Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 26

Military reform, an oxymoron in Russia

by Stanislav Lunev

The shortcomings of the Russian Army, recently on displayto all the world courtesy of the Chechen war, are inherited. Backin 1992 the "new" military force of the Russian Federationwas established in place of the Unified Armed Forces of the Commonwealthof Independent States. But the new Armed Forces of the RussianFederation adopted the same old obsolete principles. And likeits predecessor, the Soviet military, Russia’s Armed Forces suitneither the conditions inside the country nor the current internationalsituation.

As the newspaper Segodnya noted, the former Soviet army,which had dominated Europe in the decades following World WarII, had become the strongest military machine in the world bythe mid-1970s, especially after America turned more isolationistfollowing the debacle of the Vietnam War. (1) But from that timeon, as Western countries surged ahead into the era of "smart,"super-accurate weapons, the Soviet military grew weaker. By thesecond half of the 1980s, it was clear that the Soviet militaryhad lost its air superiority when, in Afghanistan, it could notfind an effective countermeasure to the American "Stinger"anti-aircraft missiles.

The Soviet Army of the eighties was a direct descendent of thatgreat army which prevailed in the tank battles of the Second WorldWar. Four decades later, Soviet military training academies continuedto emphasize the massive tank blows which had brought victory,noting that all other branches of the armed forces had playedonly an auxiliary role — aviation covered the tank armada fromthe air, the navy guarded the sea flanks, and paratroopers engagedthe enemy’s rear units. But the main function belonged to thetanks.

As a result of adherence to this long-obsolete military doctrine,the former Soviet Army had too many tanks and a poorly trainedinfantry. By end of the 1980s, the former Soviet Army had ceasedto be a classic mobilization army, like the European armies ofthe first half of the twentieth century, but at the same time,had not yet become a modern professional army.

Attempts to reform the military of the former USSR had not beensuccessful. The last attempt, in the fall of 1991, was led bycurrent Deputy Defense Minister General Konstantin Kobets, whoat the time was chairman of the Military Reform Committee underthe State Council of the USSR. General Kobets’ reasonable proposalswere not supported by either Mikhail Gorbachev nor Boris Yeltsin,who, at that time, were preoccupied by their political struggle.

In early 1992, the newly-appointed minister of the newly-createdMinistry of Defense, General Pavel Grachev, unveiled plans toundertake large-scale military reform. In the course of two tothree years, he intended to substantially cut the size of thearmed forces without diminishing its readiness; to transform themilitary so that it corresponded with new geopolitical conditions;and to substantially increase the prestige of the armed forces.

Four years later, it is clear that Grachev’s reform effort hasnot achieved any of those goals. And although Russia’s politicaland military leaders have not publicly acknowledged it, they haveprivately admitted that military reform has failed, accordingto the pro-reform newspaper, Novaya ezhednevnaya gazeta.(2)This newspaper recently published confidential materialsfrom a closed Defense Ministry conference held at the end of 1994to examine the results of the initial attempts to reform the military.The experts agreed that the first stage of reform (1992-1993)had had a very negative impact on the readiness of Russian troops.The conference attendees emphasized that military units and sub-unitswere manned at only 40 to 50 percent of full strength, materialand technical supply was cut by 60 percent, and only two to threedivisions in each military district and three to four detachmentsof ships in each fleet could be called even comparatively ready.

The newspaper blamed General Grachev and his closet associatesfor the failure of military reform. The generals had based theirplan on a dynamic and growing economy, and on the expectationthat the armed forces would enjoy a stable funding base. Theydid not foresee how the country’s severe economic problems wouldeffect their plans. But in fact, high inflation and lower productionlevels in the military-industrial complex resulted in large militarybudget deficits: The 1992-1993 military budget covered only one-thirdof actual defense spending.

Moreover, the newspaper emphasized, the Ministry of Defense didnot take into account spending on so-called peacekeeping forces.As a special audit has shown, in 1993, the cost of keeping Russiantroops in Abkhazia was about two billion rubles per day;in Tajikistan–15 billion. Maintaining just one peacekeeping detachmentfor one day cost approximately 1 billion rubles. The newspapernoted that the costs associated with the withdrawal of troopsfrom Germany and the Baltic states, actions which had proceededmore quickly than had been anticipated, were also not taken intoaccount.

All the failures enumerated by the newspaper were practical andfinancial miscalculations by Russia’s supreme military command.And then in 1994, another major miscalculation was made: the militaryagreed to deploy troops in Chechnya. While the defense ministerwas promising President Yeltsin that the military could delivera swift and painless victory in Chechnya, the military commandersknew that the armed forces were weak. A few of the generals knewthat even the elite airborne units, operating at 85 percent oftheir normal strength and considered the only units fit for militaryaction, were forced to send composite, hastily-formed units toChechnya. They must have known what the outcome would be.

According to the commander of airborne troops, General YevgenyPodkolzin, the airborne troops could spare only a third of itsparatroopers for the war in Chechnya. (3) The rest of the troopswere needed to train reinforcements or to guard military basesand warehouses, or were new conscripts who had not even been trained.Naval infantry battalions consisted of officers who lacked infantrytraining and who had been hastily whisked away from their ships.(Nonetheless, these battalions were rather successful in the warin Chechnya in the winter of 1995.) And the so-called kontraktniki(contract soldiers), notorious for their looting in Chechnya,turned out to less capable fighters than the paratroopers, navalinfantrymen, and or even the recent draftees.

On the whole, the Chechen war clearly demonstrated that reformof the Russian armed forces, which had been triumphantly announcedby Russia’s leadership several years earlier, was nothing buta myth.

