Conflict Studies Research Centre

Russian Military Reform: Status and Prospects
C J Dick

June 1998

Disclaimer - The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the UK Ministry of Defence.


    The Russian army has been in decline since before it came into existence - that is to say that the Soviet Army, its foundation, was increasingly in a state of disrepair as the Gorbachev era progressed. Today, after a decade of malign neglect, it is not merely ineffective (as Chechnya demonstrated so embarrassingly) but is on the verge of collapse. At this eleventh hour, there are at last some signs that meaningful military reform may be at last underway. The accumulated and deepening problems to be faced are, however formidable. At best, it will take a decade or more to create an efficient military machine. At worst, the new-found will to tackle the problems will not survive the difficulties that beset the country in general and the reform process in particular.
    While the main purpose of this paper is not to rehearse yet again the now well-documented plight of the army, it is still necessary to remind ourselves of the parlous state of that institution to understand the magnitude of the problem facing the reformers. There were four areas of major concern towards the end of 1997.
        Equipment. Much of the modern weaponry and military infrastructure (eg airfields, repair facilities) of the Soviet Army were found in border military districts and thus went to the Soviet successor states. Today, modern types comprise only about 40% of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, 30% of SAM and artillery systems and 2% of helicopters. Procurement for the Russian army has declined to negligible levels. Older Russian conventional equipments are not being replaced or overhauled and upgraded as the Soviet depot-maintenance system required. Even newer systems are suffering from lack of maintenance and spare parts. The army is facing ever growing problems of unserviceability and block obsolescence threatens early in the 21st century. Even the Strategic Deterrence Forces are affected. At least 60% of its ICBMs are past their guaranteed life, and half of the operational SSBNs (and 75% of their missiles) and most of the ICBM warheads require replacement by 2005 at latest. The Topol-M missile is only now entering service (at a rate of two per year, maximum) and holes are appearing in the net of early warning satellites. These problems cannot be resolved as long as debts to military industries remain unpaid and money is not found for new orders and for the continuation of R&D work.
        Personnel. Both the quantity and quality of the army's manpower causes grave concern. *
        Soldiers. The conscription system is failing to meet the army's needs. About 80% of the draft pool can obtain deferment (including all those involved in tertiary education, the former source of educated NCOs). Of those inducted (ie, excluding the thousands of evaders), only half have completed secondary schooling, one fifth are abusers of alcohol or narcotics, 15% are not medically fit and 5% have criminal records. The attempts to improve quality with contract (ie, professional) soldiers (they were planned to comprise 50% by 2000) has been a failure. About half are officers' wives trying to make ends meet and most of the rest are those who cannot cope with civilian life, are dubious characters or are looking for a cushy billet. Discipline is generally poor, morale is at rock bottom (not least because of poor accommodation, feeding, health care and other conditions, and endemic, often fatal, bullying - the daily death toll from crime or suicide is 2.5-3 soldiers). In consequence, unit cohesion has been largely destroyed. *
        Officers. The Army has a superfluity of senior and middle ranking officers but a 22% deficiency overall, mostly in the ranks of junior officers. The best and brightest tend to resign (50% within five years of joining, and that excludes the 40% who quit military college before commissioning) and the quality of applicants fails to meet the military's needs. The reasons are not hard to find. Job satisfaction is low and motivation is poor in a career now lacking in prestige. Pay and allowances are low and usually in arrears - so much so that moonlighting is now the rule. Almost 100,000 have no apartments and a further 150,000 officers' families are living in sub-standard housing. Crime and corruption are rampant, especially amongst senior officers. Not surprisingly morale is low, and mutual trust, so essential to military operations, is largely absent.
