Moscow Conference on International Security 2015 Part 1: The plenary speeches

Last week, I was once again in attendance at the Russian MOD’s Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS). As I did last year, over the next couple of weeks I’ll write up some of the key speeches and then conclude with some takeaway thoughts on the event.

The Russian speakers at the plenary session included Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev delivered greetings from Vladimir Putin. So pretty much the same lineup as last year, with the addition of Patrushev. The links above go to video of the speeches, with Russian language audio. Texts of the speeches have also been posted: Shoigu, Lavrov, Gerasimov, Patrushev.

For those who don’t understand Russian, here are some highlights of the speeches:

First up, the greeting from Vladimir Putin, as read by Nikolay Patrushev. The greeting highlighted the significance of holding the conference just before the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, noting that it is a reminder that history cannot be forgotten and of the threats presented by the glorification of Nazism, the encouragement of xenophobia and extremism, and pretensions of any country to world domination. The speech also noted that the current system of international security was developed collectively in the aftermath of the second World War on the basis of mutual interests and partnership. Any distancing from these rules leads to one-sided and non-workable efforts to resolve global threats. Furthermore, crude interference in any country’s internal affairs through scenarios such as “color revolutions” just increases the space where violence and chaos are rampant. The rise of the Islamic State highlights the rapid growth and global spread of extremism and terrorism that no single country or grouping of states can defeat. Coordinated action by the entire global community, based on international law, is the only way to address this threat.

Sergei Shoigu gave the first substantive speech, expanding on the themes in Putin’s greeting. He highlighting the leading role played by the Soviet Union in defeating Nazism, while noting the contributions of all countries that participating in the fight. He then transitioned to the need for the world to unite to fight the rebirth of fascism, xenophobia, racism and militarism and to tie Russia’s perceptions of the current international situation to the fight against Nazism. Specifically, he focused on the threat posed by “countries that consider themselves winners of the Cold War and want to force their will on others” to the stability of the international system that was created after World War II. He warned against unilateralism in international affairs and against efforts by any one country to develop absolute military superiority.

He then returned to the previous year’s theme of the threat posed to the world by color revolutions, noting events over the last year in Hong Kong and Venezuela as continuing the effort by the United States and its allies to sow chaos in states that oppose US policies. He then turned to Ukraine, calling it the greatest tragedy caused by the color revolutions policy. He said that in its efforts to make Ukraine into its satellite, the US had crossed all conceivable lines in promoting an anti-constitutional overthrow of the legal government that resulted in a civil war and forced Russia to react. With the war having already resulted in 6,000 deaths, “how many more victims will be needed to force Ukrainians in the southeastern part of the country to feel themselves European?”

Shoigu also highlighted the Kosovo precedent: While Western countries blame Russia for unilaterally changing European borders for the first time since World War II, they ignore the planned dismemberment of Yugoslavia that “served as a laboratory for Western efforts to develop techniques to destroy a sovereign state” and culminated in the removal of Kosovo from Serbia without any respect for international law. Shoigu also blames the West for sowing chaos around the world through its ill-conceived military interventions, particularly in Iraq and Libya, which have resulted in the long-term destabilization of entire regions of the world. As a result, he denies that critics of Russia’s actions in Crimea have any moral right to blame Russia for violating international law.

Instead of adopting Russian ideas for building a common system for European security, Western states have enacted sanctions and launched an information war against Russia. They have renewed talk about containment and how to use NATO to deal with a growing Russian threat. The main goal is to break countries that have long cultural and historical ties with Russia free of its influence. Previous talk of NATO-Russia partnership has ended. Instead non-nuclear NATO states are being involved in exercises on how to use American tactical nuclear weapons that have been placed in a number of European states. The world should remember that the United States is the only country in history to have actually used nuclear weapons. “What consequences might have such eagerness to use nuclear weapons have had for Europe, had the US Army developed such weapons a little earlier.”

