Volume XIX Number 1 (April 2009)


By Pavel Felgenhauer

(Pavel Felgenhauer lives in Moscow, is an expert on Russian military affairs, columnist for Novaya gazeta, and a frequent contributor to ISCIP’s Perspective.)

Russia defeated neighboring Georgia in August 2008, but this short war revealed serious deficiencies in the arming, training, and battle-readiness of our military. During a special meeting in the Kremlin on military development a month after the fighting ended, President Dmitri Medvedev announced that new weapons will be procured and developed and soldiers' pay and battle-readiness increased: "We need modern, effective armed forces... This is the highest state priority in the coming years." (1)

Top military commanders echoed the president. A concept of the development of the Russian armed forces that reflects new military threats will be produced, announced our top military commander, the Chief of the General Staff, General Nikolai Makarov. (2) The army chief General Vladimir Boldyrev, who directly commanded the joint forces that invaded Georgia from headquarters in Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia, announced that the fighting revealed two main deficiencies: bad communications and command systems. (3)

A radical military reform plan was approved during a meeting in September and signed as an executive order by Medvedev on September 15, 2008, but kept secret (in the Russian tradition) a month longer until October 15, when, after a meeting of Russia's top brass, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov disclosed some details: "Our army is today like an egg—swollen in the middle—we have more colonels and lieutenant-colonels than junior officers," announced Serdyukov. As announced,the number of officers in the armed forces will be reduced from 355,000 to 150,000. The number of army units would be cut drastically from 1890 to 172 by 2012. The number of disbanded units in the other services will not be as drastic: In the Air Force from 340 to 180; in the Navy from 240 to 123; in the Strategic Rocket Forces from 12 to 8; in the Space Troops from 7 to 6 and in the Airborne from 6 to 5. (4)

Serdyukov announced that divisions and regiments in the Russian army would be transformed into more compact brigades, as in Western armies. Military education will be radically reformed; the present 65 military academies will be transformed into 10 military academies and universities. "Russian military education will be transformed to match the more effective American model," announced Defense Ministry civilian adviser Vitali Shlikov. (5)

Makarov reported, "Less than 20 percent of our units are battle-ready, while the rest have only officers without privates." According to Makarov, after the collapse of Communism the Russian military was slowly cut in size: "A division had 13,000 men, then 10,000, then 5,000, then 2,000, now - 1,500." (6) Commanding officers have no experience in leading men and cannot command effectively on the battlefield in time of war. According to Makarov, during the war with Georgia, "We were forced to handpick colonels and generals from all-over Russia, able to command in battle, because the commanders of the 'paper divisions,' when they were given reinforcements of men and armaments could not - they were confused and some refused to obey orders." (7)

The thrust of the present reform is to replace, as soon as possible, these worthless “paper” or “cadre” units with an armed force of full-blooded, battle-ready units. In essence, this is a decisive transformation from a Cold War armed force, designed to fight the West in a global war after a mass mobilization of millions of reservists into a compact standing army, primarily designed for local and regional conflicts. The war with Georgia in August 2008 may have speeded up the reform, but important groundwork was done beforehand. In June 2008, Serdyukov first announced plans to cut the number of servicemen in the armed forces from the present 1,130,000 to 1 million by 2013, to increase pay and to change the "previously approved concept" of the development of our military. (8) In another sign of imminent changes, Serdyukov's First Deputy, General Aleksander Kolmakov, the former commander of the Airborne Troops, told journalists in June 2008 that the Russian military "had stopped developing," and that "the training and equipment of our armed forces is on the level of the 1960s and 1970s." Kolmakov emphasized the importance of having exercises with Western militaries to better understand modern military procedures. (9)

By the fall of 2008 Serdyukov had put together a team of generals ready to implement a radical military reform: Makarov; Kolmakov; the chief of the Main Directorate of Military Training, former Chechen campaign veteran accused by human rights organizations of war crimes, General Vladimir Shamanov; Deputy Defense Minister in charge of procurement and armaments, former Commander of Russia's Space Forces, General Vladimir Popovkin, and others.

Popovkin has been in charge of negotiating the acquisition of a substantial batch of different types of Israeli-made spy drones, in what would be the first ever purchase of military hardware from the Jewish state and the first official procurement of weapons from a Western nation since 1945. The negotiations on the deal are reported to be almost complete. (10) Popovkin has been promoting publicly the notion that Russia needs Western help and technologies to modernize its military, in complete contrast to the old Soviet Cold War doctrine of defense industrial self-sufficiency: "Modern military equipment is so complex, we will need foreign know-how, while continuing our own military research." (11) Today Shamanov is in charge of disbanding old-time divisions and forming new-style brigades.

