Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 3

Russia is still unable to reach a consensus on military reform

By Stanislav Lunev

The dramatic state of affairs in the Russian armed forces is attracting more and more attention. Boris Yeltsin signed a new decree in February, cutting the Russian army to 200,000 men. Earlier, during the height of the presidential campaign, he officially proclaimed the need for military reform. Correspondingly, Yeltsin decreed that the army be put on an all-volunteer basis by 2000, and literally a month later, ordered the creation of a Main Military Inspectorate, to be subordinate directly to him. Finally, last December, the Russian minister of defense, for the first time, became a civilian.

As a result, the magazine Kommersant noted, Russia now has all of the external attributes of a civilized, European-style army. (1) But hopes that the draft will soon be abolished will hardly be realized, since it is already clear today that Russia will not have the money for this, even in four years. And the only real step that has been made — the creation of the institution of a civilian defense minister — could weaken the familiar Russian chain of command. By law, Rodionov, a retired general, cannot give military men direct orders. Without a unified command, the army, already unstable, could begin to fall apart even faster.

After the election, everyone forgot about military reform, and only remembered again after Aleksandr Lebed’s appointment as presidential assistant for national security. Lebed energetically started drawing up plans for military reform, beginning with kicking former defense minister Grachev’s stooges out of top posts in the armed forces, and surrounding the new minister, Gen. Igor Rodionov, with his own people. But in his short tenure, Lebed was unable to do much in the area of military reform, except for shaking up the command personnel at the top levels of the Ministry of Defense, the General Staff, and the most important military districts.

But Lebed succeeded in doing something else. In spite of significant resistance both within and outside the government, he managed to stop the fratricidal war in Chechnya. This boosted his authority and made Lebed Russia’s most popular political figure. But the Kremlin forgives no one but its own such a rise in popularity, and naturally, Lebed’s expulsion from Russia’s political Olympus was not long in coming.

The defeat of Russian troops in Chechnya logically implied the need for radical military reform in Russia, since military reform usually follows defeats. The Russian government did this in 1861 and 1905, after the Crimean and Russo-Japanese wars. America did it in 1972 when its army was defeated in Vietnam. It would seem that now finally, even Russia’s present leaders would see the need for such reform.

The situation in the Russian army these days is really horrifying. Officers and generals have not received their pay for months, and have to work in their spare time as taxi drivers, sales clerks, and security guards. The housing situation for servicemen, in spite of recent campaign promises, is getting worse, and not only junior officers, but senior officers, and even generals, have joined the ranks of the homeless, sleeping in train stations, entranceways, and back alleys.

The military units withdrawn from Chechnya are being "quartered" in open fields, in tents, without enough water, food, or fuel. Soldiers try to escape through round-the-clock alcohol abuse, and terrorize the local population, the only local Russian institution which tries, at its own risk, without any support from the central authorities, to do anything at all to feed and warm the defenders of the Motherland.

According to Defense Minister Rodionov, (2) the situation in the Russian armed forces is disastrous. In particular, according to Western intelligence, combat efficiency has fallen (with the exception of the strategic nuclear forces) and continues to drop. There has been a decline in the strategic forces’ guidance systems. No money at all has been allotted to maintain the several thousand underground control centers. Many systems are being used two to three times longer than the recommended limit, and hence, there are no guarantees that missiles and submarines will be reliably guided.

The Russian press (3) notes that with the exception of the Strategic Nuclear Forces, the level of combat readiness in the Russian army is extraordinarily low. The average NATO division has more than twice the firepower of a Russian division, even at full strength. Moreover, even the other CIS states inherited the USSR’s most modern equipment and better trained units, while Russia got, for the most part, what was in the rear-area districts. Possibly, Russia will be able to create a military group which would be able, under ideal foreign-policy conditions, to occupy the Baltic states, but in relation to Chechnya, this illusion no longer exists.

On top of that, the Chechens were twice able to carry the battle into Russia itself. From that point of view, an armed conflict with Ukraine, for example, would be an unacceptable risk to Russia’s national security. And a hypothetical confrontation with a NATO country, supported by its allies, could mean only one thing for Moscow: complete defeat and humiliation.