Shoigu also noted that Russian fears of the threat to global stability caused by American missile defense systems are also coming to pass. He said that It is becoming clear that the US has been bluffing about potential missile threats emanating from Iran, since no moves have been made to reconsider US missile defense plans now that a nuclear deal with Iran has been completed. Instead, the US is making moves to expand missile defense systems in the Asia-Pacific region.

Shoigu then turned to the threat to international security posed by terrorism. As with the rest of the speech, he went out of his way to highlight the role played by the United States and other countries in encouraging the development of terrorist organizations around the world. Pointing to the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State, he noted that such organizations have commonly gotten out of the control of their patrons and become a problem for international security.

In the final part of his speech, Shoigu turned to the importance of working together to solve international security. He argued that the liquidation of chemical weapons in Syria and the recently achieved nuclear agreement with Iran show what can be done with diplomacy when the international community comes together. He noted that similar breakthroughs could be achieved in the development of non-strategic missile defense in Europe and the establishment of a new multilateral security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region.

Shoigu was followed by Sergei Lavrov, who highlighted that peace can only be achieved through a collective international effort. NATO’s euphoria about winning the Cold War resulted in a belief that the West would be on top of the world forever. Meanwhile, international processes were actually heading in the direction of multi-lateralism. As a result, the world now stands at a crossroads where it must choose between cooperation and deadly conflicts. Lavrov highlighted the need to create a global security infrastructure to deal with the arc of instability stretching from northern Africa to Afghanistan.

In turning to the conflict in Ukraine, Lavrov argued that there is no military solution and that efforts to punish Russia for “its independent foreign policy, for standing up for truth and justice, for defending its compatriots” are absurd. He noted that many European leaders agree that the effort of some countries to break Russia is a huge and unforgivable risk to international security. Instead, the only solution is to carry out all parts of the second Minsk agreement, including not just the ceasefire, but also the end of Kiev’s economic blockade of the Donbas and the start of a real political process that leads to constitutional reform that takes into account all of Ukraine’s regions. In keeping with the theme of mentioning the anniversary of the end of World War II at every opportunity, Lavrov made sure to point out that the West must force the Kiev government to stop “glorifying Nazism and persecuting those who saved Europe from fascism.”

While Washington keeps talking about Russia coming to the gates of Europe, the reality is that NATO has brought its military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders while US naval vessels are now regularly appearing in the Black Sea and US missile defense sites are being built in Romania and Poland. Russia sees US missile defense as part of a global project to reduce the effectiveness of Russia’s strategic deterrence forces. Like Shoigu, Lavrov highlighted that the continuation of missile defense plans in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear agreement shows that missile defense has always been aimed primarily against Russia.

Meanwhile, Lavrov noted that real threats to international security, including terrorism and the rise of extremist forces in the Middle East and North Africa, require international partnership to resolve. The exacerbation of Sunni/Shi’a divisions require a serious effort to create a compromise based on principles of international law. Instead, Western states have been using it as a pretext for interference in internal affairs in the region. Lavrov asks how the US can support the coalition operation in Yemen to restore by force a president who fled the country while in Ukraine it pursued the exact opposite policy. The double standards of US policy are in plain view in comparing the two situations.

Lavrov concludes by reinforcing the point made by Shoigu that unilateralism and forcing one country’s values on another leads to escalation of conflicts and an ever-growing region of chaos. Positive results can only come from combining forces, such as took place with the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria and the conclusion of a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran can now be included in the discussion on regional security in the Middle East and in the amelioration of conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, as well as in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Similar partnerships can be developed in other regions and conflict zones, including in Afghanistan and in East Asia. International organizations such as the Arab League, OIC, UN, and SCO can all be used to promote international security.

Valery Gerasimov spoke next, but his speech deserves a separate post, while I will endeavor to have up in the next few days.

