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Russia’s Armed Forces Undergoing 'Unparalleled' Transformation

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov
In the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008, Russia's political and military elites embarked on a highly ambitious program to reform and modernize the armed forces by 2020. That program envisages abandoning the mass-mobilization principle in favor of forming mobile, permanent-readiness forces, capable of reacting to the order to deploy within "one hour."

In April 2009, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Denis Blair said in unclassified written answers to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the ongoing reshaping of Russia's ground forces will enable it to "militarily dominate" most of its neighbors.

Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has been castigated by some domestic opponents who argue that his reform will destroy the Russian Army. Yet, dramatically downsizing its oversized officer corps to maximize efficiency, switching from a division-based to a brigade-based table of organization, and reforming the General Staff Academy and the system of military education pale in comparison with the huge challenges involved in modernizing its aging equipment and weapons inventory.

Many aspects of the reform agenda are so radical, far-reaching, and multifaceted that Western and Russian commentators have failed to identify the key elements. One widespread misconception is related to the affordability of the plan to downsize the officer corps by 205,000 by 2012. Since doing so will undoubtedly be very costly, especially in light of the current economic crisis, many dismissed this as another failed bid to reform the structures.

In fact, Western interpretations of these reforms have consistently underestimated key aspects of the program, assessing it primarily in terms of Russian economic potential and stressing the officer downsizing.

Many aspects of the present agenda, currently far advanced, are thus missed, ignored, or simply ridiculed as signs of impending failure. They include the speed of transferring to brigade structures; overhauling the system of military education; radically changing the General Staff Academy; introducing a civilian chaplaincy; rewriting the manuals on combat training; and focusing on noncommissioned-officer (NCO) training and testing the new structures.

'New Look'

By June 2009, the mass mobilization, division-based system had already largely disappeared. In its place, more than half the required brigades were already formed and exercises and training were geared to testing and developing these new structures.

The Russian media coined the phrase "new look" to describe these monumental changes. However, there appears to be something more going on than simply concentrating on appearance; this is no public-relations campaign.

Indeed, it is impossible to understand the ongoing transformation of the Russian armed forces by measuring it in terms of Western paradigms, such as its inability to conduct noncontact warfare, or by emphasizing the armed forces' lack of sophisticated modern weaponry.

The Russian military is changing fast; few are able to perceive the sheer breathtaking scale of these changes, and the familiar methods of assessing its conventional capabilities are passing into history. Analysts, commentators, and decision makers on all sides are unable to fit the "new look" Russian military into a familiar pattern.

One thing is clear: By the end of this year, the Russian Army will be unrecognizable.
While the main focus of the reform campaign is to produce mobile, permanent-readiness formations capable of intervention within a relatively short period, which some might perceive as a Western paradigm, in reality any improvement to Russia's conventional forces will have implications for the country's foreign and defense policies.

While it is very likely that the structures that emerge will still compare unfavorably with Western militaries, they will nonetheless meet the needs of a modern and potentially resurgent Russia, enhancing its capability to project power within its "near abroad."

What must be stressed is that the current condition of these forces is so decrepit and desperately in need of modernizing that the reform agenda will not contribute to improving "interoperability" with NATO forces for future peace support operations. Such a benevolent strategy would require both political will and intensive supporting programs agreed between Moscow and NATO.

Both are unrealistic given the shift in the geopolitical landscape after the Georgia war and the ongoing opposition in Moscow towards any future eastward expansion of the alliance. Moreover, without these programs, the lives of allied personnel could be potentially jeopardized by any ill-conceived plan to create interoperability.

Indeed, analyses of the Russian military in the wake of the Georgia conflict, which exposed many of its conventional failings, concentrated on its future military requirements in precisely this context. For instance, although one key feature of the large-scale military exercises Kavkaz 2009 in late June was to test the new brigade structures under an "antiterrorist" guise, those exercises appeared to rehearse an improved version of intervention in Georgia.


Much of the reform program also appears hurried, such as introducing widespread changes within the manning system before a revised military doctrine (expected in late 2009) is published. On August 10, President Dmitry Medvedev sent a bill to the Duma that constitutes the legal basis for future intervention by the Russian military abroad in protection of its citizens or its national interests. Until the reforms are completed, it is difficult to extrapolate policy implications, but one thing is clear: By the end of this year, the Russian Army will be unrecognizable.

The challenges are immense.

For example, can the ailing defense industry, whose weaknesses have recently been highlighted by the test failures of the new Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), meet the demands to modernize equipment and weapons? Those seemingly endless conventional requirements range from modern communications equipment to new platforms for the air force and ships and submarines for the navy -- a huge undertaking given the present severe economic constraints and the shortage of skilled defense industry engineers.

Russia may instead procure some Western weapons and equipment; it has recently concluded contracts with Israel for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and communications technology from the French defense company Thales.

There are evidently other challenges, ranging from establishing a reformed system of military education, revising combat training, and decommissioning more than 200,000 officers by 2012. The modernization of the equipment inventory will almost certainly take longer than planned.

However, one fundamental aspect that may take a generation to resolve relates to the future role of noncommissioned officers (NCOs). In essence, the delegation of decision making and a culture of promoting individual initiative embodied in the NCO concept will take considerable time, energy, and commitment in the Russian context: it is entirely new and will unsettle many traditionalists.

It is a truism that generals invariably assume the next war will be a carbon copy of the last. Since Russia's first military intervention beyond its borders in the Georgia war last year, the Russian military leadership has actively pursued an analysis of the "lessons learned" from that campaign. Granted, this partly fed into the overall effort to embark on the sweeping reforms now under way. But historically the Russian military has proven adroit in rapidly assimilating the lessons of previous conflicts or learning during the course of a larger conflagration, such as the response to Barbarossa in 1941.

The extent of the changes under way is unparalleled in the history of the Russian armed forces since the end of World War II, perhaps even earlier. Western militaries can only now begin to study and monitor these transformations, while those closer to Russia (in Central Asia, for instance) are already privately admitting new difficulties in conducting joint exercises or training. Intentionally or not, this process will undermine most NATO military training programs in the former Soviet Union.

While any comment on the policy implications is premature, it is likely that the Russian conventional armed forces will emerge in the next few years as an unrivaled dominant force within the former Soviet space; capable of sudden, decisive intervention, with minimal damage to the country's international credibility.

Meanwhile, the opportunities for the West to take advantage of this new reality may be limited to the commercial sphere, in the form of defense contracts. It is highly unlikely that the tumultuous structural shifts and modernization of the Russian military are in any sense aimed at complementing Western multilateral efforts: This is an exclusively Russian venture.

Roger McDermott is a senior fellow in Eurasian military studies at the Jamestown Foundation. His most recent article on the Russian armed forces is “Russia’s Conventional Armed Forces And The Georgian War,” (“Parameters -- U.S. Army War College Journal,” Spring 2009). The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.