Russia’s rank as a military power shows up even more unambiguously, when viewed through the economic looking glass. In 1995, Russia’s GNP was at $446 billion; Brazil, which had roughly the same GNP, had 180,000 people serving in its ground forces, and approximately 50,000 each in its navy and air force. Russia’s military spending at the time was about $17 billion, or 3.7 percent of its GNP and 18.3 percent of its state budget. Thus, Russia’s military spending was lower than that of Italy, which spent $21 billion, 1.9 percent of its GNP, or five percent of its state budget, and which has no more than 350,000 servicemen. And in spite of this, the Russian military thinks that Moscow cannot allow itself to maintain a professional army of under 600,000 men, i.e., to have armed forces which could be financed at NATO standards, or a comparable level.

Russian military reform, which effectively started on October 4 of last year, at the first session of the Russian Defense Council, fizzled out into nothing but a routine measure in about a month and a half. The politicians were dissatisfied with the military men, and the generals, with the politicians.

According to one of the proposals discussed at the Defense Council, 13 to 17 armored, motorized infantry, and airborne divisions would be left in the ground forces, and the other divisions would be reformed into bases for storing material resources and centers for training reservists. If the need arose, up to five army corps, four field armies, and three fronts could be deployed. The air force was to be cut back far enough for its pilots to get no less than 100 hours of flight time per year, even if that meant that the existing air armies had to be reformed into divisions, and the divisions, into regiments.

The navy would retain only the ships which are in good operating condition. Some of the more modern, but non-battleworthy ships would be put into reserve, or in storage. The air defense and strategic nuclear forces would be maintained at current levels until 2000. This would be a 600,000-man cut in the armed forces, and the transition to a completely professional army would be postponed until 2005.

The politicians and military men could reach no consensus at the Defense Council meeting. But in spite of these disagreements, the council stated unanimously that the Russian armed forces "were unable to accomplish their missions completely."

Russian television (4) broadcast a press conference, at which Russia’s defense minister said that he had become "an outside observer" to the destruction of the Russian army, and that he could do nothing to stop it. Moreover, it was announced that military reform would be conducted in three stages: the first would last until 2000, and would include force reductions through personnel cuts, development of dual-use technology, scientific research work, and experimental construction in the military field.

The second stage would be from 2000 to 2005, and would envision improvements in quality and an increase in the number of volunteers in military service. The third stage of military reform is planned to finish in 2010, when there will be a massive rearmament of the army on the basis of the new technology developed over these years. But Rodionov stressed that NATO expansion could interfere with Russian military reform.

As Russian television noted, no country can afford to maintain up to 20 field armies in peacetime, as Russia does. Moreover, at the present time, the internal troops are almost equal in number to the ground troops, and are significantly better equipped. Clearly the country’s political leadership fears internal threats significantly more than it fears external ones.

As regards structural changes, recently, people have begun talking about strengthening the role of the General Staff, which would become the center for operations planning, ensuring combat readiness, and carrying out tasks assigned by the commander-in-chief. And most importantly, it would become the body coordinating all the "force ministries." In this respect, Rodionov’s transfer to civilian status may be the beginning of large-scale organizational reforms.

In this connection, as the Russian press points out, it seems that the president is trying to kill two rabbits with one shot. (7) On one hand, he is demonstrating to society his determination to reform the army. And on the other, he is creating the preconditions for reining in the "force ministries." But so far, these have been shots in the dark. General Rodionov has been put in civilian clothes, but military reform is again being limited to personnel reshuffling.

And what kind of military reform can there be in a country whose defense minister, according the Washington Post, (8) can’t even reach the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces by telephone? Not because the special telephone link between these two gentlemen doesn’t work, but because, although Rodionov answers presidential calls standing at attention, if he tries to call the president, the phone is answered by unidentified persons.

Thus, who knows what would happen if a military emergency arose. If, for example, if one of the strategic nuclear control posts went out of control, or cases of disobedience multiplied in the army. All these things have taken place in the past, but, fortunately, did not lead to serious consequences. But under present conditions, no one can guarantee that they will not be repeated on an even larger scale.


1. Kommersant, No. 47, 1996

2. Komsomolskaya pravda, February 8, 1997

3. Novoe vremya, No. 47, 1996

4. ORT, February 7.

5. Rossiiskaya gazeta, February 8, 1997.

6. Kommersant, December 17, 1996.

7. Kommersant, No. 47, 1996.

8. February 9, 1997

Stanislav Lunev was formerly a colonel in Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU).