RUSSIAN ARMED FORCES AS A FACTOR IN REGIONAL STABILITY
For nearly twenty years Moscow has been talking about the need to reform and re-organize its armed forces but throughout that time the efficiency and prestige of those forces has fallen dramatically. The Russian armed forces have quite simply failed to cope with internal and external pressures to change and many observers, inside and outside Russia, are now predicting their disintegration. The viability of the Russian armed forces is clearly a major factor in the stability of not just Russia but the rest of central and eastern Europe and has implications for the armed forces of the West as well.
This paper examines the pressures crushing the Russian armed forces and the measures which are being taken to reform the Russian military. It also looks at the consequences of either success or failure in that reform process.
Why Is Reform Necessary?
Many of the earliest calls for change came from Soviet military theorists examining the impact of the so-called "Military-Technical Revolution". Officers such as Marshal of the Soviet Union Ogarkov drew attention to the new weapons technologies which would be available at the turn of the century and argued that in combination they would lead to changes in warfare which would be as far-reaching as the introduction of battlefield nuclear weapons. Thus at the end of the 1980s change in the Soviet armed forces largely implied the introduction of new weapons systems and the force structures required to exploit them properly, although it is true that some far-sighted officers did realise that different sorts of armed services would be required in the twenty-first century. Assimilating these ideas was proving difficult enough for the military elite when the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union put them completely on the defensive.
The prestige of the Soviet Army was already declining in the Gorbachev period. Lack of success in the Afghan War reflected on its professional credibility; under glasnost the media could publish stories about corruption among senior officers and bullying in barrack rooms which damaged the army’s image even more. The armed forces’ close links with the Communist Party meant that the military were tainted with the politicians’ corruption and incompetence. The involvement of senior officers in the August 1991 coup attempt strengthened the picture of a self-serving caste whose crippling demands on the economy had worsened the standard of living of every Soviet citizen.
At the same time the re-birth of Russia did provide an opportunity to create new armed services which could appeal to Russian national sentiment and even act as a nation-building force. This opportunity was immediately wasted as the high command fought to ensure that the Soviet Army survived the fall of the Soviet Union. That battle was lost when it became clear that the newly independent states were determined to create their own armed forces but the ministry of defence in Moscow continued a grim defensive struggle to maintain as much of the Soviet military machine as possible. In the process they demonstrated the truth of the old principle of defensive warfare that he who tries to hold everything risks losing everything.
of the Russian Armed Forces
The effect of this attempt to defend everything can be most clearly seen by looking at the development of the Russian Army’s order of battle. Quite independent of any technical arguments about ideal force structures for the military-technical revolution, the General Staff faced immense practical problems in 1992. Under the old Soviet system forces were maintained at carefully graded states of readiness. Broadly speaking the Groups of Forces in Eastern Europe were the best manned and equipped, the border military districts were at an intermediate state of readiness and the interior districts, such as the Moscow and Volga Military Districts were a mobilization reserve of mostly cadre formations. A total withdrawal from Eastern Europe was already in progress when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought the loss of most of the border districts as well.
Thus the new Russian Army had to be created by deploying the supposedly combat ready formations from Eastern Europe in the under-resourced internal military districts. This was not as simple as it might appear. Barracks and training facilities in the internal districts were quite inadequate for the newly arriving formations. Many units were unloaded from the rail wagons into empty fields. Moreover these "fully-manned" formations faced immediate manpower problems. By the end of the 1980s the Soviet Army contained a very high proportion of conscripts from the non-Russian republics. When this source of manpower was cut Russia’s demographic problems had an immediate impact. The birth rate within Russia had been declining for some time and the conscript pool was too small to man the equipments being delivered from Eastern Europe. (An increase in the grant of exemptions from military service made this problem much worse).