        Training and Combat Readiness. The situation in the Strategic Deterrence Forces, while far short of perfect, appears to be acceptable. By drastically cutting numbers of units and by curtailing the lengths of cruises to a day or two, the Navy has maintained a reasonable efficiency. However, despite downsizing by a factor of 2.5, the CinC, Admiral V Kuroyedov, points out that 75% of his vessels are 10-15 years old and no major units are expected to be commissioned in the next 5-7 years. The Air Force CinC, Colonel General A Kornukov, claims to have raised the level of airworthiness of aircraft from 40-50% to 80% but fuel and spares shortages limit fast-jet pilots to an average of 5-8 hours per year (NATO believes that respectively 150 and 250 hours annually are needed for flying and tactical proficiency): in long range aviation the average is 15-20 hours and in transport aviation it is 50. The Ground Forces situation has been dire. The desire to maintain a large number of units and formations in the order of battle has led to a hollow army. Thus, for instance, the number of manoeuvre regiments in European Russia declined from 76 to 72 during 1994 but the number of even semi-ready units (manned at about 50%) declined from 48 to 22. As a result, the Chechen War was fought entirely with ad hoc, composite units. Moreover, most units had undergone little or no field training (none at above sub-unit level) and even basic soldiering skills were, for the most part, conspicuous by their absence. Chechnya demonstrated how shortages of fuel, spares, skilled personnel and time spent on training had, combined with lack of unit cohesion, destroyed combat effectiveness.
        Doctrine. Ever since its creation, the Russian armed forces have lacked a clear mission. Was it to defend Russia's borders or some or all of the fSU's? Was it to concentrate on high-tech, high-intensity war or on fighting local wars or prosecuting operations other than war? What was to be its relations with the militaries of other CIS countries and with other armies, including those of former enemies? Did it have an internal role? Force structuring, equipping and training depend on the answers to these questions. Apart from the Military Doctrine of 1993, which proved to be a dead letter from the start, the political leadership including the Commander in Chief, President Yel'tsin, failed to provide the answers. Left without guidance, without resources, without moral and political support, the military leadership was reduced to its own devices. It displayed the classic psychological symptoms of denial. There was vague and largely meaningless talk of reform and little positive action.. In practice, it could not think of any course other than maintaining the Soviet Army writ small in the hope of better times miraculously materialising in the future.
    The USSR was not merely a state with an impressive war machine. The state itself was a war machine, with every aspect of its organization geared towards the mobilization of massive economic and military potential to conduct a world war. The very thoroughness and completeness of this effort to maintain the country permanently on a war footing was a major contributing factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union. The current Russian leadership has recognized that such a model is both inappropriate and unsustainable for the new Russia. New economic, social and political realities, combined with a favourable international situation, demand far reaching reforms.Russians distinguish between military reform and the reform of the armed forces. The former is an all-encompassing process and the latter one of its sub-sets (albeit a critical one). Military reform is based on a fundamental reassessment of the country's aims, place in the world and security challenges, internal and external, and of the requirements to meet them. It thus embraces not only all the armed forces (and not just those of the MoD) but also the military-industrial complex (MIC), policy making and command and control structures, the legal framework of the state and, not least, wider economic and social dimensions. The new general direction of the state in the security and defence sphere is indicated by a national security concept. That document in turn forms the basis for the more detailed and prescriptive military doctrine which is at the same time the foundation and rudder for reform of the armed forces. The doctrine's political section sets out: sources of military danger and threat; the state's approach to armed conflicts and the use of the armed forces and other troops; policy on weapons of mass destruction; basic principles and methods of ensuring military security; socio-political and state tasks in ensuing military security. The military section deals with: the basic principles for the use of the armed forces; tasks of the armed and other forces and the organization of their command and control; principles guiding force development; the military-technical and economic bases of the forces and methods of achieving military-technical security; a blueprint for restructuring.Several things become clear from this brief resumé. Military reform depends on clear direction from the country's political leadership and consistency of purpose in pursuing it. It is also dependant on social and economic reform. It is not just a matter of downsizing.