In his annual address to the parliament last February 13th, PresidentBoris Yeltsin said that "the realization of the plans wouldbecome the foundation of a highly-capable Russian army — relativelysmall, but well-equipped, both in personnel and in modern weapons."Yeltsin was either much too optimistic, or he was referring tosome other army.

Even the promises made by President Boris Yeltsin in his speechon June 28, 1995 at the reception in the Kremlin for graduatesof the military academies, do not correspond to reality. In thisspeech, the Russian president said he believes the strategic nuclearforces are the primary guarantor of the country’s national security,and so he favors their preservation and their improvement.

Yeltsin also spoke in favor of the creation of a rapid reactionforce based on the airborne troops, which could be quickly deployedto the site of a possible conflict, including on the territoryof the Russian Federation. He also expressed hope that the recoveryof the Russian economy, would, as early as next year, permit anincrease in defense spending.

There is no evidence that these most recent professions of a commitmentto reform and improve Russia’s armed forces should be taken seriously.The reforms which Yeltsin says he supports are the same improvementswhich in theory should have been completed in 1992-93. Notablyabsent is any mention of plans for establishing civilian controlover the military, without which real reform is impossible.In fact, it is the lack of civilian control which has hinderedthe process of rebuilding the armed forces.

Defense minister Pavel Grachev and chief of the Russian GeneralStaff, General Mikhail Kolesnikov, hold diametrically oppositeviews on this subject. General Kolesnikov supports the idea ofreturning to the structure of the Russian and German armies priorto the First World War, when the General Staffs of these armieswere independent and subordinate only to their respective monarchs.That is, he advocates transferring the function of the suprememilitary command to the General Staff and giving it the responsibilityfor developing and implementing Russia’s long-range strategicplans to guarantee national security and for the administrationof the military.

In this situation, the functions of the Ministry of Defense wouldbe reduced to providing material and technical support and financingfor the troops and coordination with the military-industrial complex.

Such a structure would allow for the appointment of a civilianto the post of defense minister–for example, the current FirstDeputy Defense Minister Andrei Kokoshin, about whom rumors havebeen circulating in the Russian political elite since early 1992.

The possibility of a civilian occupying the post of defense ministerdoes not sit well with Pavel Grachev, of course, who relies onhis "special" relations with the president to preventthis option from being considered. On the contrary, Grachev insistson a significant expansion of his ministry’s authority, in particular,by placing other Russian armed formations, such as the BorderTroops, the Interior Ministry troops, and units of the Ministryof Emergency Situations, under the jurisdiction of the Ministryof Defense.

The two most highly-placed military leaders also do not see eyeto eye on other organizational questions which have a direct bearingon the fundamental course of military reform. The defense ministerfavors reorganizing and strengthening the centralized controlof the military command, and increased funding from the Federationgovernment.

The chief of the General Staff is proposing just the opposite.He supports so-called "regional troop decentralization"in order to shift the burden of funding and supplying of materialsand technical support to the local authorities in the regionswhere Russian troops are deployed.

And until a single approach to this problem is worked out, therewill be no progress on reforming the Russian armed forces.

The present military and political leadership of the country istrying to find a way to reinforce the status quo between the pro-governmentpolitical groups, the Russian war machine and the military-industrialcomplex. They are attempting to exclude the military from exertingany direct influence on political events in the country, especiallyin crisis situations. In this respect, the personality of thepresent Defense Minister, who is directly responsible for thefailure of Russian military reform, is the most suitable one forthe Yeltsin regime.

Both in the Moscow and the foreign mass media, numerous articleshave mentioned President Yeltsin’s intention to remove Pavel Grachevfrom the post of defense minister, since he is responsible forthe decline of the army, the military failures in Chechnya, theincompetent management of the troops, and other failures. ButGrachev’s unpopularity, both in the army and in political circles,makes him perfectly suited for his post. In reality he is irreplaceablein the current political situation.

As events in Russia have shown, the country’s political leadershipdoes not have the ability, nor the inclination, to seriously reformthe Russian military. Therefore, no defense minister would beable to dramatically improve military readiness, and thereby winfor the president the support of the armed forces. In the absenceof any real improvements in the military, it is critically importantthat the Russian president have a military leader who is personallydevoted to him, and who has full control over, and the loyaltyof, the four or five elite divisions deployed near Moscow. Thusneither Pavel Grachev’s constant assurances of his loyalty tothe president, nor the fact that he has remained at his post inspite of all his mistakes, needs any explanation.

Reform remains a myth. Instead of the promised small, professionalarmy, the government has actually increased the size of the army,navy and air force by drafting more young Russians and lengtheningthe time they must serve. The plan to staff the army with professionalsoldiers has not even reached an experimental stage. And in lieuof

forming effective mobile forces which could react in explosivesituations, the small group of elite divisions deployed aroundMoscow is being strengthened and gradually transformed into theruling regime’s Praetorian Guard.

But as for the rest of the Russian armed forces, the governmentcan ensure that they are pre-occupied with their own problemscaused by inadequate funding, and is restraining them from independentpolitical activity. The results of the government’s actions arealready obvious: Over the last few years of so-called militaryreform, hundreds of thousands of the best-trained and most competentofficers and generals have left the army, and have been replacedby poorly trained and less competent people who are devoted tothe country’s highest military and political leadership.

Stanislav Lunev was formerly a Colonel in Soviet Military Intelligence[GRU].


1. Segodnya, August 18, 1995

2. Novaya ezhednevnaya gazeta, No. 36, 1995

3. Segodnya, August 18, 1995