At the same time the General Staff was attempting a major change in the army’s force structure by introducing a "Corps-Brigade" structure to replace the traditional "Army-Division-Regiment" chain of command. When the redeployments finished in the mid-1990s the ground forces were left with a hotch-potch of formations which fitted neither model. Both armies and corps were commanding a mix of divisions and brigades and the ratio between tactical formations (divisions & brigades) and operational headquarters (armies & corps) was completely inadequate. The manpower question is examined in more detail later, but manning shortages ensured that the ground forces consisted of a very odd mix of hollow formations. The theoretical weakness of such a force structure was demonstrated in practice by the farcical mobilization for the Chechen War. The Russian order of battle in Chechnya was full of "composite" units, although at least one standard tactical work makes it clear that the creation of composite units is a measure of last resort, undertaken when a formation or unit has completely lost its combat effectiveness. To begin a war with such units is a clear admission of failure. Units improvised in this way could not be properly trained and command and control in battle was very difficult. Thus by trying to maintain a capacity for general war which was beyond its resources the Russian army compromised its ability to fight even a local war.
By 1997 armies had the manpower establishment of divisions, divisions the establishment of regiments. Actual manning levels were even lower (20-40% lower in fact).. In 1996 the then minister of defence, General Rodionov, tried to cut the number of formations,
talking of reducing the ground forces to about 12 properly manned divisions with about as many more cadre formations as a mobilization reserve. Unfortunately Rodionov quarrelled with the government over the redundancy costs among officers which such cuts would entail; he also made the mistake of trying to cut the politically influential airborne forces. Rodionov was sacked in May 1997; his replacement, General Sergeyev, has implemented a programme of reductions which is very similar to Rodionov’s, although another valuable year has been lost in beginning real change. Sergeyev has explained his objective in the following terms:
Other organizational changes involve reducing the number of military districts from 8 to 6 and drastic alterations at armed service level. The Air Defence Forces have been split between the Air Force and Sergeyev’s own service, the Strategic Rocket Forces. The latter have also swallowed other space-related branches, such as Ballistic Missile Defence. Most controversially, the Ground Forces’ own headquarters are being down-graded to a main directorate of the ministry of defence.
The Real Problems of the Russian Armed Forces
In November 1997 General Kvashnin, Chief of the General Staff, claimed that 1997 was the year "...we stopped talking and got down to reforming the Army and Navy". But in fact the structural changes outlined above are the easiest part of reform because they address problems which can be treated by decrees of the minister of defence.. The real problems facing the Russian armed forces cannot be solved by paper orders and involve factors beyond the control of the ministry of defence. This paper concentrates on the issues which most directly influence the military effectiveness of the Russian army. They are generally human, not structural, problems.
Manning the Russian armed forces is the greatest problem. It is not just a question of quantity but, even more crucially, of quality. Some of the reasons for the army’s manpower shortage have already been mentioned. Russia’s demographic situation is unfavourable; almost 80% of any year’s conscript class have been able to claim exemption from military service (see Table 1). In addition young men have simply not bothered to turn up for conscription and their evasion has generally gone unpunished. The number of deserters from units has been steadily growing and the official figures probably understate the problem (see Table 2).
Table 1: The Class of 1997
Subject to Call-Up
Entitled to Deferment
Available For Service
(Includes 20,000 with suspended
Table 2: Conscription
Deserters at large in Spring
1998 - 6,300
The reality behind the figures is that Russian society no longer accepts the necessity of military service, at least in its present form. The appalling conditions within units have been well publicised by the Russian media. Families do not want to see their sons serving in the armed services and young men with the wit or money to avoid conscription do so. There has been an improvement in the manning situation over the last couple of years and from 1998 responsibility for running the military commissariats which organize the conscription process is being transferred to local authorities.. It is hoped that this will improve efficiency and end jurisdictional disputes between the military and local authorities, but it is too early to be sure that the change will really bring the armed forces’ recruitment up to establishment. It is far from certain that local authorities will take a real interest in their new responsibilities. Even if the numbers improve there will still be problems with the health and educational standards of the intake. Typical figures quoted by ministry of defence spokesmen suggest that scarcely half the intake have completed secondary education and that 5% of conscripts have criminal records, 12% are habitual drinkers and 8% have used drugs. 15% of conscripts are underweight on enlistment, not a good start in an army which has problems providing basic rations for its soldiers. The Russian health system has been in decline for some time, with indicators such as average life expectancy at crisis levels. There is nothing the armed forces can do to cure this problem; Russians’ physical health will not improve until the country’s economic health is better.