    Post-Soviet Russia's first defence minister, General Grachev, was an over-promoted, rapidly corrupted incompetent. However, he held the post for four years because he was a loyal, biddable Yel'tsin supporter. Under his leadership, the army moved from decline into crisis. After his re-election in June 1996, Yel'tsin paid his political debt to General Aleksandr Lebed by appointing him national security advisor and secretary to the Security Council and his favoured candidate, General Igor Rodionov, as Minister of Defence. Rodionov was an honest, intellectually impressive and respected officer genuinely determined on radical reform implemented responsibly. He was, however destined to be a victim of political in-fighting. Unhappy at having to accept the charismatic Lebed in a position of power, Yel'tsin first set out to limit it by forming a Defence Council to which many of the responsibilities of the Security Council were shifted: this was headed by his henchman, Yuriy Baturin. Then, few months later, he found an excuse to dismiss Lebed.. Rodionov's professional standing and popularity in the army were strong, but he found himself without a political patron, at loggerheads with Baturin (whose lack of understanding of the military he despised) and unsupported by the president or his civilian advisors on such issues as his proposed cuts in the airborne forces, dismissal of Chief of the General Staff Semenov and, crucially, his demand that reform be properly funded to create armed forces that would be efficient as well as smaller. He lasted only eleven months, accomplishing little, before being dismissed in a humiliating fashion as a scapegoat for the failure of a reform package sabotaged by the president.There is now a new team at the top of the defence establishment. A A Kokoshin has been put in charge of seeing through military reform as the secretary of the Security Council, a position of unrivalled importance now that his State Military Inspectorate and the Defence Council have both been subsumed into the Security Council. Although a civilian, as a deputy and first deputy defence minister of six years' standing, he has a deep knowledge of military affairs and is one of the very few people in Russia who has any understanding of the economics of defence. The new Minister of Defence, General Igor Sergeyev (former CinC of the Strategic Rocket Forces) has been described (unfairly to Rodionov) as the first incumbent genuinely dedicated to reform. The new Chief of the General Staff, Anatoliy Kvashnin, also appears to be a reformer. Whether this trio will be successful in the face of the inevitable opposition of some major political and military figures will depend critically on whether or not it is consistently backed, through bad times as well as good, by the Commander in Chief and source of all political power, President Yel'tsin.
    At last, the armed forces have some sort of guidance from the top. A presidential decree of 17 December 1997 adopted a new national security concept. This document defined both the threats to Russia and the directions for dealing with them.. * NATO's expansion is considered worrying and against Russia's national interests, and there is a presumption that there will be outside attempts to undermine the Federation through economic pressure, information warfare and subversion to exploit internal contractions. There is, however, no perceived threat of overt aggression in the short to medium term, of overt aggression, at least as long as Russia keeps up its nuclear guard. The main threat is the parlous state of the economy. From this flow all sorts of undesirable consequences - growing popular discontent and criminal activity (especially organised crime), rising state indebtedness, the degradation of the scientific and technological base. Economic problems and the weakness of the Centre are also seen to result in the growth of centrifugal nationalist and localist sentiment and a threat to traditional Russian national values, culture, language and the Orthodox faith (especially within the 18% of the population that comprises ethnic minorities). * To cope with the predominantly internal threat, several prescriptions are put forward. The government will concentrate on fostering economic progress and on developing Russian science and technology. Political stabilisation will be sought, not least through resolution of disputes with the regions. Russian federalism will be strengthened in accordance with Russian national values, as will the country's position as a law-based state. Law and order will be strengthened. Health and environmental protection will be improved. CIS integration will be pursued. And, of course, the Border, Interior and Presidential Guard forces and the FSB will remain strong. * To cope with any potential external threat, political, economic and other non-military means will predominate: for instance, world-wide security partnerships will be developed and efforts made to strengthen the CIS, OSCE and the UN. In the military sphere, emphasis will be placed on maintaining strong nuclear forces as a deterrent, implicitly abandoning the Soviet no first-use principle as Russia moves to a MacNamara type trip wire doctrine). The conventional armed forces will be reduced to lessen their burden on the state. The emphasis will be on rapidly deployable forces capable of moving quickly to regional hotspots to suppress trouble or engage in peacekeeping. "With minimum losses", defence industries will be restructured and improved..The national security concept provides a context for military reform and broad direction.. It reflects, however, a compromise between various ministries and as such is somewhat platitudinous and rhetorical and very vague. It is hardly a blueprint for reform. The armed forces are still waiting for the promulgation of a new military doctrine to spell out some detail. What practical politico-diplomatic and