A long way: Russian military reform – Part 1

by Patrick Truffer (originally published in German). He has been working in the Swiss Armed Forces for more than 15 years, holds a bachelor’s degree in public affairs from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zurich), and a master’s degree in international relations from the Free University of Berlin.

Reforms are painful processes, especially within risk-averse, complex, highly hierarchical and institutionalized organizations. In these organizations, standard procedures define work and problem-solving, especially in an environment of uncertainty. The individual is trained, rewarded, and promoted according to a defined system – they are educated to perform tasks in a particular way, and as soon as that person reaches a leadership role, they will also educate their subordinates. Work processes become so highly institutionalized in an organization that they stick around even after they lose their practicality and are only gotten rid of with massive resistance. A good example of this is the longevity of mounted cavalry in Western forces. In his book “The Sources of Military Doctrine“, Barry Posen, Professor of Political Science and Director of the MIT Security Studies Program, describes two conditions under which military organizations are prepared to undertake a fundamental reform: when civilian influences outside the military organization enforce it (Politics, society, lack of staff or finances, etc.) or after a defeat (Posen, p. 31f, 44).

Swiss Cavalry Squadron 1972, a veteran traditional unit of the Swiss Army, parading here in uniform from 1972. When in 1972 the Swiss army dissolved its last 18 dragoons squadrons, the last real cavalry in Europe ended.

Swiss Cavalry Squadron 1972, a veteran traditional unit of the Swiss Army, parading here in uniform from 1972. When in 1972 the Swiss army dissolved its last 18 dragoons squadrons, the last real cavalry in Europe ended.

The Russian Armed Forces also had to learn that reforms are painful processes. Formally founded on May 7, 1992, it was an ideological continuation of the Soviet armed forces since personnel and material came from the Red Army (Carolina Vendil Pallin, “Russian Military Reform: A Failed Exercise in Defence Decision Making“, Routledge, 2008, p. 51). Although there were several attempts to reform the Russian Armed Forces comprehensively, it was not seriously undertaken until about 16 years later. In this way, the Russian Armed Forces are providing an example of how high the pressure for the implementation of comprehensive reform must be. The associated financial and time expenditure is immense. At the same time, Russian forces are showing what can be achieved within ten years.

The purpose of this article is to investigate the factors driving Russian military reform, how the capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces have changed in the last ten years, and how they could change through 2030, based on the latest state armaments program.

Consolidation phase after the end of the Cold War

[…] the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself. Individual savings were depreciated, and old ideals destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly. – Russian President Vladimir Putin, 2005, during its annual address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc posed a demanding challenge for the Russian Armed Forces. As a matter of doctrine, the Soviet Union put its emphasis on territorial defense against an external, state opponent, which could be conventionally engaged by a mass army. Soviet commanders were focused on high weapon and squad strength, but hardly on technology and mobility (Alexei G. Arbatov, “Military Reform in Russia: Dilemmas, Obstacles, and Prospects“, International Security, vol 22, no. 4, April 1998, p. 99).

For financial and demographic reasons, Russia was unable to sustain such a mass army after the end of the Cold War. Of the approximately 3.4 million Soviet soldiers, about 2.7 million went into the Russian Armed Forces, but this number was cut to around one million by 1999. At the same time, the Russian Armed Forces were under immense financial and social pressure. While at least 15% of Soviet GDP was still earmarked for military purposes during the Cold War, spending on Russian forces in 1999 was still around 3% of the GDP that had shrunk by three quarters. The lack of financial resources, a precarious economic situation, and the consensus among Russian politicians that the US and NATO would pose no military threat made the Russian generals’ efforts to receive a higher share of the state spending budget harder.

Statistics on some essential systems of the Russian Armed Forces (click on the image to enlarge).

Statistics on some essential systems of the Russian Armed Forces (click on the image to enlarge).

However, the situation changed fundamentally in 1999. Not only did government revenues rise on account of rising global commodity prices, but several international developments led to a long-term reversal of Russia’s integration efforts into the Western world order and to a changed perception of threats. NATO’s enlargement to the east with the admission of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, as well as the bombing of Yugoslavia within the NATO operation “Allied Force” 12 days later, led Russia to a sustained loss of confidence in the long-term intentions of the USA. Russia was culturally, religiously, and militarily linked to Yugoslavia. Not only had Russia tried to prevent NATO military intervention in the UN Security Council, but the NATO operation pointedly demonstrated to Russia the effectiveness of conventional precision weapons, and thus the Russian armed forces capability gaps. However, that is not all: with the “continuing openness to the accession of new members”, NATO intended to continue its expansive East European strategy. From the Russian perspective, the additional provision of “out-of-area” operations in the new Strategic Concept of April 1999 transformed the North Atlantic Defense Alliance into an offensive military security instrument for the US and its allies.

