Small Wars

This Week at War: A Leaner, Cleaner Russian Army

Everyone agrees that Russia's military needs reform. But making it happen won't be easy.


This month, the U.S. Army War College released Can Russia Reform: Economic, Political and Military Perspectives, an anthology published by the college’s Strategic Studies Institute and edited by Stephen Blank, a professor at the college. Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and a long-time analyst of Russia’s military and security forces, contributed a chapter on reforming the Russian Army. Corruption, poor leadership, outmoded policies, and Russia’s impoverishment after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Galeotti suggests, has reduced the once-mighty Russian fighting force to an ineffective mob. In 2007, President Vladimir Putin moved Anatoly Serdyukov, then the government’s chief tax collector, to the Defense Ministry, with a mandate to fix the army — a task Serdyukov’s numerous predecessors had failed to accomplish. Facing monumental bureaucratic obstacles, Serdyukov’s struggle to reform the service has only begun. Whether he ultimately succeeds will have implications for Russia’s neighbors, the future of nuclear arms control, and the assertiveness of Putin’s foreign policy.

If only as a human rights issue, the case for reforming the Russian Army is clear. For decades, conscripts — nearly always young men whose families can’t afford to pay their way out of the draft — have suffered brutal treatment under the culture of Dedovshchina, a Lord-of-the-Flies tradition under which more senior conscripts deliver regular beatings to the newest recruits for no apparent military purpose. According to Galeotti’s research, 80 percent of Russia’s soldiers reported being beaten, with 33 percent requiring hospitalization or a medical discharge as a result. Another 20 percent are discharged early due to poor diet or illness from poor sanitation and improper medical care. These are not conditions that support an effective modern army. Under public pressure to scale back the burden of conscription, the enlistment term was reduced from two years to one in 2009, but the result was basic infantrymen being tactically useful for only two months before being discharged.

The punitive raid against Georgia in August 2008, although successful at intimidating Tbilisi, revealed deep flaws in the Russian Army’s leadership, command and control, and soldier training, especially compared to Western and emerging Chinese standards. The Georgian skirmish encouraged Serdyukov and Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov to redouble their reform program. Their reforms have a striking resemblance to changes instituted in the West over the past several decades. They include the eventual end of conscription, an all-volunteer army with soldiers employed on long contracts, a professional non-commissioned officer corps, and a nearly 60 percent reduction in the bloated ranks of commissioned officers. Operationally, the army is downshifting from ponderous, inflexible divisions to smaller and more nimble brigades as the basic combat unit — a shift the U.S. Army made about seven years ago. As U.S. planners have discovered, brigades are easier to deploy and support and give field commanders more options and flexibility. In order to further emphasize the concept of combat-ready quality in place of untrained and ill-equipped quantity, some in the Defense Ministry want to reduce the size of the army over the next ten years from a million soldiers to less than 500,000, which would roughly match the size of the U.S. Army.

In order to push through these reforms, Serdyukov and Makarov have had to go to war against deeply entrenched interests and traditions. Using a murder mystery’s template of motive, opportunity, and means, Galeotti considered whether Kremlin leaders have the will and incentives to reform the army, whether they will have the resources, and whether they can overcome the institutional barriers that have stymied past reform efforts.

According to Galeotti, Russian Defense Ministry leaders are finally catching up to the fact that the mass-mobilization, multi-million soldier Cold War-era model is a poor design for Russia’s current security requirements. NATO’s ground forces are no threat. Russian strategists believe that modern and rapidly deployable professional units, envisioned in the new brigade structure, would be the best response to a hypothetical ground threat from China. The Kremlin’s most important mission for the army is to police the "near abroad," suppressing incipient instability along Russia’s borders. The Kremlin no doubt hopes to avoid repeating the brutal and mismanaged campaigns in Chechnya, which were mostly waged by untrained and poorly led conscripts. A better outcome in a similar contingency will require a smaller but skilled, flexible, and rapidly deployable army, along with units experienced at working with the security forces of neighboring countries. Russia’s current security environment provides a strong motivation to change from a mass conscript army to a smaller professional force.

But will Russia have the human and intellectual capital needed to make the switch? The crash in Russia’s population, especially in its youth cohort, makes a reduction in the army’s size a necessity. Sustaining the current army with one-year conscripts will require drafting 600,000-700,000 men per year. However, only 400,000 qualified inductees become available each year, a figure that will decline over time. Serdyokov’s purges to the officer corps removed many who were resisting these demographic realities and failing to face up to the army’s operational shortcomings compared to Western counterparts.

Even so, Serdyukov and Makarov face ferocious bureaucratic resistance which will take years to overcome. Reform threatens long-standing practices that have enriched officers and Defense Ministry officials. An internal army inspector estimates that up to 20 percent of the army’s budget is lost to corrupt contracting, supplies redirected for personal use, and soldier pay stolen by officers. Defense contractors similarly enjoy a long-established pattern of receiving payment for substandard and unreliable equipment and have a financial incentive to resist reform.

But these resisters need to reckon with new arrangements. Serdyukov has brought in civilian deputy ministers from the outside to supervise the ministry and the general staff. He has also shown a willingness to use foreign contractors — for example, the purchase of French amphibious ships, Italian armored vehicles, and Israeli drones — to both bypass domestic suppliers and incentivize them to improve. Finally, officials who thought they could simply outwait Serdyukov and Putin, his patron, will have to reckon with the possibility that Putin is now Russia’s president-for-life.

Galeotti concludes that the odds of Russian Army reform are now higher than at any time in the past two decades. If successful, a decade from now the Army will be smaller, but more professional, adaptable, and mobile.

Would such an outcome present a challenge to U.S. military planners? A smaller but more deployable Russian Army, focused on the "near abroad," could actually be a modest benefit to U.S. interests. Such an improvement in Russian military power could cause China and Iran to divert some attention and resources away from preparing for U.S. military capabilities. U.S. planners should also be pleased if the Russian Defense Ministry is expending resources on neighborhood security rather than on long-range nuclear and expeditionary capabilities. Finally, Russian leaders won’t give any consideration to a deal on tactical nuclear weapons until they have more confidence in the army’s ability to protect Russia by conventional means.

Reforming the Russian army will cost money, both for improved soldier pay and conditions, but also for advanced military technology and realistic training. A crash in the price of oil would empty Russia’s treasury and very likely end the Kremlin’s hopes for army reform. Out of money and with a broken army, Serdyukov and Makarov would then need a new plan for patrolling Russia’s rough neighborhood.

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