The rest of the first session included presentations by Amb. Michael Moeller, the Director General of the UN Office in Geneva and by Amb. Marcel Pesco, the Director of the Office of the OSCE Secretary General. These speakers highlighted the role of their respective international organizations in promoting peace and resolving conflicts. Moeller focused on the threat posed by transnational violent extremist organizations such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram. He called for the international community to come together, to prevent the international system from being undermined. He argued that having power does not give states the power to take unilateral action. Instead, the international community should focus on rebuilding trust among leading actors, working on preventing conflicts, and improving early warning systems.

Marcel Pesco argued for the need for the members of the international community to commit to developing a common security infrastructure. He noted that the crisis in Ukraine has called into question some of the fundamental premises of the international system of cooperative security. He argued that the international community needs to build on the Minsk agreement to try to settle the conflict.

As a result of the Ukraine conflict, confrontation now exceeds cooperation in Europe, preventing forward momentum on other issues such as arms control. Pesco noted that the OSCE remains a platform for dialog in Europe but needs to become the basis for regional security.

MCIS 2014 photos and tank maneuver videos

I’ll have a wrap-up post on the MCIS tomorrow. In the meantime, a few photos, courtesy of Ruslan Pukhov from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies and from the MOD Press Service. Also, if you are interested in Russian tank maneuvers, make sure to scroll to the bottom for some videos I took on the second day of the conference.

SAVX5090-1_

Sergei Shoigu addressing the conference.

SAVX5211-1_

Sergei Lavrov addressing the conference.

Displaying SAVX4991.jpg

Left to right: myself, Chief of the Russian Navy Viktor Chirkov, and CAST Director Ruslan Pukhov.

SAVX4984_

Left to right: myself, Sergei Koshelev (the head of the Defense Ministry’s Chief Administration for International Military Cooperation), Chief of the Russian Navy Viktor Chirkov, chair of the State Duma Committee on Defense Vladimir Komoedov, CAST Director Ruslan Pukhov, and director of the State Duma expert council on defense Boris Usviatsov.

SAVX5729_

Panel on Stability in Afghanistan.

SAVX6073-1_

Head of Military Initellgence Igor Sergun.

And here are links to a few videos from the second day of the conference, during which we were taken to Alabino to observe a tank ballet and tank biathlon.

 

Moscow Conference on International Security 2014, part 1: The plenary speeches

Last week, I attended the Russian MOD’s Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS). Over the next few days, I plan to share my impressions of the event. First up, the keynote speeches. The lineup of presenters at the plenary session could not have been more prominent. The key Russian speakers included Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. The other speakers included Belarusian Defense Minister Yuri Zhadobin, Pakistan Defense Minister Asif Khawaja, Iranian Defense Minister Hossien Dehghan, CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha, the political commissioner of China’s Lanzhou Military District General Li Changcai, Egyptian Deputy Defense Minister Mohamed Said Elassar, and Indian Deputy Defense Minister Anuj Kumar Bishnoi. So quite an all-star cast. The links above go to videos of the speeches  (with audio in Russian) whenever they are available. Text summaries of the Shoigu and Gerasimov speeches have been posted online in Russian.

For those who don’t understand Russian, here are some highlights. I didn’t take verbatim notes, so consider these the key points — what seemed to me to be most significant from what was said.

Sergei Shoigu opened the conference. After some preliminary remarks, he launched directly into what turned out to be the main theme — the negative impact of colored revolutions on international stability. He made the claim that popular protests of this type were a new form of warfare invented by Western governments seeking to remove national governments in favor of ones that are controlled by the West in order to force foreign values on a range of nations around the world. He made the argument that the same scheme has been used in a wide range of cases, with the initial goal of changing the government through supposedly popular protests shifting into efforts at destabilizing and fomenting internal conflict if the protesters are not successful. This scheme was used in Serbia, Libya, and Syria — all cases where political interference by the West transitioned into military action. Now the same scheme is being followed in Ukraine, where the situation in recent weeks has become a virtual civil war, and in Venezuela, where the so-called democratic opposition is actually organized by the United States.