The Zapad exercise, held in June 1999, was not only the largest after 1985 but a political signal to the US and NATO. The scenario was a fictional NATO offensive against Kaliningrad and Belarus. The imminent defeat of Russia over the conventionally superior enemy was responded to towards the end of the exercise with the fictitious use of nuclear weapons in Central Europe and on the US West Coast (Pallin, p. 114). Strategically, this was an “escalation to de-escalate”, whereby an overwhelming enemy with weapons of mass destruction and/or conventional weapons should be forced to surrender with a locally limited nuclear strike. NATO already pursued this strategic approach during the Cold War against the Soviet Union, which was conventionally superior on the European continent. This approach eventually flowed into Russian military doctrine in 2000 (Matthew Kroenig, “The Renewed Russian Nuclear Threat and NATO Nuclear Deterrence Posture“, Issue Brief, Atlantic Council, February 2016).

In September 1995, a series of reported leaks – allegedly approved by the then Russian Defence Minister Pavel Grachev – discussed possible Russian retaliatory nuclear countermeasures to NATO expansion, including the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in western Russia, Belarus and aboard ships in the Baltic Fleet. The war of words over conventional and nuclear deployments escalated by early October 1995, when Nezavisimaya Gazeta published a map (see above) — allegedly originating from the Russian Ministry of Defence — depicting a Russian nuclear strike on the Czech Republic and Poland, coupled with a joint conventional offensive on the Baltic States. The accompanying article quoted sources in the Main Operations Directorate of the Russian General Staff as stating that, in the event NATO expands to the Czech Republic and Poland and nuclear weapons are deployed in those states, Russia would target them with nuclear weapons and redeploy large-scale conventional forces to Belarus. (Source: Peter Szyszlo, “Countering NATO Expansion: A Case Study of Belarus-Russia Rapprochement“, NATO Research Fellowship 2001-2003, June 2003, p. 9f).

The reality, however, pointed to a domestic threat to the South from which the Russian forces were unprepared. Soviet-era training, equipment, and procedures proved wholly inadequate during the First Chechen War between the end of 1994 and the autumn of 1996. During a series of apartment bombings carried out by Chechen separatists in early September 1999, 239 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured. Until the end of the Second Chechen War in 2009, there were repeated publicized violent attacks by Chechen separatists in Russia. Examples include the Moscow theater hostage crisis in October 2002 when some 850 people were taken hostage in the Dubrovka Theater. At least 170 people were killed during the rescue. Another example is the Beslan school siege in September 2004 when some 1,100 people (including 777 children) were taken hostage. The storming of the school was supported by several T-72B main battle tanks, BTR-80 armored infantry fighting vehicles, and combat helicopters. Both the BTR-80 14.5mm Vladimirov KPW machine gun as well as the T-72B 125mm cannon fired on the school. The casualties were correspondingly high: 334 dead (Kim Murphy, “Aching To Know“, Los Angeles Times, 27.08.2005). Not only did these new types of threats require a different military structure, operations management, and tactics, but also other equipment, more technology, more precision weapons, and greater mobility. Nevertheless, the generals successfully ran opposition against a comprehensive reform. Neither was the political and social pressure high enough nor were the necessary financial means available. This did not change abruptly, even after 1999, because despite the higher budget, most of the available funds flowed into maintenance, wage expenditure and social benefits rather than research, development, and armaments until the 2000s (Mike Bowker and Cameron Ross, “Russia After the Cold War“, Routledge, 2000, p. 223ff). The lack of investment in the defense industry and the fact that strategically essential parts of it were in Ukraine, had a noticeable effect on the development of new weapon systems, which are often excitedly announced but cannot be produced in the desired quantities.

The semi-submerged submarine hunter “Slawny” (left) on December 22, 1994. It lies in the port of Baltiysk in Kaliningrad, one of only two remaining bases of the once proud Soviet fleet.

