Russia Reorganizes Military Districts

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 32

(Source: Russian State Duma)

Executive Summary:

  • The Kremlin announced a transformation of its military districts to “buy” loyalty from its officer corps and organize its military with to prepare for war on and beyond its northwestern borders.
  • The Russian High Command considers the movements of its neighbors and enemies before taking any military action, assessing when the world is most distracted and when Moscow can make its move without immediate interference.
  • Russia wants to expand its military and political opportunities and considers a direct clash with the West highly likely, if not unavoidable, in the near future.

On March 1, the Leningrad and Moscow military districts were re-established in place of the Western Military District, which first appeared in 2010 and has since been dismantled. Additionally, the Southern Military District was expanded within the occupied territories of Ukraine. The Northern Fleet lost its status as a military district (, February 26). Moscow has presented two primary purposes for the reconstruction of Russia’s military administrative division, which was first announced as early as December 2022. Both seek to galvanize Russian forces to continue fighting in Ukraine and prepare for future campaigns and mobilization.

First, the Russian political leadership is trying to “buy” loyalty from the officer corps, which has been bogged down by the war. Creating two military districts instead of one means more posts for new generals and colonels within the command structure, fulfilling the promised promotions for officers who proved themselves on the battlefield. Together with the planned formation of new motor-rifle divisions in place of brigades, this also means there will be promotions for colonels to generals regardless of the actual number of troops within the divisions (Izvestiya, January 30;, February 29).

Second, the formation of the Leningrad Military District with the subordination of the ground forces of the Northern Fleet to the newly reformed district means that Russia is returning to the idea of war on and beyond its northwestern borders. In other words, Russia is thinking seriously about a combat operation in the Baltic region.

Window of Opportunity

Before starting any military venture, Russia’s military leadership considers international circumstances and the domestic political environment in the United States and its key allies before acting. For example, the aggression against Georgia in 2008 was made on the eve of the presidential elections in the United States when the Bush administration was almost out of office. The first round of aggression against Ukraine became possible soon after the West demonstrated its unwillingness to use force against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, who used chemical weapons against the rebels. The road for the Russian military engagement in Syria in September 2015 was opened after the Minsk-2 agreements of February 2015 when Germany and France demonstrated their unconditional readiness to compromise with Russia. Finally, the Russian ultimatum to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in December 2021 and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 became possible after the insurrection against the US Capitol Building on January 6, 2022, and after the Taliban quickly captured power in Afghanistan. In 2024, there are upcoming elections in the United States and the United Kingdom. There are Houthis who continue to act in the Red Sea and against Israel almost with impunity. Iran and North Korea supply Russia with arms despite the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council. Moscow calculates all these factors.

The Russian leadership realizes that delays in arms supplies to Ukraine are temporary and that the defense industries of NATO member states, especially in the United States, are inevitably more efficient, productive, and sustainable than the Russian arms manufacturing sector. Simply speaking, Moscow is afraid of the day when the arms factories in the United States and Europe reach planned production rates while the Russian army is bogged down and exsanguinated in Ukraine.

That does not mean Russia will inevitably fight with NATO in 2024. Russia wants to expand its military and political opportunities in the face of the West and considers a direct clash with the West highly probable, if not unavoidable. The Kremlin wants to be prepared for the potential clash before NATO forces in Eastern Europe are reinforced.

Changing Priorities

Russia effectively gave up the idea of Arctic supremacy as a separate area of competition or confrontation within the context of the war in Ukraine. That’s why Moscow decided to transform the Northern Fleet into, simply, a fleet, not in the military district responsible for the Arctic theater. The newly established Leningrad military district needs to be reinforced with the ground forces of the Northern Fleet and possibly with the troops from the Central and Eastern military districts. For comparison, such a redistribution of ground troops occurred several years ago when the motor rifle brigades, which were relocated from the Central military district, reinforced the Western military district (Interfax-AVN, June 3, 2016).

Moscow’s division of the Western Military District into two districts also means there will be many new positions for generals and colonels. As stated above, this allows the Kremlin to “buy” the loyalty of the officer corps and decrease the risk of mutiny among the military leadership. This has become even more urgent since June 2023, when the Wagner Group’s mutiny demonstrated that several thousands of motivated armed people can put several central regions under their control.

The expansion of the Southern Military District with the other occupied territories of Ukraine, besides the Crimean Peninsula, means that the Kremlin will disengage part of its troops or at least some of the skilled officers from Ukraine. Conscript soldiers may replace disengaged troops, as it is much easier to relocate and rotate them within a single military district rather than to send them into the formally separate combat zone, which is out of any military district. 

Overall, Russia is adapting its limited military power to the changing environment on the battlefield. Russian leadership may believe that it is still capable of winning as the Kremlin has adhered for decades to the idea of asymmetric conflict with the West even if its armed forces have not been restored after heavy losses in Ukraine. Sustained Western aid to Ukraine’s military would likely crush these dreams over the long term.