Shoigu pointed out that the consequences of colored revolutions are very different from the protest organizations’ initial states goals. The main result around the world has been instability. The Arab Spring, for example, has destabilized the Middle East and North Africa. Now, a whole range of African states are near collapse because of the effects of events in Libya. Afghanistan is also increasingly unstable, which has forced Russia to increase its military presence in Central Asia in order to contain threats coming from the south.

The second speech was by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He noted that Western states have been focused for years on containing Russia. They wanted to force CIS states to choose between East and West. This is what led to the crisis in Ukraine. Lavrov called for an end to zero-sum games and said that a Euro-Atlantic security regime was needed, with Russia and the U.S. involved on equal terms rather than having each side looking for geopolitical gains. What is needed is a new poly-centric international system.

He also noted that the same forces that the West are assisting in one country (Libya, for example) subsequently start being labeled as terrorists when they move on to a neighboring state (Mali). Lavrov then restated the main theme — “the export of democracy without taking local values into account leads to instability.”

Valery Gerasimov also focused on the role of the U.S. in international relations. He argued that the U.S. can’t deal with more equal relations among states, so it is using new tactics to assure its supremacy. These include sanctions and assistance for protesters, all backed up with the potential of using military force. He said that the U.S. and NATO are responsible for initiating the majority of conflicts in the world, including those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. The only difference among these cases is the specific pretext for the military operation with which the United States seeks to eliminate opposing governments. The ostenisble goal of peace and stability is not achieved. Instead, the result is an increase in instability and many casualties.

Gerasimov then reiterated the idea that the United States has developed a new method of warfare, beginning with using non-military tactics to change opposing governments through colored revolutions that utilize the protest potential of the population to engineer peaceful regime change. But military force is concealed behind this effort. If the protest potential turns out to be insufficient, military force is then used openly to ensure regime change. Libya was cited as a textbook example. In Syria, the West is using mercenaries and military assistance in an effort to overthrow the government. What began as a purely internal conflict has turned into a battle between religious radicals and the government.

In Libya, the post-conflict period has been characterized by a crisis of power, with tribal control of parts of the country, widespread terrorism, large numbers of refugees, and the spread of arms to neighboring states that have also been destabilized as a result. Western countries have failed to take responsibility for post-conflict security in Libya. The same thing would happen in Syria if the government was overthrown. The Ukraine crisis is now turning into a civil war, with paramilitary groups being used against the peaceful population in eastern Ukraine. Mercenaries have arrived and it is not clear what will happen next, though military force is increasing in importance.

NATO is turning more anti-Russian, organizing a military build-up on its eastern borders. This will necessitate a Russian response. What is needed is more cooperation between Russia and NATO, but this is frozen. Again, colored revolutions are causing instability throughout the world.

Next up was Yuri Zhodobin, the Belarusian Minister of Defense. He began, not surprisingly, by focusing on how colored revolutions spread conflict to neighboring states. He even mentioned Gene Sharp as the originator of the strategy used in these revolutions, noting that colored revolutions are always set up from outside. The model is to train local activists for peaceful action. If that’s not effective, then paramilitary organizations are brought in and trained. He then went on to a discussion of how to counter colored revolutions, focusing on the importance of international organizations and joint defense and security structures.

Zhodobin highlighted the danger of arms falling into the wrong hands. He also mentioned that the Baltic States are not subject to any conventional arms control regime and could be used to concentrate and prepare forces that could then be used in third countries. He also highlighted the danger posed by a new NATO military buildup in Eastern Europe, with five NATO military exercises going on now in the region. He noted the danger of a new Cold War and mentioned the need to develop rather than destroy existing East-West military contacts.

Nikolai Bordyuzha made a few interesting arguments:

  • The information war is always lost by those who speak the truth.
  • The US has to block Russia from Europe in order to maintain control of the European economy.
  • Ukrainian scenario follows directly from US policy on Yugoslavia.