Despite opposition from some generals, political pressure in a period of consolidation until 2003 has resulted in the decommissioning of numerous Soviet weapon systems. These systems were technologically outdated, too expensive to maintain, numerically far too large and had no use in national crisis management. The First Chechen War shaped the focus on domestic crisis intervention, and from 1999 onwards – as compensation for the lack of modern conventional systems – the emphasis was on preserving the strategic nuclear arsenal. The Strategic Missile Troops was the only military branch of the Russian Armed Forces, which was almost wholly staffed, had a high combat readiness as well as command and control capabilities (Arbatov, “Military Reform in Russia”, 123). As of 1999, the SS-27 Topol-M (mobile ICBM, non-MIRV) stocks were steadily expanded, from 2010, the RS-24 Yars (ICBM, MIRV) was introduced. In addition, Russia purchased 3 Tupolev Tu-95 Bear and 8 Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack (strategic bombers) from Ukraine in 1999 and 2000, respectively, and began modernizing its existing strategic fleet (“Russia”, The Military Balance, vol. 100, 2000, p. 117).

The 2008 Russo-Georgian War and the Serdyukov reform

Since taking office in January 2004, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had been unsuccessfully trying to politically reintegrate the renegade Georgian region of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and, starting in 2005, considered using military means when necessary. When the Georgian forces bombarded the secessionists in the southern Ossetian city of Tskhinvali with artillery during the night of August 8, 2008, Saakashvili expected US support to prevent Russian counteraction (Heidi Tagliavini, “Lessons of the Georgia Conflict“, The New York Times, 30.09.2009). However, the Russians have been waiting for just such an opportunity: even before the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, they had increased their troop contingent in North Ossetia to around 9,000 and expanded the railway infrastructure in the border region with Abkhazia. Shortly after the Georgian bombardment, the tanks of the Russian 58th Army pushed through the Roki Tunnel to South Ossetia. Within a very short time, some 25,000-30,000 Russian and 12,000-15,000 Georgian soldiers faced off in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia also deployed around 200 aircraft, 40 helicopters and 1,200 armored vehicles (Pavel Felgenhauer, “After August 7: The Escalation of the Russia-Georgia War”, in The Guns of August 2008: Russia’s War in Georgia, Routledge, 2009, p. 173; Ariel Cohen and Robert E. Hamilton, “The Russian Military and the Georgia War: Lessons and Implications“, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, June 2011, p. 12). In their approach, based on the Soviet mission doctrine, the Russian forces quickly built an overpowering concentration, took advantage of the momentum in enemy contact and advanced as far as possible without great fire support and flank protection. The rapid influx of large quantities of armored assets into South Ossetia and the opening of a second front in Abkhazia were decisive for Russian’s success – tactical skills were of secondary importance (Cohen and Hamilton, “The Russian Military and the Georgia War”, p. 26ff).

By their numerical superiority, the Russian forces won the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, but the performance was extremely embarrassing. For various reasons, at the outbreak of the war, the General Staff was unable to conduct the operation from Moscow and establish a secure connection with the deployed assets (Cohen and Hamilton, “The Russian Military and the Georgia War”, p. 23). If necessary, the units were commanded via Georgian telecommunications provider networks with mobile phones (Pavel Felgenhauer, “After August 7”, p. 67). However, even the units were not prepared for the war. According to the Russian Chief of Staff Nikolay Makarov only 17% of the ground troops, 5 of the 150 air force regiments and about half of the warships were ready to fight (Dmitry Solovyov, “Russian Army not fit for Modern War: Top General“, Reuters, 16.12.2008). The Russian global satellite navigation system Glonass, precision weapons, satellite or laser-guided missiles, anti-radar missiles and drones were not available. Lack of access to satellite imagery prompted the Russians to use a Tupolev Tu-22 bomber for reconnaissance over Georgia, where it was finally shot down by the Georgian air defense (Cohen and Hamilton, “The Russian Military and the Georgia War”, p. 34f). The helicopters used had no equipment for friend/foe identification and no radio system, which would have been inter-operable with the ground forces, so they could not be used to provide close air support to the infantry (Dale R. Herspring, “Is Military Reform in Russia for ‘Real’? Yes, But …”, in The Russian Military Today and Tomorrow: Essays in Memory of Mary Fitzgerald, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2010, p. 154). In addition, the fighters had limited electronic warfare capabilities and could not be deployed at night. Nevertheless, Russia secured air superiority over the entire area, but this was not an exceptional achievement since Georgia had only eight fighter jets and 24 helicopters and deliberately did not use them (Cohen and Hamilton, The Russian Military and the Georgia War, p. 37).

