Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 7

By Dale R. Herspring

Despite opposition from the country’s generals and admirals, Russian President Vladimir Putin is moving ahead to reform the military, albeit at a much slower and incremental pace than many, both in Russia and abroad, would prefer. He has already turned the generals around (at least officially) when it comes to closer ties with the West, and he is now focusing his attention on the kind of fundamental military reform so critical to Russia’s future.

The military, after all, is in disarray. The situation is so bad that even if Putin were successful, it would take years if not decades before the Russian army [1] would be able to achieve a return even to the status of its Soviet predecessor.

Military reform faces structural and attitudinal problems. Structural, because both personnel and weapons systems are nothing short of a disaster. Attitudinal, because many of the country’s generals and admirals continue to live in the past. They refuse to recognize that Russia is no longer a superpower; the Cold War for them is as real today as it was twenty years ago.


The military now has about a million men under arms–in what is primarily a conscript army. Problems, however, abound. Hazing [dedovshchina] is rampant. Large numbers of soldiers desert–latest figures suggest 2,265 missing soldiers–or are even killed because of it. Hazing is one of the major reasons why many young men will do almost anything to avoid military service.

The conscripts who do serve often represent the “bottom of the barrel.” To provide only a few examples: 12 percent of those recently drafted are alcoholics, and 8 percent have used drugs. Seven percent have only primary education, over 30 percent lack a secondary education and 40 percent have not worked or studied prior to joining the army. [2] Even worse, only 11 percent of draftees are fit for military service. [3]

Discipline has broken down. Stories of soldiers leaving their units with weapons–and turning them on their officers or anyone else they encounter–are legion. And such problems are not limited to conscripts. More than 100 generals and admirals are under investigation for corruption and embezzlement. Indeed, Chief of the General Staff General Anatoly Kvashnin stated that the armed forces are “bogged down in embezzlement and corruption,” and went on to say that the situation within the military was “beyond critical.” [4]

Then there is the nightmare that is Chechnya. The ineptness of the Russian military in that war demonstrates very clearly how serious its personnel and equipment problems have become. The vast majority of young men are terrified at the thought of serving in Chechnya where they face the very real prospect of coming home in a body bag. Personnel problems are not restricted to conscripts. Junior officers cannot wait until they are eligible to leave the service, and they are doing so in droves–not surprising when a senior lieutenant makes 2,600 rubles, less than a cleaner’s pay. [5] Forty-six percent of servicemen’s families live below the poverty line. [6]

The military has tried to address this problem with a “contract soldiers” program, in which individuals who agree to serve for a certain period of time are given special training and higher pay in return.

Housing is also a major problem. There isn’t enough for officers, let alone for enlisted men and those who are about to retire. In the Russian military, retirees warrant apartments as part of their reward for service to the Motherland. Moscow’s best guess is that it will be ten years before housing will be available for serving officers, and that is the optimistic prediction. In the meantime, many officers have to live in tents with their families despite the cold winter weather.

As far as equipment is concerned, the outlook is equally bleak. Nothing seems to work. In Chechnya the army has been forced to rely on weapons that in some cases were last used in World War II. Ships are tied up for lack of fuel. Last year, for example, this writer was part of an official delegation headed by Admiral Dennis Blair (CINCPAC) that visited the Russian Far East. We were told that only one Russian ship had been to sea–from the Pacific Fleet–in the previous year. Ships sitting in port are rusting for lack of paint and to make matters worse, many of the nuclear submarines are tied up–unguarded–and rusting because there are insufficient funds to dismantle them safely. When the Russian Navy does try to go to sea it has run into disasters such as the sinking of the submarine Kirsk, an event that revealed just how bad the situation in the navy has become.

The situation in the air force is not much better. Pilots need an average of 150 hours per year to remain proficient, but in the Russian Air Force, with the exception of those serving in Chechnya, they are lucky to get fifteen to twenty. Russian planes lack spare parts (and are often rented out to smugglers and businessmen), resulting in increasingly frequent crashes. Land, sea or air, the combat readiness of Russian conventional forces is at an all-time low.

The situation among nuclear forces is only slightly better. Readiness is higher, but there have been problems even among those who service these weapons. Command and control problems are serious and storage facilities for nuclear weapons, which need to be maintained at a particular temperature in a special environment, are also plagued with difficulties. The breakdown in Russian nuclear capabilities is one of the reasons why Moscow has become so interested in strategic arms limitation agreements–the majority of its nuclear arsenal is becoming inoperable.

So what has Putin done? First, it should be noted, Putin is a bureaucrat. He approaches problems in an incremental manner–and nowhere is this clearer than in the military. Those who expected a new version of the previous “military reform plans” were disappointed. Instead of coming out with a new plan, Putin began by pecking away at the inefficient military bureaucracy. To start things off, he appointed Sergei Ivanov, purportedly the second strongest politician in Russia, as the country’s defense minister.