Despite these problems the ministry of defence remains committed to the conscription system. In May 1996 President Yel'tsin decreed that conscription was to end by 2000. This timescale was generally condemned as unrealistic and a revised target date of 2005 is still considered as impossible by most senior officers. It is not merely that some senior officers still believe in the mass army and the mobilization reserve which conscription provides. It is also because of their current experience of "contract service", as professional recruitment is called in Russia. In 1992 contract service was introduced with the aim that 50% of servicemen would be professionals by the end of the century. At the beginning of 1998 27% of other ranks were contract servicemen, which suggests that the programme is on target. In fact, however, there are serious shortcomings in the professional sector. In 1996 there were 270,000 professionals; the figure is now about 200,000, of whom half are women. Numbers have gone down both because more professionals are leaving the service than are entering it and because the armed services have been forced to get rid of a large number of unsatisfactory "kontraktniki". Professional military service has not established itself as an attractive career; pay is low and conditions very poor. Those who do volunteer are often those who are failing in civilian life, with health or social problems. It appears that they receive little formal training before being posted to units, where they arrive as an extra burden, rather than a useful addition to the strength.
It is also no secret that contract servicemen are unwilling to serve where they are most needed, in combat units and particularly in peace-keeping duties in the "Near Abroad". (Service with UN-sponsored forces is popular, because wages are generous by Russian standards and paid in hard currency). Thus 201st Motor Rifle Division in Tajikistan is supposedly Russia’s first all professional formation and the template for a new professional army. However the outflow of professionals exceeds the intake, with many simply failing to return from their first leave. Lieut Gen Putilin, chief of the Main Organization-Mobilization Directorate, described 201st MRD’s problem very frankly in October 1997 when he said:
In The Russian Armed Forces
One does not need to be writing this paper in the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst to grasp that the quality of the Russian armed forces will not improve until its leadership improves. The endemic corruption at all levels of the service is well-documented and does not need elaboration here. But even if the present campaign against corruption in the armed services is successful, military reform will fail unless it involves a revolution in man-management. The style of leadership in the Russian armed forces is a legacy from the Soviet era. It developed in a conscript army serving an authoritarian political system. Russia is now a quasi-democracy trying to raise professional armed forces. Quite apart from the implications this has for civil-military relations the armed forces need a new basis for relationships within their ranks. This is clearly illustrated by the official figures for deaths among servicemen in the last year. There were 1,624 deaths, of which 521 were the result of crimes and 1,103 caused by accidents. In addition there were 487 suicides. Although these figures are lower than in 1996 they still reflect very poorly on man-management within the armed services. (It is claimed that in the first five months of 1998, 594 servicemen have died, 14.6% less than in the same period of 1997). The number of deaths in accidents is symptomatic of poor discipline and carelessness of subordinates’ lives. Most of the criminal deaths and suicides are related in some way to "dedovshchina", the bullying or hazing which is a major feature of barracks life. A parallel hierarchy among the enlisted ranks rules barracks rooms. Dedovshchina was a feature of Soviet army life but the narrower social mix found in the Russian army and the growing number of conscripts with criminal records has increased its power. The lack of a professional NCO cadre has restricted the armed forces’ ability to fight this problem. Conscript NCOs are too weak and inexperienced to overcome the bullies. In Soviet days junior officers were expected to spend most of their time in barracks and this supervision compensated to some extent for the lack of regular NCOs. Today, however, young officers are more likely to spend their evenings "moonlighting" at menial jobs in order to support their families.
