The momentum of change denoting Russian military reform continues to attract widespread attention among both the critics and advocates of the “new look,” while leaving deeper issues unresolved. By December 2010, the existing six military districts (MD’s) will be replaced by four enlarged operational-strategic commands with greatly enhanced responsibility assigned to their commanders. This shift, long in the making, absent from the original detail in the reform concept first announced by Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, on October 14, 2008 illustrates that the defense ministry and General Staff are continuing to revise and adapt the “new look.” Equally, it is consistent with overall efforts to enhance and modernize command and control.
Publicly disclosed in April, perhaps to gauge the reaction, recently senior officials have elaborated in greater detail the nature of these strategic command changes. On June 8, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of the General Staff, told the Federation Council’s Defense and Security Committee that “We shall be proposing to create, on the basis of the six military districts, four military districts whose commanders will be in charge of all manpower and resources deployed in their areas, including navy, air force and air defense forces. Moreover, these forces will be directly, not operationally, subordinate to the commanders.” Thus, the country will be divided into four operational-strategic commands: West (headquarters in St. Petersburg), East (Khabarovsk), North (Yekaterinburg) and South (Rostov-on-Don). Although these will be notionally formed by December, ironing out all the details and resolving other organizational problems will take much longer. General Makarov admitted that “the period in which they will become established and coordinated will, I think, take several years” (Interfax, June 11).
Subsequent details provided in relation to the planned reorganization was consistent with reporting in April which indicated that Moscow and Leningrad MD’s and the Baltic Fleet would form the West; the Far East MD, Pacific Fleet and a number of units drawn from the Siberian MD constituting the East; the North predominantly consisting of the Siberian MD, and the South will include the North Caucasus MD, Black Sea and Caspian Fleets (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, June 12; Interfax, June 11; Interfax, April 29).
Some Russian analysts have noted that such concepts are based on the US model and are by no means innovative. Studies on the US military organizational model appeared in Zarubezhnoye Voyennoye Obozreniye in 2003, summarizing the system as being designed to subordinate forces to a commanding general and prove capable of accomplishing a wide range of missions (www.infox.ru, April 30). Indeed, as Aleksandr Khramchikhin, Deputy Director of the Moscow-based Institute for Political and Military Analysis, rightly observed, the former Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Yury Baluyevskiy, had advocated similar proposals in 2005, which was placed on the back burner after he was replaced in 2008 (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, June 3).
While the concept may well replicate the US model, its deficiencies in the Russian context are apparent. As the East operational-strategic command is formed, a number of factors will mitigate against any enhancement of the ability of the forces based there to adequately offer improved defense capabilities. For instance, the Kuril Islands are currently “protected” by the only machinegun-artillery division in the Russian armed forces, which is hardly a credible match for the potential of the Japanese military in any crisis. Moreover, Sakhalin is defended by one motor rifle brigade. General Makarov also recently used this factor to justify the possible procurement of the Mistral class amphibious assault ships from France, specifically making comment on the Kurils, and the need for defense against a possible Japanese attack (EDM, June 11). The situation is significantly worse in relation to the massive imbalance of military power in favor of China. A series of articles in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye in 2009 adequately demonstrated the widening mismatch between Russian and Chinese conventional forces (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, March 27, 2009, October 9, 2009).
Additionally, the vulnerability of the Trans-Siberian Railway to airstrikes or sabotage by Special Forces would severely restrict any capability to reinforce Russian troops in the Far East. While the reorganization of the MD’s and formation of operational-strategic commands provides a semblance that the defense reform is maintaining its momentum, it is questionable whether this quantitatively or qualitatively improves Russian military capabilities. As Khramchikhin observed: “The creation of such commands can substantially increase the effectiveness of Russian armed forces command and control, only there has to be something over which to exercise command and control. And now the Armed Forces have to be created from scratch. Only are we capable of doing this with our economic and scientific-technical potential? And if not, then what should be done in this case?” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, June 3).
Despite the publicity devoted to the transformation of the command and control structures, in reality Russia remains overly reliant upon nuclear deterrence to protect its eastern territory. Those conducting the reform prefer the focus to be placed on grand design issues, rather than allowing open discussion of the many weaknesses present within the manning system. That is precisely what Khramchikhin highlighted by saying there has to be “something” over which command and control can be exercised. Serdyukov claims that contract service is not being “abandoned,” despite the announced slashing of its budget by 86 percent, and numerous statements from senior defense officials, including General Makarov, that conscription will be relied upon to a greater extent in future (RIA Novosti, June 11).
Indeed, it is now abundantly clear that the “new look” does not include any planning to adopt a professional all-volunteer army, and will continue to be plagued by the manifold issues and challenges linked to conscripts serving for only twelve months. The timing of the announcement by Makarov on strategic command restructuring coincided with increased speculation and awareness of the many problems facing the manning system. No doubt, the publicity that will follow these plans receiving the presidential signature in due course will be further timed to divert attention away from other fundamental issues in the reform.