international-legal measures does the government propose to compensate for Russia's diminishing military might? What is the likely nature of future conflict in short, medium and longer time scales? Whence and where is conflict possible? What sort of army should be planned for the different time scales? What resources will be made available? What will be the division of tasks and relationships between the MoD and other forces? Until answers are found to questions such as these, there will be a suspicion that reform is an ad hoc process designed purely to save money rather than give Russia an army that will be a suitable tool of policy. That said, Kokoshin has laid down that the MoD is to play the commanding role "in all questions of the defence of the state" and he has instructed the General Staff to draw up proposals for a new military doctrine and a plan for the construction (Russ: stroitelstvo) of the armed forces, including plans for mobilisation and "preparing the country's territory for defence".Some long overdue structural and other changes are already underway or are promised. * The five branches have been reduced to four: the Strategic Deterrence Forces (including the old SRF, space forces and ABM forces); the Air Force (being amalgamated with the Air Defence Forces, less the ABM arm); the Ground Forces; the Navy.. It is intended to reduce the number to three, environmentally based, services early in the next century. The Ground Forces, while retaining their separate status, have lost their own CinC and separate administration. Instead, there are to be two main directorates and three combat arms commands (air defence, aviation and missile troops/artillery). The General Staff will be responsible for the state of the Ground Forces while a deputy defence minister will be responsible for organizational and other development. Operational control is to be devolved to MDs while supply will be carried out by a main directorate. * Five military districts in key strategic areas (Leningrad, Moscow, North Caucasus, Transbaikal and Far East) are to become operational-strategic commands with a considerable measure of autonomy. The other three will be operational-territorial commands. The total number of MDs is probably to be reduced from eight to six by merging the Siberian and Transbaikal and (yet again) the Volga and Urals MDs. Each MD will have 1-2 ready ground forces' divisions and appropriate air support for dealing with internal problems and local wars. It is proposed that Interior Troops and Border Guards district boundaries be redrawn to coincide with those of MDs to improve cooperation in case of conflict. The four fleets and the Caspian Flotilla will remain (albeit at greatly reduced strength) and two land defence regions will come under the Navy: the Kaliningrad Special Defence Region will be subordinated to the Baltic Fleet and Kamchatka/Chukotka to the Pacific Fleet. The Air Force has contracted into three airforce and air defence armies and four separate corps (one of which is to be upgraded to army status). * At a lower level, hollow formations and units are being eliminated by amalgamating some divisions and units and disbanding others. General Sergeyev claims that, where there were no ground forces' units ready to react immediately to threats in 1997 there are now 21 regiments at 95-98% of war establishment. Even the airborne forces, which Rodionov was not allowed to cut, are being reduced by one third to 32,000 in four formations. Sergeyev has promised the introduction of a proper training regime "by late 1998". The Air Force has disbanded 12 divisions and about 70 regiments/brigades to bring all the remaining units and formations up to 100% in personnel and equipment. * The military manpower issue is being faced. MoD forces are to be cut from an establishment of 1.7 million to 1.2 million (including 400,000 in the ground forces). Other ministries competing for conscript manpower will be reduced from 14 to 4 (Border Guards, Interior Troops, Railway Troops and FAPSI), and, they too will suffer cuts and the Border Guards will lose their heavy weapons. About 300,000 officer posts are to be cut in 1998 and 150,000 newly commissioned officers are to be offered immediate discharge. * The number of military educational/training establishments is being cut from 103 to 57. The current, cumbersome system of officer training and education is to be overhauled and management and staff culture are to be raised from their current low level. * The MoD is to hive off its road and railway construction organisations to other ministries and other non-military elements are to be privatised (eg, the military retail network) and surplus facilities, cantonments, stores etc are to be sold off. The MoD is to be allowed to keep 87% of the proceeds of such sales to fund housing and welfare support schemes. * The MIC is to undergo reorganization and rationalization, with the number of enterprises shrinking from 1700 to 600. The government has promised to settle its NR 20 billion debt to the MIC. From 2005, series delivery of up to date equipment is planned to modernize the armed forces. * All arrears of pay and allowances to the armed forces are to be settled, it is promised (yet again). Pay rates are to be doubled by 2001 and increased by a factor of 2.5 by 2005 in order to give officers an acceptable standard of living and enhance the attractiveness of military service. The MoD is to provide 50,000 new apartments for officers and the component parts of the Federation are intended to produce a similar number. No fewer than 60,000 flats will be provided for redundant officers. * The defence budget will not be allowed to exceed 3.5% of GDP per annum, having run at an estimated 7-10% in recent years (the proposed 1998 budget is 2.9% of GDP). This is (correctly) deemed essential to Russia's economic recovery, which recovery will, it is presumed, lead to increasing defence appropriations.