The Russian armed forces need more and better junior leaders. General Rodionov emphasised the need for a professional NCO corps, but little has been done to create one. 300,000 officer appointments are to be cut during 1998 and the number of military colleges is to be nearly halved, with 15,000 of this year’s output being offered immediate discharges. At the same time it seems that there will still not be enough officers at platoon and company level; a third of platoon level posts are not filled. Improving the quality of the officer corps will not be easy. We are told that pay is to be doubled during 1998 but at existing rates it will be in arrears until the middle of the year at least. At the moment there are nearly 100,000 military families without proper accommodation; all have been promised a home by 2000 but the last two military housing programmes produced only half the planned number of homes and any growth in the number of contract servicemen will increase the number entitled to flats. The building programme and provision for re-settlement of redundant officers is to be funded from the sale of military property; 1,630 military cantonments and 200 other facilities will become surplus to requirements as part of the present reform programme. However 1,253 properties were released between 1995 and 1997 and so far only 82 of them have been sold.
In these circumstances, how are high quality leaders to be motivated to join or stay in the Russian armed forces? Even if potential leaders can be found, how are they to be trained? Russia has never had fully professional armed forces; there are no instructors with experience of commanding professional soldiers. Russia’s long military experience provides no models of officer-NCO-other rank relationships in a professional army. A new ethos must be created in a very short time by leaders with no useful practical experience. Without that ethos recruitment, whether voluntary or conscript, will still be difficult and the combat effectiveness of the Russian armed forces will be compromised.
The Doctrine Problem
The Soviet Army had a very strong apparatus for developing military doctrine; most of those institutions survive in the Russian armed forces; there is a pool of talent which other armies may envy. The problem is that doctrinal development has been focussed too narrowly and has not yet broken free of its Cold War mould. Formal statements on military doctrine and security have emphasised the threat of local or internal conflicts, based on ethnic, national or religious quarrels, as the most likely threats to Russian security, but there has been little practical work to adjust the army’s doctrine and training to meet those threats. The doctrine and development organization has concentrated on the problems of high technology warfare, the Military-Technical Revolution which has already been mentioned. What they have to say on the subject is well worth reading, on its own terms, but it did not help the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, nor has it been relevant to Russia’s "peace-keeping" operations in the CIS or the war in Chechnya.
Western armies, possibly because of their experience of "low-intensity" operations during the last fifty years, have been quicker to notice the way the world is changing. The end of the Cold War has been followed by the growth of a new sort of war, or rather the re-appearance of older forms of conflict, fought by irregular militias, mercenaries and other armed bands. Dealing with such forces, whether as direct enemies or in peace-keeping or peace-enforcement roles, presents a considerable challenge to modern armies and they are beginning to develop doctrines and forces for these "low tech" or "asymmetrical" conflicts*. The war in Chechnya clearly demonstrated that the Russian army had not given enough thought to this sort of war. Appropriate tactical doctrines had not been developed and therefore Russian soldiers had not been trained to fight the sort of enemies they met in Groznyy or the Caucasus foothills.
Although lip-service is now being paid to the need to prepare for these "small wars" real evidence of a change of direction is hard to find. A telling example of the mind-set in the tactics departments is an article on "The Counter-Battery Battle" which appeared in the journal "Armeyskiy Sbornik" in December 1996. It began by raising the problem of detecting and destroying artillery pieces used in ones and twos by irregular forces in difficult terrain, as in Chechnya, but was actually devoted to counter-battery fire against a NATO self-propelled artillery unit. Until the Russian army has developed and assimilated a more appropriate tactical doctrine it will remain at best a clums instrument in local wars and is likely to face more defeats like that in Chechnya. The abolition of the ground forces headquarters as a separate command is likely to hinder the development of an appropriate doctrine for "low intensity operations" because the ground forces are obviously most responsible for the conduct of such operations.
The Fate of Military
Reform In Russia: Implications For Regional Stability
Other papers have discussed the present state of the Russian armed forces and the prospects of reform or collapse. This paper has only touched on some of the most disturbing features of the Russian army today but it is surely obvious that the health of the Russian military has implications outside Russia itself.
