‘It’s the Organisation, Stupid!’ — The Motivating Force Behind Russias New Military Might

by Björn Müller (Facebook / Twitter). He is a journalist based in Berlin with a focus on security policy and geopolitics.


The Russian campaigns in the Ukraine and Syria have one thing in common: a formidable military organisation. “What continues to impress me is their ability to move a lot of stuff real far, real fast”, the New York Times quoted Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of United States Army forces in Europe (Steven Lee Myers and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Military Uses Syria as Proving Ground, and West Takes Notice“, The New York Times, 14.10.2015). However, the western debate is narrowed on the Russian hardware. One curious example is the “Armata Dispute” about the supposed new “super tank” of the Russian Army. It seems to miss a deeper consideration of “organisation”. One rare exception of that one-sided debate is the study “Russia’s quiet military Revolution, and what it means for Europe“.

This study was recently published by the Austrian military expert Gustav Gressel, who is visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. The study is a comprehensive overview on the reforms of the Russian military since 2008. It’s main finding: the crucial factor for the effectiveness of Russia’s military is first and foremost a new army organisation. New weapon technology plays a secondary role.

What’s the difference between the old and the new Russian Army?
The 23 soviet-style divisions had been cut down to 40 brigades – a nominal reduction of about 43 percent. The main advantage: the divisions had been only staffed 50 to 75 percent.

The new brigades are designed as combat-ready ones, with more professionals instead of conscripts. Those nouvelle brigades are passing a consistent training prepared for modern intervention warfare. For the first time the Russian forces had a pyramid structure, with few decision-makers at the top and more officers servicing the units. Also the configuration of command-structure was streamlined.

The number of military districts had been reduced to four. In every district there now exists a joint force command for all branches of military services. With the reform, logistic apparatus was completely reorganized with extensive outsourcing and reduction of administrative personnel.

Now there are only 10 military schools instead of 65. The backbone of this reform is a better human resources strategy: the earnings of Officers increased fivefold over the reform-period. There are housing and welfare programmes as well. All those measures renewed the prestige of the profession Army Officer.

The T-14 Armata Main Battle Tank -- but the capabilities of the Russian forces comes not only from their hardware. It’s the organisation, which matters.

The T-14 Armata Main Battle Tank — but the capabilities of the Russian forces comes not only from their hardware. It’s the organisation, which matters.

Was there a trigger for the reorganisation?
In 2008 the Russian intervention force in Georgia had great problems overwhelming the Georgian army. The mobilization of the army simply took to long and Russian forces showed a lack of proper unit command. Their supply lines were overstretched and a lot of soldiers died because of friendly fire. The US-trained Georgian troops, although outnumbered, proved better prepared than anticipated.

What was the aim of the army reform?
The near debacle in Georgia lead the Russians to two conclusion. First: We need a forceful army which is able to overwhelm every country in the post-Soviet-sphere. Second: Our new force must be a fast acting one, to defeat the enemy before substantial reinforcements from the West arrives them. So the aim of Russia was to re-organize its armed forces for some kind of “fait accompli” warfare.

Was there an Architect behind the reorganisation?
In great parts the Russian new model army was the work of Anatoliy Eduardovich Serdyukov, Russian Minister of Defence between 2007 and 2012. Beginning his professional life as a furniture retailer, he was the first non-military in this post. With this background Serdyukov could use the “Georgian shock” in the Russian Administration for a consequent reform of the military forces. Since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia made several efforts to reorganize its forces but mainly without success because of the resistance of the military brass. Without obligations to the army elites, he forced through the streamlined army structure. As a man with business skills, he was able to negotiate better deals with the arms industry for the military. At the end it was probably the rivalry of the military apparatus which brought him down (Vladimir Isachenkov, “Intrigue swirls around Russia defence chief’s fall“, The Washington Times, 06.11.2012).

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates met Russian Minister of Defense Anatoliy Serdyukov in Moscow, on April 23, 2007.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates met Russian Minister of Defence Anatoliy Serdyukov in Moscow, on April 23, 2007.

Are there role models for the Russian reforms?
According to Gressel, many of the education and training programs had been taken from Switzerland and Austria. The Russians attempt is it, to implement western state-of-the-art leadership in their whole army structure. Especially their non-commissioned officers should be trained in leading their units autonomous in complex environments.

How does the reform shows its impact?
Russia’s air campaign in Syria gains the respect of military planners in the West. The swift and well organized deployment of forces and the build-up of the Latakia base – it was altogether military precision at its best. At the moment nearly one quarter of the Russian Air Force is involved in this expedition against al-Assad’s adversaries and the terror organisation “Islamic State” according to Gressel. During the Chechnyan conflicts it sometimes took up to one year for the Russian army to prepare units for frontline duty and bring them to the theatre. Syria is already the second opportunity for Russia’s western opponents to get an impression of the Kremlin forces enhanced military clout. Russia’s first show of force was the hybrid warfare in the East-Ukraine. Crucial for this nouvelle art of warfare is precise organisation and deployment of troops, not to availability of high-end weapons.

Beside organisation the study also analyses the roles of rearmament and unconventional warfare for Russia’s military renaissance. It concludes with rating the military balance between Russia and Europe, giving a recommendation for the strategic consequences for the Europeans. For further reading, check out “Russia’s quiet military Revolution, and what it means for Europe“.

More information
Patrick Truffer, “Strategic rearmament of the Russian armed forces after end of the Cold War”, offiziere.ch, September 2015: part 1, part 2.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, Björn Müller, English, International, Russia, Security Policy.

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