North Caucasus Reality Check on Russian Military Reform

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 11 Issue: 5

Although the second anniversary of the Russia-Georgia War was marked by little sense of euphoria in Moscow, the operational lessons drawn by the Russian military resulted in the current reform of the armed forces being closely associated with the Five Day War (EDM, August 9). Nevertheless, two years into that reform, many analysts in Moscow are questioning whether Russia is now better placed to conduct such operations, or if it could militarily respond to an escalation of the ongoing insurgency in the North Caucasus.
A critical article published in August in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye by Alexander Khramchikhin, Deputy Director of the Moscow-based Institute for Political and Military Analysis, considered the impact of Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov’s, reform on the combat capabilities and readiness of Russian military forces in the North Caucasus military district (MD). Admitting that the problems besetting the Russian army formed over many years, making a sudden reversal in its standards unlikely, Khramchikhin concluded: “In general, after two years our prospects have not become a bit brighter than in August 2008, even as applied to the war against Georgia. The improvement in the command and control system is purely virtual for now, but the officer reduction and weakened combat potential are quite real” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye,, August 13).
Among the many reasons for this disparity between the claims made by the Russian political and military leadership about the “progress” of the reform and the actual condition of the armed forces, Khramchikhin cited the slowness to modernize equipment and weapons and officer reductions which had negatively impacted on capabilities and readiness levels. Yet, the recent suicide bombing attack on a military base in Dagestan, paradoxically confirmed Khramchikhin’s analysis and raised questions about the ability of the North Caucasus MD to deploy forces during a sudden crisis. The suicide bombing in the 136th Motorized Rifle Brigade near Buinaksk, Dagestan on September 5, claimed the lives of four soldiers and left more than 35 injured (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 6).
Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, dispatched Serdyukov to the region, highlighting the seriousness of the incident. Serdyukov’s provisional findings, as the investigation into the attack continues, conforms to a standard pattern: identify scapegoats and make reference to the need to enhance security. However, its detail suggests that the authorities are hurriedly rectifying lax security and reveals other troubling factors. The reform resulted in reducing the number of military medics by a factor of four, while attempting to civilianize doctor posts, overlooking the fact that civilian doctors are often reluctant to serve in trouble spots. When the attack on the 136th Motorized Rifle Brigade occurred, there were reportedly no medics to be found, consequently many of the wounded soldiers were sent to a local civilian clinic, rather than a military hospital, and doctors were moved to Buinaksk from Rostov-na-Donu. The medical response to the emergency appeared to confirm that there is currently a shortage of experienced medical officers prepared to work in combat conditions (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 9).
Moreover, the authorities are considering prosecuting the battalion commander whose soldiers were the victims of the high-profile attack, for criminal negligence. The suicide bomber, named by Dagestan’s interior ministry as 26 year old Zamir Terekbayev, driving an explosives packed Zhiguli, rammed the main gate and headed towards the tent encampment, aiming at maximizing the numbers of casualties. A series of attempts were made to stop his vehicle, all involving contract personnel, rather than conscripts, with one kontraktniki positioning a truck to block his initial route. Security personnel finally opened fire, and reportedly killed the driver, but the out-of-control vehicle continued to close in on the tents where soldiers slept. Another kontraktniki drove a GAZ 66 truck to bar its way, and consequently the blast (with a yield of 30 kilograms of TNT) occurred on the outskirts of the base. Serdyukov, the North Caucasus MD procuracy investigation committee and local authorities believe that a number of basic security violations contributed to the success of the attack. These included the lack of roadblocks and other means of protection, such as trenches. The defense ministry also ordered an inspection of the base, which prompted the sudden arrival of an excavator, concrete blocks and other means to improve base security (Vremya Novostei, September 10).
These measures will heighten the security of local military personnel, but the lack of medics and problems in developing the necessary supporting structures including civilian doctors may take longer to remedy. It is not a coincidence that the fast acting soldiers in the incident in Dagestan were contract personnel, while the Russian armed forces persist in being swamped by conscripts serving for twelve months. Prior to the attack, there were plans to transform the existing six military districts into four operational-strategic commands (OSK’s) by December 1, 2010 (West, Center, South and East) forming six new brigades and three combined-arms armies, one in St.Petersburg, another in Chita (East OSK) and the other located near Maikop (capital of Adyghea). However, as Khramchikhin observed, the south OSK will incur the least reorganization, essentially encompassing the former North Caucasus MD with the subordination of the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla, and the bases in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the 102nd Russian military base at Gyumri. The new combined-arms army based near Mayop will have all mountain brigades in the North Caucasus subordinated to it, as well as the Russian group of forces in Abkhazia. Russian defense ministry sources link these changes to the instability in the North Caucasus, hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 and the continued “threat” from Georgia (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, August 25, September 4; Interfax, September 3).
Some Russian analysts point to longer term improvements, such as Igor Korotchenko, editor of Natsionalnaya Oborona, who expects the quantity of new weapons and equipment in the North Caucasus to gradually rise in 2011 to 2014. Korotchenko pointed to new project-636 diesel submarines, to be delivered to the Black Sea Fleet, armed with the high-precision Club-S weapons system, which may allow the Russian armed forces to deliver surgical strikes against Georgian infrastructure in order to repel any “aggression.” “Furthermore, the strike capabilities of the groups of Russian troops stationed in the North Caucasus region could be boosted by Club-K container missile systems, mounted on road and rail vehicle platforms, entering service,” Korotchenko suggested (RIA Novosti, August 12; see: Yet, without sufficient numbers of medics and supporting medical services the ability of Russian forces to deploy will remain limited.