Firstly the army’s situation will affect political stability within Russia itself. 1997 saw the formation of a new political party, General Rokhlin’s "Movement in Support of the Armed forces, Defence Industries and Military Science". It is too early to assess its impact on Russian politics but its existence reflects a growing dissatisfaction within the armed forces with existing political parties. In the author’s opinion it is unlikely that the armed forces as an institution will in fact develop a united political voice and become a significant player in Russian politics. They are already too divided among themselves. There are strong old guard communist and nationalist elements within the military, especially among older and retired officers. There is also evidence of a strongly pro-democracy grouping among more junior officers. Individual politicians have their followings among the military but even General Lebed could not credibly claim to represent a working majority. It is reasonably certain that most are either apathetic or disillusioned towards politics and politicians.
It is also therefore doubtful that the Yel'tsin government can count on the armed forces as a biddable political instrument. In particular, if President Yel'tsin faced a new round of conflict with parliament it is hard to imagine that the army would agree to a repeat of the October 1993 White House operation. Some units, or parts of units, might be prepared to act against the Duma but it is equally likely that others would be ready to defend it, increasing the risks of the conflict. It is also hard to know how the army would react if the president tried to use only Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) troops. There is certainly no love lost between the two organizations, whether at ministry or soldier level. MVD troops are generally better paid and equipped because the Russian government is more concerned about internal security than external threats. Nevertheless in Chechnya the ground forces shouldered the main burden of combat operations and the pampered MVD did not impress as a fighting force.
The Russian government must have doubts about the army’s reliability in any trial of strength between the centre and the regions. Many units depend on their local political bosses to supply them with the necessities of life. It is unlikely that they would favour a central government which has left their pay in arrears or their families un-housed against their local sponsors. Present organizational trends which will make military districts into more autonomous operational and administrative entities are likely to strengthen these local loyalties and weaken the centre’s authority. The harsh conclusion is that any attempt by the Russian government to use military force internally is likely to lead to civil war.
Chechnya and the North Caucasus generally are of course disputed territory but it is certainly one region of Russia where the government might be tempted to use military force. The army has a score to settle with Chechnya but it was glad to get out in 1996. It is unlikely that the Russian army will be in a position to improve on its performance in Chechnya for the next few years, although it is probable that the Russian government is trying to create a force grouping in the area which will allow it to negotiate from strength when the Khasavyurt Agreement runs out in 2001. The implication of this paper is that, over the next two years, formations may be re-deployed within the North Caucasus Military District to create an impression of a viable intervention force but on the ground the majority of units will still suffer from low morale, an inadequate tactical doctrine and poor training. It is quite possible that an attempt to renew the fighting in Chechnya from the Russian side would be met with large scale combat refusals and desertions, weakening Russia’s position in the North Caucasus even more than allowing Chechnya effective independence.
In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union a number of conflicts broke out in the newly independent republics. Russia’s role, and particularly the role of the military units based in these regions, in these conflicts was somewhat ambiguous. A trickle of arms supplies and other military assistance certainly influenced the conflicts in Transdniestria, Abkhazia and elsewhere. The situation in these areas is now reasonably stable, thanks in part to the deployment of Russian troops as "peace-makers" (see Map), but also because Russia has modified its covert support for its clients among the warring parties. Although Russia counts these peace-support operations as a success they have undoubtedly added to the strains under which the armed forces have been working. The size of the peace-keeping force has been significantly reduced, not just because of the calmer situation but because of the general manpower shortages in the Russian army. Marshal Sergeyev recently warned that "to increase the contingent even further will simply be difficult for us economically, particularly in the conditions of economic reform".
The present crisis in the Russian armed forces therefore has direct implications for the stability of the whole CIS. If any of the existing "hot spots" becomes an active conflict again or if a new conflict breaks out the Russian army will find it difficulty to maintain its "fire brigade" role. The risk would therefore be that the conflict would spread, unless another peace support force could be found. It is likely that there would be calls from the region for such a force to be found, possibly by OSCE or even by NATO. Equally if predictions of the collapse or disintegration of the Russian armed forces were to prove justified and the Russian contingents returned home there would equally be calls for replacements from outside the CIS*.
