On November 17, an expanded session of the Russian defense ministry board met to review the results of the training year and consider future plans. The annual meeting, however, was dominated by the current reform of the armed forces and inevitably discussion gravitated towards reflecting on progress to date. Its participants included Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, the Chief of the General Staff Army-General Nikolai Makarov, the Governor of Moscow region Boris Gromov, Director-General of Rostekhnologii Sergei Chemezov, Director of the Burevestnik Central Research Institute, General Designer in artillery weapons Georgy Zakamennykh, as well as other federal officials (Interfax, ITAR-TASS, November 17).
Reportedly, Serdyukov in his introductory remarks outlined key objectives such as improving mobility and combat readiness, and said these had already been achieved. He explained that the structural reorganization of the armed forces, including forming new brigades, and a three tiered command system (military district-operational command-brigade), was nearing its completion. The mass mobilization principle had been abandoned, while he reported significant progress towards abolishing the divisional structure in the army (while preserving this within the airborne forces –VDV) and forming a brigade-based table of organization. Serdyukov noted that all brigades have been formed and are mostly 100 percent manned, though some separate units are undermanned by 2 to 5 percent. It appeared that purely “technical issues” remain in order to declare this first stage of the reform, reached formally on December 1, as successful. “Of course, this does not mean that we are fully satisfied with the results of the work. We are only saying that the work to establish a new image of the army and the navy is progressing in the right direction,” Serdyukov admitted (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, November 23). He intimated that next year the key focus will be placed on personnel and preparing a new generation of officers and NCO’s, and staging exercises in the eastern strategic direction.
This assessment was based, according to the defense minister, on a careful analysis of the main military exercises this year: Kavkaz, Lagoda and Zapad 2009, which concentrated on testing the new brigades and improving mobility and combat readiness levels. It appears that the defense ministry has highly estimated these exercises, and considers the performance of the units as an indication of success in the initial stage of the overall reform. Moreover, this was corroborated by General Makarov, who was the main speaker in the session. In fact, Makarov told the board that the time had been reduced in which permanent-readiness units and large units are able to deploy. He had first set such an objective during a lengthy press conference in Moscow on June 5. “Measures taken in 2009 have made it possible to create a new system of combat readiness of the armed forces, which is based on reducing the time within which permanent-readiness military units and large units get ready to carry out their designated objectives (from 24 hours) to one hour,” Makarov said (Kommersant, June 5; ITAR-TASS, November 17).
Serdyukov had also highlighted that all units are now outfitted with weapons and equipment. A spokesman for the Main Directorate of Combat Training explained how these forces are now able to deploy much more quickly: equipment, weapons, ammunition, and military hardware which were previously stored in depots are now kept with the units (ITAR-TASS, November 17).
While the atmosphere at the session of the defense ministry board seemed self-congratulatory, perhaps understandably so given the enormity of the task implemented this year, there were also realistic cautionary notes. The board suggested that the plan over the next three years was to progress toward possessing only permanent readiness units, which will enhance mobility and lethality. Equally, attention turned to the formation of NCO’s, rearmament as well as social issues such as housing for officers (Zvezda TV, November 17). However, it is significant that Makarov took center stage during this meeting, suggesting increased harmony between the defense ministry and the General Staff over the reforms, but highlighting his influential role.
In October, he turned 60, the retirement age for a senior officer. Any additional service would require a presidential order, most usually providing a one year extension. However, on October 13, Colonel Aleksey Kuznetsov, the acting head of the defense ministry’s press service and information directorate, confirmed that President Dmitry Medvedev had taken the unusual step of issuing a ukaz (presidential decree) to extend Makarov’s term of military service by three years: which means that he will remain in his post to oversee the most critical reform period (Interfax, October 13).
The seriousness attached to exercises and combat training, noted by Serdyukov, was largely overseen by Lieutenant-General Vladimir Shamanov when he was the head of the combat training directorate from November 2007 until May 2009. On May 26, Shamanov was appointed as the commander of the VDV and soon secured the preservation of its division-based structure. His replacement as head of the combat training directorate, Lieutenant-General Valery Yevnevich, is also a former paratrooper and decorated as a Hero of Russia (he served in an air assault brigade in the Soviet-Afghan war, and participated in storming the White House in 1993 during the standoff between President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament). Yevnevich appears to be building on Shamanov’s more rigorous approach, underscoring the defense ministry’s aim to “drastically change its approach” to combat training in light of the lessons learned from the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008 (www.newsru.com, July 16, 2006; RIA Novosti, August 10). Taken together, it provides evidence that the VDV is playing a formative role in implementing and adapting the reform plans to suit operational requirements.
Vitaly Shlykov, a member of the foreign and defense policy council correctly observed: “This is essentially a totally different army, the foundation of which was laid this year. And this is the country’s organizational victory” (Gazeta, November 20). The defense ministry session on November 17 quietly marked the passing of the mass mobilization principle and realistically discussed the achievements, problems and challenges facing the new Russian army. As the reform unfolds, combat training and changes at unit level, including developing adequately trained NCO’s that suit Russian needs, will prove more critical than the machinations of the leaders of the reform. Its critics, however, now appear mostly marginalized.