel recruitment policies to match future demographic realities. The Serdiukov reform shows that, for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the government realizes the seriousness of the challenge and is prepared to act accordingly.