A convoy of Russian troops on the way through the mountains to the armed conflict to South Ossetia on August 9, 2008.

A convoy of Russian troops on the way through the mountains to the armed conflict to South Ossetia on August 9, 2008.

During the five days of the war, Russian forces lost six bombers, four of which were shot down by their troops (Bettina Renz and Rod Thornton, “Russian Military Modernization“, Problems of Post-Communism, vol 57, no. 1, February 2012, p. 48). Despite the lack of resistance, the amphibious operation in Abkhazia could only be carried out with great difficulty, which was the trigger for the purchase of the French Mistral ships (Cohen and Hamilton, “The Russian Military and the Georgia War”, p. 51). 60-75% of the main battle tanks used were old T-62, T-72M and T-72BM, which lacked modern reactive armor, night vision equipment, advanced means of communication and superior fire control system (Roger N. McDermott, “Russia’s Conventional Armed Forces and the Georgian War“, Parameters 39, Spring 2009, p. 72). The Soviet operational doctrine against Georgian units trained to Western standards and equipped with modern technology had disastrous consequences: almost all 30 vehicles of the 58th Army Command Group were destroyed, killing or wounding many of the staff officers, including the Commander (Cohen and Hamilton, “The Russian Military and the Georgia War”, p. 28f)). Only the airborne troops and the air transport of crew, equipment, and supplies were effective in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.

We must focus on the modernization of our armaments. The Caucasian crisis, the Georgian aggression, and ongoing militarization make this task a top priority of our state. – Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on September 11, 2008, cited in Roger N. McDermott, “Russia’s Conventional Armed Forces and the Georgian War”, p. 68.

The operational doctrine, training, leadership, equipment, and infrastructure of the Russian armed forces had become stuck somewhere between 1970 and 1980 (Herspring, “Is Military Reform in Russia for ‘Real’?”, 2010, p. 152-56). The picture given in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War did not agree with the claims of the political and military leaders. This bitter admission enabled the first comprehensive reform initiated by Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov. The reform was designed to make the armed forces more operational, mobile, professional and technologically better equipped (Bettina Renz, “Russian Military Capabilities after 20 Years of Reform”, Survival, vol. 56, no. 3, May 2014, p. 61). In order to do so, Serdyukov switched from divisions to a brigade-based system in a first phase, which should help to give more freedom of action, flexibility, and manageability. At the same time, personnel was reduced by around 200,000. Most of them were critical of reforms and older officers (Keir Giles and Andrew Monaghan, “Russian Military Transformation – Goal in Sight?“, U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, 2014, p. 7). It was only in a second phase that the weapons systems were modernized, which proved to be difficult. The own productions were based exclusively on Soviet technology so that some systems had to be procured from abroad. As part of the modernization efforts, more than 20,000 T-72 and T-80 main battle tanks and scores of 18,000 armored personnel carriers were scrapped by the ground forces from 2010 onwards. The remaining tanks were upgraded – for example the T-72 to the T-72B3. In particular, the units in the southern military district were equipped with T-90A main battle tank and BTR-82A infantry fighting vehicles (Keir Giles, “A New Phase in Russian Military Transformation“, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, vol. 27, no. 1, January 2014, p. 153). In 2011/12, significantly more fighter aircraft were delivered to the air forces, but they did not come up with fundamentally new technologies. The Sukhoi Su-57 (aka PAK FA T-50), also derived from the Serdyukov reform — according to Russian information a 5th generation fighter jet — is based in principle on Soviet technology (Vladimir Karnozov, “Russia places initial Production Order for Stealth Fighter“, Aviation International News, 03.07.2018). Because of a military industry neglected after the Cold War and the associated loss of know-how, there were large deficits in information and radar technology and the precision weapon systems until the end of the Serdyukov reform (Jonas Grätz, “Russia’s Military Reform: Progress and Hurdles“, ed. Christian Nünlist and Matthias Bieri, CSS Analyses in Security Policy, no. 152, April 2014, p. 4).

The second part deals with the progressive improvement of the Russian armed forces as a consequence of military reform, which became evident in the wars in Ukraine and Syria and the major exercises of the last two years. Finally, in the third part, the possible further development of the Russian armed forces for the period up to the end of 2030 will be discussed, and a conclusion will be drawn.

This entry was posted in History, International, Patrick Truffer, Russia, Security Policy.

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