A special session of top officials in charge of personnel matters within the Russian Armed Forces took place in Moscow, on February 2. As is traditional for such conclaves, the attendant generals reported to each other about their respective successes over the past year. These “achievements” provide ample information about the current state of Russia’s military forces. The most important takeaway from this recent meeting is that the personnel chiefs apparently want to take credit for successfully overcoming an “unexpected” shortage of officers in the Armed Forces. The chief of the Main Directorate for Personnel within the Russian Ministry of Defense, Colonel General Viktor Goremykin, notably announced that, in 2016, the Armed forces found 11,000 officers for positions that otherwise would have gone empty (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 5). In his words, the military used “non-standard” methods to fill these staffing gaps. In particular, reserve officers who left the Armed Forces were recruited again. It is worth noting that, on February 22, while speaking before the State Duma (lower chamber of parliament), Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu clarified that due to shortages of personnel in 2015, 15,000 troops previously dismissed had been returned to service (TASS February 22). Obviously this, practice continued in 2016.
Similarly, according to the Russian media, provincial newspapers increasingly feature advertisements publicizing the fact that one or another military unit is accepting previously retired Armed Forces personnel. Moreover, the commander of the Eastern Military District reportedly sent special recruiters to 22 Russian regions to persuade reserve officers to return to active service (Svobodnaya Pressa, February 14). In addition to such rapid replenishment strategies, Russia has also reduced the training period for officers at military academies from five years to four. Moreover, the chiefs of personnel meeting in early February were particularly proud about the creation of special short-term courses for privates and sergeants that award the passing graduate an officer’s star. Such a system directly recalls the Soviet experience in World War II (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 5).
The situation of Russia’s military pilots is particularly critical. Defense Minister Shoigu revealed that the deficit reached 1,300 pilots. To resolve this massive shortfall, the professional lifespan of pilots in the Armed Forces has been extended by five years (TASS February 22). In addition, according to Colonel General Goremykin, “for the first time, a [shortened] 1.5-year pilot training course was organized for highly educated technical staff officers. Last year, the first 49 such pilots graduated. Today, training was completed by another 50 troops” (Mil.ru, February 2). An obvious danger exists that such initiatives could potentially increase the number of flight catastrophes and accidents.
Given the large shortfalls in the officer corps, which the top brass has to creatively fill year after year, the Russian Armed Forces are beginning to resemble a military embroiled in a large-scale war. It is as if massive numbers of Russian officers are continuously being killed on the battlefield and need to be immediately replaced by new ones. Most observers blame the current state of affairs on former minister of defense Anatoly Serdyukov (2007–2012). As part of his important package of military reforms, Serdyukov had ordered a halt to any new cadets being accepted to military academies during 2009–2011. However, it should be recalled that his decision was triggered by the fact that, three years earlier, the Armed Forces were overwhelmed by a tremendous surplus of officers. At that time, open positions for lieutenants were virtually nonexistent, while graduates of military schools were appointed to positions usually occupied by sergeants. But suddenly, today, a monstrous deficit has appeared. Consequently, the number of uncommitted officers waiting for either dismissal or appointment has decreased by almost 20 times compared to those years. In 2012, Serdyukov’s subordinates believed that an annual output at 8,500 new lieutenants would thoroughly cover the military’s staffing needs (RIA Novosti May 23, 2012). But today, defense ministry leaders insist they need 16,000 new graduates each year.
The answer to this conundrum is simple. The primary goals of the “Serdyukov” reforms were greater efficiency and rapid deployment capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces (as demonstrated over the past several years in Crimea, Donbas and Syria). And at the heart of this military modernization and reorganization process was the rejection of the concept of mass mobilization of the Armed Former. The former minister of defense eliminated all “skeleton” units, which actually consisted only of officers and depended on hundreds of thousands of mobilized reservists to fill out all their manning positions at the start of a “great war.” When Russian went to war against Georgia, in August 2008, these officers were asked to lead the newly formed units. But they simply refused because, in all their years of service, they had never commanded real troops. Consequently, Serdyukov fired them first. But it is likely that these same former skeleton unit officers are now being drawn back into the Armed Forces.
Following Serdyukov’s ouster and the gradual rollback of many of his most important reforms, the present Russian military manning system appears on the verge of breakdown. The reason is clear: Based the country’s strengths, national interests, demographic situation and economy, Serdyukov and his team specifically created military forces capable of winning in a local conflict inside the post-Soviet space. But as a result of the Kremlin’s current policies, Russia has locked itself into a conflict with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is superior to the Russian Federation across all quantitative indicators—all types of weapons and numbers of personnel. The only logical military response for Moscow in this situation, therefore, is to return to the ineffective and extremely cumbersome mass mobilization army. Indeed, this is happening now, as highlighted by defense ministry’s promise to create new military divisions.
Speaking to lawmakers earlier this month, Shoigu announced the intention to complete the formation of four divisions: three in the west and southwest and one in the Kurile Islands (see EDM, February 23). But the total number of the Armed forces increased by only 10,000 in 2016. This can only mean that Russia in in the midst of deploying Soviet-style “paper” skeleton divisions, in which five hundred officers command a hundred soldiers in peace time—in other words, the types of formations explicitly abandoned by Serdyukov. To stand up such units, an excess number of lieutenants is required. These types of divisions are appropriate if one’s goal is to report to the president about the increasing power of the Russian army; but they are useless for increasing the country’s military might in reality.