    It would be churlish to deny that a start has been made in military reform. It could, however, be argued that some fundamental issues have not yet been addressed, that some recent measures are misconceived or are insufficiently radical and that some aspirations are unrealistic and unlikely to be realized.The urgent need for a realistic military doctrine has already been mentioned. Amongst the most important issues that need to be addressed is the problem of local and regional wars. The current reliance on nuclear weapons to deter aggression is inappropriate, not to say downright dangerous. True, there is an aspiration to create effective general-purpose forces to lessen this reliance, but there is no evidence to suggest that any real effort is being made to work out operational and tactical concepts appropriate to such conflicts or to organize, equip and train formation and units for them. Nor is it clear that the problem of the fragmentation of command and control that so bedevilled operations in Chechnya is being tackled. Clear command and control responsibilities need to be established where MoD, Border Guards and Interior Troops are all involved in an operation. Institutional rivalries and individuals' concern for their power bases may well hinder or prevent this despite Kokoshin's declaration that the MoD will play the commanding role in all questions of state defence. If, as the national security concept accepts, such conflicts as those in Georgia, Tajikistan and Chechnya are likely to typify the future challenges to be faced by the army, these are very serious lacunae.Quite rightly, the national security concept identifies regionalism and separatism as threats to the federation's sovereignty and territorial integrity. In view of this, turning military districts into largely autonomous operational-strategic/territorial commands could carry dangers. There is a long, imperial tradition of regional military commanders becoming, in effect, viceroys. Even now, there is an arguably unhealthy military reliance on and identification with regional authorities in areas remote from Moscow.. This administrative reform could actually encourage fissiparous tendencies if economic and social reforms are unsuccessful. A descent into warlordism is the last thing Russia needs.The command and control arrangements for the Ground Forces are muddled, complicated and probably unworkable. They need their own, single service administration just like the other armed forces.Any hopes placed in CIS military, economic and MIC integration are almost certainly doomed to disappointment as member states (several of them reluctant members anyway) seek closer relationships elsewhere. The April CIS summit in Moscow predictably failed to reach any agreement on military or economic cooperation.Much needed legislation to regularize the position of the armed forces and give economic and social guarantees to Servicemen shows no signs of materializing. Indeed, May 1998 saw the embarrassing spectacle of Defence Minister Sergeyev urging the Duma not to pass the law "On the Status of Servicemen" which he had previously been urging on it: the Finance Ministry would not underwrite its provisions..Coming to what is, or ought to be, at the heart of military reform, numbers are being reduced and at the same time attempts are to be made to make the army more professional. The downsizing is probably insufficiently radical and there appears to be insufficient understanding of what needs to be done to improve quality. * Until now, Russia has been trying to maintain approximately half the Soviet Union's defence and internal security structure with about 10% of the 1980s defence budget and an economy roughly the size of Brazil's. Even the major cuts proposed (which are, in truth, no more than an acceptance of current real, as opposed to establishment, numbers) will not result in sustainable armed forces unless there is a miraculous growth in the economy and (the two do not necessarily go hand in hand) government income. To take a point of central importance, President Yel'tsin promised to end conscription by the year 2000 - using official figures, it can be demonstrated that replacing 600,000 conscripts with volunteers would cost an extra NR 7 billion per year: the total defence budget for 1998 is NR 81.8 billion. Moreover, the MoD has yet to receive in full the still inadequate sums promised yearly by the Duma and government and already in May the implementation of the 1998 budget was being described as "extremely problematic." In short, current plans for reform are based on exceedingly optimistic economic and financial forecasts. * Ever since it started, the debate about military reform has revolved around budgetary issues. However, more money, or even existing sums spent more wisely, will not solve some critical personnel problems. Russian officers tend to neglect and abuse their soldiers. There is no truly professional corps of NCOs (a requirement for 21st century soldiering). Morale and discipline are very low. Crime is endemic in the army, with many generals showing the way. Greatly improved pay, allowances, housing, provision of social amenities, prestige of service, etc will do much to alleviate these problems (at a cost