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.


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

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.




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.

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.