In early December 2018, Army General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the General Staff and First Deputy Defense Minister gave his annual address to foreign military attachés in Moscow. His overall message was sober, assessing the challenges within the international security system as well as the negative roles played by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). At the same time, he outlined the advances in Russian military capability, while highlighting some of the ways to enhance this further. Gerasimov, of course, is experienced in delivering such addresses, knowing that his message often receives widespread coverage in foreign media and analytical circles. Alongside Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the current Russian defense “tandem” has been in place for over six years. At the outset, Gerasimov declared, “The contemporary international situation is characterized by growing potential for conflict in relations between the main centers of strength” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, December 25, 2018).
He justified this assertion in terms of the “crisis phenomena” spreading within the global economy, portraying increased tensions over several types of resources, including energy and water. Gerasimov also suggested an increase in international terrorism and radical extremism before turning to the “main source” of destructive factors in the international security system, identified as US efforts to “preserve its dominance” and “exclude competition by other countries.” He then attacked the Transatlantic alliance: “NATO’s answer to a supposedly mounting threat from Russia is to expand its military presence near our borders. In East European states, the number of response force subunits is increasing, elements of missile defense are being built, and forward airfields have been prepared. The logistics for cross-border military movements are being developed, a system for advance stockpiling of weaponry and assets is being created.” While his message contains familiar elements, Gerasimov particularly seemed to play up the US and NATO threat to Russia, even highlighting the huge disparity in comparing the defense budgets in Washington and Moscow (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, December 25, 2018).
But if Russia indeed faces such threats to its security, what does Moscow plan to do about it? In particular, Gerasimov outlined ongoing military modernization. He explained the various advances in modernizing the nuclear deterrent, enhancing aerospace defense, improving air defense with more S-400 systems and noting that work continues on modern hypersonic precision missile systems such as the Kinzhal. Also, in the conventional Armed Forces, Gerasimov noted the need to further improve command and control and Electronic Warfare capability. The military modernization plans are on course, with key targets being met and a promise to achieve 70 percent modern or new weapons and equipment by 2020: “Overall, the state defense order of this year enabled more than 30 formations and military units to be equipped in full. The proportion of contemporary weaponry in the forces amounted to 61.5 percent. By the end of 2020, this figure will be raised to 70 percent,” he explained. Sharpening the military dagger, in Gerasimov’s view, will depend on introducing more high-precision weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles and military robotics (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, December 25, 2018).
The following month, on January 15, a similar upbeat message on military modernization was underscored by Defense Minister Shoigu, presenting a few statistics to support this theme. Shoigu said that more than 1.44 trillion rubles ($22 billion) would be spent on equipping the Russian army in 2019. Around 71 percent of this amount will procure purchases of the latest weapons models. And by the end of the year, the total share of modern or new equipment in the military inventory will rise to 67 percent. The defense ministry also plans to invest more in construction and housing, with up to 25,000 soldiers able to purchase housing in the coming year (Izvestia, January 15, 2019).
Nonetheless, when it comes to precise figures, it is here that Gerasimov offered his most puzzling remark. In recent years, the defense ministry has sought to achieve a set of annual targets designed to raise the overall number of contract personnel (kontraktniki) serving in the Armed Forces and therefore reduce dependence upon conscripts. After stating that manning levels are maintained at 95–100 percent, Gerasimov asserted, “The number of servicemen under contract has been raised to 384,000. This has led to a tangible qualitative increase in subunits’ combat capabilities. Transition to a new system for recruiting contract servicemen to combined-arms formations and also Naval Infantry formations and the Airborne Troops has enabled them to possess the required number of Battalion Tactical Groups ready to immediately set about performing their designated function” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, December 25, 2018). Unfortunately, what most of the Russian media and many Western observers missed is that Gerasimov’s figure has remained the same (384,000 kontraktniki) over the past two years (Livejournal, December 5, 2018). The figure offered, presented as evidence that targets are being met as part of implementing a relentless shift in favor of contract personnel simply fails to correspond to this image. In fact, it inadvertently draws attention to the failure of the defense ministry to offer detail on the numbers of kontraktniki that leave the Armed Forces each year, or precise figures on the various length of contracts involved and how these are totalled.
Reflecting on the achievements of Russia’s Armed Forces in 2018, Gerasimov highlighted two important areas: the use of the operations in Syria for Russian officers and enlisted personnel to gain invaluable combat experience and the operational-strategic exercise Vostok 2018. Praising the Vostok exercise for its size, scope and the inclusion of military personnel from China, Gerasimov noted that, in addition to improving command and control and operational planning, it focused on the following: “To work through the training issues a hypothetical scenario was created, based on an escalating confrontation between two coalitions of hypothetical states. A distinguishing feature of the maneuvers was the bilateral format in which they were held, not only at the strategic but also at the operational and tactical levels of command and control. Regrouping of forces over great distances was practiced” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, December 25, 2018).
Gerasimov’s most interesting observation appears, therefore, to relate to the nature of the Vostok scenario: it was rooted in preparing force-on-force combat, or indeed was a rehearsal for large-scale inter-state warfare. It is a pattern in the annual strategic exercises in recent years. But in the context of Gerasimov’s anti-US and anti-NATO theme, it is clear as to the identity of the “hypothetical” opponent.