Five Years With Russian Defense Minister Shoigu—Only Successes?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 151

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (Source: Kommersant)

The Russian Ministry of Defense held a staff meeting on November 7, at which the focus was the fulfillment of the presidential decrees on the military from May 2012 as well as progress in the development of the Russian Armed Forces until 2020 (, November 7;, May 7, 2012). The main highlights of the meeting included speeches made by the minister of defense, Army General Sergei Shoigu; the chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov; as well as First Deputy Defense Minister Ruslan Tsalikov. Interestingly, the meeting was held on almost exactly the fifth-year anniversary of Shoigu having been appointed minister of defense, on November 6, 2012 when (RIA Novosti, November 6, 2012). And yet, nothing was mentioned about what military reform goals the defense ministry had achieved prior to 2012. That omission, perhaps deliberately, gave the strong impression that the reforms initiated in 2008 and carried out during 2009–2012 under then–minister of defense Anatoly Serdyukov and the chief of the general staff, Nikolay Makarov, are of lesser value and best be forgotten.

Shoigu’s November 7 staff meeting speech had more of an introductory nature, but also served as a summary of the other speeches. Moreover, it outlined the path ahead for the defense ministry—i.e., until 2020 ( November 7). Specifically, Shoigu called for:

  • Strengthening the Russian nuclear triad.
  • Bringing conventional forces up to a level sufficient to neutralize all military threats to the Russian Federation and protect the country’s national interests.
  • Paying special attention to equipping the Armed Forces with high-precision weapons as well as defenses against such weapons—namely, command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) in addition to electronic warfare (EW) systems.
  • Raising the number of contract soldiers to 499,200.

The defense minister concluded his remarks by emphasizing the need to be mindful of the limits imposed on the Armed Forces by budgets when solving the tasks ahead.

The most comprehensive speech of the day was given by the chief of the General Staff (, November 7). Gerasimov described what had been achieved since 2012 regarding delivered arms and equipment, increased military capabilities and exercises, and so on. Notably, he mentioned that the delivery of tactical command-and-control (C2) systems for tanks and mechanized units would begin in 2018, indicating that Moscow’s vision of a military capable of network-centric warfare has yet to be realized.

The level of detail in Gerasimov’s speech was almost overwhelming, and some of the figures are hard to verify, at least from what has been reported in open sources. However, several parts of the speech are quite interesting, among them mentions of new units set up since 2012. According to Gerasimov those include,

  • In the Western Military District (MD): A tank army staff, army corps, three mechanized divisions, one tank division and two artillery brigades.
  • In the Northern Fleet: An army corps, one Arctic brigade as well as one space and air-defense division.
  • In the Central MD: Two mechanized divisions, one tank division and one surface-to-air-missile (SAM) brigade.
  • In the Southern MD: An army staff, an army corps, two mechanized divisions, one missile brigade, one helicopter brigade, one air division and an air-defense division.
  • In the Eastern MD: An army corps, one missile brigade, one artillery brigade, one SAM brigade and one helicopter brigade.

These units mentioned in Gerasimov’s remarks correspond with what can be deduced from open sources. But the question remains whether they are fully manned and equipped. Nor is their present operational capability entirely clear. Due to the manning problems in the Russian Armed Forces (see EDM, November 8), it is most likely that the tank and mechanized divisions are not fully manned. Recently, General Mikhail Mizintsev revealed that Russia had 354,000 contract soldiers (30,000 fewer than had reportedly been serving at the end of 2016), and that this fall the military planned to call up only 134,000 conscripts (18,000 fewer than a year ago) (, October 10). Russian soldiers are regularly reported to go AWOL when their units are relocated or restructured. Additionally, the Armed Forces suffer from a lack of officers and pilots (, August 17; TASS, February 22;, February 15; Kommersant, July 10). In this context, it is worth nothing what Russian military expert Aleksandr Golts says about the new divisions in the Armed Forces. According to Golts, Moscow is returning to the Soviet practice of “cadre” units—large formations with a skeleton crew of maintenance staff and officers that are brought up to full strength during wartime mobilization with conscripts (, September 2017; see EDM, September 29, 2016).

Gerasimov also mentioned that in each regiment and brigade, two battalions are being manned with contract soldiers and one battalion is manned with conscripts. This measure is likely being taken in order to organize additional professionally manned battalion combat groups. The defense ministry has planned to organize 66 such contract-soldier formations in 2016, 115 in 2017, and 125 in 2018 (, September 29, 2015; TASS, September 14, 2016). And despite the lower figures General Mizintsev cited earlier this fall (354,000), Gerasimov again repeated that there were 384,000 contract soldiers under arms in the Russian military—i.e., the same number Shoigu gave in December 2016 (, December 22, 2016). Obviously, there seems to be some confusion within the high command about the actual numbers of contract soldiers in the Armed Forces, suggesting the military is experiencing problems with retaining them.

The last major speech was delivered by First Deputy Defense Minister Tsalikov. However, he limited his remarks largely to the steps Russia has been taking to build up military infrastructure, health care, housing for personnel and other “soft” issues (, November 7).

Overall, the November 7 staff meeting gave the impression that it was held with the express purpose of heaping praise on the current minister of defense and highlighting all that had been accomplished during his tenure so far. If true, it seems highly unlikely that Shoigu will be relieved of his post in the near term. Over the past five years that he has served at the head of the Ministry of Defense, Shoigu has clearly reversed some of the important military reform initiatives taken by his predecessor, and for better or for worse he has reintroduced some old Soviet practices into the Russian Armed Forces. It remains to be seen if that will continue, but the defense minister’s annual December address may shed some additional light on expected future development of the Russian military.