RUSSIAN GROUND FORCES DEPLOYMENTS OUTSIDE THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION
Key To Map
Russian Ground Forces Bases Outside Russian Federation
1. The Limited Group of Russian Forces In Transdniestria(formerly 14th Army). This force is now reduced to the strength of a brigade and a stores & equipment depot.
2 The Group of Russian Forces in the Transcaucasus. Consists of a headquarters in Tblisi, 4 major military bases, shown on the map & a some smaller stores depots.
3. Tajikistan (201st Motor Rifle Division). Based in Tajikistan before the Civil War began and now the basis of the CIS peace-keeping force.
Russian Peace-keeping Deployments Under Bilateral Agreements
4. South Osetia. Russian Contingent in joint Russian-Georgian-Osetian Force (drawn from units rotated from within Russia.) Deployed since July 1992.
5. Moldova. Russian Contingent in joint Russian-Transdniestrian Force (now largely draw from Limited Group of Russian Forces). Deployed since July 1992.
Russian Peace-keeping Deployments Under CIS Aegis
6. Tajikistan. A CIS force mostly drawn from the Russian 201st MRD with token contributions from Central Asian states. Deployed since August 1993.
7. Abkhazia. Russian Contingent drawn from units based in Russia & from the Group of Russian Forces in the Transcaucasus. Some Georgian & Abkhazian participation.
Russian Peace-keeping Deployments Outside The CIS
8. Croatia. Russian battalion deployed under UN aegis since April 1992.
9. Bosnia. Russian brigade contributed to SFOR.
The weakness of Russia’s conventional armed forces and their failure to prepare effective doctrines or forces for local wars and other armed conflicts has been tacitly admitted by the Russian government in its promotion of its nuclear deterrent forces. Throughout the 1990s Russia’s nuclear forces have been vital in justifying her residual claim to great power status. More recently Russia has apparently adopted a form of "trip wire" strategy, applying nuclear threats in limited or even local war contexts. The risks of such a strategy are obvious. In anything but the shortest of timescales Russia needs to regenerate effective conventional forces to ensure its regional security.
The tone of this paper has been rather pessimistic; it is very difficult to describe the current state of the Russian armed forces in anything but dark colours. However the history of Russia and its armed forces is a succession of crises and recoveries. We should therefore consider the implications of a possible recovery from the present crisis. Will a resurgent Russian army be a force for stability or a cause of instability? Russian military behaviour in the 1990s in the Near Abroad and in Chechnya reflects its traditionally imperialist nature. Russia expects military strength to pay political dividends. The conflicts in Transdniestria and Abkhazia, for example, were both influenced by more or less covert Russian military action. The war in Chechnya reflects a predisposition to use military force rather than compromise. A renewed Russian army which was effectively a smaller but better trained and equipped version of the Soviet Army would naturally disturb Russia’s neighbours. High-ranking discussion of military reform in early May 1998 seemed to focus on the question of equipment modernization, which does not suggest radical thinking at the highest levels of command.
This presents a challenge for western countries. Russia needs help in reforming its military and "defence diplomacy" is rightly becoming a major role for our armed forces. We cannot afford to see the Russian armed forces collapse completely but we need to help the Russians create a new sort of defence force, with a different psychology to the Russian and Soviet military of the past.
We must also recognise that the keys to military reform are not in the hands of the Russian ministry of defence. The attitude of the Russian government is crucial. Under Boris Yeltsin the government’s interest in the armed forces has been fitful. During the crucial first years of their existence the armed forces were in the hands of Yeltsin’s crony, General Pavel Grachev and his cronies. Yel'tsin has been content to allow the armed forces to slide from crisis to crisis, erupting with a highly publicized display of bad temper when the crisis threatens to get out of hand and soon allowing the downhill slide to continue.
Of course, Yel'tsin and his government themselves are not in ultimate control of the armed forces’ fate. Eventually the state of Russia’s economy will determine the pace and direction of military reform. In mid-1998, as the Russian government tries to limit the damage caused by the turmoil in the Far Eastern economies, we are reminded that events outside Russia may have the most radical impact on the health of Russia’s armed forces.