Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 170

In an indication that the Kremlin may finally be getting serious about military restructuring, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev announced last week that the size of Russia’s armed forces would fall by some 350,000 over the next three years, dropping the total manpower level from 1.2 million to about 850,000. The Russian ground forces will absorb the brunt of the reductions, loosing about 180,000 troops. The Navy is to be cut by 50,000 and the air force by about 40,000. Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops (SMT) are also to be reduced and, as earlier reports had indicated, will eventually be folded into the Air Force. Troops currently subordinated to Russia’s various other security structures also face reductions. The forces of the Interior Ministry will reportedly lose 20,000 men, the border guards 5,000 and the railroad troops 10,000. Sergeev’s announcement came during an appearance before troops from the elite Kantemirov tank division outside Moscow on September 8. His remarks confirmed unofficial reports which had been circulating in the Russian press over the preceding several days.

It is unclear exactly when the decision for a radical reduction in troop strength was made. On August 11 military leaders met with President Vladimir Putin under the auspices of the country’s powerful Security Council. Military reform was the key topic addressed at that meeting, but the fragmentary reports which followed were vague on the question of troop reductions and related issues. It seems at least plausible that it was the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk a day later, and the Navy’s inept efforts to mount a rescue mission, which confirmed the political leadership in its determination to take more decisive steps regarding military restructuring.

Indeed, reports published after the August 11 meeting had focused on whether Sergeev or his rival, General Staff chief Anatoly Kvashnin, had emerged victorious from the discussions. Kvashnin did appear to reap some gains in terms both of the ultimate liquidation of the Strategic Missile Troops as an independent service and in a decision to shift some defense funding from the SMT to Russia’s conventional forces; both were measures Kvashnin had advocated. If the Kremlin follows through on last week’s announcement, however, then it would seem to be more accurate to say that both Kvashnin and Sergeev emerged as losers from the Security Council meeting. Russian military leaders were dragged kicking and screaming as the Russian armed forces were gradually reduced following the demise of the Soviet Union from some 5 million men to the current 1.2 million. Over the past several years military leaders have repeatedly resisted calls to cut the country’s military forces still further, and it is hard to believe that either Sergeev or Kvashnin is accepting the current force reduction plan with a great deal of enthusiasm. That it has become policy suggests that the Kremlin and the civilian defense officials sitting on Russia’s Security Council have decided to push their own vision of military reform over the competing plans submitted by the two generals (Reuters, UPI, September 7; BBC, Washington Post, Segodnya, Vedomosti, September 8; The Guardian, Kommersant daily, September 9; AFP, September 11).

But a reduction in the size of Russia’s armed forces, while a crucial first step, in no sense guarantees that Moscow will emerge several years down the road with a more compact and effective military machine, as Putin vowed to build following the sinking of the Kursk. Defense experts in Russia and the West have repeatedly pointed out that military reform in Russia is not merely a numbers game. Among other things, military and political leaders must also recast their entire assessment of the threats which confront Russia–an exercise that could (or should) precipitate some changes in Russia’s only recently approved security and defense doctrines. Those documents, and other policy statements, reflect a Soviet-style view of the world which would necessitate a military machine the current Russian government is incapable of financing. In that regard, one has only to look back over the past eighteen months or so–a period in which a politically emboldened Russian military leadership conducted exercises aimed at repulsing a large-scale NATO attack, threatened to rebuild its strategic forces to counter U.S. missile defense plans, and called for a strengthening of its conventional troops to better deal with more localized conflicts like the one in Chechnya. Putin’s rhetoric stoked this sort of great power bombast, but it is clear that the Russian economy lacks the financial wherewithal to sustain such a defense posture. Instead, Moscow must move to restructure its armed forces in accordance with a more realistic–and restrained–view of the threats it is likely to encounter.

The Russian armed forces face a number of other challenges as well. Military leaders have made little progress in resolving problems related to the country’s conscript army. Those problems include barracks violence and often abysmal living conditions, related high rates of draft evasion, and the difficulties inherent in teaching increasingly complex military skills to 18-year-old draftees. The demoralized officer corps has fared little better, having grown top-heavy with the retention of more senior officers, who are often resistant to change, while failing to retain the services of many of the army’s more promising younger officers. Equally important has been the army’s inability to develop a reliable corps of noncommissioned officers. The recruitment of contract volunteers was initiated in the early 1990s in part to remedy this shortcoming, as well as to fill key combat support slots, but by most accounts the effort has been a total failure in both respects. Indeed, one of the key choices the Kremlin will face as it moves to reshape the Russian army is whether it will try to improve and broaden the recruitment of contract volunteers–and thus increase the “professionalization” of the armed forces–or whether it will turn away from this practice and rely instead on a mainly conscript force.

Funding, meanwhile, will remain a difficulty. Putin appears to be aiming at the creation of a smaller force, one which will be less of an economic burden on Moscow. Yet numerous Russian experts have argued that the process of reducing the army will initially be more expensive–in part because of the benefits which must be paid out to those who are demobilized–so the government can likely expect to see no immediate savings from the force reductions it is pursuing. In addition, the Russian state budget remains so small that even a relatively higher rate of defense spending–as Putin has reportedly proposed–will probably make little impact either in improved living standards for the troops or in providing them with better equipment. Difficulties such as these underline the fact that military reform in Russia, even if diligently and intelligently pursued, will be a long-term effort with few immediate results. Indeed, the move to reduce the size of the armed forces is likely to create considerable disgruntlement within the army itself, and may be politically controversial as well.