Radical plans to modernize and westernize our military have met with opposition. The planned serious cuts in the number of officers have provoked fear and discontent among the rank and file. High-ranking generals also dislike the planned reform, since it demolishes the old Cold War force molded on fighting NATO. They served in such a military many years and are against a new, smaller standing army, designed by using the Western militaries as a prototype. In a recent interview, former Defense Minister (1992-1996) General Pavel Grachev summed up this widespread attitude: "In shaping reform plans we must not copy the nations that are preparing to conquer Russia." According to Grachev, Russia needs a multimillion armed force to defend itself, and any future reform must be modeled on the experience of World War II, as he recalls that in the early 1990s he successfully resisted attempts to “Americanize” our military and introduce brigades instead of divisions. (12)

In March 2008, the Russian media reported that First Deputy Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Yuri Baluyevsky, supported by other top generals of the General Staff, openly opposed plans for military reform, which were proposed by Serdyukov. This "generals' rebellion" reportedly was followed by letters of resignation in protest by top generals. (13) The Defense Ministry initially denied the existence of a "generals' rebellion" or the possibility of high-ranking resignations. Several months later, high-ranking dismissals followed. Baluyevsky was ousted in June 2008 and shifted to the Security Council - a body that in recent years has been a backwater stopover for high-ranking, ousted Russian bureaucrats before final retirement. Baluyevsky, 61, was replaced with Makarov, 58, who was handpicked for promotion by Serdyukov. In April 2007, Serdyukov appointed Makarov as deputy Defense Minister in charge of procurement and armaments. Popovkin took over Makarov's position, after the latter was promoted.

The Russian General Staff controls our military machine organizationally and operationally. Israel and Turkey have similarly powerful military bodies; other NATO member nations do not. The chief of the General Staff controls, in real time, our strategic nuclear deterrent and has, together with the President and Defense Minister, his own nuclear football. The chief of the General Staff may, in fact, be the only person in Russia with the true power to begin nuclear hostilities. Our influential military intelligence organization—the Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU—is part of the General Staff.

In July 2008, two key chiefs in the General Staff were discharged as a follow-up to Baluyevsky's ouster: The Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff General Aleksander Rukshin and the chief of Armed Forces Communications General Evgeni Karpov. Rukshin specifically was mentioned in the press as part of the "generals' rebellion" against Serdyukov's reform plans. Rukshin was also known as a hard-line general, who favored massive additional spending of Russia's newfound oil wealth to rebuild our military to face the West. Rukshin publicly supported the continuation of the Soviet concept of perimeter defenses, of "creating self-sufficient military groupings on all strategic directions," of retaining the Cold War capabilities to mobilize a mass multimillion-strong armed force (14).

The Main Operational Directorate or GOU is the core institution of the Russian General Staff and is in on-line command of our strategic nuclear deterrent, among other things. The Chief of GOU is a three star general's position. After Rukshin's ouster, General Valeri Zaparenko took over as provisional chief. In October 2008, a new young general was appointed chief of GOU–an army commander with a reputation of having "an iron fist." General Sergei Surovkin, 42, a one star general at the time of his promotion, commanded the 42nd division permanently based in Chechnya and in 2005 told journalists that he would order three Chechen rebels killed in revenge for any of his solders slain – "that will be our special account." The Russian press has reported that Surovkin has physically assaulted subordinate officers. After the unsuccessful August 1991 coup Surovkin, a battalion commander in the Tamanskaya motor-rifle division, was arrested and spent six months in prison, but later was cleared. Surovkin has a reputation for personal valor; he was wounded in fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s, also in Chechnya, and has been decorated. It’s reported that 300 senior generals and officers of GOU including Zaparenko will be ousted and Surovkin has been appointed to do the job. (15)

GRU is directly subordinate to the Chief of the General Staff and is a separate army within the armed forces. The actual personnel strength and organizational structure of GRU is a state secret in Russia, but it’s clear that it has many tens of thousands of officers and men. GRU agents perform spy operations worldwide, and GRU also commands Russian spy satellites. GRU is in command of "special radio communications brigades" that intercept foreign electronic communications and GRU gathers and analyzes intelligence information to present reports to Russia's political and military leaders. The Chief of General Staff approves the reports.

GRU, and through it the General Staff, have their own considerable independent combat capabilities – the Special Forces brigades (eight brigades at present) and smaller separate Special Forces units. Control of GRU gives the General Staff significant institutional capabilities to influence Russian defense, national security, and foreign policy decision-making.

