On June 2, the Russian General Staff announced a wholesale reorganization of the Russian military, creating two new military districts centered around Moscow and St. Petersburg, an Azov naval district and two new joint forces along Russia’s western border. This plan effectively scraps the reforms of Anatoly Serdyukov from a decade ago, restores Soviet patterns of military organization and puts Moscow in a position to wage offensive war along a broad front from Finland to Moldova (Vz.ru, June 5; Iz.ru, June 6, , ). The plans were described by Colonel-General Yevgeny Burdinsky, deputy head of the Russian General Staff, in the Defense Ministry journal, Voennyye komissariaty Rossii, giving specific context to ideas originally laid out by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in December 2022 (Interfax, December 21, 2022; Vz.ru, Iarex.ru, RT, June 2).
Russian commanders have long been deeply unhappy with the reforms from former Russian Defense Minister Serdyukov that eliminated the Moscow and Leningrad military districts, focused on the development of regional structures while reducing the number of districts to four and the number of tanks in Russian units, as well as put the Russian military in a position to defend against attacks but not to launch any offensives. In many ways, these changes reversed Soviet doctrine and organization. The combination of the Russian military’s difficulties in Ukraine, the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to include Finland—which adjoins the Russian Federation in the northwest—and the deterioration of relations between the Kremlin and the West has led to more talk in Moscow about a war much wider than the one in Ukraine (Military.pravda.ru, June 3; Politnavigator.net, June 5). Altogether, these considerations gave the Russian commanders their chance: The new reforms are the result.
Since the announcement of the reforms, most Russian commentary about these innovations has focused on the problems that the Serdyukov-designed Russian military has had in Ukraine. After all, by blaming the former defense minister, they hope to shield Shoigu and his boss, President Vladimir Putin, from criticism (Military.pravda.ru, June 3). But an increasing number are suggesting that the need to redesign Russia’s military reflects a sensible response to NATO expansion or even puts Russia in a position to launch a war against what they see as the increasingly offensive-minded Western alliance. Some have even suggested that these new arrangements show that Moscow is preparing for such an offensive war (Politnavigator.net, June 5).
Those articles come from supporters of Putin and his war against Ukraine. Yet, perhaps the most intriguing commentary about the reforms comes from a Kremlin critic, Anatoly Nesmiyan, who blogs under the screen name “El Murid.” He makes two key points (Kasparov.ru, June 2). On the one hand, El Murid says, the latest Russian moves are intended to improve the Russian military’s combat capabilities; however, he argues that making these changes while fighting a war will be almost impossible and may compromise the Defense Ministry’s goals. Expanding the army and reorganizing it at the same time, the critic stipulates, will make it almost impossible to achieve the qualitative improvements in weaponry and command that the Russian military so clearly needs. In short, the Russian military does need to reform, but trying to do that while fighting a war is a recipe for disaster.
On the other hand, El Murid continues, perhaps the most important aspect of these reforms is not the creation of new structures in Ukraine, or along the western border of Russia, but rather the restoration of two special military districts in the capitals. (They were disbanded in 2010.) That shows, he says, that “it is into them that most of the resources are going to be poured, quite possibly at the expense of others.” He provocatively argues that this reflects the fact that the Kremlin “already understands that it will be problematic for it to keep the entire country and is preparing for disintegration—or at least rapid regionalization and partial collapse along the periphery” (Kasparov.ru, June 2).
“This by the way,” the Kremlin critic says, “is why no one is going to provide help to Belgorod [or other regions that may be attacked]. It has decided to sacrifice them while retaining the central territories in check.” That makes sense because “Russia is a capital-centric country, and control over the capitals ensures the legitimacy of power, even if it is purely symbolic.” The Russian commentator gives the example of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad who “controls only his own palace in Damascus” but nonetheless is viewed as president of that country. He adds that Putin is counting on much the same understanding from his countrymen and the world. At the very least, that will keep those within his regime in line and the new military districts will protect them. After all, they “do not intend to leave and they have nowhere to go.”
But this obsessive focus on the capitals with the creation of special military districts may backfire on the Kremlin, El Murid says. Those who live outside these capitals with their special defenses “need to understand right now that no one is going to help them in anything, let alone take serious actions to help them.” They must realize that they are “all by themselves. The regime did not give a damn about them in peacetime” (Kasparov.ru, June 2). And now at a time of war, it is clear that if anything, it cares even less. If Russians beyond the Ring Road draw those conclusions and decide that the besieged fortress the Kremlin talks about does not really include them, the consequences for the future of the Russian Federation could be dire indeed.
El Murid probably overstates this risk at least in the immediate future, but the fact that it exists at all means that the likelihood the Kremlin really is planning a broad attack to the west, a possibility Moscow military analyst Konstantin Sivkov treats as a near certainty, is perhaps even greater (Politnavigator.net, June 5). And that in turn means that what may appear to some as a minor bureaucratic rearrangement within the ranks of the Russian military may well be a harbinger of far larger and more significant developments.