And, to conclude, a summary of Li Changcai‘s key points:

  • Russia and China are friends.
  • China is being provoked regarding the ownership of several island groups.
  • The Ukrainian crisis has a complex history and should be solved through dialogue on the basis of the Geneva agreements.
  • Terrorism and extremism are the greatest threat in Asia.
  • China will not allow the violation of Chinese sovereignty and interests.
  • China supports further EU integration.
  • Chinese economic development should be seen as an opportunity for the world.

Eastern command exercises completed

A week ago, the Russian military completed the largest spot check exercise it has conducted since 1991. The MOD has put out some information on the scale and units involved. The slides were helpfully reproduced by Ruslan Pukhov in his blog.  They are done in the usual Russian style — it’s all about how many planes flew, how many tons of equipment were moved, etc. Nevertheless, there are some interesting tidbits. Here are some highlights.

The exercise involved 160,000 personnel from all three military branches. Ground forces from all four Eastern district armies and the 41st army of the Central district were involved, including 9 infantry brigades, the 18th artillery division (based in the Southern Kurils), a tank brigade, 2 air assault brigades, a naval infantry brigade, 5 signal brigades, 2 artillery brigades, 2 rocket brigades, 1 MRLS brigade, 2 air defense brigades, 2 NBC defense brigades, 4 logistics brigades, and 2 equipment storage bases. 12,000 vehicles were activated.

The air force activated 130 aircraft and helicopters from four commands (Long Range Aviation, Military-Transport Aviation, 2nd Air and Air Defense Forces Command — Yekaterinburg, 3rd Air and Air Defense Forces Command — Khabarovsk). The specific air force units involved were the 6952nd LRA Base from Amur Oblast, the 6955th MTA Base from Tver, the 6980th aviation base from Chelyabinsk, and the 6983rd aviation base from Primorskii Krai.

Naval participation included 70 ships from the 36th surface ship division, 165th surface ship brigade, 10th and 25th submarine divisions, 19th submarine brigade, 100th assault ship brigade, 114th coastal defense ship brigade, and the 520th independent coastal missile-artillery brigade.

One infantry brigade arrived by sea, while 30 transport aircraft moved 8,500 personnel over 167 flights. 1000 reservists were involved, from Primorsky Krai. 45 field control centers were activated, most at the brigade level. 8 UAVs completed 22 flights. One of the 12 long range aviation planes failed to complete (or maybe to start?) its flight.

The overall assessment of these exercises from the military has been largely positive, though some areas did come in for criticism. Yuri Borisov noted that 3-4% of vehicles broke down during the exercise, either because of errors made by the  operators or because the equipment was old. This is not ideal, but is certainly a better statistic than in the bad old days a decade ago. Shoigu criticized the state of the communications system, noting that military communications are only 18% effective. It’s not clear what that number actually means, but it’s clearly not good. Marksmanship also came in for criticism, in part because of a lack of practice.  He was pleased with military transportation, highlighting in particular that railroad transportation functioned at almost double the allotted rate of travel (1000km/day vs 600km/day). He also noted that changes may be made to the structure of the air force, primarily by dividing up the air bases that were created a few years ago and and re-opening some of the military airports closed by Serdyukov.

UPDATE: Aleksei Nikolskii wrote to say that Shoigu’s statement on the communications systems being 18% effective referred to R&D efforts on C2 systems not producing results, rather than the systems’ effectiveness during the exercise itself.  He also notes that the actual number of troops involved was much lower. For each infantry brigade, only battalion-size tactical groups were mobilized, for other brigades, composite detachments were formed to represent each brigade. About 15,000 troops were moved by rail and aircraft (8,200 of these by air). Cooperation across military branches was problematic, with the naval infantry unit getting an unsatisfactory rating. The problems with firing accuracy were mostly among conscripts, who also were responsible for the lion’s share of technical problems with equipment.

 

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

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…

—–

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.