Reports have been circulating within the Russian press that GRU is up for serious reform. It has been reported that the GRU chief, who is also deputy chief of General Staff, four-star General Valentin Korabelnikov, soon will be ousted; GRU is to be cut in size and maybe split, with parts moved out of the Defense Ministry and subordinated to the Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR – the successor of the former KGB First Main Directorate. The Special Operation brigades and units may become subordinate to the army. It was reported that Korabelnikov disagreed with these plans and had written a letter of resignation. (16)

Makarov officially has denied the reports: Korabelnikov did not write a letter of resignation, he is at present enjoying "a prearranged recess" and the Kremlin has prolonged the general's duration of active service till he is 65 – the maximum age of active military service for top generals. GRU's intelligence assets will not be handed over to the SVR and Korabelnikov will himself be in charge of reforming GRU. (17)

The Korabelnikov narrative mimics in detail the official denials of the "generals' rebellion" in the General Staff of a year before: It then also was officially announced that there were no letters of resignation, that Baluyevsky had taken a recess and that his duration of active service had been extended by the Kremlin. Indeed, today Baluyevsky continues to be in active service – in his position as deputy secretary of the Security Council.

Vitali Shlykov—an informed Defense Ministry insider and former GRU colonel, who is at present a committee chairman and member of the presidium of the Defense Ministry Public Chamber, an officially appointed consultative body—believes that GRU will be reformed drastically and cut in size. According to Shlykov, the narrative of GRU being made subordinate to the SVR is indeed nonsense, but the Special Operation units may be removed, while Korabelnikov eventually will be dismissed. Shlykov states that today, Russia's top brass, at least outwardly, is totally loyal to Serdyukov, and that "fateful" Makarov will not allow the General Staff to sabotage the radical reform plan. According to Shlykov, it is of paramount importance that GRU not only be cut in size, but eventually be removed from the General Staff completely and subordinated to a civilian Defense Minister. This will prevent the General Staff top brass from doctoring intelligence reports and manipulating Russia's defense and foreign policy decision-making.

The personnel of the Defense Ministry's General Staff, central staffs, and command structures will be cut from 21,813 to 8,500 by 2012. The announced cuts are causing "outrage" within the military, but the reforms are supported fully by Russia's political leaders and will be carried out, regardless. (18) The top brass may show outward loyalty, but there is significant discontent within the General Staff and elsewhere. Serdyukov and Makarov are disliked and, in turn, do not hide their contempt for the opposition. Makarov has stated publicly that the General Staff "has grown huge in size, but is not performing its functions," which explains why it will be slashed by 2.5 times. (19)

Recently, there were public protests about plans to merge the 67th Special Forces brigade based in a small Siberian town Berdsk with another Special Forces brigade. (20) The latest reports indicate that the 67th brigade will be disbanded, despite the protests. (21)

Serdyukov's reforms are being performed ad hoc, without a new military doctrine. The Security Council has failed to approve a prepared draft of a National Security Strategy because of reported serious disagreements. (22) The new military doctrine is scheduled to come after the Strategy at the end of 2009, but may be postponed, as the Strategy debate continues.

Shlykov contends that a new doctrine and Strategy are not essential, since such public documents in Russia are used almost exclusively for public relations exercises, while Serdyukov's reforms may continue and hopefully change our military irreversibly. Still, the absence of any public agreement on what to do and why may bring an abrupt end to this reform, as to other previous military reform attempts.

Source Notes:
(1), September 11, 2008.
(2) RIA-Novosti, September 10, 2008.
(3) RIA-Novosti, September 13, 2008.
(4) Rossiyskaya gazeta, October 15, 2008.
(5) RBK Daily, October 15.
(6) Interfax, November 19, 2008. Clarification from the author on military units: Most of the new 172 army units envisaged by the reform plan will, apparently, by separate brigades, but, apparently, some divisions may survive. The exact breakdown of the new units as well as the breakdown of the old units, the location and planned size of the new brigades as well as the location and present size of the 'old divisions' and other 'old units' ...  has not been published.
(7) Interfax, December 30, 2008.
(8) RIA-Novosti, 23 June 08.
(9), June 27, 2008.
(10) Interfax, March 19, 2009.
(11) RIA-Novosti, July 9.
(12) Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, March 20, 2009.
(13) Izvestia, Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 24 09; Trud, March 25 09.
(14) Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, February 3, 2007.
(15) Interfax, October 31, 2008.
(16) Moskovskiy komsomolets, January 9, 2009, Rossyiskaya gazeta March 17, 2009.
(17) RIA-Novosti, March 20, 2009.
(18) Kommersant, October 15.
(19) Interfax, November 19, 2008.
(20) RIA-Novosti, March 9.
(21), March 18.
(22) ITAR-TASS, March 24, 2009.


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