beyond what is currently contemplated) but they will not, of themselves, be sufficient. The whole ethos of the army needs to change. This requirement, to break with bad traditions, is rarely recognized and does not feature much in writings on reform (save, it must be said, for the need to stamp out corruption). * The proposed reform of the MIC merely scratches the surface of the problem. The sector's debts, mostly to suppliers, total NR 97 billion, so the government's settling of its NR 20 billion debt will make comparatively little difference. The fact is that Russia's economy is still largely militarized. This issue has not been tackled by economic reformers. Defence conversion never took place (despite much talk). Neither has privatization. Despite some rationalization (especially in the aerospace sector) few defence or R&D institutes have been closed. The MIC has a vast excess capacity but is doing little productive work: even its production for the civilian sector is falling as the goods it makes are not of merchantable quality and are being driven out of the market by imports. Arms sales abroad, while significant, will not save the MIC. It needs root and branch reform and substantial downsizing if it is not going to continue to be a drain on the economy while still failing to meet the military customers' needs for advanced weaponry.
    Should one be optimistic about the prospect for military reform? As the preceding section demonstrates, some of the thorniest problems have yet to be faced, let alone tackled. This author is sceptical about the future, for the following reasons. * There seems to be little understanding about some of the major issues at stake, even amongst defence professionals. * There is massive opposition to reform. Corrupt and reactionary generals are against it, as are most of the MIC and ultra-nationalists who fear the loss of great power status. For the most part, politicians are both ignorant about the realities of the situation and prefer to treat the army as a political football rather than attempt to find a sensible way forward. * Not only is there no consensus within the army about the direction of, or even the need for, radical reform, but there is destructive in-fighting between the power ministries for greater shares of a dwindling resources cake. * Plans are still too ambitious to be realizable, given the state of the economy and of government finance. Neither seems likely to be put right at all speedily (notwithstanding a very optimistic prophecy of a 2-4% growth in GDP in 1998). Nor is much money likely to be saved by efforts to stamp out fraud, corruption and straightforward theft in the military and the MIC.. Economic crime is endemic and pervades all of society right up to the top. When those responsible for its erradication are practitioners, prospects of success are low. * The problems which beset the armed forces cannot be solved in isolation from those that beset society and the economy as a whole. These seem to be as intractable as ever, save for isolated pockets of progress. Indeed, far-reaching reform will involve horrendous social consequences. The MIC directly employs 4-6 million people, mostly in areas where alternative work is not available. The effects of economically desirable rationalization and downsizing can only be guessed at. During 1998, 300,000 officers are due to be dismissed and 15,000 newly commissioned officers are to be offered immediate discharge. It is inconceivable that financial provision can be found to house and retrain such numbers within the projected budget. What will they do? General Shpak, CinC of the Airborne Forces provided part of the answer when he pointed out that former paratroop officers command $1500-7000 per month in the world of organized crime. Such considerations make even the boldest politicians shrink from taking needed decisions. * If significant change is to be accomplished, the Commander in Chief and source of all political power, President Yel'tsin, will have to be behind it. Until now, Yel'tsin has failed to establish any credentials as a military reformer. He is a man who has a deep understanding and love of power and knows how to acquire it and keep it. In recent years, however, he has not displayed any consistency of purpose in the use of that power for positive ends. In the military sphere, having decided (rightly) that the country faces no external threat, but that he could face an internal threat, he has tolerated the army's slide into ineffectiveness and has built up the other power ministries and his own praetorian guard. He is adept at playing off the power ministries against each other and preventing any individual from becoming too strong (vide his dismissal of Interior Minister Kulikov in March 1998). Has the president finally realized that neglecting the army is not in Russia's interests, or even, perhaps, his own? Will he be prepared (and physically able) to devote time, energy and political capital to the military reform question over the next couple of years? Will he be prepared to take the long view or will crises like the recent miners' strike and financial crash, divert him, as so often before, into the path of least resistance? History is not reassuring on these questions.