First, Putin and Ivanov successfully combined the air force and the air defense forces as a way of avoiding redundancy and saving money. Second, and for the same reasons, they combined the Trans-Baikal and Siberian Military Districts. In the face of opposition from many generals who still dream of Russia as a superpower, they continue to push for a smaller military. (Figures differ, but Russia appears to have a military of about a million.) More important, on November 21, 2001, Putin endorsed a plan for the gradual transformation of the army into a professional force to be staffed by volunteers. According to this plan, the military will be fully professional by 2010. [7]

The Kremlin also announced that Russia will close two of its three overseas bases–Lourdes in Cuba and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. Putin’s supporters justified this action by arguing that it would save the country the US$4 million a year rent Moscow was paying Cuba (and which Vietnam expected in the future). For their part, the generals and admirals saw this as a further retreat from their vision of Russia as a great power.


No event has had a greater impact on Putin’s relations with the military than September 11. Putin seized on the terrorist attack to take the Russian military to the woodshed. For example, on September 24, 2001 he had a meeting with senior officers and made it clear that he expected an end to military opposition to increased–and more open–cooperation with the Americans in the war on terror, and especially the expected war in Afghanistan. Senior officials in the Bush administration told this writer that Putin’s message was received “loud and clear” by the military, and that Russian assistance in the war in Afghanistan was extremely useful, if not critical.

Similarly, Putin took on the military over NATO, which many if not most of the country’s generals and admirals regard as a hostile organization. Putin did not end military opposition to Russian flirting with NATO, but he certainly made it clear that he expected more normal relations with the organization. Putin also took the generals on over theater nuclear defense, as advocated by the Bush administration. From the generals’ standpoint, TND threatens not only to neutralize Russia’s nuclear deterrent, but also to widen the gap in the technological arms race as a result of spin-offs it generates. But Putin decided to look the other way, even if he expresses displeasure at times.

Whatever their misgivings about Putin’s foreign policy line, the generals reserve their strongest opposition for his efforts to reform the military itself. One senior Russian commentator expressed frustration to this writer at the slow pace of reform. “The generals have dug in their feet in this area, ” he complained. “They do not want a professional military. It would not only deprive them of free, conscript labor to work on their dachas. They also fear that it would lead to a thinning out of the country’s top-heavy officer corps. As a consequence they have worked hard to undermine Putin’s effort to move to a professional military. This is why the results of the experiment with the 76th Airborne division in Pskov were so predictable.”

The all-professional staffing of the 76th airborne division in Pskov was supposed to be a test of the new system. But after a short trial, General Vasily Smirnov stated that such a division was an impossibility. It would cost too much, he said, in salaries as well as enhanced infrastructure such as housing, stores, medical services and schools, [8] things that are critical in attracting professionals. The message–keep a conscript military.

One theory has it that the generals know Putin must leave office by 2010, so they will be able to keep their conscript army if they can keep throwing up obstacles until then. In 2010, however, they will run into intractable demographics: There will not be enough Russian males to fill a draft by that time.

Reform of the Russian military is a long-term process. For example, Russian leaders acknowledge that it will be six to eight years before the military begins to receive modern weapons. In the meantime, it will have to make do with modernizing the weapons it has. Putin’s hope is that in six to eight years, when the new weapons come into commission, the military will have made the organizational and attitudinal changes necessary to make maximum use of them.

Meanwhile, Putin appears to be tightening the screws on the military. In spite of the failure of the contract army to solve the military’s problems, at a recent Security Council meeting he continued to insist on the importance of the transition to a professional military. Indeed, he stood his ground and criticized the generals, and on August 8 Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin reiterated Putin’s comment that military reform is very high on his agenda. Noted Russian commentator Alexander Golts was right when he suggested that Putin is increasingly tired of defense-ministry excuses for failures in military reform. [9]

Putin is a different kind of leader. He may lack flash and glamour, and he does not try to change things overnight, but he understands the critical nature of the Russian military for both internal and external reasons. Whether or not he is presented with another catalytic event like September 11, he will continue to press the unhappy generals to make the kinds of changes he believes are critical to Russia’s future.


1. In Russian fashion, the army refers to all three services: the army, the navy and the air force.

2. “Russian MPs say army desertion mirrors criminal trends in society,” ITAR-TASS, June 18, 2002; win@apollo.fedworld.gov, June 19, 2002.

3. “Just 11 Percent of Draftees Fit for Service,” RFE/RL Daily Report, July 11, 2002.

4. Alexander Golts, “Hide-and-Seek in the Manner of Generals,” Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, No. 23, June 18, 2002; Johnson’s List, June 21, 2002.

5. “Military Salaries,” Moskovsky Komsomolets, June 20, 2002; Johnson’s List, June 21, 2002.

6. Pavel Felgenhauer, “Leaking, Lobbying, Looting,” Moscow Times, July 18, 2002; Johnson’s List, July 18, 2002.

7. “Putin Signals Staffing Change in the Russian Military,” The Monitor, November 26, 2001.

8. Felgenhauer, “Leaking, Lobbying, Looting.”

9. Alexander Golts, “The Final Excuses for Army Corruption,” The Russia Journal, June 7-13, 2002; Johnson’s List, June 9, 2002.

Dale Herspring is a political science professor at Kansas State University and a member of the Council of Foreign Relations.